24 Hours on the Central Line Train Across Tanzania

24 Hours on the Central Line Train Across Tanzania

“Why are you taking a picture?” Ngosha asked me, his arm resting on my friend Kat's lap, as I lifted my camera to photograph her doodling an abstract pattern across his skin.

“Well,” I responded. “It's just that we don't usually get to draw on the police at home.”

“Sure?” He replied, seeming genuinely surprised. Kat just laughed and carried on with her drawing, fighting to keep her hand steady against the violent swaying of the train.

We'd met Ngosha a few minutes earlier, when he stumbled down the narrow hallway and appeared at our side, evidently curious about the two wazungu–white people–who had boarded the train. An uncommon occurrence, we would come to know.

Like most Tanzanians, he was unfailingly polite, overwhelmingly friendly, and more than happy to stick around to chat about Canada, our thoughts on Tanzania, and of course, why neither of us are married and why don't we have any kids yet.

He was with a small group of policemen doing security detail on the train. But when his friendly small talk stretched on for minutes, and then hours, we came to realize there wasn't much in the way of present danger he needed to attend to.

As the train heaved and trundled out of the station, the three of us joined the rest of its passengers in leaning against the wall with our arms hanging out of the small, rattling windows. We watched the simple two-storey buildings of the country's modest capital fade into the intermittent shanties and one-room cement houses that pepper the landscape of rural Tanzania.

A constant stream of people manoeuvred up and down the hallway, either en route to the bathroom, the dining car, or to visit their spouses in other cabins–the bunkrooms being divided by gender. We would step back into our room to let them pass or simply lean further forward against the wall, their bodies pressing against ours for the seconds it took them to get by.

The bunk room we had been assigned to vaguely resembled a WWII-era medical tent, with brown leather bunks that looked like gurneys, stacked three atop each other and held in place by removable leather straps.

We'd arrived half an hour before departure to find two women already there: an older grandma travelling alone, and a beautiful, buxom woman in her thirties carrying her baby daughter. Within minutes, we were joined by another young woman and a middle aged woman who made it clear that–despite arriving last–she would be sleeping on the bottom bunk.

Some discussion ensued as to how, exactly, one even gets to the top bunk, and it was decided that the best method would be to step onto the small metal sink below the window, then step on the middle bunk, and use the straps to pull yourself to the top.

I smiled at the younger of the women across from me, who would also be climbing to the top bunk, then looked out the window at the fading evening light and wondered how long one should wait before cracking a beer.

 Mama and her baby girl take in the view from our bunkroom. 

Mama and her baby girl take in the view from our bunkroom. 

The Central Line train was a project of the colonial government of German East Africa. Stretching 600 miles from the bustling coastal port city of Dar es Salaam to the sleepy western town of Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the train line was built between 1906 and 1941 and (as far as I can tell) has scarcely been updated since.

Our original plan had been to board the train in Dar es Salaam for the 36-hour journey across the middle of the country, but that plan fell through when we learned that a section of the track had washed away in the previous month's unprecedented rains. Our plan to ride first class (for only a few dollars more than second class) also fell through when we were informed that the first class cars were stuck in Dar, awaiting track repair to be reconnected to the rest of the train.

So we revised our plan to the only one left available: we would travel to Dar es Salaam to buy the second-class tickets in person, take an early morning bus from Dar to the central capital of Dodoma (bypassing the washed-out section of the track), and catch the Friday evening departure of the twice-weekly train from there.

A journey on the Central Line is an antidote to the stress of modern travel. While it seems like most trips consist of a nonstop rush to get from one activity to the next–from hotel to airport to taxi–the Central Line is enforced idleness.

The train rattles lazily through the barren countryside, far away from the tourist circuit of northern Tanzania's safari district or the plush seaside resorts of Zanzibar. Small villages appear on the dusty horizon and it seems to take an hour before you reach them, another before you wave farewell to the young children who have come running from the shrubs to watch you pass.

Once you board, there is next to nothing to do. Most of your energy is focused on simply figuring out how to pack your body into the confined space offered by each car. The middle bed in each bunkroom detaches from the top one and lays flat against the wall to form a shallow, uncomfortable bench with the bottom bunk. But with 6 people in a bunk room that would more comfortably fit two, this is hardly an appealing option for a 24-hour trip.

The dining car, with its four booth tables and oversized steel pots bubbling away on open flames, is comparatively cramped and insufferably hot. The booths are clad in their original brown vinyl, and the walls, lined with yellow linoleum that once signalled modernity and progress, now look comically outdated as they hang there collecting grease.

Pulling apart an oily, fried half chicken with my hands and chatting to Ngosha and the other policemen in their decades-old green fatigues, I couldn't shake the feeling that we'd travelled not only to another continent, but to another era.

