All roads – and, perhaps more to the point, all railway lines – through central Tanzania lead to Tabora, a substantial town of around 130,000 people, and the administrative centre of the eponymous region. Located in the heart of the hot, dusty central plateau, Tabora is a friendly and relaxed place, and the spacious layout of mango-shaded avenues goes some way to blunting the seasonally torrid climate. It can also stake claim to being the oldest urban settlement in the interior, though with the exception of Livingstone’s Tembe at nearby Kwihara, there’s little evidence of this today. Travellers chugging directly between the coast and Lake Tanganyika or Lake Victoria will see little of Tabora other than the rather chaotic railway station to the northeast of the town centre, which is no great loss. But those who travel more extensively around western Tanzania are likely to end up in Tabora at some point, be it to overnight between long drives, to change buses or to switch between trains heading to or from Kigoma, Mwanza or Mpanda.


GETTING THERE AND AWAY Tabora is where the railway line from Dar es Salaam splits into a (currently non-operational) northern branch heading to Mwanza and a western branch heading to Kigoma. It is also the terminal of the railway line south to Mpanda. The trains that run between Dar es Salaam and Kigoma or Mwanza generally stop in Tabora for at least two hours for shunting, but there is no need for passengers to disembark. Travellers heading between Mwanza and Kigoma, however, will need to change trains at Tabora, as will travellers heading between Mpanda and Kigoma, Mwanza or Dar es Salaam. Under normal circumstances, changing trains will involve spending a full day in Tabora, and possibly an overnight stay. Frustratingly, it is not possible to book a train ticket out of Tabora from anywhere else, which means that travellers intending to change trains will have to pitch up and hope for the best. Fortunately, the first- and second-class carriages between Tabora and Mpanda are seldom fully booked, while on the main Central Railway line at least one carriage in each class is normally set aside for passengers embarking at Tabora, so obtaining a ticket on the day is normally straightforward. If you have to spend a full day in Tabora between trains, and want somewhere to leave luggage and have a shower, your best bet is to take one of the cheaper rooms at the nearby Aposele Inn & Guesthouse [444 D3] (see Where to stay).

At the time of writing the scheduled thrice-weekly services on the Central Line have been reduced to two services a week, while trains between Tabora & Mwanza g-have been discontinued. Travellers crossing between Kigoma and Mwanza via Tabora can expect trains from either port to arrive in Tabora about 12–14 hours after departure, in other words at around breakfast time on Friday and Monday. Trains to Kigoma or Mwanza typically pass through Tabora around 26 hours after they leave Dar es Salaam, in other words shortly after sunset on Wednesday and Saturday. On the Mpanda sideline, trains leave from Tabora on Monday and Friday at 21.00 and from Mpanda on Tuesday and Saturday at 13.00, with the trip taking anything from 10 to 15 hours. Delays are increasingly frequent on the main Central Railway, which can be frustrating when waiting for trains heading to Kigoma or Mwanza, as a long delay en route from Dar es Salaam will leave you hanging around the station into the wee hours of the morning. The railway station workers normally have a pretty good idea of how far the train is running behind schedule, so keep checking the current situation with them.

The roads between Tabora and Dodoma, Kigoma, Mbeya and Mpanda are in poor shape, and can only realistically be covered in a good 4×4 vehicle. Buses do cover all of these roads, but they are generally very slow and overcrowded, and cannot be recommended, especially when trains also cover most of these routes. The two exceptions are: the road between Tabora and Mwanza, which is covered four times daily by the Muhammad Trans bus service, taking around seven hours and costing Tsh14,000, and the road between Tabora and Mbeya, which is covered by a twice-weekly bus service that takes at least 20 hours. Anybody driving between Tabora and Kigoma should be aware that several incidents of banditry have been reported in the vicinity of Uvinza, so do ask around before heading out this way.

Given that Tabora is of interest to travellers primarily as a rail junction, few will specifically want to fly to the town. Should you be in that minority, however, Precision Air runs a scheduled daily flight between Dar es Salaam and Kigoma, stopping at Tabora. The airport is around 5km south of the centre of town.

Tabora sprawls between the bus and railway stations, which lie a good 2km apart, both some distance from all but a couple of accommodation options. Charter taxis can easily be found outside either of the public transport terminals, and generally charge around Tsh2,000 for a lift within the town centre.

GETTING AROUND Plenty of charter taxis can be found around the bus station [444 A2], and also at the railway station [444 D3] whenever trains arrive.



A Orion Tabora Hotel [444 C3] (35 rooms)  Ø 026 260 4369. Formerly the Railway Hotel but thoroughly renovated under new private management, this was originally built as a colonial hunting lodge, & it retains some period character with its wide shady balconies & whitewashed exterior. Conveniently located near the railway station, it’s far & away the best place to stay, & there’s an excellent indoor/outdoor restaurant as well as a lively terrace bar & disco.


