The unexpected pleasure of putting bicycles on trains in Tanzania

Eventually Tanzania will upgrade its trains, following in the footsteps of the recent upgrade in Kenya. For the traveller, some of the interest will inevitably be lost. A train waits for the other to pass, Central Tanzania.

We pulled ourselves, our bicycles and our luggage aboard two Tanzanian trains, from Mpanda to Tabora, Tabora to Dodoma. The whole process was a pleasure (900 words). 

In China, Ilona was forced to put her bicycle on a separate train, one specifically for freight. It arrived in Urumqi a few days after her passenger train had. This is better than never arriving, but does give rise to uncomfortable thoughts about whether one’s bicycle journey will be allowed to continue or will be held up due to damage or loss. At the best of times, proceedings are befuddled in China if one doesn’t speak or read any Mandarin.

In Tanzania, it’s easier to get a bicycle aboard, and the process illuminates a little of the ordinary in this East African nation.

Ticket in hand, one must find the freight office and the freight car. Even if bicycles were allowed as passenger baggage, perseverance might not be quite enough to wheel them down the narrow aisles of the sleeping cars, or between throngs of the sitting, the standing and their bags in seat-only class. I bumped walls and grazed thighs during any walking inside the train, seeking the toilet or the restaurant car. And my rump is narrower than handlebars—if only slightly.

Utilitarian steel bicycles are common in Tanzania, as is moving around the country by train for work or other reasons. I was nevertheless surprised to see one being unloaded the day our journey began at Mpanda Station. In quick succession a motorbike, a disassembled wooden bed frame and heavy boxes followed, requiring the several men to carry them out into the sunlight. After that, bicycles seemed to be an easy variety of cargo to deal with.

And who deals with them? That depends on their owner’s disposition.

It’s possible to pay the fixed bicycle fee inside the freight office—a few dollars equivalence and a large, official-looking receipt issued—and simply leave them there. At some point someone will load them. Probably.

Or, if particular or curious about the process like us, hovering and butting in is also fine, and met with a sort of pleasant indifference. This is Tanzania, where stepping onto the tracks to nearly touch the locomotive as it warms up elicits little reaction from the staff and law enforcement nearby. Still hanging onto the doorway when the train begins to lurch forward? Just squeeze in through the glass-less window.

So one can be involved, and Evan jumped in when the opportunity arose. He found the bicycles a comfortable spot in the car and locked them together, painstakingly threading the cable lock through all four wheels in their dark corner. Beyond this our influence ended, as all the other cargo gradually buried the bicycles. At our destination they were extracted in the moonlight from beneath a jumble of sugarcane lengths, heavy enough to need help moving aside.

Bikes loaded successfully, Evan and I sit on our panniers and people watch.

Spending time around the freight area is good for people watching. It’s difficult for us to ask others why they’re waiting with our sparse Swahili, so the only strategy is to just wait and see. A woman in a clingy cobalt dress to her ankles scooped out a breast while walking to the freight carriage, baby in hand. After it was sated she handed me the baby. It was too young to focus its eyes, instead lolling them around as infants do. After a long wait her large bag had been extracted, she left (with baby). There wasn’t a clear end to the unloading or start of the loading for the next trip, our trip to Tabora.

Tending to the waiting are those who serve, the porters and the hawkers. An opportunistic young man with homemade ice cream chilled in a styrofoam box was popular. He carefully scooped out just enough to satisfy for the price, pink ice cream on those tasteless beige cones. At all times people milled between the freight office and the carriage—the area was almost crowded, but not quite. Many people wanted to know if all was well with us, the two foreigners. We sat on the concrete under a wedge of shade until hours later we boarded and found our berths. By that time we’d wolfed down cold soda, cookies, rice and beans overflowing from our camp bowls, but no ice cream.

A train waiting at Tabora Station, Central Tanzania. Viewed from a cafe prepared to sell omelette, a popular street food.

The previous day, we’d visited the station master’s office to ask how to bring bicycles aboard. In a dilapidated room decorated with shunting diagrams and Manchester United posters, the Station Master told us to show up early the following day to sort it out. “The price won’t be much,” he said, and the bicycles will “be safe here” while they waited to be loaded, wherever ‘here’ was meant to be.

And it was just that easy.



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