The trip north from Likoma Island involved a full day and a whole lot of minibuses. Nothing terribly exciting about that. Lots of little nuances and slices of life that were pleasant or irritating, or both depending on your mood. We crossed the border into Tanzania and pulled into Mbeya just before dark after nearly 24 hours of travel pretty exhausted and sick of buses, minibuses, shared taxis and daladalas (swahili minibuses).
And so while we could’ve hopped on a bus any day and gotten to Dar 12 hours later, we just couldn’t do another bus. Instead, we waited around Mbeya three days in order to take the “express” train to Dar. It’s a 20 hour journey … if there are no delays. Also, there was the issue of finding two other people to share our compartment as people of the opposite sex are not allowed to travel together unless they have booked an entire compartment. For us, this would double the cost. Now that said, there are plenty of reasons for taking the train. For example, its not a bus. First class contains relatively comfortable four person compartments with beds. You can walk up and down the train to your hearts content and not be squished into a tiny chair for 12 hours. There are bathrooms on board … go whenever you please (except in the stations of course!). And we ran into a couple we’d met in Likoma that we managed to cajole into taking the train with us and sharing a compartment. So all was set!
So off we headed to the station, ready to catch our 2:30 train … only to have a sign meet us at the door to the train station announcing the train would not arrive until 4. Oh well, hey, its Africa. We sat and chatted with our friends and a few other travelers with whom we’d share this journey. And lo and behold, around 4, the train rolled in. We boarded, settled into our small but comfortable compartments and then, waited. After an hour and a half waiting for nothing in particular that we could figure, we finally took off just in time for sunset.
We chatted and relaxed, read and ate, had a beer in the dining car and shared our stories of our African adventures, enjoying a comfortable evening before settling to bed, all the while the train rattling along and the dark countryside passing in the background. Far, far better than a bus.
Of course, all couldn’t continue this rosy. The next morning, we pulled in with a jolt to Mangula station, about halfway to Dar, at around 10 am. But unlike the other stations we’d stopped at, we didn’t leave this one. Eventually, we got to inquiring about why we weren’t moving and we were duly informed that the locomotive died and we were being sent a new one. Estimates on arrival varied from 45 minutes to 3 hours. So what can you do? We waited. We walked around town. We watched the citizens of Mangula and tried out our phrasebook Swahili on them. We took photos of all the interesting things the locals were doing.
We got the updates hanging out in the dining car. But, and this was discussed when deciding on train or bus, being on a brokendown train is infinitely better than being on a broken down bus. We sat and waited, and eventually, after about four hours, the train sprang back to life and off we were again, rattling along.
On the upside, all of these delays meant we’d hit one of the highlights of the train journey at just the right time. The train tracks slice right through Selous National Park, and we’d pass through just before sunset, when the animals would be coming out from the heat of the day. And we saw large herds of zebra, wildebeest, and impala, a few giraffes and warthogs and a single elephant. Still no leopards though. But hey, free safari!
We pulled into Dar Es Salaam around 8 pm, after 28 hours on the train. But its a journey I’d be happy to do again. The view was infinitely different and better than a bus. The locals were friendly and interesting. Our fellow travelers felt like good friends as we left. And we managed a pretty good nights sleep in transit. It was a great culmination of the “journey” from South Africa.