A Hotel Wilca [444 B1](10 rooms) Ø 026 260 5397. This long-serving & very pleasant budget hotel lies 500m east of the town centre on Boma Rd. The en-suite rooms with hot water, net & fan are centred on a green courtyard. Meals at the garden bar & restaurant cost around Tsh4,000 & are a very decent second to the Orion. Facilities include pool table, table tennis & satellite TV. The hotel isn’t signposted but can be recognised by its white outer wall about 50m past Africa House.

A New Kiwosso Hotel [444 B2]Ø 026 260 0515. Located in a quiet dusty back street just off Manyara St south of Africa House, this amenable hotel has decent no-frills rooms with fan, net & en-suite. A friendly bar & restaurant is attached.

A Fama Hotel [444 B2]Ø 026 260 4657. Similar in standard to Aposele Inn, but older & more expensive, this is a clean, friendly & reasonably central guesthouse whose en-suite rooms have fan & net.

A Golden Eagle Hotel [444 A3](13 rooms) Ø 026 260 4623; e This centrally located hotel may not look much from the outside, but is in fact a pleasant surprise. Recently spruced up, it is a convenient option for travellers arriving or departing by bus. Facilities include spacious common room with pool table & dartboard as well as a good Indian restaurant & sunny rooftop terrace bar. Plans were afoot for a mini-theatre & internet café.


A Aposele Inn & Guesthouse [444 D3]Ø 026 260 4510. This popular guesthouse, though looking a little worn, is still one of the best cheapies, & the closest to the railway station. The large en-suite rooms come with two three-quarter beds, fan, net & cold shower. The garden bar serves the usual chilled drinks, plus snacks such as chipsi mayai & mishkaki kebabs. Excellent value.

A Moravian Church Hostel [444 A1](10 rooms)  Ø 026 260 4710. This long-serving hostel is easily the best shoestring option in Tabora. It’s behind the bus station, but not madly convenient for travellers arriving & leaving by train.



V Africa House [444 B2]This quiet little bar on Boma Rd comes to life on Wed & Sat nights with live music & the odd disco. Grilled meats & other dishes are available.

X Golden Eagle [444 A3]Attached to the eponymous hotel, this airy restaurant serves tasty Indian dishes including vegetarian meals & meat curries in the Tsh4,000–5,000 range. There’s a good outdoor bar & pool table.

X Hotel Wilca [444 B1] The restaurant here serves good stews & curries for around Tsh3,500.

X Mayor’s Hotel & Ice Cream [444 A2] This long-standing favourite, behind the NBC bank, serves a wide range of Indian snacks, light meals such as grilled chicken & chips, & excellent ice cream & pineapple juice. There’s a 2nd outlet on Lumumba St opposite the TMP Bookshop.

X Orion Tabora Hotel [444 C3] ø b/fast, lunch & dinner daily. The Orion has by far the best restaurant, serving a mix of Asian & African dishes for around Tsh5,000–7,000. You can eat indoors or on the large shaded terrace bar. On w/ends there is live music on the terrace as well as a regular weekly disco.

X Tropicano [444 B3]Similar to Mayor’s but seedier, Tropicano dishes up cheap curries & other local meals as well as snacks, juice & tea.


Books TMP Bookshop [444 B2] (Ø 026 260 5097; e; ø 08.30–17.00 Mon–Fri, 08.30–13.00 Sat) stocks a good selection of local maps and English language books including Swahili/English dictionaries and second-hand guidebooks.


Foreign exchange The central National Bank of Commerce [444 A2]  (ø 08.30–15.00 Mon–Fri, 08.30–12.30 Sat) exchanges cash and travellers’ cheques at the usual rates and has an ATM (it takes Visa only). There is no private foreign exchange bureau.

Internet The Post Office Internet Café on Jamhuri Street [444 B3] charges Tsh1,000 per hour for access, but the connection is slow and unpredictable. The Orion Tabora Hotel [444 C3] is more reliable but out of the way and very expensive. The Golden Eagle [444 A3] plans to open an internet café that will most likely be available to casual visitors.

LIVINGSTONE’S TEMBE [444 D6]Preserved as a museum (ø 08.00–17.00 daily; entrance Tsh2,000 pp) by the Department of Antiquities, the tembe – Arab house – where Livingstone resided during his sojourn in Tabora in 1872 is about 6km from the town centre at the otherwise defunct settlement of Kwihara. Despite the Livingstone association, the house was in fact the residence of one of the Arabs resident at Tabora in the mid to late 19th century. An information sheet at the museum indicates that the tembe belonged to the notorious slave trader Tippu Tip. The contemporary journals of Stanley and Livingstone, as well as other external sources, state that it actually belonged to Said bin Salim, the local governor appointed by the Sultan of Zanzibar. Originally, the tembe at Kwihara – which means ‘in the open’ in the Nyamwezi tongue – must have served as an out-of-town governor’s residence, but after Mirambo captured Tabora in 1871 Kwihara became the main local Arab settlement in the area for a brief period.

