The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - Steam in Zimbabwe, Part 6
The Southern line
Gwanda – Mbalabala

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Click here for the Case Notes Index.

14A class 516 on Bulawayo depot, 19th September 1984


In 1986 I visited the Southern line to see 16A class at work and hopefully see 14A class which were reported to do the occasional trip to Mbalabala to pick-up excess loading.

Gwanda was my base for visiting the far end of this line. The timetable still scheduled all operations in daylight, trains still had soldiers assigned to protect the crew, but the security situation was almost normal. Only the first of the 3 steam hauled trains to Colleen Bawn was due to leave Gwanda before sunset. The Working Timetable became a work of fiction as far as return workings were concerned with crews leaving Colleen Bawn before dawn and rushing to get back home to Bulawayo early. My planning had been based on being able to photograph the Bulawayo workings either side of Gwanda, but it did not work out that way.

On my first morning I had ordered tea for 06.00 as the first train to Bulawayo was due at 06.55. As I took the first sip, I saw smoke on the horizon resulting in a hasty departure, I made it 8km out of town before 16A 604 was seen climbing upgrade giving me an interesting video shot in pre-dawn light. I followed this train to Gwanda and whilst it was being serviced found a photo location a short way out of town to view its departure some 40 minutes early. As I was packing my cameras I saw the 2nd train approaching Gwanda which was followed a short time later by the 3rd. A frantic photo session saw 3 trains pound upgrade from Gwanda in quick succession, the vocals were fantastic. The 3rd train was due to arrive at 09.25, instead it departed at 07.45!

Zimbabwe photo-line, Mbalabala, 17th October 1986


16A 606 departs Gwanda for Bulawayo, 21st October 1986


16A 601 leaves Gwanda on the third train for Bulawayo. 21st October 1986


The hire car was costing 40c per km and it was like driving an expensive taxi so I confined myself to the Gwanda locale, knowing I would be chasing the next day to Esigodini (Essexvale). I was back at the hotel at 08.40 with the morning photography complete and time to have a late breakfast and catch up on some reading. The only disturbance was when the only diesel hauled train for the day passed.

Afternoon photography started at 16.10pm with 609 in Gwanda station with the first of the 3 steam hauled trains to Colleen Bawn. It departed at 17.00 slogging up the short grade from the station under a cloud of clag, which threw a shadow over the engine. I stood listening to it thrash away under a sky filled with afternoon thunder clouds.

At 17.15 the 2nd train arrived, surprisingly behind one of the small 14A class 516 which supposedly did not usually work this section of line. I watched it taking water and do a bit of shunting before I walked up the grade for a departure shot. The train was held and did not depart till 18.05 by which time it was almost dark. This is 516 shunting its train at Gwanda.


The final train did not leave till 18.40 and I watched it from the hotel. The owner told me he came out to Rhodesia when he was in the RAF in 1940, as part of a ground support unit. They weren’t told where they were going and he needed to look at a map to find Rhodesia; but had stayed on. During the night there had been an electrical storm, three lightning strikes hit the street outside the hotel and the air crackled; thunder seemed to linger directly overhead for far too long.

I was out earlier than the previous morning hoping the 14A class would be on a return working and not stay at Colleen Bawn to work the branch. The first train was running even earlier than yesterday! I managed one hasty shot of 16A 609 on the final grade to Gwanda and continued towards Colleen Bawn. I realised what a long grade trains faced working into Gwanda. The 2nd train saw the 14A returning on a load which gave me a couple of opportunities for still and video of the engine working hard, but having no trouble with the grade.


It was nice to see one of the small Garratts on line work, the class were now usually confined to pilot work at Bulawayo. I did not bother with the third train as it was now not the location but shots of the 14A that took precedence. This shows 516 passing Glass Block Siding between Gwanda and Mbalabala.


10km from Mbalabala I found a sweeping curve which the train fairly flew around. Unusually the driver wore goggles, his engine was well-tuned and I was pleased to have seen a 14A at work on this section. 


Earlier, on 20th October 1986, I had seen 16A 606 waiting for a cross with a train from Gwanda, 


Rob Dickinson