Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Tanzara Railway... and then some

The Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA) is the largest single item foreign-aid project ever undertaken by China. Also called Uhuru (kiSwahili for Freedom Railway) and the Tanzam (Tanzania/Zambia) Railway, it runs from the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia. It was built between 1970 and 1975 as a way to give landlocked Zambia an alternative to export routes via white minority ruled Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) or Apartheid South Africa.
Aside from being an interesting piece of history, the train offers passengers (including curious backpackers such as ourselves) a unique way to travel overland from Tanzania to Zambia with the whole trip from Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi taking 2 days and spanning 1860 kilometers.
Back in Dar es Salaam from our ‘Crater Christmas’, Holly, Elsa and I board the train in the stifling heat. We find our cabin (thankfully we managed to obtain ‘first class’ tickets – less than 50 dollars each) and wonder how we will endure 2 days of the unbearably hot weather.
Day 1 - Holly before the train starts moving

Day 1 - Elsa and I outside the train in Dar es Salaam

Elsa in our Cabin

We are relived when we manage to pry the windows open and the train starts moving, cooling everything down.
Our Canadian friends from the Zanzibar part of our trip join us for the first 27 hours as they live close one of the Tanzania border stops (on the Malawi side).
The first day is lots of fun. We hang out in the bar car where there are couches and beer. After 24 hours, we stop at Mbeya to bid farewell to our friends. Not only is the train running 3 hours ahead of time, but the ride has been quite smooth. (We had heard horror stories from a nurse who recounted re-attaching a man’s finger after having it partially severed when jumping between cars).
In the lounge car

The train chugs away from Mbeya station and we settle into the meal car for lunch, pleased with the good time we are making. This means that we can spend some extra time in the Zambian capital of Lusaka before heading to Victoria Falls to ring in the New Year.
Our food arrives and Elsa and I are chatting animatedly about our upcoming adventures when the train lurches, then stops. When it starts moving backwards, our smiles fade into looks of confusion... What is happening?
We backtrack to Mbeya where the train grinds to a halt. No one can tell us what is happening.
After a few hours of waiting, I get off the train and climb onto an out-of-commission cargo car to watch the sunset.
Back in the train, everything has become dark. The three unfortunate side effects of a stopped train are:
1)   No electricity
2)   No running water
3)   The closure of ALL OF THE LATRINES, save one.
We are on a train with hundreds of passengers and ONE squat latrine, without running water. You do the math.

On my way back to our room, I stumble upon Elsa who is happens to be chatting with a slick looking man. He has a lazy eye and is sitting drinking a beer while he hits on her shamelessly. I wonder why she is tolerating it until she introduces him as the conductor. This is how we learn that the locomotive is broken (whatever that means!) and that they need to get a spare part. The conductor assures us that it will be fixed soon, but when we wake up the next morning, we haven’t moved an inch. 
We buy fried dough and bananas from vendors at the side of the track while we wait… and wait… I start to read to pass the time. A full novel later, we still haven’t moved. We are starting to feel dirty going on three days of not showering, but there is nothing to do. We still haven’t entered Zambia and our money is running low. As night falls, metal creaks and the train finally starts chugging forward.
I am lulled to sleep by the soft swaying of the train...
Sleeping peacefully... for a short while
... but soon learn that this portion of the journey is not as smooth as the last as I awake gasping in mid-air. Seconds later my body crashes down onto the hard mattress.
Holly and Elsa have claimed bottom bunks, so I am on a top bunk with a small rail that runs part way along the edge of the bed. As I am hurled repeatedly into the air, I doubt that the measly rail is as high as the space between my airborne body and the mattress .I curl into a ball in hopes that centralizing my weight will keep me closer to the bed. I position myself as close as possible to the wall and make sure to centre my body parallel to the rail. 
The night continues for what feels like forever as I drift in and out of consciousness in a painful and terrified state of confusion. Every time I wake up I’m sure that, this time, the train has derailed. How else could it be so bumpy, sway so wildly? I start thinking about train crashes… how people use the term ‘train wreck’ to describe really bad situations, why in my first aid training they would always model train accidents as the ultimate disaster…
Sometime during the night, the train stops and a flashlight illuminates our cabin. We are crossing the border and the Zambian immigration officials have boarded the train. They claim that the train is too dark to issue visas before leaving. The train jolts its cargo (including our deceptive passports which state that we are in Tanzania) forward as the sun rises over Zambia.
In the morning, the girls and I recount the horrific night and strategize as how to best protect ourselves in the case of a crash (Elsa recommends that we sleep with our heads towards the interior of the train so that in the event it tips over, our heads will be last to land). Bruises form on my hips as the Zambian countryside displays herself. At this point, we have been on the train for 3 nights.
Before seeing much of Zambia, the train grinds to a halt yet again.
We silently hope that this is a regularly planned stop at a dusty station in rural Zambia, but as the hours pass, the latrines close and dusk threatens her re-arrival, our hope dwindles.
Elsa and I set out to find the conductor to ask what has happened this time. He sips his beer and tells us that a fertilizer train has derailed in front of us, blocking our path forward. Not only do they need to drag the train out of the way, but there are also a bajillion tons of fertilizer that need to be shoveled off the track.
At this point, we cancel the second night of our hostel reservation in Livingstone and settle in for another night on the train. If we don’t move soon, we will spend new years eve on the train instead of Victoria falls.
The ridiculousness of the situation strikes us and we sit in the dark giggling while we much on fried dough and bananas… We play music and set my hanging flashlight to the ‘emergency’ setting so that it flashes in the dark like a strobe light. We tell stories to distract ourselves from the fact that we are sitting filthy on the train for the 4th night in a row.
4th night dance party

