FERGUS COCHRANE-DYET, Lusaka
BRITISH diplomats are trained to be curious about the countries where they’re posted. For me, in a country like Zambia, that comes naturally because I’ve been fascinated by Africa ever since working as a teacher in Kenya 33 years ago.
It follows that the TAZARA railway caught my eye as an important part of Zambia’s history – a 1,160 mile (1,860 km) lifeline to Dar es Salaam built by the Chinese in the 1970s during a turbulent time for southern Africa, with the added zest of adventurous travel from Zambia to the Indian Ocean.
My journey began at Kapiri Mposhi, three hours north of Lusaka, on Tuesday, October 17, 2017. A privilege of being British High Commissioner was to drive in my flag car onto the platform where I was greeted by the station master and various TAZARA officials. We agreed this was probably the first time that a British High Commissioner had taken the TAZARA train to Dar. I was seen into my compartment, which I had all to myself, and given pillows and bedding by Angel, the carriage attendant.
The train sounded its horn and we drew out of the station only five minutes late at 16:05. If the passengers thought this meant we’d arrive in Dar on time 48 hours later, we were set for a surprise!
As we trundled north-east towards Mpika, I did some exploration. There were two first-class carriages, consisting of seven compartments, with up to four passengers in each, and a shared toilet at each end. Further along the train, there were two second-class carriages in which six people shared each compartment. There was a dining car and a bar, and there were several more carriages for passengers on lower fares. Including the carriage in which the train staff slept, there were 16 carriages in total.
Now, my advice to anyone taking this train is to be well prepared. I had brought a cool box full of food and drinks, from which I nibbled some dinner as dusk turned to darkness through my window. I had a towel, soap, toilet paper, and flip-flops for the toilet/bathroom. Most important of all, I had a pile of books to keep me entertained in the long hours ahead.
Angel brought me a cold beer from the bar: a refreshing way to end the day while settling down for intermittent sleep as the train squealed and jolted its way through northern Zambia.
The next morning, I awoke feeling rather bleary from lack of sleep. However, a breakfast of fried eggs and toast from the dining car perked me up and I began looking forward to crossing the border. Outside, the track passed rolling dry landscapes, and occasional villages which looked very poor indeed. Whenever we stopped, crowds of children would appear from nowhere, laughing at these strange people peering out at them, and offering nuts and roasted vegetables for sale. I bought a bunch of deliciously sweet, small bananas.
The border crossing proved easy enough. First, Zambian immigration and customs came aboard and checked our documents, then after creeping forward a couple of hundred yards, their Tanzanian counterparts did the same – looking alien in their unfamiliar uniforms.
During the rest of the day, we climbed towards Mbeya, the highest point at 5,870 feet/1,790m. Despite the altitude, the October afternoon was hot, with only a small ceiling fan and open window to provide some respite. I read and dozed, sweating lightly, until late afternoon when Angel showed me that one of the toilets had a basic shower. This was a wonderful relief, although I had to balance over the “hole-in-the-floor” toilet while trickling the cool water over my head. Back in my compartment, the temperature was falling, and I enjoyed a sunset gin and tonic from my cool box as mountainous southern Tanzania faded into twilight.
The second night was very noisy, with constant stop-starts, culminating in a long shuddering groan as the train halted with ominous finality.
Over more fried eggs for breakfast, I was told that the delay had been caused by a derailed goods train further down the line. It was going to be several hours before we could resume the journey.
Fortunately, I was quite relaxed about time since I had scheduled a couple of days in Dar, as a buffer, before my business meetings. The main drawback of the delay, though, was that the toilets were locked whenever we were stationary at a station – for hygiene reasons because all waste simply dropped onto the rails. Since the toilets on the platform were said to be gruesome, this required discipline and a minimalist approach to hydration! Tummy problems would have been miserable in these circumstances, and I was glad to be largely self-sufficient for food, except for the excellent fried eggs and bananas.
Around lunchtime, with much lurching and bumping, the train began to move again. One benefit of the delay was daylight as we passed through the most scenic stretch between Makambako and Mlimba, where the route dips down an escarpment slashed by ravines and rushing rivers, accessed via 46 bridges and 18 tunnels. On the other hand, it was dark when we passed through the Selous Game Reserve, which meant missing any wild animals. I admired the view, read my books, endured another hot afternoon, and enjoyed another cooling shower.
Chatting to Zambian passengers over a beer in the bar, I learnt that many were traders travelling by train as the cheapest means of reaching Dar. There they would buy second-hand clothing, before boarding buses back to Zambia with the bundles of clothing placed on the roofs. Even allowing for travel costs, the traders reckoned on a 50 percent profit.
Instead of arriving in Dar at 16:00 hours on Thursday, October 19, we settled down to a third night on the train – at no extra cost! I slept much better than previously, and was rather sorry to be awoken by Angel at 03:00 hours as we neared Dar es Salaam. Finally, at 04:00 hours on Friday, October 20, I joined the crowds disembarking into a darkened station encumbered by large cases and bags. We had been on the train for 60 hours.
Standing half-asleep at the station entrance, trying to guard my bag in near darkness, I awaited a pre-arranged taxi. On balance, I mused that I had rather enjoyed the trip. But I wasn’t sorry, either, that my journey back to Zambia would be by air.
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