Saturday, 9 March 2019

The train diaries: From Dar to Mulobezi by rail

The Tazara passes through some remarkable landscapes. PICTURES BY JACK ZIMBA
Anastasia enjoying the train ride.
Two rail systems, three trains, two countries, 2,700km of rail and one epic journey. Our reporter Jack Zimba travels by train from Dar es Salaam to Mulobezi and shares his experience and insight into the railway business.
Ardio Mbewe is a veteran at driving locomotives.
'Malama', the little American boy sticks his head out the window.
From Dar to Mulobezi by rail

TUESDAY, February 12
 It is 13:33 hours, and I only have seven minutes to get to the train station and catch my train to Zambia. If I miss it, I will have to wait until Friday to get on the next one.
So I rush out of a Western Union office in Kariakoo, a bustling market place in the middle of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, clutching a small wad of shillings and jump on the nearest motorbike I find. I do not have to explain to the driver my urgency; I guess it’s written all over me.
We dash across the city, weaving through heavy lunchtime traffic, and squeezing between lorries and buses. We run through a red traffic light without a care (the motorbikes don’t obey the traffic lights, anyway).
The previous day, a fellow journalist living in Dar es Salaam had cautioned me against using the motorbikes because they usually get involved in accidents, but with heavy traffic, they are the quickest means to get around Dar, plus they are much cheaper.
But first, how did I end up in this panic mode?
It all started back in Nairobi, Kenya, where I had landed early Sunday morning after an overnight flight from Lusaka, to catch a connecting flight to Dar es Salaam.
However, my airline, Kenya Airways, barred me from boarding the connecting flight, because I had booked a one-way ticket to Dar es Salaam and my passport was three months from expiring.
“I will only be there for two days,” I had tried to reason with a female staff of the airline.
She was adamant, so was her supervisor.
“The immigration in Tanzania won’t allow you and they will send you back at the airline’s cost,” she told me.
How ridiculous, I thought.
The airline gave me two options: to book a return ticket and proceed with my connection, or get on a bus from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam.
Both were hard choices, but I chose to go by bus to Arusha and then get on another bus to Dar.
But when we arrived at the border with Tanzania – a place called Namanga - more drama awaited me.
“Sir, why did you decide to miss the plane in Nairobi?” an immigration officer, a woman with a fancy hairstyle and stern voice, quizzed me after leafing through my passport.
I explained my situation at the airport.
“Your story sounds ridiculous,” she retorted.
Of course it did.
“There is no way the airline could have stopped you from boarding the plane. There is something fishy going on here,” she said, making circles with her index finger in the air.
“You are not telling the truth.”
She called Kenya Airways in Nairobi, and they denied ever refusing me to board the plane, and according to their records, I boarded the plane.
“We have to review CCTV to see how you missed that plane,” said the immigration lady.
My case was beginning to sound more serious than I anticipated.
With Al Shabaab now a big threat to Kenya’s security, was I now a terror suspect?
“And why did you come through Nairobi, are there no direct flights from your country to Dar es Salaam?” continued the immigration lady.
“No,” I replied, exasperated by the unfolding ordeal.
I was too embarrassed to tell the immigration officer that Zambia does not have a national airline – at least not yet.
Soon, my question session had turned into an interrogation.
A man went through my IDs and then begun questioning me.
He was softer, but he was not buying my story either.
By now, the bus driver had lost patience and driven off, leaving me behind.
After about an hour, the woman finally let me, but with a stern warning: “Sir, we will be watching you.”
At the next window, I now faced the Tanzanian immigration official.
A seeming nice woman, but who had a similar set of questions about my round trip.
“So why did you come through Kenya, you mean there are no direct flights from Zambia to Dar es Salaam?”
She sounded doubtful at my answer, but she stamped my passport nevertheless.
I was back on the road, heading to Arusha, passing through Masailand.
After about two hours, the magnificent Mount Meru came into view, with the city of Arusha lying in its shadow.
But Dar was still some 600km away, and buses now take longer to get there following strict speed limits imposed by the Magufuli government.
I decided to book a flight from Arusha, fearing road fatigue.
The plane, operated by Precision Airline, was scheduled to leave Kilimanjaro International Airport at 21:00 hours, but it did not arrive at the airport until 22:30 hours. There was no apology from the airline.
After spending my money to book another flight, I ran out.
So that is how I found myself at Western Union in Kariakoo, to pick up extra money from my office in order to embark on my train travel.
It is 13:50 hours when we arrive at the TAZARA train station, but just in time to hear the train slowly pulling out, its heavy metal wheels tapping the rails like a military brass band.
One man, noticing my misfortune, quickly offers a solution. He rushes me outside the station and calls for a motorbike taxi.
