TAZARA – Tanzania’s Last Great Railway Adventure
There are many ways to get around TZ, generally the choice is between horrible discomfit (public buses, piki piki (moto) drivers) or dizzyingly expensive (car rental, private shuttles). For most of our readers, the second option is out of reach, particularly for longer distances. Instead, readers will be forced to subject themselves to the cumbersome, exasperating but ultimately economical public buses. For readers journeying to or from the southwestern corner of Tanzania, however, there is another way.
Enter TAZARA, a single track 1800 km stretch of railway that travels between Dar es Salaam through southwestern Tanzania and into Zambia. Built originally with Chinese investment in the 60’s and early 70’s the the Tazara has been operational since 1976, TAZARA holds the unique charm of colonial railways the world over, a creaking old steamer, complete with dining carriage and private compartments, that makes one feel as though they have stepped into a Jules Verne novel. Allow me to elaborate.
Anyone looking to either enter Tanzania from Zambia or Malawi or wishing to leave Tanzania by those crossings should consider the TAZARA rail option. Correction, they should consider the TAZARA rail option, as long as time is not an important consideration because, amongst its many good qualities, the TAZARA train is slow, very very slow. The authorities do not even bother trying to guess at how long the trip will take, the full length of the track from Dar es Salaam to New Kapiri/Mposhi in Zambia can take anywhere between 3-5 days, although I have heard reports of people spending as long as a week. It stops at around 15 stations between its two ultimate destinations and you can purchase a ticket as far as you wish to go.
We caught the train back in 2016, although by all reports not much has changed. The hardest thing about catching the train is buying a ticket, these need to be purchased beforehand as they are not sold on the day of departure. There is also no online platform from which you can purchase them, nor can you buy them over the phone. The only way is to literally haul yourself over to the almost post-apocalyptically deserted station and purchase your required tickets. Bearing in mind that these tickets (particularly for first class) do sell out! Meaning ideally what you have to do is make a reservation via email or phone (links below), and then purchase those tickets in person at the station closer to the date.
In purchasing tickets you have a choice between a range of classes, I say choice but there isn’t really a choice, unless you are one of these barefooted, man of the people type travellers hell-bent on making life as difficult and as uncomfortable as possible, then you should really just spend the extra money on booking a first class ticket in a private compartment. The reason I say this and the reason I am writing this article is that the Tazara train is not simply a method of getting from point a to b, buses can do that cheaper and quicker. Rather by spending a little bit extra and purchasing first class compartments, you can turn what would have been a torturous three days on the bus into one of the most unique and enjoyable experiences you can have in Tanzania.
My girlfriend and I were travelling from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya, we purchased tickets for not only beds for ourselves in the compartment but also the other two beds in the four-bedroom compartment. The cost worked out to be a little under 100 USD each. This meant for the duration of the ride we had our own compartment, with enough space to stretch out, throw our bags on the top bunks, as well as smoke, drink and order food directly to the room. We had been told to expect around 48-60 hours, somewhere along the way the train got held up for eight hours or so, meaning we got turned loose in central Tanzania, to stretch the legs, go for a walk in the surrounding hills and have a quick dip in the local swimming hole.
The scenery out the window of the train is stunning, it travels through the Selous Game Reserve and the ranges of the southern/central highlands, giving you ample opportunities to try and spot game out the window. Other times it crosses gorges and climbs mountains, with views of rainforests and waterfalls. Much of the time we simply laid back and watched the scene unfold, sucking back a few beers in the compartment. Other times we dangled our bodies out the side of the moving train taking stupid photos.
All in all the trip took around 75 hours to reach Mbeya and still we would have been happy to proceed onward. In typical fashion, we were dumped at the train station in the middle of the night with a bunch of other fellow train refugees and left to hang about for a few hours until taxis started turning up and hotels began opening their doors. Still, though, two years on we still look back at it fondly as one of the most enjoyable experiences we have had in Tanzania.
If you are interested in chasing up tickets you can have a look on this link here for up to date pricing and a contact number to make a reservation https://tazarasite.com/.
Feel free to leave any questions or comments below!