Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The railway

Less than two days to departure, I can’t wait – partly to do with the fact that it has started freezing and snowing in The Netherlands.

As I wrote earlier, we had to adjust our program, which means that Djibouti – for which I have always had this inexplicable desire to visit - will now not be our first stop anymore, in fact it will not be a stop at all. Which also means that we will not take the only railway in the Horn of Africa anymore, the train from Addis Ababa to Djibouti.

I like traveling by train. So I did some research, before we left, and I don’t want to withhold this from you. It was the French who built the 780 km railway from tiny Djibouti all the way to Addis Ababa, a project that took 20 years to be completed, finally in 1918. However, since a few years the train doesn’t travel to Addis Ababa anymore , because of repairs to the tracks, and apparently now stops at Dire Dawa, halfway.

First challenge is getting a ticket. Some sources claim they can only be bought at the day of departure, others say you can also buy the ticket a day in advance. The ticket office at the station opens at 7 am, amidst total chaos, and is sold out in 30 minutes. If you have been lucky enough to get a ticket, you are in for the experience of a lifetime. Once on board, it is totally unpredictable how long you will stay there. The trip from Djibouti to Dire Dawa, some 300 km, can take 10 hours, but more likely twice as much, with long stops in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason – smuggling is the most likely; or to beat up the kids that have jumped on the train, and kick them off again. Every Western traveler agrees that first class – the local version of first class, that is! - is the only way you can possibly survive this experience. Unfortunately, the use of first class carriages has been discontinued. Trains leave around midday, some say every day, others say every other day. Whatever, you need to be there early, to ensure you have a seat: obviously, many more tickets than seats will have been sold. Or perhaps the train leaves at 6 am, as another source mentions, but that doesn’t explain the 7 am opening of the ticket office. In any case, any posted departure time is likely to be wrong, delays are the rule. The train comes without AC, but with the filthiest toilets you have ever encountered. You don’t want to use the toilets anyhow, because someone else may grab your seat, or steal your luggage, whilst you are gone. There is no food on board, but apparently soft drinks and beer are available – invariably warm, there is no fridge either. At the stations in between the train gets invaded by vendors, who do sell some food. With the vendors comes a range of other people, too, either curious onlookers, or thieves who are, once again, after your luggage. There are armed guards on the train, but after a while they are asleep, or drunk, or stoned – don’t count on them for protection.

The trip is long, uncomfortable, hot, dirty: in short, it has all the ingredients for an experience of a lifetime.

Latest is, that the train has stopped operating all together, due to frequent derailments and deterioration of the tracks between Dire Dawa and Djibouti, as well. In any case, we now won’t take it. Another experience down the drain…


  1. "Another experience down the drain…"... or should it be "down the train"? :)

    Your posts are instructive as ever - I never knew about the existence of Djibouti (not even sure I can spell the name correctly). And "instructive" is not the only attribute of your witty writings, so keep it coming.
    Whatever you guys are doing out there, just don't give yourselves reasons to write about kidnapping at the first person.

    Good luck.

  2. Thanks, Adrian, and we will be careful, don't you worry. Only if you don't see any updates for two weeks, then... well, then we are probably back home already, time flies!