The TAZARA Railway is Africa's most epic train journey. Yes, there are destinations – namely Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania – or somewhere in between. You'll get there eventually. But getting there isn't really the point. You ride the TAZARA for the sake of the riding the TAZARA. And in doing so you'll cross some of the most exotic and hard-to-reach areas of the world.
There had been interest in constructing a railroad into the heart of southern Africa since the late 19th century, mainly by the British. Little was done, however, until Tanzania became independent under Julius Nyerere in 1961 and Zambia emerged under Kenneth Kaunda in 1964. A railroad, it was thought, would help develop the agricultural areas of southwestern Tanzania and northeastern Zambia. China, then seeking some small form of hegemony in the region, got involved and provided funding and personnel. Construction of the railroad began in 1970. The work involved moving 330,000 tons of rail and 89 million cubic meters of earth and rock, and the construction of 93 stations, 320 bridges, 22 tunnels and 2,225 culverts. Virtually all building materials, equipment and significant amounts of food and medical supplies were shipped from China. The first passenger train arrived in Dar es Salaam on 24 October 1975.
The wagons are old – they're a lot of fun. Plush in some respects... the beds are spongey... roll down your window, stick your head out, do what you want to do. This is part of the charm of the TAZARA. The conductor is just as likely to ask you for a cigarette as he is to check your ticket. But, beware, it might not be like this for long. China has its eyes on the region once again, and as of 2023 there are negotiations in progress about upgrading the line. Think air-conditioned cars and express service for wherever you might want to go – much like the death of the "lunatic express" in Kenya. Great for the locals; not so fun for the traveller. So, get it while you can. The TAZARA remains, for now, the quintessential long-distance African train journey.
The train leaves when it leaves. Tickets are sold when they're sold. It's Africa. Unless you want to wait hopelessly in line at the train station, tell your hotel that you want tickets. Most likely they'll send someone to get them for you. Don't schedule big outings (safaris, etc.) around train arrival. There is a schedule, yes, but it means nothing. The train runs when it runs, at an African pace... try to enjoy that.
Buy supplies. Food is available on the train and from vendors along the way, but southern African food away from the coasts is hardly impressive. Expect a lot of ugali. Actually expect only ugali and count your blessings if you get beans. The point is, buy your own food. (And drink as well... it's a long trip)
If you're coming from Dar there is a big "USA Store" to the south of town where you can get all your western supplies, or at least faux western supplies pasted with fat American flags on them. If you're coming from Zambia, well, there's virtually nothing in Kapiri Mposhi so you'll need to stock up in Lusaka.
There's an easy way and a hard way to do the TAZARA. The easy way: buy a cabin – seriously, the whole cabin. You can then 1) sell your beds to travellers you trust and 2) protect your cabin. And then there's the hard way: you book an individual seat or bed. Don't bring your grandmother's heirlooms if you opt for the latter. It's not that big of a deal but theft really is rampant if you have non-African skin or speak with a non-African accent... you'll be a target.
Sit back and enjoy it. Listen to the savannah. The elephants calling in the night. The train often hits elephants, sadly, and this will give you a delay of several hours. But the world is yours on the TAZARA. You can do as you please, more or less. Roll the window down, breathe the air. You'll hit some villages that are just so incredibly remote. Mud huts, you'll see them off the side. Buy bananas or whatever else they're selling when you stop. Kids often really appreciate things you only see on the coasts – for example, bottles – if you have empty glass bottles (from liquor or whatever), give those over. Your journey might last three days or it might take five days – you never really know on the TAZARA – but don't let that matter. Savour the experience. Few travellers get to see these things.
The train arrives when it arrives at either Kapiri Mposhi or Dar es Salaam, and you will be booted off, unceremoniously, whether it is 3 o'clock in the afternoon or 3 o'clock in the morning. If you're unlucky enough to get the early morning boot, you'll notice the locals bedding up in the train station. How you want to deal with this is up to you. If you call ahead to a hotel you might be able to arrange for a pickup. Anyway it's all part of the TAZARA fun. Walk out of the train station and see if you can get a ride to a hotel. People are extremely kind and friendly at both ends of the line and likely you'll just end up overpaying for a ride, which given your situation is probably fair enough as supply and demand goes.
You'll be safe, physically. But if you are foreign 100% you're going to be a target for theft. If you booked shared accommodation and you have anything of value then if you're solo you'll just have to stay with your things at all times, or make friends with someone and have a watcher. If you booked a cabin for yourself, don't fall for the "Is this bed free?" scam. No, it is not free. Ever. Don't spend a lot of time in the bathroom (you probably won't want to, although you do get a good view of the train tracks). There is also rampant prostitution, particularly if you're a male foreigner, but you can make and do of that as you will. Prostitutes usually aren't combined theft scams, they're simply kindly prostitutes, but be wary regardless.