Escaping from the Tazara in the dead of the night.
Escaping from the Tazara in the dead of the night. Jill Worrall

All aboard the slow train to Zambia

SLEEPING compartments on trains often come with useful little gadgets but the Tazara train that links Tanzania and Zambia is the only one I know of that has an official Stick.

We'd boarded the Tazara in Dar es Salam. It was running four hours later - quite a significant delay we thought at the time... we were wrong. It was about to get a lot worse.

It was almost dark when we found our four-berth sleeper but the temperature was still sultry. Thank goodness there was a fan in our compartment - presumably that would come on when the train started, along with the lights.

Devoid of a fan and with air-conditioning a distant memory from that morning's hotel we attempted to open the window. It refused to stay up. Using bungy cords attached to the upper bunks we managed to open our window.

A railway official passed us as we battled with the one in the corridor.

"Use your stick," he said grumpily.

"What stick...?" I began, but he'd gone.

We discovered The Stick in the parcel rack. The bark had been peeled off and it proved to be just the right size to wedge the corridor window open.

Clearly it was an Official Stick.

The Tazara Railway was built in the 1970s to provide landlocked Zambia with port access at Dar - primarily for its copper exports. It was paid for by China at a cost of $500m - the largest single item foreign aid project they'd carried out anywhere in the world at the time - and took 75,000 workers nearly five years to build.

However since the fanfare surrounding the opening of the 18,609km-long track, the railway's financial situation has deteriorated and China recently gave a $40m interest-free loan to fund long overdue maintenance.

We had the first-class compartment to ourselves - me, my husband Derek and my daughter Rachel, who'd been living in Zambia for eight months as a volunteer on an Aids prevention campaign.

At the end of the carriage was a single toilet and next to it was a euphemistically named shower room with two basins.

Everything was coated in that unique railway grime that can be successfully combated only by thorough cleaning - something the Tazara didn't seem to have experienced since it was opened.

On the platform, our fellow passengers laden with luggage were flowing past - heading for the other 20 or so carriages.

Eventually the throng thinned out and our carriage gave a promising jolt, then another one so violent we nearly shot off our seats; the driver, clearly needing some practise tried again and this time we were catapulted backwards again the wall. If the driver didn't get the hang of things soon heavy bruising would be on the menu.

Speaking of menus... where was the restaurant car? There was supposed to be one of those and a lounge car for each class of the train. But not today. There was one restaurant car about 15 cars away and the only lounge car was already full of locals drinking beer and watching Egyptian soap operas.

Other than the locomotive just bashing us around in situ we'd not moved anywhere.

By now it was after 10pm and we decided to forgo dinner in favour of sleep. We each had been given a pillow and a fluffy blanket, mine appropriately, for Africa, in a leopard print.

Eventually the train moved off with a particularly violent jolt.

I was trying to convince myself that the wild sideways rocking would lull me to sleep if only I could forget about the Tazara's unhealthy rate of derailments, when there was a knock on the door. Owing to the almost complete lack of light Derek had had trouble locking it and now had even more difficulty opening it.

It was the guard. We dug out our tickets.

"Thank you for travelling on the Tazara," he said as he closed the door. We mused as to why he was so surprised to see us.

We lay down again. There was another bang on the door. Derek grappled with the lock again.

A young woman handed him three bars of soap and six mints on a saucer. Five minutes later, a voice outside the door asked if we wanted dinner.

"No" we chorused.

"I still need to come in," he said.

Derek sighed heavily and got out of bed again. A tall Tanzanian in railway uniform enhanced with a tie covered in smiling snowmen came in.

"I want to make sure you can unlock your door. Sometimes people get stuck."

Derek, now an expert in door opening and closing hid his impatience as the first class steward explained the mysteries of the door catch. He left, after insisting on one further trial run with the door handle.

There were two more visits before we were left in peace.

Graunching and lurching through the Tanzanian night we headed west until sometime around midnight, when the train stopped.

A station, I thought, drifting back into a fitful sleep. Six hours later we were still there.

Daylight broke over a landscape of small villages with thatched huts nestled among lush forest. We were already running 12 hours late and the train's passage through a national park said to be teeming with wildlife had taken place in total darkness.

Breakfast arrived as the Tazara passed through maize fields beyond which mountains rose out of the pre-rainy season dust haze. We had cold omelette, a sandwich, a tiny piece of watermelon and what looked suspiciously like two Kiwi cheerios.

During the day the train began to climb, twisting through forest, in and out of tunnels and across bridges suspended over deep ravines. There was no wildlife to be seen but a distressing number of mangled railway wagons down gullies or lying in twisted heaps beside the tracks.

By now we were resigned to the fact that our scheduled arrival in the Zambian town of Serenje at 5am the next day was not going to happen.

We went to sleep for our second night confident that sometime around midnight we'd cross the border into Zambia. During the night we stopped again, the lights, such as they were, went off and we stayed marooned in darkness and total silence for hours.

It was morning on Day 3. Why hadn't we been woken overnight for immigration? We had to be in Zambia by now... but no.

It was not until after 10am that we drew into the border town and immigration officials got on the train. Gloria, uniform trousers stretched tightly over a curvaceous Zambian behind, a glossy wig on her head (de rigueur for most Zambian women) breezed in and did the paper work while nibbling on the scorched almonds we'd substituted for the morning's cheerios.

"How far to Serenje from here?" Derek asked, trying not to sound desperate.

We sat, braced for the answer...

"Oh you have about 10 hours more," she said, deftly hooking another almond out of the packet before disappearing down the corridor.

We sank into a stupor as the flat, arid plains of Zambia slid past. As the sun set black specks began dancing in front of my eyes - saveloys and no sleep - I was hallucinating.

But no, we'd just gone through a burn-off - the compartment and the corridor were full of ash. We sat there, speckled with soot on top of the railway grime. And the wash room had run out of water again.

We now faced the best part of a third night on the train and as no one knew what time we'd get to Serenje we slept fitfully, terrified we'd miss our station and be swept on deeper into Zambia and for all we knew be sucked into some kind of Tazara vortex never to get off the train again.

Three alarms went off at 2am. We heaved our bags down the corridor just as the train began to slow down.

Lights appeared in on our right, Serenjethis had to be Serenje. The train stopped with its third class carriages in front of the station. We didn't begrudge those passengers an easy exit after what must have been a trip from hell but it did mean we had to climb down the side of the carriage, drop about a metre onto the ballast and then throw the bags down in the dark.

A lone taxi with a shattered windscreen and doors secured with wire came to meet us. As we drove away the train was still in the station despite no one else getting on or off.

It was now 22 hours late - what were a few more minutes?

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