How to Get on a Train in Africa Without Tickets

The TAZARA train never leaves on time, except when it does.

On a Friday morning in April we set out for Tanzania. Our one-week visas were due to expire the coming Monday, and this was the last train leaving during that time period. Neither of us wanted to find out what happens if you overstay your visa in Zambia, so we stopped by the TAZARA office in Lusaka. An employee there told us she had reserved a compartment for us and that when we got to town and arrived at the office, we just needed to speak with “Alfred” and we’d be all set with our own compartment for the three-day train ride (mixed genders are not an option in compartments unless you reserve all four beds as a family). We had four hours to take a two hour bus ride to Kapiri Mposhi and depart at 2pm, which seemed like it should be enough.

It wasn’t, really. After an hour of waiting for the bus to fill, finally leaving with a little more than enough time to make it, and nearly three hours of Bus Stop Reverend preaching and conversion, loud music, white-knuckle passing and infuriating dirt loop detours, we arrived in Kapiri Mposhi at 1:52 pm. We had been shuffled to the very back of the bus with all of our stuff (a backpack and messenger bag each) and as soon as the bus started to slow down, Daniel took his first opportunity and shot to the front of the bus. It took me a minute and I got waylaid behind slow adults and even slower kids, and a few minutes later when I finally got to the door, I found myself in the middle of a fist-fighting mini mob. Daniel ran in and pulled me out by the arm, and as we got into our taxi he explained to me that he agreed to take the first driver that offered, and the next three or four guys had gotten into a fight over our prospective fare.

As our driver lurched over an apparently recently plowed road, red dirt lumping along under the tires and pedestrians casually scooting over to let us drive by, we counted down the minutes. Now, Kapiri Mposhi is not much of a town. The reason the train begins here is supposedly because, when laying the line southwest from Dar es Salaam, they ran out of tracks in Kapiri Mposhi, and so the train station was born. The place is maddeningly spread out for a town of such small origins, and it took what felt like forever to get to the station. We prayed that the train would leave late, which is apparently common.

We barely remembered to pay the cab driver when he stopped, dodged the pushy “bag porters” and ran through the gate, literally at 2pm, the hour of departure. Sprinting to the now-empty sales desk, we asked anyone who would listen where we could find Alfred, our magical ticket holder, but the people just yelled at us to go, get on the train. “But we need to pay,” we protested. “Just get on!” The train blew its whistle and shuddered to a start, and we ran down a few cars before finding one with open doors, hopping on as best we could without knocking each other down.

We were on the last train to leave before our visas expired, but we didn’t have tickets. And Alfred, the only person who could vouch for us, was nowhere to be found. None of the staff had us on our list, and the train was full.  The staff on the train, however, were wonderful. They rearranged a few other families, put us in with a random white South African tourist (mixed gender compartment!), took our money and wrote us tickets.

Never have I been so happy to squish skittering blonde cockroaches while eating chewy organ meat with the valves still on, or sleep on pillows that felt like a bag of popcorn and smelled like a wet towel. The train started and stopped so suddenly and forcefully that we kept getting knocked over if standing. Each time, we assumed the train was starting to derail itself.  But we had made it.

Outside the train, men, women and children sold corn on the cob, hard boiled eggs, finger-sized bananas, rice from open sacks balanced on the head, mealy meal, cassava and potatoes, leather jackets, SIM cards, limes and groundnuts. Women in printed cloth kangas and kids in clothes so oversized and tattered their shoulders lay bare to the sun asked us for empty water bottles (maji ya chupa!) or money. Passengers exited carrying luggage on their heads, rollerboard suitcases or mystery packages in giant woven plastic totes. Zambia rolled past: flat, felled areas, fields eaten clean by herds. Cool air and few mosquitoes blew through the windows.

Maji ya chupa!

Crossing the border, officials charged us 100 USD each, twice what we expected; we put up a fight and protested corruption until the border officials lectured us on reciprocal visa fees and threatened to throw us off the train if we didn’t pay up. We later found out that the visa fee is actually $100 for a US citizen now, and although the border officials had started off seeming rude and unprofessional, that we were the ones overstepping our bounds.

The scenery in Tanzania was so much more lush–in no man’s land we went through a tunnel and came out in another world. Huge, tropical, prehistoric-looking palm plants, tall trees and a wall of hot and humid air that smelled like an herb I couldn’t identify marked our entry into the Great Rift Valley. Instead of drought-ridden Minnesota-prairie-like flatlands, there were hills and trees and moist flora clutching to sheer inclinations of land.

