Into Africa: The Tanzania-Zambia Train to Nowhere

In which the author, exclusively for CounterPunch, goes by train but also by ferry, bicycle, plane, and rental car from Nairobi, Kenya, to Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa. This is Part IV. To read part I, click here.

The Tazara express train waylaid in Mlimba, Tanzania—for almost three days.

The Tanzania to Zambia Express: Already Five Hours Late

I could have lingered longer in Dar es Salaam. The old downtown is pleasant and surprisingly free of traffic, although the suburbs have the same congestion as Nairobi. At least Dar has installed some dedicated bus lanes. But I needed to pick up my train ticket to Zambia around noontime, from Juni, one of the railroad clerks. I was told her reservations window would be closing two hours before the train departed for Zambia at 15:50, for the two-day journey.

As with the Chinese-built train stations in Kenya, the Tazara terminal is closer to the airport than downtown, but still has all the hallmarks of Chinese construction, another monument from the Great Leap Forward School of Architecture. It could well be a station in Sichuan or Tsingtao, assuming that the Chinese would allow something this rundown to remain open for business.

I found Juni behind a grilled window in the main hall, which, even hours before the train was to leave, was a beehive of passengers hauling around their luggage (much of it packed in canvas sacks, a bit the way Santa Claus lugs his stuff) and of kids running around the grand waiting room.

Once I had my ticket in hand (car 1202, compartment 3, berth 2), Juni explained to me that the train was now scheduled to leave at 20:00, nine hours from now. It had been late in arriving from Kapiri Mposhi, the terminal in Zambia. (Tazara stands for The Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority, which alas only operates four trains a week.)

I thought about going into Dar es Salaam, but was nervous that Tanzanian Railways—not exactly Deutsche Bahn—might decide to move up the departure time and that I would be idling in a café or on a public beach when the Mukuba Express rolled away. The next train did not leave for four days.

The Reading Room of the Tazara Station

By 15:00 the main concourse of the terminal was full of Africans, who occupied every chair or were sprawled in the corners. First class passengers—I was one—were huddled into a lounge off the main hall in what looked like a Greyhound waiting room, except none of the chairs came with those arm-loaded televisions.

From vendors I could buy cookies and bottles of water, but the station (now with more than a thousand people in it) had no food. For entertainment, I was back to my Kindle, which became the lifeline of what I was starting to call my “reading safari.”

Having finished the al-Qaeda history and Out of Africa, I moved on to Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, his 2002 account of his travels—mostly on buses and in minivans—from Cairo to Cape Town. But he did ride the Tazara rails, at least from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya in eastern Tanzania, about which he wrote:

The Tanzanians, under the leadership of the muddled Maoist Julius Nyerere, soon had a line south from Dar es Salaam into Zambia, entirely the work of Mao-sponsored Chinese railwaymen, chanting the Great Helmsman’s Thoughts as they hammered spikes and fastened rails. This was 1967, at the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which Tanzania too embraced in a superficial and self-destructive way.

I have been reading Theroux’s books since Christmas 1975, when my father gave me The Great Railway Bazaar, an account of riding trains from London to the Far East, and back on the Trans-Siberian. Theroux went east through the Balkans, Turkey, Iran, India, and Vietnam, and along the way, he writes: “I decided that travel was flight and pursuit in equal parts.” Elsewhere he notes that it is “better to go first class than to arrive.”

I have writer friends who consider Theroux insufferable, someone who goes abroad in search of monsters. (“At my lowest point, when things were at their most desperate and uncomfortable, I always found myself in the company of Australians, who were like a reminder that I’d touched bottom.”) But I find his cynicism a relief, I like and admire his writing, and I applaud anyone, well into their sixties and seventies, who bestirs himself to ride night trains across Turkmenistan or Namibia.

Nor, in my view, is he required to sing the praises of the places he visits. All I expect from him is the truth, which is what he delivers. Many of his impressions match my own. For example, he writes about African cities:

Urban life is nasty all over the world, but it is nastiest in Africa—better a year in Tabora [a town in central Tanzania] than a day in Nairobi. None of the African cities I had so far seen, from Cairo southward, seemed fit for human habitation, though there was never a shortage of foreigners to sing the praises of these snake pits—how you could use mobile phones, and send faxes, and log on to the Internet, and buy pizzas, and call home—naming the very things I wanted to avoid.

