In the late sixties I travelled on the so called ‘hell run’ from Lusaka to Dar es Salaam in an empty truck with copper bars slung underneath. Once we had passed Mbeya the roadside was littered with crashed trucks, especially where it wound through the hills.
Later, I was full of admiration as the Chinese constructed the TAZARA (Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority) railway as an alternative. It was an amazing engineering feat and it was therefore with a sense of long deferred pleasure that I boarded the night train from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya in January this year.
Buying a ticket was a typical Tanzanian experience. With only five people ahead of me in the queue, I assumed that it would be a matter of minutes. However, the ticket clerk had to deal with the next customer, two telephones and colleagues who constantly interrupted him. The queue was also typically Tanzanian. Everyone tries to get as near to the action as possible so that you get a ‘flat’ queue with everyone leaning on the front counter. After 50 minutes I reached the centre of the ‘queue’ and managed to purchase a first class single to Mbeya for Shs 19,400 – about £20. This placed me in a compartment with three other passengers – they have to be of the same sex -with four ample sized bunk beds. It was very comfortable and far more spacious than my recollection of British Rail’s cramped sleepers.
The day after I bought my ticket I reported one hour before, as requested, but there was much hanging about drinking sodas and observing fellow passengers before we left. We were due to depart at 5.30 and in fact left at 6 pm which seemed pretty good. The organisation at the station was impressive and each carriage had a smartly uniformed attendant waiting to guide passengers to their seats. All the first and second class attendants were young and attractive women who were polite and efficient. I later heard a complaint for an older male attendant from the third class coaches who said that these young women had been selected for their looks alone and didn’t carry out their full range of duties.
There seemed to be a disadvantage in being an internal (Tanzanian) passenger. Three new carriages reserved for passengers going to Zambia had showers. They made our carriages, with squatting type toilets, seem very scruffy.
Leaving at 6 pm meant that we passed through the Selous Game Reserve in the dark but darkness had its compensations. Excellent meals were served for Shs 2,000 (£2); beer was Shs 600 and sodas Shs 250. The most popular meal was chicken and chips but there was also fish and rice, all served with a cabbage and tomato salad with a banana on the side.
A comfortable night’s sleep was interrupted by a sudden halt at Mlimba station, at the foot of the escarpment some 300 kms from Mbeya. This was 3.30 am. I peered out of the window and went back to sleep again. Two hours later I awoke to find that we were still at Mlimba. Obviously something was up. However, as on our own railways, no information was given out. We learnt later that a single wagon carrying track ballast on the train ahead had come off the track on a steep bend. We were to stay there until 3 pm that afternoon! Mlimba station (1930’s Chinese style) was set in a pleasant landscape on the edge of the town. There were birds and butterflies and there ought to have been monkeys but I didn’t see any. During the day a distinct feeling of comradeship developed amongst the passengers, rather like being on a long cruise on board slip.
Eventually we pulled out of the station, this time with two diesel engines, and there was now the opportunity to appreciate the superb engineering feat of the Chinese. The single line track was bordered by well constructed drainage channels, the cuttings were lined with stone blocks: some sloping up to 50 feet in height. The most impressive thing was the excellent state of the track maintenance some 25 years after construction.
Once we reached the top of the escarpment, the train picked up speed and lived up to its ‘express’ tag. We reached Mbeya at lam, some 31 hours after leaving Dar es Salaam.
The final event in this mini-saga seems to bear out my experience in Tanzania – that things often turn out alright in the end. I arrived at the Holiday Inn -a basic hotel recommended by the ‘Lonely Planet Guide’ -at 1.30 am. I hadn’t booked but the security guard quickly came to the door and was soon joined by his mate. I was made most welcome, given a room and asked if I would like some tea and food. I settled for the tea and sat quietly reflecting on the equivalent scenario had this been a British hotel in the middle of the night.