A young man called Joseph is willing - for 20,000sh (about K100) - to rush me to the next train stop before the train reaches there.
Without hesitation, I hop on his bike and go on a chase. It is a hair-raising ride through traffic.
Soon, we get on the outskirts of Dar, and onto a narrow and winding road hugged by lash vegetation.
It is an empty road with an occasional motorbike. My fear now is not crushing with other vehicles, but falling off the bike as we negotiate sharp bends and speed over speed humps.
After about 30 minutes, we turn into a small dirt road, and then pass through a dambo area.
It is clear Joseph has done these kind of chases a number of times before.
Soon we burst into a clearing, and right in front of us, the rail line.
“You have to run and wait there, because the train will be here anytime,” says Joseph, pointing to a white structure about 300m away.
He sounds like a people trafficker.
I’m so excited about Joseph’s audacious ride, that I decide to pose for a picture with him before we part. He is my new hero.
There are a handful of people waiting at the disused building, which has a missing roof and is overgrown with grass. It is in the middle of nowhere.
The only thing that has been spared of the structure is the station’s name written on the wall: Vigama Halt.
Later I would see numerous such derelict buildings dotted along the 1,860km railway which runs from Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia’s Central Province.
Four decades ago, these structures were built as train stations, but they now look like relics of a civil war era, stark reminders of a once glorious past of the Tazara.
It is 14:30 hours, hardly three minutes after reaching Vigama, and I hear the train whistle, and then it appears round the bend.
At exactly 14:45 hours, I start my train trip that would end in Mulobezi, Western Province.
As I settle down in the train’s restaurant, I reflect on the iconic railway that the Chinese built over 40 years ago.
Tazara embodies everything, from sentimentalism, politics and ingenuity, and it must still evoke the same feeling for the people living along it, as it did four decades ago – children and adults alike still wave at it as it passes.
And for the enterprising ones, it is one big mobile market for coconut, fresh maize and anything to snack on.
The Tazara is still an attraction for tourists. And on my trip, I meet some Germans, Russians, Japanese and Americans.
But years of neglect have affected Tazara badly.
This train gallops at 40km per hour, slowed down by an old dilapidated track and old wagons.
There is a restaurant in one of the coaches that were recently donated by China that serves decent meals, and the coaches have flushable toilets.
But I wonder why all the waste goes onto the track.
Later after dinner, I retire to my sleeper, and I’m rocked to sleep by the gentle swaying of the train.
WEDNEDAY, February 13
Today, the train is even slower as we pass through a mountainous region, sometimes the train passes through tunnels burrowed through mountains.
The stretch between Mlimba and Makambako offered the greatest challenge during the construction of this rail line, as it is mountainous, with many streams cutting across its landscape.
But it is also the most rewarding to travelers. The rail road snakes between heavenly mountains and passes over beautiful gorges, offering travelers picturesque views.
One of those enjoying the beautiful scenery is Anastasia, a young Russian business consultant on tour of the continent for the first time.
She is excited because she is now heading to Livingstone, Zambia, to see the Victoria Falls.
We chat about Vladimir Putin and China, and animals.
“Do you like Putin?” I ask her.
“Yes, but I think he has over-stayed,” she says bluntly.
Anastasia makes it clear she is not happy with China’s advancement across the continent.
The young Russian is a real tree-hugger, who is reading a book about how plants respond to emotion (of all things).
Later, I meet Godfrey John, who once worked for Tazara, but is now retired.
He reminisces about the good old days of Tazara.
“This train used to run very fast and on time, but now it is very slow,” he tells me.
When we reach Makambako, the retired rail worker abandons the train and decides to jump on a vehicle instead.
Evening has fallen when we reach Mbeya, and the train makes a long stop.
On the platform, speakers are blasting some soothing Caribbean music.
At 20:30 hours, we start off from Mbeya. By now the train has spewed most of the passengers and resembles a ghost train, with its narrow eerie passages in the first and second class coaches, plus the creaking sounds and swaying doors adding to the creepiness.
Mbeya lies about 200km from the border at Tunduma. We arrive at the border at 00:45 hours and proceed around 02:00 hours.
On the Zambian side, the rhythm of the train has changed from a single beat to a heavy metal orchestra, and the shaking is like a continuous tremor. Sleeping is hard, as I’m constantly jerked out of sleep.
Somehow I manage to steal some sleep, but I’m woken early by the incessant cries of a baby in the next compartment.
Paapuuu, paapuuu, paapuuu,” demands a boy called Malama.
Of course there is nothing unusual about little Malama crying for his mother in that fashion, if only he were not a white American toddler.
Yes, Malama is an American boy, about two years old, whose parents run an NGO that champions girls’ education in Kasama.
Both his parents speak fluent Bemba and are now teaching it their son.
Wide awake, I stare outside at the rising sun.