I had almost nine hours to kill in the Dar es Salaam railroad station, and for most of that time I had the pleasure of reading Dark Star Safari. Occasionally I would wander in the stationmaster’s office and ask questions about the departure time (it remained 20:00) or I would walk along the platforms and peer into the few local trains that were departing for the Dar suburbs. Overall, Tanzania is a bus, not a train culture, and the station was ghostly.

I bought bottles of water and a package of Oreos (health food by local standards). Mostly I just read, happy to follow Theroux down the eastern spine of Africa. He spends the most time in Uganda and Malawi, where he lived and worked in the 1960s. As I read I marked passages, and here are some that I highlighted on my Kindle:

—“It is almost impossible to exaggerate the fatness of corrupt African politicians.”

—“Even when I lived and worked in Africa, I regarded safari people as fantasists, heading into the tamest bush in zebra striped minibuses, with hampers of gourmet food.”

—“‘The economy is improving—it’s back to where it was in 1970,’ an economist told me.”

—“I was in no hurry—I wasn’t due anywhere—yet whenever I arrived in an African city I wanted to leave.”

—“Tanzania had reached a dead end on the socialist path, and as an economic failure, both in industry and agriculture, the country was advertising itself as a superior collection of game parks, inviting foreigners to take pictures of its endangered species and to spend money.”

—“That’s what happened in Africa: things fell apart.”

Yes, he can be strident and dismissive, but anyone who can turn an eight-hour wait in a Dar es Salaam train station into an afternoon at the British Museum Reading Room earns my respect.

The Night Train Across Tanzania: An Equatorial Coolness

The train finally departed at 20:30, although not before the husband of one of the first-class passengers drove his SUV onto the platform and parked it near to her sleeping car. No one seemed to care.

In fact, one of the remarkable things about the Mukuba Express was that it ran without a conductor. There was menial staff all over the train—people serving drinks and meals, or cleaning the cars—but there was no conductor with a whistle, hat, or pocket watch. I am sure the speeches of Nyerere could explain why. Maybe such direction suggests imperial domination?

Because Tazara is, effectively, a Chinese train, first class meant four to a compartment, as it does on the Beijing to Xian overnight train. My bunk mates were a couple from the Congo and a cheerful Tanzanian named Haley, although he spent most of his time elsewhere on the train, as if working a second job.

The porter made life difficult for the Congolese couple because they had not purchased tickets for a family compartment, and on Chinese trains the sexes don’t mix. But after a long discussion, the subject was closed, so I am assuming that a glass ceiling was broken with small, unmarked bills.

I gave the couple my lower bunk, and tucked myself into an upper berth, which was designed with the Chinese in mind, thus narrow and cramped. An overhead fan rattled through the night, and we had the windows open, despite a security warning that thieves could climb in at station stops. I found this African night to be cool and fresh, much to my relief. New York in July is hotter and more humid that equatorial Africa in October.

I slept well in my lair until 7:00 when I got up and, to my delight, discovered a cold-water shower at one end of the sleeping car.  I washed and shaved, thinking: “I am in Africa, on a train that works well, and in two days I shall be in Zambia, close to the Congolese border.” The railroad god was in his heaven, and all was right with the world.

Breakfast in the dining car—it had the look of a fifties diner—was a greasy egg folded in half that was served with white tea, Wonder Bread, and a hot dog that I suspect could have survived a nuclear winter. At least there was hot food on the train.

During breakfast, the train stopped in a countryside town called Mlimba, which was little more than a platform next to a hillside. I was following our progress on one of my many maps and from a page in Cook’s Overseas Timetable, which indicated that we were 496 kilometers from Dar es Salaam. I did the math and figured that in the last twelve hours the “express” had only averaged 24.8 m.p.h. Still, it was moving in the right direction.

Little did I know, while gagging on the milky English tea, that the Mukuba Express would not leave Mlimba, which is off the grid, for almost three days.

Wasting Away in Mlimba: Stranded for Two Days in Tanzania

The first indication that something was amiss was an announcement that the train was delayed (something obvious by this point). It would be the only announcement for the next two days; the rest of the communication came through rumor and hearsay that passed along the platform as if it were a prison yard.

Nor throughout the delay was anyone in authority present with the train. There were some security types in the last car of first class, although I suspect most of them were off-duty soldiers who were heading home. But neither in the Mlimba station nor on the train was any person in charge. In terms of leadership, the Mukuba Express was a ghost train.

