You should really consider taking trains in Africa!
During my big Southern Africa trip, I took trains as much as I could. Lots of countries in the region have extensive rail systems, and traveling by train is a great, affordable (though not always comfortable) way to see the region. Trains are also the best for meeting locals and diving into different cultures.
I traveled alone when I was taking trains in Africa, and I learned a lot of valuable information along the way. Is taking trains in Africa safe? What should you expect? Well, lucky for you, I decided to write up my experiences into a guide so you can plan your own train adventures in Africa.
If you read Part 1 and Part 2 of my train adventure from Mozambique to Zimbabwe, you know that I met a wonderful Zimbabwean woman, S, who took me under her wing and taught me everything I needed to know about keeping safe while taking trains in Africa. I am really thankful for her guidance! She gave me a lot of these tips!
So let’s begin! Here are some tips for taking trains in Africa:
1. Bring lots of water!
It is so important to bring an enormous bottle of water with you. Bring one that takes two arms to carry!
Sometimes the trip lasts more than 20 hours, and vendors in the train end up running out of water. This leaves you with sugary sodas, or nothing at all.
Plus, you will need this water to brush your teeth and wash your hands and face during overnight journeys. The sinks in the bathrooms will most likely not work, and if they magically do you really don’t want that water in your mouth.
2. Bring snacks
Sometimes there were food vendors at every stop and a dining car filled with delicious local delicacies, but on the other hand sometimes I found myself on a 22 hour train ride with no access to food.
Bring snacks for yourself so you are always prepared, and it’s a good idea to bring snacks for the other people who forgot to bring their own! Bring more than you think you will need.
I always just kept a jar of peanut butter in my bag and brought an assortment of crackers and bread to hold me over. Also, the peanut butter in Southern Africa is just SO GOOD.
3. Befriend the conductor(s)
When taking trains in Africa, it is important to always introduce yourself to the conductor as soon as you get settled into your compartment or seat.
Let him or her know what compartment you are in, and have him or her show you where he or she will be staying during the trip.
When I was younger, my father (who happens to be a train engineer -can you tell why I like trains now?) always warned me to not put too much trust in a conductor, at least in the USA. So I wouldn’t recommend letting your guard completely down.
All the conductors I met during my travels were wonderful, though, so I don’t want to scare you!
4. Locks and choosing the right compartment
If you are staying in a sleeper, it is important to be absolutely sure that your compartment has working locks.
When booking your ticket, ask to be assigned to a compartment that the employee knows is in good shape. The truth is that a lot of trains in the region are in pretty bad shape and I found myself in a few first class cars filled with compartments that did not lock.
Another option is to bring your own lock and a small chain that you can use to close the doors to be absolutely sure.
Check the lock as soon as you arrive. If it is broken you should scramble to another compartment!
5. If you leave your compartment:
If you want to wander around the train or go eat in the dining car, find the conductor and have him or her lock your compartment door from the outside.
In my experience, I could usually find him or her later to reopen the door.
There were some trains (*cough cough* the train from Harare to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe) where the conductor was nowhere to be found and it was just really spooky and dark. I didn’t really befriend people to watch my stuff, and so even using the bathroom became a scary, mad dash.
I never had a problem and none of my stuff was ever stolen, but I swear I seriously considered just peeing out the window using my trusty lady pee funnel stick thing, but I figured the people in the compartment next to me wouldn’t appreciate that.
Sorry if this is too much information, but if you ever feel like it is too spooky to leave your compartment to use the bathroom because the lights aren’t working or whatever, consider just peeing in a bottle. Obviously don’t try and do this if you are sitting in 3rd class with a bunch of people…
6. Watch your windows
While taking trains in Africa, it is a good idea to partially close your windows at stops and also at night when you are sleeping.
Unless you are buying something from someone on the ground at a stop, keeping your window mostly closed will prevent theft, thrown objects, and even animals from entering into your compartment.
It also may be helpful if the girl in the compartment next door attempts to pee out the window…
Sometimes children who have nothing to do throw rocks at the trains, and on the train to Victoria Falls, some people got rude awakenings when baboons climbed into their windows to steal food first thing in the morning!
8. Be careful with open doors
When you are just hanging out in your compartment, it’s a good idea to keep your sleeping compartment’s door closed.
I know, you want to keep it open so that your compartment won’t get stuffy. But hear me out…
People, including me, love to roam around the train, and you never know who could be peeking into compartments to see if there are any valuables to snatch.
Also, if you don’t blend in well or are obviously a tourist, it is probably best if the entire train doesn’t know where you and your ipad/ fancy camera/ Iphone97/ pot of gold or whatever are sleeping. They will figure it out if you are continuously standing in the passage in front of your compartment.
Does this mean you need to just hide in your compartment? Of course not! If you are with friends or just being social, by all means keep your door open! Just be aware of passersby, especially people with wandering eyes.
Don’t open your compartment door for anyone you aren’t expecting. Some sleepers had peep holes, but others didn’t.
If the conductor has to talk to you, he or she will usually have a special knock, usually with his or her key, to let you know it is them. When you introduce yourself to the conductor, be sure to ask what their tap is.
Call out to see who is there before opening, every time.
10. The bar car…
If your train has a dining car, sometimes there is a separate portion for the bar. Sometimes the bar and restaurant car are the same thing.
If I am traveling alone, I approach the restaurant and bar cars with caution. I mentioned this in my solo female travel in Zimbabwe post, but sometimes a woman drinking alcohol (especially if she is alone) can be an invitation for disaster in these situations. I guess it depends on what part of the world you are in and local attitudes about women and alcohol.
If you are with friends, then you have nothing to worry about. If you want to get something to eat, then avoid the bar. I really enjoyed the food I ate in the dining cars while taking trains in Africa, but know if you go too late it may be filled with young, drunk men who will, if anything, just be annoying.
11. Bring a bag for your trash
There are usually no trash receptacles in the African trains. After 20+ hours you will start to accumulate wrappers or bottles if you are purchasing food.
A lot of people just threw their trash out the windows, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it!
Also you may want to keep your empty bottles for emergency toilet situations…
12. Be open!
Ok, you need to keep your door closed and be alert all the time, but that doesn’t mean you should close yourself off to meeting new and interesting people while taking trains in Africa!
I don’t want these tips to scare you. To me, meeting people is the best part of traveling, and trains are some of the best places to meet locals.
I have had incredible cultural experiences on trains all around the world- from improvised feasts in Moldova, to all out parties in Armenia and Georgia, to heartbreaking stories of war in the Balkans, to language barriers and laughs in Japan.
Treat your safety seriously, but that doesn’t mean you have to isolate yourself from everybody.
Zimbabweans I met told me time and again that they don’t understand why “tourists are so scared all the time”. Don’t be afraid!!!
I think I also need to mention that a lot, but not all, of the trains and railroads on the continent are in bad condition. Crashes and derailments are more common than in other parts of the world, and so you should keep that in mind before you choose to take the train. In my opinion, taking trains involves the same risks as taking other forms of public transportation on the continent. I have taken enough overcrowded buses driven by crazy drivers in Southern and Eastern Africa that make me wish I had taken the train!