By now the romance of train travel has waned, and claustrophobia has set in. I now sit like a prisoner in my compartment.
Besides, the landscape on the Zambian side is less remarkable. The rail line sticks close to human settlements, passing through towns and villages.
We arrive at Kasama at 09:12 hours, and pick up more passengers.
At Mpika I decide to ride on the locomotive, instead, just to satisfy my fantasy.
Ardio Mbewe is sitting at the controls.
He is a retired veteran who was brought back to work because of his experience.
Back in 1973, Ardio was a construction worker building this railway, now he drives on it.
Years back, he used to drive at 80km per hour, but now he can’t.
Soon I decide sitting in the locomotive and watching parallel lines slowly coming and passing under the train is boring. The controls look boring too, just nobs, levers and switches.
In the evening, on my way to my compartment, I meet a woman in the passage who looks frantic.
She is scratching her wig and patting her body as if she has lost something.
“Where are we?” the woman asks me.
“Between Mpika and Serenje,” I tell her.
But then she asks:
“Where am I coming from, and where am I going. What am I doing here?”
I’m perplexed by the woman’s questioning, and so I call in a cop to attend to her.
The woman’s name is Catherine. She boarded the train at Mpika.
With some sort of spiritual counseling and questioning, Catherine regains her compass and is back to her normal self.
Stuff happens on the train.
As night falls, I retire to my compartment and dose off. But I can hardly sleep because the train shakes a lot.
It is 03:45 hours, Friday 15, February, when we finally arrive at Kapiri.
Spending 62 hours on the train has had a toll on me, but I have some hours to recover a bit before I jump on the Zambia Railways train to Livingstone, a distance of 656km.
The train, named after former President Michael Chilufya Sata, is scheduled to arrive from Kitwe at midnight – if all goes well.
But this train does not run on time, it only runs on diesel. And more drama awaited me on the Mulobezi train.

 When train comes off the rails
A mangled rail road under the train.
A man works on a damaged rail before the train could continue its journey.
A twisted rail after the derailment.
A damaged rail stops our journey.
On the trek after the derailment.
The train comes off the rails.
Hiking after the derailment.
IT IS almost midnight, Friday 17 February, and I join a horde of passengers at the Zambia Railways station in Kapiri Mposhi.
The Michael Chilufya Sata Express is late, very late, and some passengers, tired of waiting, sleep on the hard concrete floor.
This train carries mainly poor people who cannot afford the bus fair, and others are business people who trade in goats and other merchandise.
There is no communication from officials from the rail company about the delay, and there is no complaint from the passengers either.
It is 03:30 hours, Saturday 16, when I hear a whistle in the distance.
It is a wake-up call to the sleeping passengers, who hurriedly gather their belongings and stand by the rail line.
The train is finally here.
I’m relieved when I settle down in an empty compartment in the first class. I’m also happy to find a power source, at least I can keep my gadgets alive throughout my journey.
Other than that, the coaches are old and battered, and the train is sluggish. It takes us two hours to cover a distance of 50km from Kapiri to Kabwe.
Here we wait for about two hours for another locomotive as the one pulling our coaches has developed a fault. We arrive in Lusaka at 13:20 hours.
Although this train moves at 40km per hour, the ride between Lusaka and Livingstone offers a rough ride, the coaches sway like a pendulum.
Sunday, February 17
It is 08:36 hours and I order some tea in the train’s restaurant, but the swaying of the coaches makes it hard to bring the cup to the mouth without spilling, the same reason why it is hard to use the onboard toilet.
At exactly 12:12 hours, the train comes to a stop at the station in Livingstone.
I have to wait till Tuesday, then jump on the Mulobezi train, which is also operated by Zambia Railways Limited.
Tuesday, February 19
It is 09:12 hours, and the Mulobezi train slowly pulls out of the station and heads westwards to Mulobezi. It is the last leg of my epic rail trip.
This rail line, built in the 1920s, was a private logging railway, but when the logging business went down, Government through Zambia Railways Limited took up the rail system to continue providing a service to the people of Mulobezi.
Today, it is the most reliable mode of transport, but that reliability is in frequency only and not in efficiency or convenience. At least twice a week, this train travels between Livingstone and Mulobezi, in Western Province.
The railway covers a distance of 162km between Livingstone and Mulobezi, but it is also the most treacherous part of my rail trip.
You know what time the Mulobezi train leaves the station, but you never know when it arrives at its destination.
And travelling at 10km per hour, the Mulobezi train ought to be the slowest train in the world.
And why does it travel so slowly?
The rail line is old and rusty, with slippers that were made in 1927 – at least according to the date on them.
The train wobbles and the rail line creaks under tonnes upon tonnes of metals.