I knew we were in for a long delay when I noticed that the engine was being uncoupled from the train, and taken away from the station. From the steps of the station, the engineless train—a long line of about sixteen cars—looked like a landlocked Titanic, although in this case one without a band playing “Nearer my God to Thee.”

Pretty soon, everyone on the train moved onto the platform, which took on the quality of a remote African village, although one without USAID or Africare.

Americans would have gone crazy, demanding information or refunds, but to the Africans on board, well, it was just another day in Africa. Everyone was well mannered; even the many traveling babies, wrapped against their mothers, were great.

For the first day, the passengers had no idea about the nature of the problem. There were rumors of a wreck ahead on the tracks. No one knew for sure. It was like one of those delays on the New York City subway—“We got holding signals”—that never ends.

I bought water, Fanta, hard-boiled eggs, and bananas from the many vendors that descended upon the shipwreck. At times in the club car, at least until my battery died, I worked on my computer. Other times I would read in the shade on the platform, wishing that I was traveling with a folding beach chair.

The sun was warm, but it wasn’t stifling and occasionally there was a cool breeze that passed through the train, although after a Korean couple had their backpacks (along with their passports) stolen from their compartment, a laager mentality embraced the first class carriages.

Windows were locked, rumors were exchanged, and compartments were watched, although anyone from Mlimba village, as best I could tell, was welcome to wander through the train, which despite emotive tripwires was open to the world.

I read most of Alexandra Fuller’s African memoirs, Dont Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, which is about her African childhood during the Rhodesian civil war, during which both the country and her family—while loving—come apart at the seams. (She writes: “After Olivia dies, Mum and Dads joyful careless embrace of life is sucked away, like water swirling down a drain. The joy is gone. The love has trickled out.”)

Fuller is an admirable woman and engaging storyteller. In the memoir, she writes: “What I can’t know about Africa as a child (because I have no memory of any other place) is her smell; hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass.”

By contrast some spots along the Mlimba platform smelled like sour milk.

All Aboard the Fuck All Express

When it got dark, I decided my best option was to crawl into my upper bunk and to sleep for eleven hours. Unlike the first night, the second was hot and stifling, as, with the engine gone, the cars had no electricity and the ceiling fans were idle. Plus the train crew had locked up the bathrooms and the shower.

The next morning, wanting to clean up, I retreated to the nearby woods and there took a shower from a water bottle in which I punched holes in the bottom. I shaved from a plastic bowl and ate breakfast in the diner—the same greasy egg and hot dog. The charm of the first morning was beginning to wear thin.

At breakfast, however, I made friends with an Irish woman, Mary, who was traveling with a group of young men straight out of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. As she explained me to me, they “had issues.” Most were covered head-to-toe with tattoos and they consumed a prodigious amount of beer, at least when they weren’t smoking pot on the platform.

They had come to Africa to do manual labor on an orphanage near Lake Malawi. At first glance they appeared fairly sinister—on the lam from an IRA cell—but I befriended them during the long delay, as we passed many hours together on the platform, doing very little.

I asked them about Belfast, the politics of Northern Ireland, the British army, their mates, footie, their local pubs, and they were amused when I suggested that the train be renamed the Fuck All Express.

I admired their leader Mary, who for more than sixteen years has lived in Tanzania and has supported a number of orphanages. And best of all, she had cell service on her smartphone, and could tell me what was going on up the tracks. She reported that a laden copper train, from the Congo to the coast, had wrecked in a horseshoe curve, wiping out the tracks and scattering the copper for more than half a mile. It was on the local news.

By mid-morning, Mary had pictures on her phone of the train wreck. Her photos showed how a fully loaded copper train overturned in the curve, with rails washed down a hillside. She was convinced that our train would never get through the blocked pass, and she had ordered several vans, at a cost of $600, to drive out to Mlimba and retrieve the lads. “They’re getting restless,” she whispered to me, “and that’s not good.”

I went with Mary to the office of the “station manager,” but he had left his post and gone ahead to inspect the wreck (as there was no cell phone coverage at the scene of the accident). In his place was an office full of “railway officials” who shrugged when we asked about the status of the delay.

When I showed the pictures on Mary’s phone to my compartment mate, Patrick, from the Congo (he works in the copper business in Katanga), he said there was no way they could clear the wreck in less than four days. He suggested that we should explore other options—a taxi or a bus—for getting out of Dodge.

