Tazara Express

Mar 5, 2016 | 2016 Articles, Maria Ruiz, Travel

by Maria Ruiz

Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.

“What do you mean? We have to go home.” I thought I had misunderstood the man behind the desk and the custom office.

We had popped over to Tanzania for the weekend, expecting to return to our apartment in Nairobi on Monday. Now the officials at the border were telling us that we would either have to return home, go to Somalia, or to Zambia before we could return for another six months. The first two choices were out, so we thought, ‘Why not?’ Zambia and the Victoria Falls it is.

In Dar es Salaam we found out that the best way to travel down the eastern side of Tanzania to Zambia was on the Tazara Express train. I love train travel and can just sit and watch the world pass outside of the window. A person can stretch out or get up and walk around. At night, the gentle swaying of the cars and the soft clack-clack insures a sound night’s sleep.

We headed to the station to buy our tickets. The line was full of men, all hurrying to be somewhere else. It looked like we were the only tourists queuing up for the next day’s trip.

Ted was at the window listening to the clerk and turned to me. “We can’t travel together. We must go in separate cars.”

“What? What kind of nonsense is that? “

“It’s owned by Muslims, and those are the rules. Unless you want to buy four tickets and get a whole cabin for ourselves.”

“Don’t be silly. Okay, get whatever we need.” I agreed and Ted paid the man.

Clutching our tickets, Ted said “He told me the dining car won’t be working because of a dispute over payment. We have to buy our own food.”


Food Vendors at Train Stop

That wouldn’t have been a problem if we had our camping stuff, but we didn’t. No insulated bag, no thermos, nothing for taking food for a couple of days.

We went to the local Subway (yeah, in Dar es Salaam) and ordered a couple, then on to a pizza place and ordered two to go. Stopping at the corner shop, we bought several soft drinks and packets of cookies and some fruit. Armed with a large bag filled with food, we boarded the train and looked for our car.

The division of classes is stark on the train. We were in the sleeper cars at the end of the train with mini cabins, four to a room. In the front of the train sat the economy cars, long hard benches on each side of a narrow aisle. Ours were plush by comparison. On every car there is a western toilet and a local one. The local one is a hole in the floor while the western one has a sit down toilet. I thought that the local people must like their own so the train put one in each car. Wrong, they all lined up outside the western one, and so using the conveniences could take up to an hour.

My cabin had three ladies from Germany and Ted’s had three business men returning home from a trip. One of the ladies explained that she was on her honeymoon. At the last minute, her new husband had to work, so her best friends came along with her on the trip.

Watching the landscape pass by outside our car and being able to share with them made the trip a lot of fun. We passed through an animal reserve and watched as giraffes ran alongside the train, while on the other side, a herd of gazelles raced by. In the distance, we watched an elephant family mosey along.


Baobob Trees from Train

The train would stop for seemingly no reason, and women would run from the little villages with meager amounts of food. They offered trays with a few dark and bruised bananas, a couple of onions, a handful of skinny carrots, and sometimes a beet or two. At one stop we watched as someone in the economy car bought a sack of onions. One of the ladies in another car explained that the person would get off soon and take the sack to his village to be split and sold by his family.

I always carried a little immersion coil and instant coffee with me and found that I could plug it in at the now empty dining car. I enjoyed a hot cup of liquid whenever I wanted. Ted and I shared our sandwiches for lunch and then for dinner. At one point, the train stopped where a woman was frying flat bread and rolling it around something. I bought one to try it out and immediately spit out whatever it was. It tasted like she had fried it in car oil. Horrible.


Train stop food

Night time passed being gently rocked in our cabins and the next day the trip continued. At every stop, the throng of women and children would run out and offer what they had. We did see some men working around the villages but not at selling.

Somewhere, out in the barren land, the train came to a stop. This was where we crossed the border with Zambia and here the immigration men boarded. We had read where the cost of the visa was forty dollars each and we had our hundred dollar bill waiting. Unfortunately the cost had gone up and the visa was one hundred each. No ATM’s, no banks, no village, nothing surrounded the train. The German ladies quickly offered to loan us the needed funds. Then we found out that the officials would only accept U.S. money with big heads, not the little ones that most of us carried. Scrambling between other passengers finally had everyone with their visa in one hand and a handful of little headed presidents on U.S. money in the other. Later the banks would exchange them, not at full value but discounted. Most everyone decided to keep the little heads until they could get full value.

The rest of our food was eaten, and we were in Zambia. The train came to a stop, but not at Lusaka, the capital. This was in New Kapiri M’poshi. four hours from Lusaka by bus. From there we would have to ride another eight hours to Livingston where Victoria Falls is located, on the border with Zimbabwe.


Zambian women

At this point, we had been traveling for forty-eight hours and were pretty wobbly on our feet. We all felt like drunken sailors.

We had, at one time, planned to ride the train from Nairobi to Capetown when we left to continue our travels. Now I realized, that that would not have been possible. The train lines simply stop in the northern region of Zambia and don’t start up again until South Africa.

It took us two more days to reach our destination and more adventures, including a boat trip on the Zambezi River as well as getting drenched at the falls. I’ll cover them in another story.

Maria Ruiz was born in Santa Barbara, California; her family had been there since the Spaniards first converted the Indians & created small towns. She graduated from the University of San Diego State in 1972 & taught for 8 years before starting her own business. After retiring she began a ten-year odyssey to visit and live in 57 countries around the world. She just recently relocated to California. Her book, I’ll be in the Fourth Grade Forever, can be ordered on Smashwords & Amazon. Her blog can be found at mariaruizauthor.com.


  1. Maria: You are much braver than I am, traveling like that, never knowing what the next day brings. I want my own bed with foam rubber pad, thank you very much. But I can only imagine the adventures you had, brave little you. And loads of material to write about… even better!!!

  2. Maria i agree with Elaine. I have to have SOME creature comforts!! Love, love, love reading about tour traveling adventures!!

  3. Great adventure story, Maria. What courage you had, wandering through Africa like that. Did you ever get food poisoning or sick from the water? I love your matter-of-fact style in telling these stories. I look forward to more.

  4. Absolutely fascinating, Maria. I’m so happy you share your travel tales.

  5. I always enjoy your stories and think how brave you were to go to all these places. Taking these trips with you are all I need!



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