7 Years ago I traveled on The Mukuba Express Train which originates in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and ends in Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia. The 1,860 kilometer epic train journey traverses through Game Parks, forests, mountains, and scores of small villages with waving kids. However, because of a commitment to visit Ndi Moyo Hospice in Salina, Malawi, I debarked in Mbeya, Tanzania after covering just 840 kilometers of the 1,860 kilometer train journey.
On January 1 of this year, after enjoying Christmas at Victoria Falls, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, Mika and I started out from Livingstone, Zambia to begin a journey that would eventually take us on the Mukuba Express the other direction, starting in Kapiri Mposhi, 200 kilometers north of Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia.
One does not undertake a journey through Africa such as this without learning the importance of patience. My wife Mika is from Japan where a 5 minute delay will earn you deep heartfelt apologies from Japanese travel officials. Traveling through Africa, and most certainly on The Mukuba Express, is as different as day and night, or traveling in the Sahara Desert versus the high Himalayas around Mt. Everest.
Our journey began in Livingstone, Zambia where we had the good fortune to view One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, Victoria Falls, on the Zambezi River. On the last day of 2023 we also walked in Mosi Oa Tunya National Park walking alongside a large 3 ton bull white rhino, as well as a few giraffes and impalas.
Early on New Years Day, we packed up our backpacks and left the cozy Fawlty Towers Backpackers Inn for the nearby bus station where we caught the 8:30 Shalom Bus to Lusaka arriving 8 hours later. The Lusaka bus station was typical, with a guy following us around offering advice, kids hawking fruit, peanuts, and other goods. Lots of shouting and noise. Eventually we were able to find a bus company, Likili, that had a convenient departure time in the morning at 9:00. So carrying our packs we walked 20 minutes passing lots of people and lots of garbage strewn along the streets making it to our hotel, The Lusaka Protea, a Marriott property, where we basked in the large comfy bed with the AC on strong to neutralize the Zambian humidity. The following morning we took a 4 hour bus from Lusaka to Kapiri arriving just after 1PM.
Unfortunately, the bus passed through Kapiri as I thought that Kapiri was the last stop. So I shouted out to the driver that we needed to get out, which we did a few kilometers north of town. We found an old beat up taxi and hopped in but the engine didn’t even try to start. So we got out and another equally beat up cab was available and the engine roared right up to our delight. Arriving at the train station we walked up the steps and saw a white sign taped to a window which read, “Train delayed until 10 AM tomorrow due to unforeseen circumstances.” So we were starting out with an 18 hour delay. I looked at Mika laughing, saying, ” In Japan the conductors would be so shamed of that delay they would be commiting Hari Kari.” We later learned it was a derailment.
Leaving the station there were many locals waiting and I am sure most if not all would be waiting patiently in their chairs and on the hard floor through the night. So I did not feel upset or bad. Actually very lucky when our driver took us back into Kapiri Mposhi town to the adequate, clean Shikatasha Lodge which had a simple small room for $11.70. After getting settled we headed out to the bar next door and sat outside enjoying some $.50 beers while chatting with the locals as they played poker and pool. For dinner there was a local restaurant next door with 2 tables outside and 2 inside serving a half grilled chicken with beans and a hefty portion of Shima (ground maize(corn). We enjoyed eating like the locals taking a portion of shima with our right hand and dipping it into the beans or wrapping it around a piece of chicken before placing it into our mouths. Tasty and inexpensive at $3.10. Back in our tiny room for the evening, we were able to take a decent hot shower and get a good night’s sleep in the comfortable bed. While I read Mika was constantly laughing watching an Indian soap opera. Only two channels available at Shikatasha.
The following morning we had a hot strong black tea before walking back to the train station at 7:00. I had made reservations with Lydia by Whats App and sure enough she was there and had our reservation and thankfully had been able to upgrade us from second class to first class. Only problem was Lydia said I didn’t have enough money. I only had 1,500 Kwatcha and the fare for two was 1,768 Kwatcha (US$68). Oh well. So I walked around the station looking for someone to exchange US$20 into Kwatcha but to no avail. Then I wandered out into the street with the same results. So, I negotiated an 80 Kwatcha round trip cab ride into town to an ATM. Upon returning, paid Lydia her Kwatcha and received two tickets that looked like carnival ride tickets. Between the main waiting area and the train was a VIP Lounge which evidently was for first class passengers. Inside they had some sofas and chairs so we happily sat down. Not what I would call first class. It felt more like visiting someone living in a college house rental and there were no refreshments of any kind. Of course for $34, I wasn’t expecting much.