Patrick had the idea to hire a taxi in Mlimba (the village was across the tracks), fill it with train passengers, and ride it to the nearest bus station, about three hours away.

Because I was traveling with a complete set of Tanzanian roadmaps and railroad timetables, we huddled over them, as if planning a breakout.

My fear was that our train would be canceled or returned to Dar es Salaam, which would have ended my African adventure. I would be back where I had started in Dar es Salaam. All my plans and hotel reservations in Zambia and Zimbabwe would be lost. I saw my three months of planning, and lifetime of African dreaming, going up in the charcoal smoke that wafted over the Mlimba platform.

Back in Dar, I could perhaps have flown to from Tanzania to Zambia, but I wasn’t hopeful of a ticket for less than $500, and Mary had told me the air service was spotty, with the next flight in three days.

Plus after 30 hours on the Mlimba platform, I was losing some admiration for the efficacy of the Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority. Still no announcements had been made. No police were on hand to guard the train. The only thing we had in hand were rumors, which every six hours indicated that the train would be moving in another six hours.

The Great Taxi Escape

Patrick and I climbed through a freight train in Mlimba yards and walked into the windswept town of Mlimba—we looked like “strangers” in a TV Western—where the taxi fleet consisted of about four soccer-mom minivans from the 1990s, all of which had baling wire around their bumpers.

One driver, Mahmud (he was from Zanzibar), said that for $100 he would drive us to Mafinga, about three hours away. There he said we could catch “a big bus” to Mbeya, the largest city in western Tanzania. (The phrase “big bus” in Africa is one of endearment, affection, and respect.)

Mahmud’s vehicle was a Japanese-made minivan, at least twenty years old. He said that the day before he had squeezed ten train passengers into the rear seats, which normally held four or five (grade-school soccer players?).

It was a seller’s market, and we took the offer. I didn’t think I needed another twenty-hours on the Fuck All Express—with luggage being stolen and Patrick telling me: “Wait until the nearby gangs hear that an express train is stuck on the tracks.” (In turn my other friends on the train asked, “Do you really want to go anywhere with people from the Congo?” although I came to like and trust Patrick.)

At least if I made it to Mbeya, I would be in position to catch a bus to Zambia and resume my African journey. Otherwise, I might well have called it quits in Dar es Salaam and made my fortune there as a taxi driver.

Patrick, his wife, and I collected our bags from the compartment. We offered space in the getaway car to some of our train friends, but they temporized, looked at their phones (for religious inspiration?), and spoke wistfully about trying to get a refund from Tazara. So the last taxi to Shanghai—well, Mafinga—left without them.

I sat in the front seat with my briefcase on my lap. Patrick and his wife were in back. Using a water bottle, Mahmud filled the car radiator (never a good sign), and we took off in the direction of an antenna on the top of the nearby mountain, on what felt like a smuggler’s run.

For more than hour on dirt trails and winding roads, we bobbed and weaved through the mountains and potholes until we entered a small village nestled under the crest of a hill. A man seemed to be warning us of something ahead, but Mahmud, now a driver on a mission, scoffed until we turned a corner and found a truck on its side, completely blocking the road. We were shit out of luck, part II.

Half the village and every small boy in the district had swarmed around the wreck, either to carry away fallen loot (I assume) or clear the road. I was reminded of a passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which Marlow, heading up the river toward Kurtz, comes across a rail car near the river. He describes “an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal.” That was our truck.

Like the fallen copper train, the truck had capsized in a narrow pass. There was no getting around it. The idea of the hour was to gather all the menfolk of the village and, with a rope, drag the fallen beast to an opening beside the road. I thought the truck looked awfully big to respond to a game of tug-of-war, especially as some of the tuggers were small boys frolicking around the wreck.

Needless to say, the truck did not budge under the rope, and we faced the prospect of driving back down the mountain to the stalled train, when another car approached the wrecked truck from the far, downhill side of the accident.

The driver was a man also named Patrick. He was heading to Mlimba to rescue his wife who was herself stuck on the train. Seeing us—a vision of cash-flow paradise—he decided to abandon his wife and take us to the Mbeya bus, in exchange for the second half of the fee. (Investment bankers make the same calculation when they depart their Vineyard vacations to close another deal.)

In his 1995 sedan, we bumped along dirt roads for another two hours to Mafinga, where we took more money out of a cash machine (my role in the enterprise) and flagged down a bus heading to Mbeya, a city in western Tanzania, about three hours away.

