The Terrific Tazara

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One of the world’s best train journeys is in the heart of Africa, the Tazara is much more than a way to go on a low-cost safari. 

Text and Photos By: Ben Mack

“Ndizi! Maembe!” 

The women walk up and down the length of the train, balancing enormous tubs piled high with fruit on their heads, saying in Kiswahili, they are selling bananas and mangos.  

Reaching out the window and handing them a few Zambian kwacha or Tanzanian shillings buys enough fruit to feed all four of us travelling in the first-class compartment aboard the Tazara. It is amazing watching the colourfully-dressed women – who also sell goods like nuts and fresh vegetables – balance the tubs of food without using their hands, without slowing down. 

The Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (Tazara) has been travelling between Zambia and Tanzania since 1975. Called one of the world’s most scenic train routes by The Guardian, it offers breath-taking views through forests, valleys, savannahs, colourful villages and more over nearly 1 900km on a trip that can take three to four days. 

Part of the reason why the Tazara appeals to visitors is it passes right through the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania – one of the world’s largest game reserves. The towering giraffes, lumbering elephants, hairy warthogs, and vast herds of antelope, zebra and other animals are so used to the sound of the rumbling train, they’re often unbothered as it passes by.  

This makes the Tazara a fantastic way to see native African animals and go on a safari without paying lots of money. A first-class ticket for the whole journey can cost as little as 278 Zambian kwacha (about R290, or US$17) per person. One might think this would mean tickets regularly sell out, but there are plenty available at the station in Zambia on a sunny day.  

Women selling food during a stop. Photo: Ben Mack

Enjoy The Adventure

The train is already waiting on the long, wide platform. 

“Enjoy the adventure,” says the uniformed man checking tickets as suitcase-carrying passengers, a mix of locals and tourists, board. 

The first-class ticket buys a place in a spacious cabin with four bunks, a small table next to a large window, and storage above the door and under two of the bunks. On every bunk is a pillow and brightly coloured blanket, with big black letters on them that spell the word “TAZARA.” There’s also a small electric fan next to the window, which is handy in a climate as hot and humid as Zambia and Tanzania. 

The train soon roars to life, lurching backwards before chugging forward. The eyes go everywhere as we meander along on a partly cloudy day, crossing high bridges over deep gorges and wide rivers and passing through long tunnels – 46 bridges and 18 tunnels in all, one of many reasons why the Tazara was considered among Africa’s great engineering marvels when it began operations. There is so much to see – the huge forests, savannahs and foggy swamps are especially watched closely, in case a rhino, cheetah, crocodile or another animal suddenly appears. 

The smells are equally engaging. Fresh air. The scent of the sweet fruits the women sell at the stops. The morning after a night-time rain. It rained every night on our trip. 

There are the sounds. The steady clickety-click of the wheels rolling along the tracks, and the occasional great blast of the whistle. The wind whooshing through the open window. The steady breeze means it never gets too hot on board. Was that the distant roar of a lion, just as the spectacular African sunset makes the sky seem like an orange, red and pink watercolour painting? The four of us staying in the cabin are divided as we debate what the sound could be. 

Then there are the tastes. Not just the bananas and mangos we bought, but the eggs and four slices of bread brought to the cabin every morning taste as good as any from a restaurant – and are warm, too.

The beef stew, available for lunch and dinner, along with chicken and fish, is perfectly tender. Breakfast, lunch and dinner can all be chosen, and there are vegetarian options for each meal. For lunch and dinner, this is usually spaghetti. A man comes by several times a day offering food and refills of tea and coffee – there is no going hungry or needing to bring food from home onto this train. 

Child at Dar es Salaam train station. Photo: Ben Mack

The Stories of The People

As rich as the experiences for the senses are, so are the stories of the people on board. 

“Just use your hands,” explains Venango, who with his nephew Edwardo is travelling to Dar es Salaam for a holiday, of how to eat the nshima we’re served for lunch. Made from white porridge boiled with water, then paddled into a paste where more flour is added, nshima is like South African pap

Venango and Edwardo are from Lusaka. They declare the nshima, which looks like mashed potatoes, semi-hard outside but gooey inside, is among the best they’ve had.  

The nshima is indeed good, especially when dipped into the beef stew’s almost blood-red broth. The other person in the cabin, Yves, agrees. His bunk is on the bottom of the cabin across from mine, while Edwardo and Venango are on top. We all get along so quickly, and so well, we forget to share our surnames. 

Yves is also on his way to Dar es Salaam, so he can take a ferry to Zanzibar. Fluent in Kiswahili, he serves as a translator when interacting with some of the train staff and the women selling their foodstuffs at the stations where we stop. 

Speaking of stations, while some have large concrete platforms and beautiful buildings, others are more like mounds of red earth packed together next to the tracks. Yet each one is still an experience. The train even stops at some of them long enough to get off and walk around before the conductor shouts for everyone to come back onboard. 

The journey takes several days, but time passes quickly. Because we leave the window open, in the morning there are clouds of mist inside the cabin, which disappear as the sun rises. Clouds and mist also hug the hills, like a scene from a movie or a Chinua Achebe novel that’s been brought to life. 

Dar es Salaam train station. Photo: Ben Mack

Wildlife Without Warning

The moment we do see wildlife comes almost without warning. In the Selous Game Reserve on day three, a swamp stretches past the left side of the train.  

“Look there!” shouts Venango, pointing outside the train. 

Near the middle of the swamp is a group of hippos. Only their heads and backs are visible, but there they are watching us. Before any of us can take a photo, the scene changes. Now a colossal flock of dark birds flap their wings above the trees. A few moments later, we’re crossing another bridge – some of the logs near the riverbank look suspiciously like crocodiles. 

There are no more lion roars on the final night, but there is what sounds like loud, cackling laughter echoing in the darkness. Hyenas, perhaps?  

The mystery lingers as the day dawns and the trees and savannahs give way to the streets and buildings of Dar es Salaam. The same man who’s been bringing us food tells us we’ll be reaching our final stop in a few minutes. 

Hundreds of people get off as we groan to a halt. Walking away from the Tazara’s blue train cars, we let ourselves get lost in the colourful crowd, but stick together, for by now the four of us from the cabin are all friends. 

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