Tazara

The Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (Tazara) provides twice weekly passenger service on the Cape Gauge track it owns between Dar es Salaam and Kapiri Mposhi. In January, I made the complete 1100 mile, 45 hour journey on the Kilimanjaro Express. It was one of the most impressive train rides I’ve ever taken.

The train had eighteen cars (6 third class/sitter, 1 diner, 1 lounge, 4 second class/six berth sleeper, 3 first class/four berth sleeper, 2 luggage, 1 staff) and two GE U30C locomotives. We departed from Dar es Salaam at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, entering the Selous Game Reserve as a full moon was rising. Though I only saw a few baboons, it is not uncommon for passengers to see giraffes, buffalo, and elephants. I spoke for a while with Mr. Mkate, who works in the Tazara main office after serving as a locomotive engineer between 1992 and 1996. During that time, he killed between five and eight buffalo and several giraffes while driving the train. I guessed that when this happened, they would have to stop the train to check for damage and report the incident to park authorities; he told me that, in fact, they were prohibited from stopping so that train crew and passengers wouldn’t take the meat for themselves.

Even though I was on the express train (the trains departing on Friday are local trains), we still had to stop at many of the smaller stations for line clearance tickets from the station masters. According to Mr. Mkate, about half of the signals along the line are nonoperational, so manual clearance procedures are required. When I expressed my surprise about the number of derailed boxcars I saw along the route, he told me that these were mostly due to load shifting, but he feels that the railway is lucky to have not had a passenger derailment given its maintenance record.

I slept well the first night in spite of occasional wheel slippage and station stops. The next morning, I awoke to some spectacular views as we climbed into the mountains. The railway has twenty-two tunnels (the longest of which is over a mile long) and many bridges. I enjoyed breakfast in the dining car, then exchanged my Tanzanian shillings for Zambian kwachas with one of the money changers who boarded the train. When we passed the Mukuba Express heading in the opposite direction near the boarder, the money changers hopped off our train and Zambian Immigration hopped onto ours. The Tazara official from whom I had bought my ticket in Dar es Salaam told me it was preferable to get a Zambian visa in advance, but because I didn’t want to leave my passport overnight at the Zambian High Commission, he said that it was possible to get a visa on board the train. The immigration officials had not show up at my compartment by dinner time, so my new travel companions (a South Korean history teacher, a Japanese architect, and a Japanese travel agent) and I went to the dining car. The immigration officials came in shortly after us; they were quite friendly even though we had to interrupt their dinner to make sure we got our entry visas.

We pulled into the New Kapiri Mposhi station about four hours after the scheduled arrival reported on Tazara’s website on Thursday (not bad, given the stories I’d heard about lengthier delays and the train running out of fuel). From there, it was an easy four-hour minibus ride south, with many of the other tourists who had been on the train, to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.

Wikipedia has a great historical overview of the railroad, which was constructed with Chinese funding and engineering between 1970 and 1975.

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