Near the last ten hours of the trip, we got a new bunkmate, a Tanzanian lady who spoke very little English. As the train ran through the Selous Game Reserve, we saw zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, antelope and one extremely terrified elephant, running away from the train as fast as it could manage. This was the closest we came to a safari the whole time we were in Africa–the budget traveler safari. Our new bunkmate, along with all the other passengers, hung out the train as far as she dared to take pictures with her cellphone, telling us the words for the animals in Swahili and pointing out the ones we missed. At one point I asked her, with Swahili read from a little phrasebook, where she was from, and she said something I didn’t recognize. I asked, “Tanzania?” and she indicated that it was outside of Dar, where we were headed. She slapped my palm and held on, laughed and said, “Dar es Salaam IN DA HOUSE!”

(For more information on the TAZARA train, or any train travel worldwide, check out www.seat61.com. We have used this site so many times when preparing for train trips in Thailand, China, India and Zambia/Tanzania. I highly recommend its content, especially when researching  for a leg of your trip right before you go: they have a lot of practical information on things like how you get visas on an international train or money exchange, safety tips, food and photos of what different classes of seating look like.)

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Zim-Zam!

The bridge that you can see from Victoria Falls, with trucks trundling over it and bungee jumpers sailing off of it, is the one you cross to get to the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. We walked there from Victoria Falls Town, and after getting our exit stamps in our passports, we took a $2 taxi through no-man’s land, a half mile or so stretch of road that is consistently being rained down on by the mist of the falls behind you. At first, we weren’t sure if we even needed a taxi–we were pretty skeptical that the border was very far away and couldn’t see round the bend in the road. What if it was only a hundred feet away? But after driving past multitudes of forlorn looking, soggy but determined backpackers, we felt pretty good that our two dollars were wisely spent.

When we reached Zambian immigration, and stated that we thought we’d be there about a week, they stamped in our passports a visa that lasted exactly seven days. Now, since the visas were $50 each regardless of whether we were staying a week or two or more, we could have easily told them were were planning to stay a month, but the passports were stamped and we were ushered on our way, a little bewildered, deadline looming.

We arranged a taxi with the first person we met (this is never, ever a good plan) and he took our twenty dollars and exchanged it with a shady man who was holding the fattest stack of cash I have ever seen. We later found out that it is quite illegal to exchange money anywhere but at a real forex bureau. Oops. Our middle man, who was not a taxi driver as he had originally implied to us, took a hefty cut of the profit and delivered us to a taxi driver, arranged for us to be dropped off at the hostel of our choice and sent us on our merry way.

We took a sunset cruise the very first night we got there, and got to see hippos, crocodiles, and all kinds of wild birds as the captain skimmed our boat up the Zambezi river. The sky was clear and we could see the mist from the falls downstream, and stared at the sun until it went under the horizon, blinking bright circles long after the sun itself was gone. I talked to our guide, Paul, who was maybe more drunk than we were (I learned that “sunset cruise” is synonymous with “open bar booze cruise”), about animals that lived on the river, and I did my best to explain and act out Minnesota wildlife such as bears, moose and wolves.

Bee Eaters
We saw the the tops of a lot of hippo heads.

Paul told me about his Kenyan friend who had brought a little crocodile over the border, and that they had raised it to be friendly, and that they had named it Duncan. (This explained why he called out to one of the crocodiles we saw, “Duncan! Duncan!,” clapping loudly and whistling to summon Duncan. Although he did come when called, we later found out that the croc was too little to be Duncan but Paul explained that he could have been Son of Duncan.) Duncan lived under their pontoon until they released him into the wild, like good parents have to do.

Duncan! ... here, Duncan!

The same evening, we sat and had a sandwich with a Zambian named Cephas staying at our hostel who started a conversation with us about how much he loved Obama. He was 23 years old and a criminal defense lawyer. We listened as he explained that the secret to being a criminal defense lawyer was to create doubt in the mind of the judge. One of his more recent cases, he told us, was of a woman who had been accused of killing her husband by slipping poison into his dinner as she cooked one evening. But how do you know, he asked us, that the poison wasn’t slow-acting and put into his lunch while he was out at work? Good point, we said. He also explained that he would wait until he was at least thirty to get married, because too many people change their minds or say “I love you” when they don’t, which we agreed with. He wanted a wife who was smart and who could be his confidante (and who would not, presumably, poison his dinner). He ended his train of thought by explaining that if you only have one bottle of Coke, and you have to give it to someone, that you give it to your wife and not your mother. I laughed, and then took some of Daniel’s beverage.

