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On Track


Zambian woman with bunches of bananas on table in front of her looks out of train window (c) Melissa Shales

I was lucky. The First Class compartment for four (female only) turned out to have only two occupants booked the whole way from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia – all 1860 km of it. Not only would we travel in comparatively spacious luxury, but it soon turned out that I had won myself the perfect travelling companion. Racheal, a young Zambian woman living in Dar, has done the journey a number of times and actually works for Tazara. She knows all about the train and the journey. Within minutes of leaving the city, she shed her city girl image, wrapped herself into a chitenge (sarong) and a headscarf and became an African woman on safari. We shared my giant bag of sweets and her small fat yellow bananas and she became my guide to the intricacies of life along the tracks.

“There used to be four services a week, now there are only two,” she said. “Everyone takes the bus because it is faster, but it is dangerous, there are so many accidents. There are two trains, one run by Tanzania and one by the Zambians. This is the Tanzanian one. It will go down on Tuesday as the Express train and return on Friday as the stopping service.” I ask if there is any other difference.

“No difference, just one is Tanzanian and one Zambian.”

I’d been warned to bring food and unsure there was going to be anything at all came armed with portable food that would survive the journey – digestive biscuits, Philadelphia cheese (it comes in a plastic pot), cashew nuts, cartons of fruit juice and plenty of water. But there was food – chicken, fish or beef was offered, with rice or chips. Rachel took the rice, and produced her own chicken, with a long explanation, which I never really totally understood, about there being two sorts of chicken in Tanzania and this being the wrong sort. The flavour was fine but it had run a marathon or two in its life.

At Mbeya, she started a brisk trade in potatoes and carrots and huge sacks were heaved into our compartment and stored under the bed.

“How will you get them to Lusaka?” I asked. “I am meeting a friend in Kapiri,” she replied, “they are for her. Potatoes from here are very good and they are very expensive in Zambia.” And she went back to her book, When Jesus Wins Your Husband’s Heart.

A growing cluster of tiny children gathered under the window of the compartment at one stop, almost chanting ‘Kopo, Kopo, Kopo’ in an increasingly desperate chorus. “They are asking for plastic water bottles,” she explained, coming back in as the noise drilled through my skull, ‘they use them in the slums.” Between us we mustered three to give them but it was nothing like enough and the sound will haunt me forever.

At the border she ran a commentary on the flood of people crossing over to shop for cheap goods to sell – anything from plastic bowls and sandals to beer and crates of Coca Cola – and pointed out the side deals going on to get things past the police and onto the train. It may be freight that pays for the line, but even in third class, it is trade that keeps it alive.

Without Rachel, I would have watched and taken pictures and enjoyed myself immensely on my Tazara journey. Thanks to her, I understood a tiny glimpse of a different side of Africa.

The Tazara runs twice a week, leaving Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kapiri Mposhi on Tuesdays and Fridays; the Tuesday train is the faster express service. To book in Dar, from abroad, the easiest way is to use a tour operator. I used Wild Thing Safaris – Cost inc. commission US$100. In Zambia, contact Lewis Kaluba at Tazara; email:; tel: 00-260-966-747 725. As you are booking direct, it will be cheaper.


The comparative cost of trains

Each time I have set off on a leg of my trans-Africa adventure, the trip has started with a train trip in London, on either the Heathrow or Gatwick Express. This time, thanks to the High Court, I narrowly missed travelling in the middle of the UK’s first national rail strike since the 1970s.

First of all, let me say, I have absolutely nothing but praise for the Heathrow and Gatwick Express services – they are brilliant trains – fast, efficient, comfortable and do what they say they will do. But they are incredibly expensive. The distance is 24km (15 miles) and the cost is £18 one way second class from Paddington to Heathrow. That’s £1.20 per minute or per mile.

Compare this to African trains. I accept they are not as fast, as frequent, as efficient but first class is perfectly comfortable. Egypt – Cairo to Aswan on the day train, first class in a recliner seat is US$28 (call it £20 for ease of calculation). The journey is 879 km (549 miles); cost 0.036p per mile. Overnight the price goes up but you get a sleeper berth, bedding, dinner and breakfast for US$60 (call it £42). That’s around 0.077p per mile. The journey is meant to take about 12 hours.

A First Class ticket Jambo Express De Luxe between Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya is comparatively expensive at US$65 (£46) per person. The journey is 473 km (294 miles) long and officially takes 14 hours, although we took 21. That works out as 0.156p a mile. You get a berth, bedding, dinner and breakfast as part of the ticket.

The Tazara runs between Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia, a distance of 1860 km (1156 miles). I’ve just bought a First Class sleeper ticket for the 4-berth compartment. Including the tour operator’s commission, it cost me US$100 (£70). This works out as about 0.06p per mile. Or as the journey takes at least 2.5 days (3600 minutes) – 0.02p per minute, not allowing for delays, derailments etc.

I haven’t got to South Africa yet, where Rovos Rail and the Blue Train will skew the results back in favour of the expensive, but will update when I get there. Meantime, what seems very obvious is that for those prepared to travel slowly, trains in Africa are a real bargain!


This was written in April 2010. All the prices mentioned will obviously change.

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