The Train to Bulawayo

I wrote this very early in the morning while riding the train, which has no name, in real time, with photos taken from the train (except for the baboons playing on the train, which was taken when I was buying my ticket.)

I am on a train heading south from Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa Tunya or “Smoke that Thunders”) to Bulawayo, a city in Zimbabwe. It is early morning and I have been riding all night.

In the dawn light, some African girls dressed in their school uniforms, are outside my window, running along side the train, which is slowing down for one of many stops we have made on this overnight journey. Here come some boys running, too. Likely they are riding this train to school – it runs back and forth between VF and Bulawayo each day.

The train left at 7:00 p.m. last night from VF, on time, and is scheduled to arrive in Bulawayo at 9:00 a.m. Looking at a map before leaving, I wondered how it could possibly take that long, but now I know: we would call it a “milk-run” train, stopping at every wide spot in the track. I don’t know if the train picked up passengers each time it stopped, but the car behind ours was empty last night and now there are large white sacks in it, filled with something, so they picked up light freight along the way.

I am in “first-class,” a comparative concept, in a two-berth sleeping compartment. I paid forty U.S. dollars to have both berths, since they do not sort by gender and I wanted the quiet anyway. At one time, it was a nice enough compartment, but times are hard for Zimbabwe and the upkeep has suffered. There are holes in the aisle wall, the floor is very dirty, and so is the window, which has no screens. I heard the drunken conversation of the men a couple of doors down in a four-berth compartment, and later, I could hear snoring.

In the middle of the night I was wakened by someone knocking on the door of my compartment. She was begging, or possibly trying to sell something, I don’t know. I must have looked grumpy (I was) because she took one look at me and moved on to the next compartment. I locked my door again and went back to sleep, but woke several times as the train stopped and started through the night.

It is hard for me to remember that here, south of the equator, winter is coming. When we boarded the train, the cars were overheated, and I opened the window a little to get some cool air. I used my sleeping bag as I stretched out on the unmade berth later, and even later I was grateful I had it because the compartment was cold in the middle of the night.

We are stopping again. The station sign says “Igusi,” which I see on my map is a little north of Bulawayo. The same students are running the opposite direction from the train, so I conclude the school is here. It was about a fifteen minute ride for them.

The train went through Hwange National Park last night. I didn’t watch for wildlife – it was dark and I didn’t think any wild creatures would hang around the train tracks. The only animals I have seen around trains are the baboons. Yesterday, when I was in line to buy my train ticket, I watched the baboons playing on the train. They climbed up the sides of the cars and danced along the roof tops, peering into the windows and vents, looking for something interesting. Their main interest is food – carrying anything around the baboons that looks like food is risky. At a camp in Namibia, I saw a baboon snatch a sack right out of a woman’s hand. There was nothing she could do but watch the baboon tear it apart. Baboons are fairly large when grown, very strong with big canine teeth, and can be vicious when they feel threatened.

At the station, adult and baby baboons scampered over and under the train cars. I worried that the train would run over them, but worrying was a waste of time. They have learned about trains. The train made starting-up noises and the baboons all abandoned the train immediately. They climbed down, jumped down, scampered from underneath the cars to the platform, and the one on the roof jumped to a handy over-hanging tree branch and rode it down.

We are stopping, fifteen minutes later, again. I missed the station sign, if there is one, but the next place on my map is Nyamandhlovu. There are no more dots between here and Bulawayo, so I am hopeful there are no more stops.

Wrong. We’re stopping. But this time, it’s an animal on the tracks, probably a cow. I can tell, even though I can’t see it, because we are in the middle of nowhere, and the engineer is blowing the whistle in a “get out of my way” kind of way instead of a specific signal. No other human activity, and now we are on our way again.

The sun is fully up now and shining through my window. The warmth is nice, but it’s hard to see out because of the dirt on the window. There is a logo in the middle of the window, an “RR” done in a fancy font. I puzzled over that for a few minutes when I boarded because the railroad is called the National Zimbabwe Railroad, and having a logo that just indicated “Railroad” didn’t make much sense, but, of course, it stands for “Rhodesia Railroad” because Zimbabwe used to be part of Rhodesia.

We make two more stops. Villagers along the tracks come to try to sell things to the passengers, mainly food items or snacks of some kind. Last night they had food wrapped in small white paper sacks that seemed like it was hot food. Some passengers bought, handing money through their windows and receiving small sacks in return.

This morning, villagers are trying to sell food again, but also t-shirts and souvenirs. Passengers are not as anxious to buy, anticipating arrival in the city soon. One group has only sugar cane to sell, and no one seems to be buying. Passengers are standing in the aisle now, tired of being in their compartments, and anxious to reach Bulawayo – fourteen hours is a long time on a train with few comforts.

Finally, a sign says “Bulawayo,” and the train comes to a halt. We all gather up our belongings, the passengers disembark, and just like that, I am in a new place, with new people.

May 13, 2019

Victoria Falls – Bulawayo

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