Livingstone’s Tembeis a typical Arab merchant’s house of the period, an attractive red clay quadrangle of large rooms built around a central courtyard and set beneath tall shady mango trees, said to date to before Livingstone’s time. In 1871, Henry Stanley resided for a full three months in the house – which he described as a ‘most comfortable place’ – while waiting for the war between the Arabs and King Mirambo to subside, so that he could head towards Lake Tanganyika to seek the lost Doctor Livingstone. Stanley’s travel companion, John William Shaw, stayed with him at Kwihara, and set off alongside him towards Lake Tanganyika, but was forced to turn back through illness. Shaw died at Kwihara and is buried in a marked grave in a field next to the tembe.

Following their famous meeting at Ujiji in November 1871, Stanley and Livingstone returned to Kwihara and the tembe on 18 February 1872. A month later, Stanley set back off to the coast, promising to send Livingstone a caravan of fresh supplies as soon as he arrived. Livingstone spent 189 days ‘wearily waiting’ at Said bin Salim’s residence before the provisions finally arrived, and he was free to embark upon what would prove to be his final, fatal expedition south to Lake Bangweulu. In August 1873, Cameron, Dillon and Murphy, members of a Royal Geographic Society expedition sent out to assist Livingstone, arrived at Kwihara in poor health and spent several months recuperating at the tembe. Before the ailing trio was fully recovered, however, Livingstone’s porters Chuma and Sisi arrived at Kwihara carrying their leader’s sun-dried remains. Today, the main rooms in the front of the house exhibit several old documents (including contemporary newspaper reports) and fading photographs relating to Livingstone and his discovery by Stanley.

To get to the restored tembe from Tabora, follow Boma Road out of town past the traffic circle in front of the Old Boma. About 50m past this traffic circle, follow the right fork, signposted for the Huima Training and Conference Centre. You pass the Wasichama Secondary School after about 1km, then after another 2km you must turn right along a side road marked with a fading blue signpost reading ‘Livingstone’s Tembe’. The tembe lies about 2km along this road in a grove of mango trees. The road is flat enough that you could easily walk out over about an hour, bearing in mind that the area gets very hot in the middle of the day. A taxi from the town centre will charge Tsh6,000–10,000 for the round trip. Alternatively, occasional dala-dala to the small village of Kipalapala can drop you at the turn-off 2km from the tembe.

(c) Philip Briggs 2012


3 thoughts on “Tabora

  1. philipbriggs says:

    The Land of the Moon

    Beyond Ugogo undulated the Land of the Moon, or Unyamwezi, inhabited by a turbulent and combative race, who are as ready to work for those who can afford to pay as they are ready to fight those they consider unduly aggressive. Towards the middle of this land, we came to a colony of Arab settlers and traders. Some of these had built excellent and spacious houses of sun-dried brick, and cultivated extensive gardens. The Arabs located here were great travellers. Every region round about the colony had been diligently searched by them for ivory. If Livingstone was anywhere within reach, some of these people ought surely to have known.

    From the autobiography of Henry Stanley, describing his arrival in Tabora, where he would be stalled for three months in 1871 before continuing to Ujiji and his legendary meeting with Livingstone.

    The Nyamwezi are Tanzania’s second most numerous tribe after the Sukuma, whose territory borders theirs to the north. Prior to the early 19th century, however, Nyamwezi–Sukuma was a more or less homogenous cultural entity, comprised of at least 200 autonomous ntemi chieftaincies. This decentralised society would later polarise into two distinct (and occasionally antagonistic) political units, which evidently referred to each other as Usukuma and Utakama – simply meaning the lands to the north and to the south. When and how Utakama became Unyamwezi – and its Nyamwezi inhabitants acquired the lunar association – goes unrecorded. But, since these names stem from the Swahili word mwezi (moon), an external origin seems likely. Coincidence or not, the Arab colony in Unyamwezi was, at least in the eyes of a succession of Victorian explorers, the last ‘civilised’ port of call en route to the terra incognito in which it was assumed lay the fabled source of the Nile: Ptolemy’s mysterious Mountains of the Moon.

