The Lunatic Express – A train from Capetown to Cairo

The Lunatic Express - Cape to Cariro

I’ts been over 40 years since I spent any time in Africa, apart from an assignment in Uganda, it is a place I long to return to. The Lunatic Express a train journey from Capetown to Cairo has gone firmly on my huge To Do List. This article in the New York Times only touches on the start of the journey but has me longing for that unique sky and smell that is Africa

Story by Ted Conover and images by Jason Larkin

JUST A FEW HOURS INTO our train ride, we know the passengers in the cabins on either side of ours: On one side are two young Canadians on a monthslong, round-the-world backpacking trip. On the other are four middle-aged women on a trading expedition from their towns in Zambia to Dar es Salaam, where they’ll buy supplies for their shops, including clothes and spare parts for cars. They’re not waiting to get to Dar to get started: At every whistle-stop town along the way, vendors try to sell things through the window — often produce at prices far below those in the Tanzanian metropolis. So the women are stocking up on items they can sell for a profit when we arrive in a day or two: tomatoes, oranges, passion fruit, boiled peanuts and, just this morning, roasted caterpillars.

Much of this trading takes place in the corridor outside our cabins. Chilesi, one of the Zambian women, tells me what’s good, and what to pay. Yesterday: “That papaya. Five hundred shillings,” or about 25 cents. Today: “No, don’t buy the caterpillars. Just try mine.” She has bought a plastic bag containing three or four pounds of the roasted amber morsels. I pop one in my mouth. It’s lightly salted. “Mm,” I say, and make a face. She and her travelmates laugh.

Later, something will blow through an open window and lodge in Chilesi’s eye. An hour passes and it’s still there, so the call goes out for help: One of the Canadians has contact-lens solution, and we have eye drops. And later yet, when Chilesi’s better, the ladies will gather in the corridor in a happy mood and sing as the train rumbles through the Tanzanian night. As they harmonize, we realize it’s church music.

THERE’S SOMETHING about trains. They’re laid out in a way that lets you move around — if you get tired of your seat, your car or your companions, alternatives are close at hand. What’s more, unlike an airplane, trains often tell a story of national ambition, and when you’re on one, you’re a part of that story. Cross the American West on Amtrak and it’s hard not to think of the transcontinental railroad, binding the coasts together in 1869. Ride the Trans-Siberian Railway, which traverses seven time zones, and you get a sense of both the majesty of Russia and the sheer vastness of the earth. Those who rode the Orient Express, from Paris to Istanbul, could feel a part of elegant old Europe, with a homicidal frisson of Agatha Christie lurking in the next car. When I was 22, I spent four months hopping freight trains in the American West, traveling with hobos. I was conducting ethnographic research for my undergraduate thesis — which eventually became the subject of my first book — but I was also living out a romantic chapter of American history, because in the DNA of freight trains resides Jack London, country music and the mythos of the West.


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Comments 3

  1. There IS ….. something about trains! Let me know if you’re looking for a travelling companion. I dream of doing interesting, long train trips, especially in ones with old-world style like the one featured in this article.

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