I am writing this from home. We arrived back in MSP on April 24th after a flight that went from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Rome, to Washington DC to Minneapolis. It was epic, but we made it.

We are in the process of moving into a cute little duplex with Daniel’s sister and her partner for six months, and are planning on going back to South Pole this fall; we were both able to secure contracts before leaving the ice, and I’ll even be getting a promotion to a better position. But I’ll keep writing posts to catch you up on Africa!

Crossing the Aranyaprathet-PoiPet border (March 2010)

On March 21st, we got up early to catch the 5:55 am train to Aranyaprathet, one of the major border crossings into Cambodia. We arrived about 5 or 6 hours later, and after being hounded by a tuk-tuk driver (he saw us while we were still in our seats on the train pulling into the station and followed us through the crowd for a few hundred yards trying to sell us a ride) we hopped on a songthaew (a small bus built onto a pickup truck) to the border. Having read about the myriad scams involved with this border crossing, we managed to maneuver through all of the “helpful” offers for visa service–the earnest, the aggressive, and the outright lying– and ignored the official-looking signs directing foreigners to go the complete wrong direction to the “consulate” and visa service offices. We waited in a very long line that we hoped was the right one, behind a few busloads of tourists from Khao San Road.

We asked the people behind us in line, a nice middle-aged Australian couple, if it was okay to be in this line, since we still didn’t know where we were supposed to be going. They thought so, but had been on a bus from Khao San that stopped the whole group and basically forced everyone to get visas through a fake consulate that charged them more than twice the normal price. They knew better, and waited for the border to apply also (the woman had her visa already but the man didn’t).

At the Thai border I tried to confirm with the border officer that we could get visas after exiting Thailand and that I could get passport photos taken (I used all mine up applying for China and India visas and stupidly forgot to get more), and he smiled and nodded but I wasn’t sure he had understood me, so I tried to reconfirm at the Cambodian quarantine gate in no-man’s land. The woman there told me that I had to have a photo, that there was no where to get one taken, that she didn’t know what I should do, and that I would have to “make an arrangement” with the Cambodian border officer (to which I replied “excuse me?” but meant to say, “what the hell does that mean?,” assuming the worst). Luckily it didn’t turn out to be that big of a deal and the border officer seemed to overcharge us only a little. We waited in another line for an hour or so, and finally entered PoiPet, Cambodia, crossing the border on foot.

The Australian woman, Rachel, made an agreement for a taxi fare of $25 USD, to the protests of the indignant translator of the driver (she lives and teaches in Siem Reap and seemed to know what a normal fare was). The taxi itself may have been Thai, for while Cambodians drive on the right side of the road, this car’s driver’s seat was also on the right which, in addition to the fact that we spent more time passing on the left or driving down the middle of the road than actually driving in the right lane, made for a rather exciting car ride. It wasn’t so bad, though, since this is how all of Cambodia drives. However, the taxi driver did stop at a car wash for an excessive amount of time while the storeowners tried to sell us overpriced water, maps, guidebooks, pineapples and coconuts. Then, when we arrived near Siem Reap the driver claimed (through another, different interpreter who also happened to be a certain guesthouse’s pusher) that not only could he not take us any further and that we’d have to take and pay for a tuk-tuk ride into the city, and that we had to pay more because the taxi was originally for 2 people (not true, we were all standing there as Rachel bargained for a better price), but also that he had to pay an extra fee to the police for having 4 tourists in the car. Now, we knew that wasn’t true since we had been in the car the whole time and he very obviously hadn’t paid any fees to any police, and we knew he hadn’t pre-paid the police since he claimed to not have known there would be 4 passengers. Daniel and I took the tuk-tuk after Rachel confirmed it would be free (she was admirably aggressive, and I was so grateful to have her there to keep us from being further taken advantage of) and she and her husband stayed to fight the fare with the driver.

Feeling very exhausted and overwhelmed (me, at least), we got a mildewy but comfortable guesthouse room, and dinner and a beer, and set the alarm for 4 am again to go see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.