The TAZARA… oh, the Tazara

So, taking the Tanzania-Zambia Railway – or TAZARA – has been a longstanding dream of mine. As most of my friends will know, I have an unladylike love of trains, long train journeys in particular.  Well, last week my dream came true, and I took the TAZARA from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, arriving 1,860kms and 52 hours later in Kapiri Mposhi in central Zambia. And the truth? I’m not convinced this isn’t a bit too soon to relive the trauma.

Boarding the train in Dar es Salaam was surprisingly easy. A couple of porters whipped up our 30kg suitcases onto their heads (I still don’t believe this method of luggage carrying doesn’t cause spinal compression – Africans find my worry hilarious), passed them through the window of our sleeper compartment, and before we knew it, the train was leaving ON TIME TO THE MINUTE. Too good to be true?

Settling in, our compartment was musty, dirty, the windows propped open with a stick, and cohabited by a friendly bunch of cockroaches. Not perturbed yet – I was, after all, taking an ancient train in Africa – I felt a lot better by the beaming attendants who seemed to have made it their personal mission to make the odd Swahili talking mzungu  WOMAN (!!!) feel as comfy as possible.

We set off to the “bar” (a big box filled with ice and beers), where I came across some of our fellow passengers. Some very lecherous African men, half drunk, leering at my legs and winking “invitingly”. Suffice to say, this was my first and last appearance in the restaurant car, having quickly conceded that this train was a lot wilder – for a white woman – than may have been ideal.

The train chugged away, innocently enough, and we watched Tanzania go by, in all its thorny, dusty glory – a train across the real bush lands of East Africa, and a unique peek into the village life deep in the rural areas. I found out, for example, that polygamy is very much alive and well thanks to the tell-tale clusters of thatched huts: the man’s larger hut in the middle, surrounded by a circle of huts – one for each wife.

But then disaster struck. I needed to pee. And peeing on the Tazara, it turned out, was to take the form of a tiny cabin, swimming in 6 inches of pee and faeces, with a hole in the floor. This was it. For at least 2 days.

Naturally, there was no water, so we devised a method of cleansing – hands and feet held out the window, with Tom pouring bottled water over them. Thank God I took that bar of soap with me. And the sanitiser. Oh thank God for the sanitiser.

By 6.30 the sun had set in a way only those who have been in the African bush can understand – every indescribable colour of orange and red playing its part, and giving way to pitch black.

At this point in burst Ali, the kitchen attendant, offering us dinner. Chicken and chips. Great, thanks, we said. Soon he was bustling in with plates of the driest, sorriest little chicken wing you have ever seen, surrounded by chips. This was to be lunch and dinner every day for the whole journey.

Never mind that, soon we were drinking our wine stash (Tom graciously conceded I was right about bringing 4 bottles of wine), and playing cards late into the night, by the light of my trusty headlamp.

Suddenly in popped our attendant. “Hide your things, close your windows, switch off your light!” he commanded in Swahili (which I luckily grasped). “There are thieves climbing in the windows and stealing things, especially from mzungus!” He warned. Shaky on the word for “thief”, I double-checked: “Bad men are coming in the windows?” “Exactly!” he positively beamed. And off he ran, leaving us quaking in the dark.

We woke up the next morning still in Tanzania, having made around 500kms progress in the 7 hours we were asleep. No “bad men” had visited. The day passed without any excitement, reading, watching the world go by.

At Mbeya in southern Tanzania, the train stopped for 2 hours for planned maintenance and repairs – better safe than sorry, they explained – and we took a stroll around the station. Not for too long, though, as it seems not too many white people visit Mbeya. Our presence was, quite simply, met with unabashed staring, pointing, and open laughter. Especially at my legs. Should’nt’ve worn shorts. We got back on the train.

We got back on the “road” and by evening we made it to the Zambian border, paid for our visas, and then made no discernible progress for 4 hours before we had run out of wine and went to bed.

In the morning we were woken by the shrieks and bustle of a market. We were at a major stop – choirs were singing, ladies with baskets of food and drinks were hawking their products through the windows, passengers were lugging cases on and off the train. Out the window we could see, at last, green, vivacious Zambia.

We were on the home stretch, although we still had 800 kms to travel after already having spent 42 hours on the train.

“We’ll be there by 11pm,” Ali told us. “No, in the middle of the night, 3am,” another attendant countered. We were supposed to have arrived 6 hours ago, by that point. We were disheartened, to say the least.

“Don’t worry, the Zambian bit is fast. Straight, no hills, no bends, very fast,” a friendly passenger encouraged us. We retreated back to our cabin in hope.

We watched Zambia whizz by, much quicker than Tanzania had, in a streak of fertility and greenness. The land had changed completely, Zambia is a luscious, beautiful country.

And then, only 200kms from our destination, the train stopped. Stopped very definitely, very finally. There were no words.

Peering out the windows, we saw men purposefully marching up and down, inspecting the train, fighting with each other about the best course of action, and generally pulling and hammering bits of the train. I don’t think we could have felt lower, we knew from bitter experience just how long African trains can stop for.

A man with a flag walked past, and I seized the chance.

“Excuse me sir?” “Hi madam, how are you??” “I’m very well, how are you?” “I’m very very fine.”

Brilliant, I smiled, but does he by any chance know what is happening? “Yes, I do.”

Excellent, would he be able to tell me? “Yes, I can.”

OK, so is the train broken, I asked, changing tactic. “No the train is fine.”

Right, so why are we stopped, then? “There is a ghost train,” he informed me seriously.

What, exactly, is a ghost train, I asked? “A train with no driver.”

