Zambia to Zanzibar: Train Ride to Paradise

By Jemima Price

Boatmen in Zanzibar - photos by Anthing James Ellis
Boatmen in Zanzibar - photos by Anthing James Ellis

Standing at the train station in Kapiri Mposhi in central Zambia, if it hadn’t been for our fellow travellers, we could have been forgiven for thinking we were in China. The Tazara Railway was financed and built by the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s.

The strange, stark pale blue building stands out amongst the muddy countryside. We experienced a further moment of disorientation when we saw Chinese signs dotted around the carriages, but the good thing about this is that the Chinese trains are usually in pretty good condition with decent size cabins.

We had booked an upper class cabin on the train to Dar es Salaam and found ourselves sharing with two friendly Australians, who in turn shared some champagne with us in pint glasses.

The train also has a dining car with interesting service - if you order tea, the cup and tea bag might arrive first, twenty minutes later your milk may be served, and then ten minutes later you might get some hot water if you are lucky. So dinner tends to be eaten in stages.

There is also a rather atmospheric bar and lounge with red velvet seats where we befriended some travelers from Cape Town. We got rather drunk in the bar that night and managed to fall asleep even though the train was hurtling at such breakneck speed that I had to hang onto the safety rail to stop myself flying off my bed.

We were however, awakened at 5:30 am by a man moaning loudly in the cabin next to us. I thought he might be praying, but his groaning and moaning grew to a crescendo. It turns out he wasn't praying nor was our carriage hostess providing him with entertainment. The unfortunate man turned out to be extremely ill and delirious.

We began to notice a pungent smell emanating from his cabin whenever we walked past. Later that day we overheard the hostesses talking in hushed voices about someone who had "passed" so we spent the next twelve hours thinking we were traveling in a cabin next to a dead body. However, to our relief, the groaning started again at dawn.

Aside from these unfortunate distractions, the train was of a good standard with basic toilets that were kept generally clean (this could have been due to the fact that the French ambassador was travelling in our carriage) and even a cold shower, which was an interesting experience on a moving train!

At the Tanzanian border we discovered we didn’t have enough of the right currency to pay for our visas and none of the (illegal) money exchangers onboard would change South African rand.

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Women selling bananas and chapattis run alongside the Tazara train.
Women selling bananas and chapattis run alongside the Tazara train.

We finally managed to exchange some money but not before being told off by the passport control lady who came through the train to check passports and Visas for not having our visa sorted beforehand, or for not having the right money. I had to agree she had made some fair points.

We spent the rest of the day watching the Tanzanian countryside roll by; green hills, misty mountains, small remote villages, children running alongside the train shouting "Mazungu!" (Foreigner!).

Every time we stopped at a station, women carrying huge trays of bananas and chapattis on their heads would come to the windows to sell their wares.

On the third day we passed through the remote Selous Game Reserve which is not open to visitors and is consequently completely unspoiled and wild. The only humans you see are the odd child running from a tiny mud hut to wave at the train.

Giraffes lope alongside the track and animals watch you as the train trundles by. I actually felt slightly regretful to finally arrive in Dar es Salaam and reluctant to leave my velvet chair by the window.

There is no doubt that Dar es Salaam pales in comparison with Stone Town so it’s worth staying a night there first before you are spoiled by its neighbour across the water. It has a less obvious charm of its own with lovely old art deco buildings alongside ornate mosques and a laid-back feel about the shabby streets.

Man watching a dhow from the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar
Man watching a dhow from the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar

There are a number of cheap, basic hostels to stay in, and ours had clean beds, a clean shower and long windows looking out onto the narrow streets, and into apartments opposite, where birdcages hung from the beams of shuttered windows. In the backpacker area around Libya Street there are plenty of buzzy, busy restaurants selling delicious meats from barbeques.

The next morning, after much harassment from a variety of ticket touts at the harbour, we got the cheap ferry to Zanzibar. This turned out to be a cargo ferry onto which was being loaded what seemed to be the entire contents and population of Dar.

I watched in amazement as huge planks of wood were piled on with mattresses, buckets, sacks, and wooden crates. Inside, the ship was stinking and dirty, and packed to the gills with people, and the outside deck was tiny with nowhere to sit. People were crammed in on top of boxes and bags and I despaired of the ship sinking.

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Amongst all the smells and screaming babies however, groups of women looked like clusters of ethereal butterflies in their patterned headscarves and glanced at us coyly from huddled, giggling groups.

Six and a half hours later I had slept on the filthy floor of the deck, dared to eat a plate of the greasiest soggiest chips served from the foulest kitchen imaginable and had ventured into the vilest toilet I have ever seen (thankfully it was pitch black when you closed the door so you didn't have to look at it).

View of Stone Town
View of Stone Town

We had also however, befriended two men from Pemba and two gorgeous little boys who delighted in hitting my partner on the head with a plastic Coca Cola bottle.

We had also seen dream-like white-sailed dhows sail past as men wearing intricately embroidered skull caps, knelt amongst the mattresses and plastic buckets at the prow of the boat to pray, and palm-lined islands slipped by beyond them.

Despite these lovely distractions, when we reached Stone Town I was pretty fed up with the cattle-style trip we had just endured and I was already dreading the notorious papaasi (touts) that we had heard swarm the docks. I marched purposefully past anyone who tried to latch onto us avoiding eye contact.

One tout however, was persistent but good-natured and we ended up agreeing to let him take us to a hostel. His name was James Taylor and as we grew to know him better we realised this really was his name, not one he had adopted as a tourist gimmick. His father had been a fan! He was to become our good friend, always happy to help whenever we met him and never expecting payment.

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