If you have time and travel to explore and not to only get from A to B, keep on reading! Taking the train from Mbeya in South West Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam on the central coast is a beautiful adventure.
You have to book way in advance and be patient. If you have both, time and patience, as everything goes pole pole in Tanzania, I’ll let you know how to do it!
First, book your ticket way in advance. Luckily, friends of a friend came by at the lodge where I worked in Malawi and told me more about that train journey. They also were as sweet as to put me in touch with a super nice girl who lives in Mbeya. So this girl, Leo, booked a 1st class train ticket for me 3 weeks in advance.
Staying in Mbeya
Mbeya is a nice mountain town. I really enjoyed a great couchsurfing stay with one of Furaha’s projects: an orphenage, which is school, workshop and home for mentally and physically challenged kids. I try to work on being more tolerant, so staying at a Catholic place was a good challenge. I was welcomed with arms wide open and laughter. We cooked a delicious meal together, talking with our hands and feet. I felt so welcome! It was great to be part of that amazing group of people, even only for a short time. Thank you for hosting me, Furaha!
Day D, getting that ticket
On day D, Leo’s sister Afredina took care of me. We met early in the morning to go to the train station together. Dala dalas, the local busses, are a cheap way to get around town. The train station is a short rid out of town and an architectural gem.
There we waited for about 2 hours until somebody showed up at the counter, by then it was 10. The indicated opening hours are definitely only giving rough ideas. The gentleman at the counter told us in perfect English that we would have to wait. We went for chapati and chai and chatted about our lives. 1 hour later, he told us that we can come back at noon. This express train is coming from Zambia, he waited for a call from the border to confirm that my seat, which was booked 3 weeks earlier, was still available. Ahm, alright! Afredina took me on a walk through the hilly, pretty streets of Mbeya. We also got some delicious snacks fro the train, fresh from the beautiful, colorful market. What a pleasure to see so much different produce for sale!
At 12, still no word from the border. At 2, finally the good news! My seat was still available, I payed 42,700 TZS, roughly 17 USD, and held the precious ticket in hands! Afredina left to take care of her baby daughter. Without her, all that waiting would have been less fun! I love how connections are made and I am so grateful for the time I got to spend with Afre and all the stories about her life she shared with me!
While the waiting continued until 6, I met a badass young woman. Nurau is studying mechanical engineering and was on her way to Dar Es Salaam for an internship. She took the train “for the adventure”, even if the bus is faster and cheaper. Love it, dada!
When the train finally rocked up, we were delighted to discover that our cars were neighbors! That express train has been operating for one year only, given by China AID, it is brand new, has 1st class sleepers, female or male, with 4 bunk beds, blankets, pillows, fan and plugs. 2nd class sleepers have 6 bunk beds, there are normal seaters and a dining car. After snacking on pineapple, cucumber and avocado, and sharing many stories, we went to sleep. The train slowly rocking down the mountains made me pass out immediately, not minding the Peace Corps party going on in my car at all.
Slowly the mountains vanished, the temperature rose and the train picked up speed. Nurau and I had tasty lunch in the dining car. The romantic “Out Of Africa”-idea of taking the train definitely paid off! Especially when cruising through Mikumi National Park. I almost exploded with joy when I spotted thousands of white butterflies, elephants, monkeys, mpala, nyalas. From a train! Isn’t that simply incredible!?
I had mixed feelings. After 9 months of country side life on a remote tea estate in rural Malawi, I was excited about spending time in a big city. Still, suburban poverty hit me hard. Nevertheless, Dar was going to be a great city adventure after 20 hours on a train.
Would love to hear your Tanzanian travel tales!