And is it on the track  in front of us? I was starting to get the drift. “Yes madam!!!” he beamed.

Thanking him kindly, he was marching off to do… I don’t exactly know what. There was little else to do but go back to the “bar box”, and procure some now hot beers.

Much to our surprise, the ghost train was moved only 2 hours later, and the train driver made it his personal mission to get us to our destination in double-time. In fact, we pulled into Kapiri Mposhi at 5pm on the third day, sooner than expected, taken entirely by surprise. Ali and the attendants rushed in to shake our hands goodbye, and we were the slowest to get off the train – by which time the platform was empty, and we were left, in a state of shock, having survived the Tazara.

First impressions, and Zanzibar

We arrived in Dar es Salaam over a week ago now, and have spent days in the city as well as five days in Zanzibar. I think it’s about time to post a note of some of my first impressions.

Dar es Salaam is an African city which has really surprised me. The traffic is the worst I’ve come across in Africa (Disclaimer: I haven’t been to Lagos yet).  Worse than Nairobi’s Ngong Road in the rainy season (!!) But also, there are very few actual tarmacked roads to speak of, which is astounding for such a sizable capital city.  The built up city centre seems to consist of a very small area, which quickly gives way to vast expanses of shack-like housing.  Both the hotels we have stayed at have been lovely hotels, placed smack bang in the middle of… well, slums.

The second category of shock has been the people. Not as many as I expected speak English. Which is refreshing, actually. Enter my rudimentary efforts at Swahili. A great opportunity to shape my knowledge back up. As opposed to other countries in East Africa, my efforts have been met with absolute beams from Tanzanians, who have been good natured (and humoured), and really very supportive, of a mzungu muddling through in Swahili. This is just one of the reasons why I can honestly say I have never met kinder, nicer people. Tanzanians bend over backwards to make visitors feel completely at home, and have really been thrilled at the idea of one foreigner trying their best to speak their language. I’ve been honestly touched (and had numerous Swahili conversations each day).

So, first impressions recounted, I want to tell the story of Zanzibar. And what a story it is.

We woke up early on Saturday morning, to trek down to the ferry port of Dar es Salaam to take the ferry to Zanzibar. Although we had bought VIP tickets at the insistence of the ticketing lady (“Less people, AC, refreshments, space for your luggage!”), we sat in economy, and spent the two hour crossing enjoying the beautiful sea views, before landing in the stifling heat of Zanzibar.

Hair appropriately stuck to face, we passed through passport control, and on to the security checks. Queue my first Swahili conversation with a very kind “polisi”, who let me through wishing me a happy holiday, but not realising we were together, decided Tom’s decidedly fishy looks meant he was a drug dealer.

And so our first half our in Zanzibar was spent in a tiny police office, being interrogated about Tom’s pouch of tobacco, and disproportionate sweating. Interrogation techniques included holding a hand on Tom’s heart (a fail-safe lie detecting technique), and a barrage of weird accusations: “You’ve been in Iran!” Deciding there was nothing else for it, I took the joking approach: “Oh no, don’t ask him to take his shoes off, they stink! You’ll be sorry!” And when menacingly questioned on my medicines pouch, handing the police my bumper pack of diarrhea tablets (“OKOK put them away quick”). I was caught in possession of one contraband item, the cause of much tutting: plastic bags. Illegal in Zanzibar. On establishing Tom is genuinely not a drug dealer, the police became our friends, hugs and handshakes all round, apologies, and welcomes to Zanzibar. We were free to go. “Wait!” yelled the policeman on our way out. “Yes?”. “How many children do you have?”. “None”. “Why not, why you are not making babies with her?” They shouted at Tom. “I’ll get started right away,” Tom replied, to an outburst of absolute hilarity, fist-bumping, high-fiving, back-slapping, between him and the whole police station.

Getting into a taxi, we spent our first hour in Zanzibar being driven to random cake shops, the driver not quite believing our hotel was actually called “the Cake House”. Finally at the hotel, and having drunk our complementary tamarind juices (foul), we set out to explore Stone Town – the old fort, museums, the “House of Wonders” (so called for being the first building on the island with electricity, flushing toilets, and a lift). We also discovered the last living sultan of Zanzibar currently lives in Southampton.

A highlight of our wanderings included visiting the old hammam, now a museum. Our very enthusiastic tour guide insisted on giving a (thankfully pants-on) demonstration of how private parts used to get shaved in one particular area, and then insisted on climbing onto the roof. Not content with the rooftop view, he suggested we scale the cupola of the baths, for the best view of all. Ladies first, naturally. So barefoot, up I clambered to the top of the cupola, clinging on for dear life. And the view was great, before I realised getting down would be more difficult!

We also spent a day on a spice tour, sniffing and tasting all the spices grown in Zanzibar – cloves being a key export.

Then it was time to set off for Nungwi beach for a few days. Work in the mornings, before swimming, sunsets, and a lot of lobsters.

I was also lucky enough to get traditional Zanzibari henna painted on my feet, by an incredibly steady-handed, talented Muslim young lady. Sitting on the floor, in her head-to-toe black gown, she crafted the most intricate patterns I have ever seen, without any template – just freehand. I’m floored by the talent.

With the Tanzanian elections taking place this weekend, election fever if rife across the country. After dinner on our last evening, we sat having a drink at a beach campfire, and a number of locals wandered over to join us. Zanzibari people feel hard done by, by the current government, we learnt. The island contributes a lot of money to the country, but is increasingly in decline, as it receives near no funding or support in return. So our last evening in Zanzibar was spent, of course, debating politics around a campfire on the beach, with a painter and a hooker.

I told you it was a good story.