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Towards the end of the first evening, the little towns surrounding Dodoma had given way to even more rural villages. Few signs of life could be seen amidst the shadows of baobabs and acacias as we rumbled through the near-complete darkness of the Tanzanian bush. Kat and I stumbled back to our bunk, stopping to pee in the squat toilet, which is literally just a hole in the floor leading to the track below. Understandably, a sign in the bathroom requested that passengers refrain from using the toilet while the train is stopped at a station.

By night, the train took on a strange, surreal liveliness. For every person that went to sleep, it seems, two more woke up. The doors of adjacent cabins opened and closed constantly, and laughter hushed and rose above the metallic clamour of the train, fuelled by the camaraderie of a long journey and the enthusiastic consumption of local gin.

Sweating in the 60cm of space between my bunk and the ceiling, I pulled the sheet over my head to try to block out the hurried footsteps of the cockroaches that crawled along the wall beside my head. Despite the heat and choking dust, our bunkmates had insisted on keeping the window shut and the door locked. “Thieves,” they explained, before shutting their eyes to be taken by a fitful sleep.

When I awoke in the morning, the train had grown still and only the elderly woman remained in our cabin. I left to look for Kat, and found her on a little bench on the tracks chatting to a group of elder Indian-Tanzanian men from a few doors down in our car.

“You slept in,” one of them said to me as I approached, gesturing for me to join them. I glanced at my watch, it was 6:30 am. Down the entire length of the train, its hundreds of passengers had spilled out onto the track to buy tea, bread, chapati, and other provisions from the many vendors that lined the tracks in the German-built station town of Tabora. I walked a few feet away to pick up my own breakfast: a small plastic cup of sugary chai and a few chapatis, then paid the vendor 1,000 Tsh and walked back to the table to join our new friends.

“Do you know when we're supposed to arrive in Kigoma?” I asked the most talkative of the bunch, a well-dressed man in his late 60s who, like most Indians in Tanzania, spoke impeccable English.

“I believe around 7 this evening,” he said. “This is our only long stop.” He uncrossed and then recrossed his legs in the other direction, shifting to face me with a gentle smile. “This train is very crappy, isn't it?”

It was hard to disagree. He laughed as we explained to him that its crappiness was exactly what made it alluring, that we'd in fact taken three days of buses just to catch it because we'd heard about how uniquely crappy this train was. And assuming we'd have very few opportunities for time travel in our lives, we didn't want to miss this one. “If you're trying to time travel, sure,” he smiled. “But if you're just trying to get somewhere like the rest of us, this is a very bad train.”

When the Germans concocted the idea for the Central Line, the aim was to connect Dar's impressive port with the bounty of the African interior. Sisal, coffee, tea, cotton, and other crops were growing in abundance in the fertile lands surrounding the great inland lakes, and the Germans wanted them for export to Europe and other markets.

The tracks were laid along an old caravan route cleared by Arab traders, who had been marching slaves and ivory to shipping ports along the coast for centuries. Over a hundred years later, the route is less insidious than its caravan days, but the train is no less vital to the economy of central and western Tanzania.

In each village we rolled into, a scene of small chaos erupted. Women bearing baskets of fruit and cassava on their heads shouted their lowest prices to the attentive ears of would-be buyers on the train. Young men frantically hawked grilled meat, baobab candy, and used gin bottles filled with honey, while little kids helped their mothers sell sweet potatoes or collected empty water bottles passed to them from the train's passengers. People jumped off the train to barter for woven baskets, colourful cloths, and oversized sisal bags of coal, throwing their wares over their shoulder and passing them back to their families on the train to be crammed into any available space.

As the train let out its sigh of farewell and began its slow chug out of the station, the vendors with the least cumbersome products chased it down the track, making last-minute deals for loaves of white bread, which were tossed up to the windows as their buyers threw balled-up wads of cash in return.

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As we pushed further west, the dusty monotony of central Tanzania transformed to the lush, rolling jungle of the lake region. Weather-beaten farmers took a break from harvesting their rice fields to watch the train pass, and young children balancing precipitously atop rusty adult's bicycles came barrelling down the dirt paths that cut through the thickets.

Kat and I sat in the dining car, futilely trying to stop the free-flow of chai out of our mugs as the train swayed and shook. When we hit one sizeable bump in the track, the overhead light above our heads split open and began depositing its collection of dead flies onto our table, like a macabre dusting of confetti.

Eventually, Lake Tanganyika's turquoise waters appeared on the distant horizon. We pulled into the station amidst an air of restrained anticipation. People did their best to pack up their things and get ready to exit while everyone next to them was trying to do the same. Shabby cardboard boxes full of live chickens were pulled out from under bunks, and rolled up mattresses and thermoses were passed out the windows to the outstretched arms of family members eagerly waiting on the track below.

We said goodbye to our new friends, with well-wishes in either direction for their return home and our onward journey, then picked up our small bags and headed into town to find a shower.

Sweatin' the Swahili Coast.

Sweatin' the Swahili Coast.