After picture - on the ground after 5 days on the train

The next morning the track is cleared and we continue without further delay to our final destination. All in all, the journey has taken 5 days and 4 nights. We disembark at the Kapiri Mposhi station at dusk and explain to the station staff that we aren’t official stamped into the country. A few phone calls later, an immigration official arrives to process our visas. As soon as we are stamped in and our location and passports are re-synchronized, the station power goes off. The only light we have is from my flashlight and the occasional flickers of lightening in the distance. We have to get to Lusaka, about 200 km away to board a bus to Livingstone Victoria falls.
We stumble over luggage and shadows of people in the eerily dark station. In both Malawi and some parts of Zambia, taxis are quite unofficial making it next to impossible to tell the difference between a taxi and a regular car.
We ask for the taxi stand and take down the car’s license plate number before negotiating a price to the Kapiri Mposhi bus station. As we drive through the dark town (yes, the power is out everywhere) our cab starts to slow down and pull over to a place where there are 2 other cars idle on the side of the road. We exchange nervous glances and then start yelling at the cab driver to keep moving.
He tells us that something isn’t working with the car, but we tell him to make it work.
In one silent moment, Elsa and I make eye contact… (A word on Elsa: wide-eyed and curly haired, this young woman works with children in a nutritional program in the village. She is soft-spoken and almost always smiling. In the 5% of the time when she isn’t being the biggest sweetheart ever, she happens to be one of the feistiest women I know. To illustrate this, let me share a quick story. A few months ago she was at a concert in Lilongwe when a man walked by and snatched her purse. Without a moment’s hesitation, she chased after him through the crowd. When he realized she was gaining in on him, he climbed up a wall in attempt to escape. She reached him when he was half-way up the wall - grabbed him by his belt loops, hauled him off the wall and reclaimed her purse before heading back to the concert.)
Back to the creepy taxi: Elsa quickly removes her headscarf and wraps one side around each of her hands, pulling the foot of remaining fabric taut. She is sitting behind him and if he tries anything, she will hold it around his neck and force him to drive. In fear and anticipation of what may come, I flip open the blade of my swiss army knife and hand Holly my whistle.
Fortunately the ‘car starts working’ and he speeds up and drives us to the bus station.
We arrive in Lusaka in the early hours of December 31st. There isn’t a 2am bus as we had been told and the next buses won’t leave until 7am. They open the bus and we curl up exhausted on our bus seats and sleep for the 5th consecutive in-transit night. As Lusaka wakes up on New Year’s eve day, the bus starts moving. 7 hours later, we finally arrive in Livingstone.
In my 26 years I have never been so happy to see a shower. It has been 6 days… We check into the hostel, shed our filthy backpacks and discuss who gets to shower in the comfort of the bathroom attached to our room (as opposed to the common showers used by those staying in dorms). Holly arises triumphant. Given that she wasn’t travelling with flip-flops, her only option for shower shoes are her plastic 5 inch heels. (I first found this out while staying at the grimy YWCA in Dar es Salaam – I howled with laughter at the sight of her coming out of the shower in black strappy stilettos and a towel.)
Clean and excited to be far away from the train, we set out to set out for Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world….

No comments:

Post a Comment