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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.
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.
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.
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.