Train Travel in Africa
All about traveling via train in Zambia and Tanzania!
Over a year ago a friend and I decided to venture from Ndola, Zambia to Zanzibar...by train! I have a Zanzibar travel guide up on the blog here: 10 things to do in Zanzibar on a budget
Almost a year after that trip, I took a solo trip up to Mbeya, Tanzania, which ended up not being solo because I met up with friends in Kapiri and made a friend on the train who we then traveled for the rest of the trip together! I also have a post all about solo travel here
Traveling by train is Africa is truly a unique experience of a lifetime. I’ve been on trains through Europe and America but there was something special about living in Zambia for over 2 years and then getting to see it by train! The sunsets were incredible and the scenery was beautiful. It was by bus when we saw giraffes and other african animals in the wild in a national park. By train we rode through the national park during the dark unfortunately, so that timing is something to consider when you book your travels.
TAZARA stands for Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority. It is also referred to sometimes as the Uhuru Railway or Tanzam railway.
It goes from Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia (about 1.5 hour drive/bus from Ndola, in Central Province) to the port of Dar es Salaam. It stretches 1,860km long, as a single-track railway.
We called the TAZARA station in advance to book. I highly recommend this especially if you want first class. From Dar es Salaam, the train was fully booked when we arrived, so we were very happy that we had booked a week in advance. First class is sometimes booked multiple weeks in advance, so better to call and reserve. They have free cancellations in case your dates change. Their website has been updated since we travelled and has the breakdown of costs and train timetable. It also has numbers and more general information here: https://www.tazarasite.com/
As a general summary on times and costs:
There are two trains per week. The express leaves Tuesday from Kapiri and the non express leaves Friday from Kapiri. Leaving from Dar es Salaam, the express leaves Friday early evening and arrives Sunday afternoon. The non express leaves Tuesday.
As a general cost, Kapiri to Mbeya (about halfway) costs about K200 in first class and K170 for second class. For Kapiri to Dar es Salaam, it costs K330 in first class and K170 second class. The rates are slightly different depending on which way of travel.
Check out their website or call for the details!
Without a doubt, first class is worth it. The pricing between first and second are not very different, as shown above. The only way I would recommend second class is if you are traveling in a group of 6 and don’t mind being in close proximity all in the same compartment. In second class, ehe second row of beds have to be up so that others can sit on the first row like couches. Therefore if you are sharing with people you don’t know, you will likely not feel as comfortable. During the day if want to go rest, there would be people sitting on the lowest beds and the second level pushed up. I think the top is available to rest in during the day so if you do get stuck in second class, top bunk might be best. With first class, it feels more private and spacious. There is a fan, radio, outlets to charge and the windows open. The door also locks. It's still small! But I wouldn't say felt too cramped, see photo below.
Make sure you arrive almost 2 hours early. As long as you are 1 hour early you will be okay but it might feel rushed, especially when leaving from Dar es Salaam. The time I left from Kapiri, I felt that one hour was plenty of time to arrive. The train left exactly on time from the station in Dar es salaam. They are strict and would definitely leave passengers behind if not on time. With that said, be ready for the timing to change through out the trip. We were delayed by just over 10 hours. No problem with the engine, just waiting for other trains that had breakdowns and had to pass - single track railway. There are routine stops in Mbeya, the boarder and some other points that do take very long. Just be flexible with time once you are aboard!
Food and Drink
The food was good. The options are limited but very fair pricing and fresh ingredients. Options are basically: chicken, beef or fish with either nshima, rice or fries. Chips malai was similar to a Spanish omelet. Breakfast was pretty much fried eggs and toast (bread) with coffee or tea.
The dining car is comfortable and a great way to get out of your room and interact with others. There is a conservative rule in the dining car about clothing. If you are wearing a sleeveless top you may be asked to cover your shoulders. We found this ridiculous as almost all our clothing we brought on a beach vacation was sleeveless…so I ended up just using the sarong I got while in Zanzibar to cover my shoulders.
There is a stocked bar on the train with its own car of seating and music. They mostly have local beers at affordable/standard local prices. They often have a movie showing here.
Beyond the bar car, is one more sitting section that has more lounging seats. This is great for reading, etc.
On the train while crossing the boarder, make sure you stay in your compartment and get the leaving and entering stamps in your passport. Another time that I took the train we were in the dining car talking to some people who came on the train to help us trade money and we ended up missing the immigration officers! This can be a serious offence. We had to leave the train, get a taxi back to the boarder, get our stamps and then catch back up to the train. Learn from our mistakes! Thankfully a train attendant escorted us to ensure we made it there and back quickly and it worked just fine.
Do keep in mind that when traveling on the Tanzania side you are required to have shillings and when traveling on the Zambia side they only accept kwacha. Dollars or any other currency are never accepted and they do not take any form of card. They are strict with the moment the train crosses the border the currency will change. It is best to carry both, but if you don't, there is usually an opportunity to exchange money if you ask.
All I can say is those are the most memorable sunsets I’ve experienced in Africa. Breathtaking and just feels out of a movie. So don’t sleep too early!