The International Steam Pages

Woodburning Sensations (Inhambane 1993)

African Railways aficionado Paul Ash describes a steam pilgrimage.

It's late in the evening of 17th October, 1993. I have just got off a truck heading up Mozambique's EN1, the main north-south highway, at Maxixe (say Mah-sheesh). Across the bay, on the tip of a 30km peninsula, is the little port of Inhambane. It's too late to cross there now - the dhows and the lone motor ferry stop running at sunset.

So I head for the Golfinho Azul Hotel. Nice name - it means Blue Dolphin - but it is, I discover, a terrible dump. My travelling companion, Thurlow, is only to happy to fall into one of the foul beds and go to sleep. But then he's a tougher than I am. It's been a long day on the road. Eight hours by bus from Xai-Xai to Inharrime, where we were intending to camp on the beach until a policeman said it wasn't a good idea. "Praia? Nao, estas muito minas..." (Beach? No, there are many landmines). With nowhere else to stay, we got back on the road, courtesy of a Rasta trucker heading for Beira.

I had once seen a photo in Steam in Africa (a classic book, the authors being Durrant. Lewis and Jorgenson attests to that, ISBN 0 600 34946 2, every serious gricer should have a copy RD), of the smokebox of a St Leonard 2-8-0 sticking out of the arched, whitewashed entrance entrance to the loco shed, a faint wisp of steam showing that it was, indeed, alive.

From 1982, I dreamed of going to Inhambane. But there was a war on and I knew the chances of the railway surviving were pretty slim. Except for two things. One, Inhambane's position at the end of the peninsula made it almost immune to rebel attacks. Two, when there's a war on, everything stops. The old things get forgotten.

The railway, a loss-maker almost from the day it was built, was hardly a major rebel target but trains hardly ran anyway. For 17 years, not very much happened. In 1992, there was a ceasefire. People started thinking about the future. I persuaded Thurlow, and Playboy magazine, that it would be a fine thing to hitch into Mozambique and see how far we could get before we got into trouble.

I didn't know what we'd find in Inhambane, but I was hopeful. We had come from Xai-Xai where we had found that railway remarkably intact and operating - in the very loosest sense of the word - a weekly mixed train out into the sparsely populated bush and back. Could Inhambane be the same?

At dawn, unable to stand the filth of the Golfinho any longer, we took a dhow across the bay. We were feeling quite pleased with ourselves, having bargained the ticket price down from 87 000 meticais to 1 600 meticais. Until we saw that the locals were paying 200. There was a little bit of an argument, so the crossing took longer than it should have.

Once across, we ambled in the direction of the loco shed and station. The latter was magnificently kept - freshly-painted and staff typing away in the cool darkness within. That the railway was apparently still functioning, in its way, seemed as improbable as it was. But the 17-year civil war had just ended and Mozambicans were desperate to hold onto the things that represented normality, even if that meant running a ramshackle train once a week down the line to a town where there was no freight and few passengers to bring back.

We stealth-camped in the trees by the cathedral, probably not the wisest idea, but a repeat of the previous evening's dump was not on the cards.

Long before dawn, a mournful whistle rose up on the humid air. "I am ready" it said.

Thurlow struck camp in rapid order and ran the couple of blocks to the station, our tent spilling out behind us. There, in the predawn darkness, a locomotive was snuffling around, shunting a couple of wagons onto its short train. The air smelt of hot oil and burning eucalyptus wood, spiced with the scent of the bay and something sweet and corrupt.

The crew waited until it was just light enough to see the track ahead, whistled up and with banging couplers and the hiss of escaping steam, clanked out of town.

The early hour did not stop people coming down to the lineside in their hundreds, shouting, waving and whistling at the sight of the comboio antigua breathing down on them. Children ran alongside, men waved from their doorways.

And so the day began. By sunrise we were well out of town, shuddering and rolling over appalling track, the driver hanging onto the regulator. There were few stops - no-one wanted to go south, it seemed, and why would they, when the action lay behind us in Inhambane. The driver reckoned they would be on the road all day and the next.

A few kilometres out of Jangamo, the log trimmer began yelling from the tender. An ember had settled in the fuel and set it alight and our progress, as sedate as it was, was fanning-up a nice blaze. The driver hauled on the brakes and sent the fireman to put the fire out. "With what," he shouted?

"Find something," barked the driver. The fireman jumped off the loco and took off into the bush. A few minutes later he was back with a calabash. The driver was not amused. Still, in the way of Mozambican railwaymen of the mid-nineties, they made do, scooping water out of the tender, one bowl at a time, and flinging it into the heart of the fire. It took some time before the driver, satisfied the fire was out, returned to the cab and cracked open the regulator.

"Perhaps this journey will take a bit longer," he said.

We climbed off at Jangamo and waved the train off into the morning. I guess they made it.

Three years later, 572 was still the only working engine on the line. But the line was finished and 572 was on her way to retirement in the station yard. She is still there today, freshly painted and gleaming, with nowhere to run.

Rob Dickinson