The Tazara railway journey from Dar

28th January 2013

To proceed out of Dar, one takes a minicab type of vehicle, 29/12 after a brief panic of mislaying my passport, we set off battling through afternoon traffic to reach the Chinese built railway terminus for the 2 day journey to Zambia. Tazara railway line was built some 30 – 40 years ago by the Chinese who wanted a route to get the copper mined in Zambia to a port for onward shipment to their country. It is a magnificent piece of engineering: mainly single track, narrow gauge going through Selous park, narrow valleys, up into mountains with tunnels and rusty iron bridges until the flat lands of Zambia are reached. Scheduled to take 60 hours, engine failures, derailments can be expected as the 17 coach train with 2 elderly diesel power locos crosses from one country into the next. A long held ambition of mine became possible when Sister Debora, my nurse friend offered to act as ‘minder’ & Swahili speaker to attempt the return journey after visiting FIWILA,

The Main departure station in Dar was built on Cathedral size proportions, two trains a week run on a Friday & a Tuesday, one allegedly is the Fast Train (?). Ours the 2.50 Friday time tabled: a football size crowd waited in the street, until the single doorway was unlocked about 1 oclock where we had to show our ticket (First class cabin/sleeper), a porter having taken charge of the luggage which included food for the journey. There was a first lass lounge but the others (2nd & 3rds) sat in rows in the outer hall. A station announcement eventually, departure delayed until 3,10, the long train backed in, the rail police controlled entry through the single gate, fiercely with a man and a stick whilst porters shouted at anyone who showed signs of queue jumping, eventually we and the masses were allowed in, with the porter’s help identified our First Class coach which was 3 from the back. The cabin could sleep 4 and my veterinary friends would know what I mean by the train being ‘knackered’. The door lock was erratic in use as it had various screws missing and some non standard screws inserted so you were never sure if you would get in or out into the corridor. We (!st class) are issued with a roll of toilet paper, 2 little soap boxes and 2 small bottles of water, our train attendant who had a chair at the end of the corridor coach was noticeably absent for most of the 2 days. Water for washing was supplied on the 2nd day only (which was better than on the return journey).

Off we went, trundling along, the locos laboring on the inclines, black diesel smoke being emitted like a stem engines’ smoke but more environmently damaging. There was an alcohol bar, there was a restaurant car even further away where I saw passengers feasting on black fish and white Ugali piled up like mashed potato. Once or twice a day an attendant would reach the back of the train to take meal orders, these seemed to be delivered much later on an improvised trolley but we managed without the facilities. Hot water for a vacuum flask was expensive if filled on the train but at some of the many stops, there was time to visit the station hotel and get tea or hot water refills. Fruit bought at these stops was wonderfully ripe: mangos, bananas, very large creamy Avocados, pineapple were not to be missed . Small children ran to meet the twice weekly train with a cry about wanting a ‘popple’ which on translation was that they required empty plastic water bottles =’pople’ which they recycled for a multiple of purposes in these remote villages.

We were warned by the porter before departure to pull down the glass compartment window and the metal fly screen grill at night telling us the worst places for theft. At 4am, three women together emitted a howl and shrieks suggesting to me a multiple rape; I had heard a peculiar tapping underneath our carriage as we waited at Kidunda halt, it seemed the thief had reached through the half open window of an all female compartment. 2 away from ours and taken the Zambian passengers handbag off the table, it contained her money and passport hence the wailing. Not wishing to get involved or give police statements we stayed inside, the train set off about 30 minutes later and we never knew the outcome or how she got through immigration the next day. The second day was nearly all through the mountain region with wonderful views, MBEYA a main rail base they filled the water tanks in the coaches, put on Zambian locos and drivers, after an hour we left & next got to the place where the money changers jumped onto our train (presumably first class passengers were their main target). 1.20 the next morning, Passport Control – $50 ready for my Zambian visitor visa. [next compartment a travelling German NGO lady offered to pay her fee with some single dollar notes, they were refused by the female immigration Zambian, by the time I was asked to change them for a $20 note, the officer had walked away and refused to reconsider, so foreign lady had to report to Immigration Office in MKushi at 10 am on Monday before she could pay and continue her proposed journey by bus to see the Victoria Falls]. My later treatment by Immigration on the return journey was much pleasanter but anon.

Most of Sunday was traversing Zambia, interesting farm developments, we arrived at destination MKushi at 7.30 pm in the dark. Our arranged onward transport was a farmer’s light lorry for the 84 Km rough road to Fiwila. It came on to rain, I was in the drivers cab but my suitcase and various passengers were out in the open back but a tarpaulin was available. The destination, reached at 11.05 Sunday night was a former Franciscan Monastery, with real brick arched cloisters et., abandoned some 15 years ago and now occupied by 5 CMM Sisters. They farmed a large block of land some 2 hours walk away using piece work labour, a 2 bullock-drawn single plough to prepare the hand sowing of Maize and Groundnuts. There is hostel accomodation there for 16 students and 4 college staff but at present only used weeks a year by oneof the London universitieso help at the modern Secondary school.

The return journey started 2 hours lat about 5.30 pm on the Friday from Mkushi, the carriage 1st Class was slightly better but there was NO WATER FOR WASHING throughout the 60 hour journey back,we arrived 5.30 am on the Monday at Dar to face porters fighting to take our cases to taxis outside.

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