African Train Experience (Kapiri to Dar es Salaam)

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african train kapiri zambia station

Me at the embarkation in Zambia

African trains are as unique of an experience as Africa itself.  The movie Blood Diamond made famous the phrase “T.I.A.,” which means “This is Africa.”  Basically, it is a shorthand way for essentially saying, “chill out — things just go wrong here all the time — deal with it.”

And no truer phrase could be coined for this continent.

I love Africa.  I absolutely had the most life-changing four and a half month journey overland from Cape Town to Cairo.  Africa is truly unlike any other place on Earth and I hope that everyone reading this has an opportunity to go there at some point in life for a good, long stay.

On the other hand, I was so damn ready to get out of there at the end of my four and a half months, you can’t imagine. The amount of things that simply just don’t work right, or go haywire, on this continent can be a bit maddening. Trying to navigate the length of Africa on my own helped drain even more energy from me.  That being said… I’d go back tomorrow.

kapiri train station zambia africa blog

Kapiri Station, built by the Chinese

One of the highlights of Africa for me was the three day train ride from Kapiri, Zambia to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Well, to be particular about it, I suppose I should say that it was supposed to be a three day train ride.

But T.I.A. kicked in, of course.

The train creaked and groaned along the tracks, old-school style.  This wasn’t one of those shiny new European trains, where you can barely tell you are moving.  This was one of those trains from about 50 years ago, where you were rocked gently (sometimes) to sleep by as the railway cars rocked side to side, as if it was your mother putting you to sleep in your baby crib.

Until the train slammed to an abrupt halt for no apparent reason, which happened about 4-5 times every 24 hours — day or night. No rhyme, reason, or warning.

As a result of all of these unplanned stops, or at least I assume they were unplanned, since the train always stopped in the middle of nowhere, our three day journey that was supposed to get us to Dar es Salaam early in the morning to catch the afternoon ferry to Zanzibar actually didn’t get until sundown.  Only about 10 hours late or so, which we were told wasn’t a bad result on this particular route, as the train apparently breaks down entirely for a day or two every half dozen trips or so.

We weren’t in any particular hurry and the daytime stops ended up being one of the highlights of the trip.

african kids posing for camera tanzania

still brings a smile to my face even thinking about it back home today

Pretty much every time we stopped during the day, we would get swarmed with local kids running up and wanting their pictures to be taken.  It was such a completely un-tourist experience.  No one asked for money, or candy, or pens, or anything. Just total genuine joy on their part to have something going on near their little corner of the world.

They just wanted use to take their pictures and then show them what they looked like in the viewfinder.  Invariably, every time you would show the picture back to the kids, they would burst out laughing hysterically.  It was magical.

I fondly remember by mzungu (meaning foreigner, but I think translates more particularly to “white person”) cabin mates on the train and the conversations we had, especially during the meal times, when we had to negotiate furiously to get meals done in some recognizable fashion.  But more than the wonderful companionship on the train, I’ll never forget the expression on these kid’s faces.

african kids getting picture taken off train tanzania

a small bit of the kid-photo mob

Michael Hodson writes about his mostly overland travels at Go, See, Write, including continuing to tell the tales of his 16 month, round-the-world adventure he took in 2009-10, without leaving the ground.  This train trip was followed up with a bit of adventure in Dar es Salaam, when the cabbies tried to rip us off with fake ferry tickets to Zanzbar. Africa isn’t easy — not like you can always find credit card purchasing for motels or any other modern convenience, but it is a place that is so worth going to.

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About Michael Hodson

overland adventure traveler


13 Responses to African Train Experience (Kapiri to Dar es Salaam)

  1. Ileane February 24, 2011 at 1:03 am #

    I really enjoyed reading this and the photos are outstanding. What an adventure! I haven’t visited Africa and I didn’t see the movie Blood Diamonds – so thanks for introducing me to T.I.A.
    Ileane recently posted..StumbleUpon Tops My Traffic Charts

    • Michael Hodson February 24, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

      You so need to see Blood Diamond! Really good movie. As to Africa… must go.

  2. Cailin February 24, 2011 at 2:55 am #

    Little kids like that are such hams for the photos aren’t they? haha I like the “photo mob” caption :)
    Cailin recently posted..Winner of the Travel Yourself Favorite Things Contest

    • Michael Hodson February 24, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

      I love little kids in Third World countries, especially. Great photo opportunities.

  3. Phil February 24, 2011 at 3:11 am #

    “supposed to be a three day train ride”

    Indeed. I almost took the Abidjan to Ouagadougou train, but it stopped taking passengers right before I got there. That journey, schedule to be two days, regularly took five apparently. It’s too bad trains across the continent haven’t really been maintained at all. They are all colonial relics in various states of disrepair. Enjoyed this post. The digital photo kid phenomenon is one I enjoy myself :)
    Phil recently posted..Reconnecting with Friends

    • Michael Hodson February 24, 2011 at 4:53 pm #

      Lesson for sure…. bring food and drink!

  4. John February 24, 2011 at 9:19 am #

    Loved the story and the photos. Wouldn’t it be great if the Cape Town – Cairo railway could be completed? The ending of conflict in the Sudan would be even more welcome. Then perhaps a link from the Trans Siberian railway through a Bering Straits Tunnel to Alaska and onwards to the USA. Well, I can dream can’t I?
    Are there any rail links you would like built?
    John recently posted..Daily Photo- Prague- Czech Republic

  5. Brooke vs. the World March 1, 2011 at 10:49 pm #

    Cute kids! I can’t really imagine anything in Africa running smoothly and timely, so this doesn’t surprise me 😉
    Brooke vs. the World recently posted..Day 59- My Day with a Rabbi in Rome

  6. Andrew (explorerdad) March 1, 2011 at 11:09 pm #

    Great story – would be great if could go cross continent one day. I’m hoping one day!

  7. Anjuli April 6, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    What a fantastic post!! Oh how well I know T.I.A….but my particular brand was T.I.G….(This Is Ghana)….I lived in Ghana for more than 10 years. What a life changing experience….and I must say I lost count of how many times the phrase “This Is Ghana” escaped my lips! :)

    Great pics- looking forward to reading about the ultimate train challenge. What a super idea!
    Anjuli recently posted..Another Suitcase

    • Michael Hodson April 25, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

      Wow — 10 years in Ghana. YOu have to have some amazing stories.

  8. Seattle Dredge April 13, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

    Wow, what a great story! I am definitely going to take this train one day! Train is probably my favorite form of transportation; this one seems amazing. Love the photos.. thanks for the post :]

    • Michael Hodson April 25, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

      it was a totally different experience. Then again, it was Africa, so typical of that place!