    The foundation of the Arab colony, referred to by Stanley, on the site of present-day Tabora circa 1800 was almost certainly the catalyst for the rift between Usukuma and Unyamwezi. Described by Speke as ‘the great central slave and ivory merchants’ depot‘, this settlement lay where the three most important caravan routes out of Bagamoyo diverged, one leading to Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika, another to Lake Victoria, and the third to the south of Lake Tanganyika. The Arabs, and the European explorers, generally referred to the Arab colony as Kazeh, and most modern sources follow suit, implying that Tabora is a newer name, but as early as 1861 Speke unambiguously wrote of Kazeh as ‘the name of a well in the village of Tbora’.

    The local ntemi chiefs became increasingly involved in the ivory and slave trade at Tabora. Initially, their role was peripheral, providing porters and fresh produce to the caravans that rolled in from the coast, but eventually they would come to control the trade at its source, launching slave raids into neighbouring territories and exchanging the captives for imported goods, most significantly guns and ammunition. The ensuing local power struggle led to the collapse of the ntemi chiefdoms and the formation of a more centralised local polity – essentially Unyamwezi – under chief Fundi Kira, who ensured Arab support by allowing free trade within his territory. By contrast, Usukuma, which was further removed from the main caravan routes, still adhered to the ntemi system of old, and its villages became one of the prime targets of Nyamwezi slave raids.

    In 1858, when Burton and Speke rested up at Tabora before marching westward to Lake Tanganyika, the town supported about 25 Arab merchants, including a governor appointed by the Sultan of Zanzibar. Every merchant had his own tembe, a house built with local material but to palatial proportions, centred on a large courtyard, with separate quarters for his slaves and his harem. Speke returned to Tabora in 1861, and wrote that: ‘Instead of the Arabs appearing merchants, as they did formerly, they looked more like great farmers, with huge stalls of cattle attached to their houses.’ Speke’s arrival at Tabora in 1861 coincided with a period of great instability. King Manua Sera, the successor of Fundi Kira, had imposed a tax on all goods entering his territory, and the Arabs responded by driving him from Tabora and installing a puppet king on his throne. Manua Sera blockaded the main caravan routes and launched a series of successful attacks on pursuant Arab troops, and although he never regained the throne, he was still leading the Arabs a merry dance when Speke left Tabora.

    This civil war paved the way for the emergence of King Mirambo, a Nyamwezi of noble birth who grew up among Ngoni refugees from Zululand, and adopted their brutally effective military tactics to capture the Uyowa chiefdom in 1860. Over the next decade, Mirambo’s army conquered one chiefdom after the next, installing a puppet leader of local nobility, to build an empire extending to Sumbwa in the north, Sukuma in the east, Nyaturu in the south and Tongwe in the west. Mirambo was able to demand large taxes – preferably exacted in the form of firearms – from caravans passing through to Tabora. The Arab merchants were less than enthralled by the growing power wielded by this hostile local leader. By 1871 the rival forces were engaged in what would today be described as guerrilla warfare.

    It was the inevitable showdown between the Arabs and Mirambo that caused Stanley’s search for Livingstone to be stalled by three months at Kwihara, 6km from Tabora. In August 1871, according to Stanley, a 2,000-strong Arab force ‘waving banners denoting the various commanders, with booming horns, and the roar of fifty brass drums left’ to hunt down Mirambo. When the attack was launched, Mirambo’s army appeared to retreat, but in fact they circled behind the Arab forces and ambushed them on their way home. Mirambo followed up this victory by capturing and razing Tabora itself. Having established a stronghold at Tabora, Mirambo became the main supplier of slaves to the Arab traders, and his superior military strength convinced the Arabs is was worth paying him taxes to maintain the peace.

    The former warmonger clearly recognised that diplomacy had its place. Aware of the growing British influence at Zanzibar, Mirambo attempted to woo the British Consul John Kirk by inviting the British to establish missions and trade outposts within Unyamwezi. In his letter to Kirk, Mirambo stated that ‘the country is a hundred times more prosperous, tenfold more peaceful and a thousandfold safer than it was before I became chief. I wish to open it up, to learn about Europeans, to trade honestly with all, and to cultivate peaceful friendships.’ Mirambo died in 1884, but his defiant pride lived on in his successor Isike, who resisted German colonisation by blockading the caravan routes and successfully ambushing any German troops sent to the region. In January 1893, the Germans led a large surprise attack on Tabora. Isike, realising he didn’t stand a chance and unwilling to be captured, blew up his fort, in the process taking his own life.

    • DOredsson says:

      Hotel Wilca is probably not what it used to be anymore. Holes in the mosquito net, possibly bed bugs, breakfast included only for one person in a double room, hot water first at 7 pm, rude manager, etc. But cheap and relatively peaceful (you will hear the train).

  2. DOredsson says:

    Should also add that Orion has become much more expensive last year. 90 000 for a double room and they add 5% if you pay with VISA.

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