Got to talking with 2 young Kiwis (New Zealanders) who were taking the train just for the hell of it. Michael and James were riding the train as an adventure. Then returning home. Mika said something about Dar es Salaam and I realized I probably overpaid because we were unsure if we were going to go all the way to Dar Es Salaam. Our reservations were to Mbeya just over half way to Dar. So I tracked down Lydia, eventually entering the ticket office via the staff door as the lines were long. Lydia apologized for the mistake, and later came to the VIP Lounge bringing our new tickets and refund just before departure. So Kapiri to Mbeya was $19.08. The original first class tickets Kapiri to Dar were $34.26.
Turns out I was in a cabin with the Kiwis; James and Michael and a Tanzanian Indian dude, a heavy drinker. The Kiwis told me they saw him finish off a bottle of vodka while waiting for the train. Mika was next door with 2 sweet young Zambian students going to Nairobi for a year of school. The train does not allow mixed sexes in the cabins hence Mika and I were in different compartments. Thankfully Lydia put us in 2 adjacent cabins.
The conductor came by to check our tickets every couple of hours. On one of his visits I asked about the electricity. He replied, “It doesn’t work”.
“What about the water in the faucets?”
“Doesn’t work. You wash yourself with water in large buckets in the toilets.” Which are Indian style squat toilets.
There were fans in the dining and bar cars on the ceiling but I never saw those working. They did bring a roll of toilet paper for the 4 of us to share to as well as a piece of candy each. First class all the way.
After getting settled, with the train leaving at 10:06, we talked with our roommates before heading down to the bar car, where I bought the first round of drinks; 3 cokes a fanta and 2 big beers for $3.79. Our group sat down in the dining car at 1 waiting to eat but they didn’t start taking orders until 2:30. We had a decent lunch of a scrawny but tasty chicken leg and thigh with a few greens and a big blob of shima for $1.94. We followed that up with a sausage and chips(french fries) for $1.55. We had alot of fun with the Kiwis who were turning out to be excellent easy going travel mates.
After eating, we walked through the long train spanning over 20 cars or “carriages” for the Kiwis. 2nd Class was 6 beds, 3 on each side. 3rd class had foam seats and some school bus like bench seats. Back in the bar, we sat chatting when Chet, the Tanzanian Indian joined us. He had switched from vodka to Serengeti Beer and also had two small bottles of local whiskey. The conductor came by to tell Chet that he had forgotten his bag at the station. Chet took this news with indifference and took another swig of whiskey with a Serengeti chaser.
Around 7PM Mika and I returned to our Rooms and I read for 1 ½ hour before eventually shutting down for a sleep at 9PM. I nodded off quickly but at some point rain started coming through the window, so I simply sat up and laid down again with my head by the door and my feet by the window. The window was very difficult to open and close so it was easier to just change positions. The Kiwis returned at midnight waking me up briefly. Sometime later the train was stopped and we were woken by a very heavy jolting, jerking which seemed to go on for quite a while. I don’t know for how long but it was a while.
Arose at 5:30 with dawn and a bit of natural light creeping in through the window. I read until 7 when we walked down for breakfast with Mika. The train had come to a stop just before 7 and did not resume running until just after 9:30. It was becoming apparent that the train delays were going to make this a much longer trip than expected. It was no problem for Mika and I as I had luckily decided better not to make a reservation for our next hotel given the 18 hour initial delay.
Our breakfast was another decent meal with an omelet, hot dog, a few green beans, and two slices of buttered bread along with a large mug of piping hot strong tea for $1.16. By 9 with the long delay we were starting to get a bit slap happy realizing that this train was plagued with problems and was getting more and more behind schedule. Amazingly though, the local people didn’t seem to be phased at all so it was a good lesson in patience especially for me. This is where I coined the Mukuba Express, “The Twilight Zone Train”.
With the initial 18 hour delay, if the train was on schedule we should have arrived in Mbeya at 8:30 this morning but by 9:30 we weren’t even close and I was now figuring about a 5 PM arrival. We sat and had some good laughs about the twilight zone train.
