January 22, 2015

From Eritrea to Madagascar, here are 7 of Africa’s ‘must experience’ train journeys

From Eritrea to Madagascar, here are 7 of Africa’s ‘must experience’ train journeys

Madagascar's beautiful "Micheline" train (Photo: IamNotUnique)Despite Ethiopia being the first country in SSAfrica to have a railway, a train has not left Addis Ababa in six year – that’s about to change.

Train services between Tanzania and Zambia are currently paralysed by a strike of more than 1,500 Tanzanian workers over pay.

Workers have allegedly not been paid for five months by Tanzania’s government because of a financial crisis at the railway authority. These types of hang-ups are often commonplace on the continent, and it’s to be expected.

Africa’s economic liberalisation and improved road networks have rendered the railways across much of Africa where they have not been privatised or turned into semi-independent state companies rather redundant – with few providing anything more than a link between mining sites and ports.

Because of this, most networks outside South Africa still operate with their original facilities, especially the rail lines! Most lines are low-speed, small-scale and unsuitable for modern requirements – manual signalling is still used on many networks.

In fact, many structures and some of the tracks are now more than 100 years old. In some cases things got so bad that operations ceased altogether – as was the case in Ethiopia which, despite being the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to have a railway, a train has not left Addis Ababa in six years. The costs of renovations are immense – if we were to restore all Africa’s ageing rail networks to good operating condition, it would cost about $3 billion.

That, there are plenty of African railways that are dripping in modern utility, promising a journey of comfort. There are also those that are rickety, but offer a great sense of history. Here we look at those, as well as some of Africa’s less conventional railway journeys that promise to be as memorable as they are old:

Madagascar’s French railcar

Trundle through the Malagasy rainforests on this rubber-tyred relic. La Micheline is a vintage French railcar that runs from the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, to either Andasibe in the east or Antsirabe in the south. Considered to be the last of its kind in operation – only a limited number of these experimental trains were built in France by the Michelin tyre company in the 1930s – this railcar was restored in 2010 by Madarail and is complete with unique detailing such as bamboo seats and a wooden bar.

Rovos Rail

Considered one of the most luxurious railways in the world, Rovos rail offers the epitome of opulence whilst travelling throughout Southern Africa, from South Africa to Namibia and Tanzania. The Society of International Railway Travellers has regularly named the Pride of Africa, as one of the trains is called, as one of the World’s Top 25 Trains because of its high-quality accommodation, communal spaces, service, dining and off-train sightseeing.

Mombasa Train

This train service has a lot of history, and has been the subject of several films. It runs on part of what used to be called the Kenya-Uganda Railway, although it was also known as the “Lunatic Express” – an ambitious project aimed at expanding British colonial domination in the area, running between the port of Mombasa to the western end of Uganda. Construction began in 1896,  carried out principally by 32,000 labourers (so-called “coolies”) from British India.

The railway lived up to its name as it crossed gorges, created wars with local communities, its workers survived diseases and even came up against man-eating lions. In total approximately 2,500 workers died during it’s construction, the man-eating lions of Tsavo allegedly responsible for about 140 of those deaths. The project cost was estimated at $793m in 1902, a year after the line reached the eastern shores of Lake Victoria – construction was eventually completed in 1926.

The train has not travelled to Kampala since the late 1970s, but one journey that continues to run nonetheless is the service between Nairobi and Mombasa – a must try. Today the train is a far cry from the early 1900s when it was revered as part of an exciting safari adventure. But it is by far the most unique way of travelling to the Kenyan coast from the capital and while some love it, others hate it – either way, it will be an experience.

Victoria Falls Steam Train

Established in 1996, the Victoria Falls Steam Train came about from a joint agreement between Zambia Railways and National Railways of Zimbabwe that decided to allow a private operator to run historical excursions for tourists between Victoria Falls and Livingstone. The journey, complete with unforgettable sunsets and all the creature comforts, takes visitors across the historical Victoria Falls bridge. The bridge was the brainchild of Cecil Rhodes (a great believer in the British empire and founder of Rhodesia) as part of his grand and unfulfilled Cape to Cairo railway scheme. The locomotive used today is a class 14A Garratt, designed and built by Beyer Peacock in Manchester in 1953. It is one of the few authentic steam trains still in use in Africa.

El Watania Sleeper Train

The El Watania sleeper train is not a classic rail journey but it still offers an incredible experience – whether you enjoy it or not – to those visiting Egypt. The “deluxe” sleeper train is the best way to travel between Cairo and Luxor or Aswan, a fast service with, despite it’s name, relative comfort.

The train features air-conditioned sleeping-cars with secure berth rooms and a bar-lounge car. The food served is typically basic airline-style tray-meals. Like so many in Africa, this train epitomises the feeling of being worn by time and caught between cultures. Nonetheless, there are some great benefits. It provides an excellent way of joining Upper and Lower Egypt together, without the need and added expense for internal flights and extra hotel nights and since the train travels right through the Nile Valley from Cairo in the north, down to Aswan in the south the sights you will see as you cover vast distances will also compensate for the lacking of the service.

La Gazelle

Introduced in 2012, La Gazelle is the name of a long-distance passenger train service, operated by the Congo–Ocean Railway, that runs between Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire at the Atlantic Ocean. The train is equipped with new comfortable air-conditioned carriages and a bar/restaurant. It promises to be an epic 13-hour journey as you travel from the river towns of Brazzaville through the jungles of the western Congo, past villages, wildlife, and dense forest to the ocean.

Massawa – Asmara Train

A truly vintage experience, the Eritrean Railway was constructed between 1887-1932 by Italy for the Italian Eritrea colony and connects the port of Massawa with Bishia, near the Sudanese border. Following decades of war, the railway became damaged and, having rejected international proposals, Eritrea launched a project to rehabilitate the railway system itself in May 1994.

The Massawa (sea port) – Asmara (capital) line was eventually completed in February 2003 under the supervision of retired railwaymen who had been called back to lead the reconstruction work. The stretch between Nefasit and Asmara is one of the most remarkable on the continent with over 20 tunnels and 65 bridges.

It is a unique experience for travellers who are treated to incredible mountainous scenery but also because they could be on board either an authentic 1930s vintage Mallet steam locomotive or Littorina railcar (a co-production of Mussolini and Fiat president Agnelli).

Samantha Spooner

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