On the Road Again, at Last

by Bill Murray

Zambia is home to a near-blind species of Ansell’s mole-rats that can sense magnetic fields with their eyes. It is part home to the world’s largest artificial lake by volume, and home to the world’s largest curtain of falling water. But that’s not why I want to go to Zambia. I want to go to Zambia because it is at the far end of an eighteen hundred kilometer railway halfway across the middle of Africa called the Mukuba Express, leaving every Friday from Dar es Salaam.

via Tazara website

Neither a luxury Rovos Rail-type train for well-heeled retirees, nor a people-on-top desperation ride, the Mukuba Express is what I understand to be an ordinary, working means of transport African style, chugging across the Tanzanian plain from the coast and into the Zambian hills, offering third, second and first classes, restaurant cars between classes and a bar car.

If similar experience holds, the Mukuba Express will set out across the savannah triumphant and hopeful, restaurants and lounge bursting with goodwill and chilled beverages. The goodwill will remain as the cold boxes lose their vigor, their contents seeking room temperature. This has yet to be seen and will be reported further, but I believe it to be likely true.

This is a Tazara train, “ta” as in Tanzania, “za” as in Zambia “ra” as in railway, run by the Tanzania-Zambia Railway authority. The express route approaches 42 hours if the trains run on time, which they do not. The ordinary service “stops at every serviceable railway station in the respective regions of Tanzania and Zambia” and takes about two days.

Not that the trip ends in Lusaka. Logic suggests the Tazara would link the two countries’ national capitals, but in fact, the end of the line is two hundred miles up the road. We will have to work out the rest of our way to Lusaka when we get there.

You might expect some odd dynamic in Tanzanian/Zambian politics or Chinese engineering (the railway was built by Chinese engineers) or graft to have brought the Mukuba Express to its end at a town called Kapiri Mposhi. In fact, the line wasn’t built to serve Zambia’s capital at all, but to serve its Copper Belt region, to get Zambia’s leading export out to the sea.

In contracting with Beijing to build the railway in the 1970s, landlocked Zambia was seeking an alternative to doing business with white ruled governments to its south. Before the Tazara, Zambian exports left the continent via apartheid South Africa, whose regime Zambia found odious.

But this web site suggests that early on “employee theft was so common that 20 Zambian crew members were fired in 1978 for stealing…. These problems resulted in much lengthier than planned turnaround times for freight, and in 1978 Zambia had to break ranks and reopen links with white-ruled Rhodesia for its copper exports.

We’ve been to Lusaka once before, in 2002, by air, and the getting there was miserable. At the time, the first plane ride clocked in as one of the longest in the world – thirteen thousand one hundred four kilometers – leaving shore over Charleston, South Carolina and hardly seeing land again until Cape Town. On the map, the continents were mountain peaks and we slid down the valley called the Atlantic.

That got us to Cape Town where it never dawned; winter gray merely brightened. Nine more hours of airports followed, well over a day in public places, before finally, Lusaka. We never saw more of town than the sides of a few high rise blocks from the hotel room that time because we were headed on, into the bush. This time we’ll take more of a look around.

I’ve got my big Africa grin on this morning, because we’re in Tanzania and we’re about to get back on the road. This trip was thwarted when originally planned, for April 2020. Instead, back then we were all having the fright of our lives with Covid, fermenting sourdough starter, buying Pelotons, home office furniture and meal subscriptions on the internet.

We outlasted Covid that way. But as I approach get off my lawn age, some of the other changes it prompted are getting on my nerves. One is the mysterious disappearance of employees everywhere, and here, airlines lead the way. Book a trip nowadays and they conspire to make you do all the work of your friendly check-in clerk, so that they can fire them.

It’s no longer just arranging your own boarding passes instead of being handed them with a smile. It’s not just checking your own bags at an unmanned and ill-explained kiosk. Please dear guest, upload a scan of your passport before arriving at the airport.

And dear passenger, we are so elated we’ll be seeing you, could you kindly upload your required health documents for travel to Kenya in advance, rather than hand them across the counter?

Esteemed future client, our delight is mitigated only by our ignorance of your culinary preferences. Could you kindly spend fifteen minutes navigating our opaque web process trying to find our really pretty chef-inspired menu pictures, and choose your beef or chicken online?

Have you gone to our easy to use online list of every entry regulation of every country in the world to make sure you comply? If you need a yellow fever stamp in your yellow card, don’t you dare come around here without one. 

Lastly, your safety is our primary concern. Please be assured that our onboard videos will forever explain seat belts for all our passengers who have not been in a car for the last sixty years.

via Tazara website

On the other hand, there are a few things the internet excels at. One of them is arranging faraway  ticket reservations, like reserving advance tickets for the Mukuba Express from abroad.

You cannot reserve tickets for the Mukuba Express online. Tickets must be paid for with Tanzanian Shillings in person at the railway station. Since tickets go on sale a month in advance of your travel date, this makes it difficult for international passengers to be confident of securing their preferred class of ticket should they arrive in the country, say, two days before departure.

I aimed to reserve all four bunks in a first class compartment for the two of us. Once we tried that for a sleeper train in Vietnam. When we turned up at the train station there were like eleven gorgeous little Vietnamese kids in there, picture perfect but not especially cozy for sleeping.

We worked out an arrangement that time so that we slept in a two berth space reserved for staff that was essentially a linen closet. It turned out way better than sleeping with eleven kids, except all night long, from time to time the door would slide open and a hand would reach in to grab a towel or a pillow or something.

We thought we might try the full compartment for two people thing again, so I got up at 2:00 a.m. one night a few weeks back (10:00 a.m. in Dar es Salaam) to call +255 715469239, a number seat61.com said might connect me with the train station ticket office.

I talked with a nice lady named June, with whom I reserved one compartment (all four berths) for two people for 24March. She said pick up the tickets on 23March at the ticket office for TZS441000 ($188.50).

It’s reckless, frivilous and just plain stupid to splay yourself out there 8,390 miles to see if Miss June entered your details in Tanzania’s Big Book of Train Reservations. I lie awake imagining somebody spilled coffee over the place we were pencilled in.

Right, but here, I’m denigrating a system that I’m certain operates like clockwork (unlike the trains themselves) and will execute our plans flawlessly and hold our space for us even though we won’t show up with the cash until the day before.

If there’s not a good outcome, there’s a good story. I’ll let you know next time. I’m hopeful.

Mainly, I love the idea that at last, Covid behind us, you can do this – just fly out there somewhere and not be sure where you’ll be for a few days. Finally, we can all get back on our own proper adventures in adventurous places, like a train ride alongside the Muchinga mountains in Zambia.

I’m filing early. If things are going to plan, by the time you read this on Monday, March 27 or after, we ought to have made it to Lusaka. If our plans don’t work out that will probably be a pretty good travel story too, once we’ve survived the train derailment caused by our collision with the world’s largest remaining group of endangered rhinos, resulting in our mass arrest. Or something. Cheers for now.