When people travel from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya, they usually think of two ways. The wealthy opt for the plane, the less well-off for the bus. Few though think about a third option, the train. It is surely the most time-consuming means of transport, but in some way, it is also the most rewarding.
Our trip starts in the early afternoon at the Tazara train station in Dar es Salaam. A place appearing abandoned for most part of the week, comes to life on Tuesday and Friday when the train to Zambia embarks. Hours before departure, the waiting hall is packed with people, eagerly waiting until the gates to the platform open up. The train is about 15 wagons long, comprising four different classes. The first and the second-class compartments are equipped with bunk beds.
“The train will leave on time,” the loudspeaker announces. And indeed, the train starts rolling at 1. 50 pm. There are four of us in our compartment. The train moves leisurely with no more than 50 kilometres an hour. Leaving Dar es Salaam, we pass different neighbourhoods, cemeteries, cropland, soccer pitches, churches and the airport. They are all marks of civilisation.
The train stops about every 15 minutes. Some people get on the train, others leave it. It is not a freight train, but some people still use it to ship stuff. They would load big bags of vegetables or fruits into the wagon.
“Lunch is ready,” the conductor makes an announcement in every compartment promoting the meal they had cooked. The restaurant wagon looks like an American diner with blue-coloured couches on both sides of the aisle. The menu is all Tanzanian though: kuku na wali. Next to the restaurant, there is a bar, including a good selection of beer.
My colleagues and I spend most of the time in the restaurant wagon. It is great to see the landscapes passing while you have the airstream in your face. It’s a good way to feel how big this country actually is, something we would have missed out using the plane.
Along the rail, children keep popping up. They would stand in the middle of nowhere, amazed by this long chain of wagons. They wave hands, jump and chant when the train passes, their faces lighting up when somebody waves back.
The night is about to fall when we approach Selous game reserve, Africa’s second-largest wildlife sanctuary. At daylight, you have a good chance to spot giraffes and zebras from the inside of the train. We luckily spot three impalas before the night falls completely.
The small town of Kisaki is the last substantial stop that day. From a distance, the station looks a bit scary, candle lights flickering in the night. It turns out to be vendors highlighting the food they are selling. People are getting on and off the train, many have dinner on the platform. The ambiance is very animated. Forty minutes later, our journey continues.
Most people go to bed after dinner. The compartments turn silent, the train is rattling through the night. Even after midnight, it keeps stopping regularly, and no matter how late it is, there will always be people waiting. The night passes surprisingly smoothly. We feel well-rested in the morning.
A train trip to Mbeya takes a long time, and yes, 900 kilometres in 29 hours is not efficient at all. But it’s worth it. The leisurely pace of travelling, the landscapes that pass by, the charm of an old train: the trip has almost meditative character.