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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Bovu Island and Lusaka, Zambia

A few bits and pieces, playing blog catch-up; summer is absolutely flying by. We’re starting the PQ process again (physical qualification–medical and dental checks), getting ready to return to South Pole. We are planning on leaving for Denver/New Zealand around October 15th, but won’t get our tickets until we PQ and complete all the HR and travel paperwork.

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In early April, Daniel and I arranged a few nights on Bovu Island in the Zambezi river. They picked us up in a shoddy pickup truck, and after an hour of driving rutted, mudslid roads, hot dry sun baking the truck, switches of trees whipping at our arms and faces, we arrived at the riverbank. Stepping gingerly into beautiful little handmade dugout canoes, we tried not to think of the crocodiles and hippos we’d seen on the river the night before as the three captains punted and paddled the boats through river flats, eddies and gentle whirlpools, exposing stunning nooks and wide river vistas around the bends of tall grass. The other folks staying on the island welcomed us with a beer on arrival, and we buried our feet in the silky cool sand floor. We slept in a little three-walled hut, perched on stilts and open to the river, listening as the jungle sighed, shrieked, became quiet and later reawakened; monkeys and millipedes and some mysterious catlike shrew animal sleeping nearby.

We visited a nearby mainland village, learning about architecture of stick, mud and thatch wood homes, about school/church construction of more modern and costly supplies. We sat with a local mom while she skillfully wrestled a pot of nshima, the sticky cornmeal mush we ate all throughout our trip.

Village family
Kids, coming to investigate the funny-looking white foreigners.
A kid from the village takes a first photo of Daniel
Much better! He's a natural.

A little girl with a disability that would permanently prevent her from walking, playing happily in the dirt.
The still-being-built school and church building

A few days later we boarded a bus to Lusaka, still operating within the strict 7-day visa the border official had stamped in our passports. We didn’t really want to go to the capitol city, but after much debate we decided it was the most sensible option to position ourselves there so we could board a bus to Kapiri Mposhi, where we planned to catch one of the twice-weekly trains across the border into Tanzania. On the bus to Lusaka, I met a 12th grade girl named Felicit, coming home on vacation from boarding school. She was quite talkative and had all kinds of questions for me, normal chatty questions like what do you like to read?, do you like dancing?, what’s your favorite color?, to more in-depth questions about religion, faith, and tribal affiliations within the US, to the structure of our schooling system and specifically my relationship to Daniel.

We had decided to tell people we were married since a male and female sleeping in the same bed together out of wedlock is pretty taboo in eastern Africa, from what we had read, but Felicit first asked if we were engaged, to which I said yes because it seemed easier (we’re not, for the record), but then she had all kinds of questions about when we were getting married, how long we had been together, whether we lived together or not at home, what our parents thought about it, and my story sort of fell apart and I had to explain that, well, we don’t really have a date, and maybe we’re not exactly engaged. I thought it would be really awkward but I guess I underestimated the power of young people to flex from tradition, or maybe I hadn’t done my research properly and the whole thing wasn’t that big of a deal. She transitioned seamlessly into explaining to me all sorts of bits and pieces of local economy within Zambia, import/export and agriculture, and then she told me I was more talkative and friendly than most white people she had met, which I took to be a nice compliment.

After the bus ride, we faced the inevitable swarm of taxi drivers and people pretending to be taxi drivers. Too tired to haggle or discern properly, we got into the wrong one, a car whose driver stopped to pick up another friend and later tried to swap my 20,000 kwacha note (about 5 USD) saying I’d only handed him a kw1,000 note. We spent the night at a crummy hostel in Lusaka, pinning the mosquito net together with hair pins and rubber bands, hunting the bugs that got in before going to sleep, probably more worried about malaria than strictly necessary for a large city. We couldn’t sleep much, preparing for the long haul train ride into Tanzania the next day.

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!