Taking the Midnight Train to Zambia

The Tazara train is a two to four-day adventure from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to a tiny town called Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia, some distance from the capital Lusaka. The single-line railway is 1860km long and was built in 1975 by Tanzania, Zambia, and China to connect landlocked Zambia to the port city of Dar es Salaam.

It’s used much less frequently than in the past due to new transport alternatives that are now available and more reliable. The full journey is intended as a two-night, 36-hour journey, but delays make the length of the trip completely unpredictable as the trains themselves are quite old and run-down. The passenger trains only run twice a week and are made up of first-class cabins with four beds, second-class cabins containing six beds, and a lot of economy seating.

My Tazara adventure started with the ticket purchase. It was impossible to buy them online, and there were about three or four different phone numbers listed online to call or WhatsApp. Naturally, I never heard back from any of them, most likely because I didn’t have a Tanzanian number. Buying tickets in advance was quite important, though, to avoid having to spend the whole trip in an economy seat. Because I was travelling with my brother and cabins are separated by gender, we had to buy all four tickets in a first-class cabin to be able to travel together.

I was finally able to get help with the tickets after posting on a Tanzania travel Facebook group. A local was kind enough to call the number and reserve the tickets under my name for pick up the day of our departure.

We were set to depart on Tuesday at 1:00 p.m., so we arrived at the station on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam bright and early at 10:00 a.m. to make sure the tickets were actually there. We entered the station, a massive, cavernous room with a staircase leading up to an open second floor. The main floor had a couple of ticket windows, which we approached. Our tickets were there, thankfully, but the train wasn’t. We were told the train was delayed and it wouldn’t leave until 2:00 a.m. that night. There was nothing to do but settle in and wait.

We walked up the sweeping staircase to the second floor, where there were rows of plastic seats. The building seemed like a remnant of an era of luxurious travel which had fallen into disrepair. In the back of the waiting area, a small door led to the lounge for first-class passengers. It was a small, cramped room with about 20 to 30 seats that looked marginally more comfortable than the ones outside. It had its own bathroom as well as some outlets for charging, which would be key during the upcoming 13-hour wait. The ceiling tiles were peeling or missing completely, and there was what looked like an old bar area with some broken and empty cupboards.

The ceiling of the first class lounge

We met the other travellers in first class. The majority of people in both lounges were locals, but there were about eight or so other tourists travelling on the same train. The wait went by slowly, reading, playing games, and getting to know each other. We got used to it though, since this would be our life for the next few days.

There were no further delays, and the train was ready for us at 2:00 a.m. There was a mad rush from the main lounge to the economy seats, as there were no assigned seats in that section. We found our cabin and I fell asleep quickly, despite the noise and rattling of the train as it pulled out of the station.

The journey itself was quite uneventful. We passed through some gorgeous scenery and national parks, though we weren’t lucky enough to spot any wild animals from the train window. We pulled into various small village stations, where the train would stay for 15 minutes or so. Dozens of village children walked along the tracks under the train windows, begging for sweets or money, and sometimes reaching up to try to grab what we had by the window.

A typical view of the scenery from the train window

The train ride was quite rocky, with the train rattling from side to side on the tracks. The toilets were an adventure in themselves, because they were squat toilets—essentially holes in the underside of the carriage where you could see the railroad ties speeding by—with a big bucket of water for flushing in the corner, sloshing all over its sides and drenching the floor.

The meals served were always the same, with a traditional breakfast and the same meal on order for lunch and dinner. Beer was known to run out or get warm by the end of the journey when the ice had all melted, so we started ordering them early. We spent most of our time with the other travellers in the dining carriage, playing cards and looking at the scenery out the window.

Making our way through national parks

We realized fairly quickly that we wouldn’t be arriving in Kapiri Mposhi on time. Occasionally, the train would stop in the middle of nowhere and stay parked there for hours at a time for maintenance. One night, we stayed in the same spot for pretty much the whole night while they apparently waited for a spare part to be delivered. That was the rumour, anyway. Another rumour was that we hit a buffalo, or an elephant, but we never found out the real reason.

In total, our train journey took us about 70 hours; more if we include the extra 13 hours we waited at the station in Dar es Salaam. We pulled in to Kapiri Mposhi around 9:00 or 9:30 p.m. on Friday, happy to not be spending a fourth night on the train.

Kapiri Mposhi, we’d discovered, was a tiny town a couple hours’ drive from Lusaka, so all the passengers getting off were scrambling to organize onward transportation since no one wanted to try to find overnight accommodation. We got in a taxi with a bunch of other passengers and set off.

We knew that driving at night in many African countries wasn’t recommended, and for good reason as we soon saw. We sped along very quickly in darkness, with no lights illuminating the highway. After about an hour, we got stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, so our driver veered off into the undergrowth, bumping along a small dirt road running parallel to the highway. After about half an hour of this, we saw the cause of the traffic. A couple of massive transport trucks were on their sides, smoke pouring out of the engines.

At around midnight, we finally pulled in to our hostel in Lusaka and crawled into our beds, happy they weren’t rattling beneath us. After four days on the Tazara train, we could safely say that it wasn’t the right option for any travellers on a schedule or who like travelling in comfort and luxury.

For those who like the unexpected, though, and the opportunity to see remote parts of the Tanzanian and Zambian countryside, get a glimpse of village life, and meet people from completely different backgrounds and circumstances, I would recommend taking the midnight train to Zambia.

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