Don’t Try This at Home

It was a Congolese bus, heading to Lubumbashi in the Katanga region. The bus business in Africa isn’t exactly over-regulated, and the driver was cruising this route in search of passengers. Colorfully painted with African street scenes, the bus had the air of the 1980s, although bus years, in Africa, strike me as similar to those of dogs.

I took the window seat I was offered; mercifully no one wanted to sit next to me. For the next several hours, as it was now dark, I dozed and watched the in-bus movie, Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio, a thriller about gemstones and terrorists in Nigeria. There was no sound but the formulaic dialogue was easy to imagine. (Nor is Leo exactly Sir Laurence Olivier.)

We arrived in Mbeya around 23:00. Patrick suggested that we stay on the Congolese bus to the Zambian border at Tunduma, another two hours, where he said it would be easy to find a through bus to Ndola, where all of us were headed. I was game, as I didn’t want to leave my cocoon, not at least until the movie was finished. (Leo was knocking off diamond thugs with Rambo-esque ease.)

Ndola (northern Zambia) was where I had booked a hotel and where the Dag Hammarskjöld memorial is located. Under the old plan, the Tazara train was to have arrived near there on Sunday afternoon. Now it was Sunday night, and I had yet to leave Tanzania.

When we got to Tunduma at 1:00, we collected our bags, with the idea of walking to a nearby guest house for short night of rest and to clean up.  But a man in the bus parking lot—it looked like Osama’s house, less all the porn, in Zero Dark Thirty—warned us against walking anywhere.

Patrick said wisely: “I think we have to sleep on the bus,” which was already in night mode, with the two drivers sound asleep on a mattress in the front and with a handful of passengers snoring in the back.

I climbed back on the bus, curled up in my seat with my feet across the aisle, and slept perfectly until 5:45. We got a tuk-tuk to the Sacse High Class Hotel (it’s a relative expression), where for $10 the hotelier agreed to let us wash, sleep for an hour, and eat breakfast in what he called their Internet café (albeit one with neither wi-fi nor coffee.)

Despite mosquitos in the room the size of baby eagles, the bed was heavenly, at least for my forty-five-minute disco nap. On the downside, the shower was broken and hot water was non-existent. Still, I was happy with the High Class, even if it didn’t give out any Marriott Rewards points.

I showered with cold water from a bucket, which was on a par with train washing in the woods, and rinsed my backpack and some clothes, which were covered with dust from the mountainous dirt roads. For breakfast I ordered an omelet. At least this time the Wonder Bread was toasted and came with jam.

By 8:30 Patrick, his wife (now starting to fade into unhappiness from the hard journey), and I were passing through the Tunduma frontier, a modern immigration center between Tanzania and Zambia, in what is otherwise a raucous strip of hawkers, minivans, and buses. I paid the obligatory $50 for an entry visa—the going price in East Africa, much the way all museums cost $15 for foreigners.

Patrick had done well to guide us through the border, although his wife, prone to pouting, now had the look of a hostage of the Symbionese Liberation Army. But Patrick was wrong in thinking Tunduma would be a goldmine of buses all headed to Ndola.

The “bus terminal” (okay, a parking lot) had two buses heading for Ndola, but they were leaving in the afternoon. Under a new Zambian law, both would drive until 21:00 and then pull into a laager for the night, as the Congolese bus had circled its wagons in Tunduma. It would be another twenty-four hours until either bus arrived in Ndola.

Zambia has had too many bus wrecks, and it had passed this new law against night driving, without any compassion for all the drivers that have to talk on their cell phones, while driving one-handed.

Back Onboard the Fuck All Express

While dickering with the bus ticket brokers in the OK Bus Corral—think of the pit of the New York Stock Exchange, but throw in some fine dust—a friend of ours from the Fuck All Express called to say that the train had moved through the wreckage and was approaching Mbeya. In five hours, it would be at our border town, Nakonde.

With this bulletin from the frontier, I decided to bail on bus world (despite its excellent film festivals) and return to the train. What was another five-hour wait for this express?

I had given up hope for Ndola but relished the idea of finally seeing the Zambian landscape while being alone in a first class compartment.

In our walk across the border, we had acquired the local equivalent of an Indian scout, a fix-it man by the name of Ibrahim. He went with us everywhere, negotiated for us at the bank to change money, and guided us around the many bus parking lots and ticket market emporiums.