Even under my weight, the rail line shakes. The rail line lies on a sand bed and its rusty slippers are completely buried under sand.
In many parts, the railway is covered with grass, and shrubs have grown too close to it, so close that one can pluck tree leaves as the train moves.
A battered U15C locomotive made by General Electric is pulling the coaches and wagons through the forested area.
The first class coach is hooked between the locomotive and the restaurant, so one moment I’m getting the smell of fried chicken, the next, the smell of diesel, or a mixture of both.
Cooking in the kitchen is done on open fire – two big braziers and a gas stove.
The train stops at several stations, but it also stops many times to allow the crew to carry out some repairs on the rail line before we can pass.
When we make our third of repair-and-go stops, it is dusk and a full moon is rising on the horizon.
This time, the repairs are major. A whole section of rail has to be replaced, not with a new one, but with another rusty piece the crew had picked earlier along the way.
A diesel-powered grinding machine is brought to cut the piece of rail to the right length before fitting it.
The men then jack one section of the rail line and push a rusty slipper under it, before shoveling some earth to act as ballast.
For the passengers, it is time to stretch, smoke or answer the call of nature in the surrounding bush.
Once the men finish the repairs, the train slowly and gingerly passes over the repaired section.
When I ask one of the drivers if we will make it, looking at the state of the rail line, he responds: “By the grace of God.”
We would have numerous such stops before reaching Mulobezi. I count five before falling asleep.
The locals living near the rail line tie plastics to polls and stick them on the rail line, it is a warning sign to the locomotive drivers that that section of the rail is too damaged for the train to pass.
But the drivers themselves have to stay alert and look out for any rail that may have come out of place.
At exactly 03:00 hours, the train comes to a stop at Mulobezi.
I had spent six nights on two different trains and covered about 2,700km of rail across two countries, and met many different people.
Thursday, February 21
I wake up early this morning to find a flurry of activity outside the train.
Despite it being in such a bad state, life in Mulobezi revolves around the train.
The train is scheduled to make the return trip later in the day, and cargo now includes goats, pigs and chickens.
After getting the bad news that I cannot find a vehicle to travel back to Livingstone, I stay on the train. It is a huge sacrifice, as I would later discover.
We start off around midday, picking up loads of bags of charcoal and more goats along the way.
There are no stop-and-repair stop on our way back, but the train seems to be moving even slower.
When night falls, I retire to my compartment and fall asleep, hoping to wake up in Livingstone.
But around 02:00 hours, it finally happens, it had to happen. It is the most inevitable thing on this railway – a derailment.
I’m deep in sleep when the train comes off the rails, and I do not notice something is wrong until 05:30 hours when I awake.
The locomotive had come off the rails while entering a bend, and its heavy steel wheels now rested in the sand, over mangled rails.
Because the train moves slowly, there are no injuries and no damage to the train itself.
The incident happens 36km from Livingstone, at a place that has no phone network. However, the train driver had managed to walk a few kilometres to find a phone signal and send the SOS.
But there is no guarantee help will be here any time soon.
Other passengers, accustomed to these incidences, are already preparing for a long wait.
A woman is collecting small sticks and she later makes a fire.
“I just want to boil water to drink,” she tells me.
Some of the passengers, however, decide to walk to the next station 20km away, which lies near to the road, then get on vehicles to Livingstone.
At 07:00 hours, I, too, decide to abandon the train.
My train travel ended more less the way it had started – in the middle of nowhere.
I join three women – a young teacher called Felicia, and Beauty Samulela who is traveling with her niece named Namatama Nkhoma, and begin the hike through the woods.
Felicia curses the Mulobezi train. It is one reason she wants to leave the rural district.
Recently married, she lives apart from her husband, who works at a government health facility in Chingola on the Copperbelt.
Felicia only travels about once in three months to Livingstone to replenish her supplies in order to avoid the train.
The teachers are given one week leave every month to travel to Livingstone to go and get their salaries and do their shopping.
By mid-day, the sun is punishing and adding to our exhaustion, and the soft sand is making walking even harder. I can now smell the sun on my skin.
After about 10km of walking, Namatama or Tama, as her aunt calls her, needs to rest. She is shaking and panting.
“She has a heart problem,” explains Beauty.
She hands Tama a bowl of sour milk with a little sugar.
Tama is a determined girl who recently graduated from secondary school with good grades. She now wants to become a doctor.
I pep-talk her about her dream, just to keep her spirits high.
When she recovers, we continue our trek.
After walking 18km, we can now hear the sound of vehicles. It is the most delightful sound.
It is 12:25 hours when our walking party finally reaches the roadside.

I’m as tired as a dog, and my body is drenched in sweat, but quite relieved to have made it.













































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