Around 11:30 back in the car it was starting to smell a bit especially with Chet who reeked of BO and whiskey. Though I am sure we were all a bit ripe at this point. I sat reading when it started to rain so I moved away from the window to the center of my bed berth. Strangely, the rain was still falling on my head and shoulders. Wait a second….It also smells like whiskey and sure enough I turned around and there was brown liquid, whiskey leaking from Chet’s berth above me.
The train seemed to run well for an hour but then we would stop in a village and not start up for another hour. By 1PM it was apparent that the only certainty on the Mubuka Express was that it would be very late and no one had a clue when it would arrive in Dar. Mika and I hoped that we would make it to Mbeya before dark.
Well we of course did not make it by nighttime. So we went to the dining car and had another chicken dinner and a few bottles of warm Serengeti. The Kiwis were encouraging us to continue on with the adventure to Dar es Salaam and I was warming up to the idea. The Kiwis and I had gotten into rhythm with the train. I told them that I was in if we could convince Mika. So I walked over to Mika’s compartment and asked her to join us.
I hesitantly broached the subject with Mika. Her mouth opened and she looked from me to the Kiwi’s with a combined look of disbelief, shock, and horror. She needed no words but her look said, “Are you f….ng crazy.”
Just then a guy came in the door who had a big 7 on his back and a smaller 7 on the front of his jacket. So of course I called him “7” for the next couple of hours. He seemed very friendly and offered us a good exchange rate with a 10% charge, in fact better than the 20% commission I was expecting. 7 finished his business with me and the Kiwis’s in a few minutes, but then he got into a nasty exchange with Chet up above who seemed to want a much better deal than was warranted. The Kiwi’s and I were getting frustrated with Chet, and were siding with 7 trying to get Chet to make the exchange, but they couldn’t agree to terms.
After our late lunch we made it to the border around 4:30PM with a long stop on the Zambia side and then a longer one on the Tanzanian side. The Tanzanian border had a large room with two desks with chairs. One had holes where it appeared someone had kicked it in. There were no officials around. Eventually 2 guys came and took our $50 each. The Kiwi’s hadn’t brought any US$ and crazy as it sounds, you could not pay with Tanzanian Shillings. You had to pay with $US. So Mike took off on the back of a motorcycle and made it back in 20 minutes and fortunately had me to exchange his Shillings into US$. 7 was there exchanging funds and then Chet got into another row with a different money changer while 7 tried to referee. The new guy was pissed off now.
The Kiwi’s, Mika and I and Chet were the last to get our Visas and the border official did not like Chet’s documents. He claimed to us he was Tanzanian. They went back and forth and the official made a call to someone and eventually let Chet go though not happily.
Fortunately, Mbeya was just another 120 kilometers from the border and we thought we would arrive before too long. I have no idea why but the next few hours the train was rocking a bit violently and my arms were smacking into the walls as we walked through the train. It actually reminded me of being at sea during a violent storm.
Of course there were more delays and we did not roll into Mbeya until 11PM.
We walked out into the dark with just a few others getting off, and some guy steered us around the large train station, where we were surprised to see 150 people waiting. Strangely I felt like I had sea legs and felt unsettled on the solid ground. Out front there was a single tuk tuk with our name on it and we were settled in at the comfy Mbeya Hotel Thursday night at 11:22. Mika had a huge smile on her face while I longed to be back with the Kiwi’s on the Twilight Zone Train.
The next morning I heard from the New Zealanders, “We were at that bloody Mbeya station for 3 hours.” Maybe Mika had the right idea about getting off.
I ran the numbers of our train ride. It should have arrived in Mbeya at 8:30AM, but did not arrive until 11PM, a 14 1/2 hour delay on top of the 18 hour initial delay. Our arrival time was 32 1/2 hours later than scheduled. We had been on the train for 37 hours.
What about the Kiwi’s. They had another 29 hours to go from Mbeya, arriving in Dar es Salaam at 4:25 Saturday morning. That means they arrived 84 hours after their scheduled departure time. They were supposed to arrive Thursday at 12:10PM so were late 40 hours and 16 minutes.
After reading this you may have no interest but if you find yourself in Zambia or Tanzania and you feel like an adventure, you will have one I am sure. Though after experiencing The Mubuka Express and realizing that the train back to Zambia from Dar es Salaam, was going to be probably 24 hours late in starting, only do so if time is of no issue.
If you are considering the Mubuka Express, I found this site, The Man in Seat 61 to be very helpful, and it was there I found Lydia’s Whats App Number to contact and make a reservation.