After I said good-bye to Patrick and his wife, Ibrahim walked me down some back lanes to the Nakonde railroad station, which was next to a teaming market and slum but still something of an oasis. The station platform was empty, as in theory the train was due two days ago.

Ibrahim wanted me to check into a guest house—the commissions were better—but instead I made up my mind to spend the day, yet again waiting for the train, in the shade of a tree next to the platform.

From the station’s “first-class” lounge (think of the decor of an interrogation center), I found a plastic chair and dragged it outside. Nearby was a police station, so I never felt uneasy. Plus every school kid in the district came by to inspect the oddity under the tree.

From the market I had cold bottles of water, hard-boiled eggs, and cookies, and I spent the day lost in my books—as happy a day as I had on the trip.

I finished Alexandra Fuller’s sad memoir—in it she writes, of her baby sister’s accidental drowning: “No one ever came right out and said in the broad light of day that I was responsible for Olivia’s death and that Olivia’s death made Mum go from being a fun drunk to a crazy, sad drunk and so I am also responsible for Mum’s madness. No one ever came right out and said it in words and with pointing fingers. They didn’t have to.” And I made a start on a political history of Zimbabwe by journalist Peter Godwin.

According to a ticket agent at the station, the Fuck All was due in at 15:00, but it arrived at 19:20. During the wait, I read, listened (on a podcast) to Lewis Lapham interview Peter Brooks about his excellent new book, Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: The Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year, and made friends with the beleaguered Nakonde station manager, who seemed to love his job, despite having to handle trains that were sometimes three days late.

As for the wreck, he chalked it up to fate on a tight curve in the mountains, not the over-demand for Congolese coltan, so necessary in the manufacture of cell phones.

At 19:20, when I climbed back on the train, I was shocked to find it empty. Before there were at least twelve coaches packed with families and cardboard boxes. But they were all gone, as were nearly all the passengers in the two first-class cars.

The porter greeted me as someone back from the dead, although it was the train that had the look of having ferried souls to the underworld.

I ate dinner alone in the dining car (the menu had not changed; it was still road-kill chicken and rice) and went to bed early, exhausted by my taxi relay over the mountains and short night wedged into the Congolese bus—but perversely I was happy with my shore excursion from the cruise ship in hell.

Across Zambia On an Empty Train

I woke up with the sun glowing on the long horizon. In the foreground, there was scrubby bush, broken occasionally by small encampments of native villages—circular houses made of brick and thatched roofs, prairie chapels of a kind.

Although it was my fifth day on the train, this stretch of Zambia was the first African landscape that I had seen. I passed the day working on my computer, reading books on my Kindle, taking a shower, and staring at my maps and timetable, while trying to work out when we might arrive in Kapiri. (The porter in the sleeping car thought maybe in another twelve hours.)

In the remote station of Kasama, our train pulled alongside Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa, a long line of luxury cars being pulled by two freshly painted diesel engines.

Rovos Rail is a private rail company, similar to the Orient Express in Europe, that is owned and operated by Mr. Rohan Vos, who in 1989 took over a few carriages and a dilapidated station in Pretoria. He has since turned them into Africa’s finest rail company, with trains that ply the tracks from South Africa to Namibia, Botswana, and all the way up to Dar es Salaam.

I had met Vos at several travel fairs in Europe and admired him for creating a thriving private rail company, at a time when few countries, especially in Africa, show any interest in trains. I knew this particular train was on a journey from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam (presumably without a two-day wait on the platform in Mlimba).

As we glided past The Pride of Africa, I looked through the windows at what appeared to be a dream: there were upholstered compartments with double beds, dining cars set with fine china and crystal, what looked like a movie or a speaker’s car (with chairs set up in rows), and several well-stocked, elegant bars, where I know Rovos serves some of the finest wines in the world. At the back of the train, there was an open observation deck, where a small group of passengers was clustered with their cameras.

From my spartan Tazara compartment I felt a little like Nick Carraway, the great Gatsby’s neighbor and the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel’s narrator, who, in looking across his lawn toward Long Island Sound, reflects: “The one on my right [Gatsby’s house] was a colossal affair by any standard … My own house was an eyesore, but it was a small eyesore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month.”

Up next: Ndola, Zambia—who killed Dag Hammarskjöld. To read part III, please click here.







Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.