Travel – Africa’s rhythm carries you away

2010-11-19 10:17

There are many, usually colourful and eventful ways of travelling in Africa. From overloaded pick-up trucks, ancient wooden boats, rickety and luxury buses that turn into mobile churches to bicycles, long-suffering donkeys, stinky camels, smog- spewing mopeds and passenger-packing knackered inner-city taxis known as soutrama, matatu, dallah dallah, tro tro, bush taxi or charpa.

I have done it all except hopping atop a camel.

Memorable as these trips are, they are not as spectacular as journeying this continent by train.

Africa has six classic train trips that include trips across the desert, through the Swahili coast and other varying and vast landscapes that are best enjoyed travelling at a slow pace.

Tanzania and Zambia has the Tazara train, a joint venture of the two governments that dates back to colonial rule.

It leaves Dar es Salaam on Friday and reaches Kapiri Mposhi, the final stop in Zambia, on Sunday. The trip is supposed to take 40 hours maximum. But this is Africa and even though the train leaves Dar just after midday, we reach Kapiri Mposhi just after midnight instead of mid-afternoon as scheduled.

It’s 6.30am on Friday and already the ticket counter at the vast grey concrete slab that is the Tazara office and station in Dar is abuzz with people hauling in mountains of luggage and standing in a snaking queue.

There are separate lines for the classes. The first-class line is the shortest. Upstairs in the lounge, masses of people overflow from thin seats while first-class ticket holders wait for departure in a spacious lounge with comfortable large sofas.

At the station, the classes share the clean yet rundown toilets and showers, an over-priced canteen and a small kiosk stuffed with breads, biscuits, drinks, toilet paper, boiled eggs and other stuff.

All three classes form an election-like line when the train starts chiming. Men, women, children dressed in their Sunday best or elaborate wax print ensembles.

We scurry to our respective carriages “eager to get going”, as my cabin mate declares – a Zambian mama who keeps loading the cabin with goods along the way.

Unlike many long-distance journeys across the continent, the one aboard the Tazara does not test one’s patience.
First-class cabins have four beds with a pillow, sheet and two thick clean blankets each. The coach also has a toilet and a shower. Second- and third-class coaches have six and eight beds respectively.

The train has become an urban legend among travellers roughing Africa on public transport. I am urged to “experience” it in Zanzibar. Aboard, I meet an Italian who has lived and worked in Mozambique who “could not leave Southern Africa without being on board the Tazara”.

The journey does not have horror stories. The service is consistently stellar. They have budget friendly price tags and ambience that makes the two point five days feel like a measly 20-minute trip. The train stations – big and small – are immaculate. The menu is varied and the burgundy-coloured restaurant is as clean as any other. The toilets with inviting showers are constantly cleaned and sanitised. All this and more is available across the classes.

Location being everything, the Tazara trip is special because it is set against the most epic of African backgrounds.

It runs through a game reserve where you will see a family of elephants. It happens in a split second on Friday afternoon and even though the herd seems to be the only game, elephant spotting is a rarity.

The journey features the bushveld and bare villages where the colour of the homesteads match the ground. Zambian villages are sleepy but charming. Night time in the bundu is always spectacular, and better with a gleaming silver full moon and constellations of stars.

There are four official stops, but the train loads and offloads people in every village we pass through.

One of these villages is covered in darkness when we arrive. It jumps to life with shouting merchants walking up and down the railway selling large sacks of rice and smoked fish. Other goods available along the track include bananas sold on stalks, sugar cane, oranges and sweet potatoes.

We arrive in Mbeya, Tanzania, on Saturday afternoon as scheduled. This beautiful town is also where passengers are allowed to get off to stretch their legs, buy padkos or hang out.

Mbeya is also where Tazara switches from being punctual to working on African time. We wait more than two hours while the train gets another scrubbing. The kitchen and bar are also topped up with produce and soft drinks.

Besides people-watching, other entertainment comes by way of Rebecca Malope-like gospel DVDs, Nollywood movies and many friendly passengers who embody a country song that says “a stranger is just a friend you do not know”.

The trip feels like a luxury holiday. There is room service, electricity and clean running water. Immigration control officers in deliver their fast and friendly service cabin to cabin. Likewise the one-man mobile Forex.

The charm is never turned off, and that is why this will become one of the most memorable journeys of my life.

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