The International Steam Pages

Dr. Tankinfront’s Monsters -- Zimbabwe 1991

Robert Hall writes:

If you are not familiar with Zimbabwe, there is a map at the bottom, if you prefer, you can open it in a new window.

Not all steam-rail enthusiasts are great lovers of the Beyer-Garratt type. A fair number find the configuration of this variation on the theme – what with the leading water-tank, mounted on a power bogie and coming far before the chimney and boiler – grotesque and “unnatural”-looking; and unphotogenic. I personally have had a great fancy for Garratts, ever since learning of their existence from childhood picture-books (have no recollection of ever seeing a British Garratt at work in Britain, though I lived not immensely far from their regular haunts). What with something of a “Rake’s Progress” of a gricing career – not the money or opportunity to pursue the activity abroad, to anything like the extent I would have wished – I never saw one of the beasts in action, till managing at last to sort out in February 1991 a visit (independent and solo) to Zimbabwe; then the last venue on earth with a truly significant amount of genuine line service performed by Garratts.

A case of “all or nothing” – as at that time, the entire steam fleet of the 3ft. 6in. gauge National Railways of Zimbabwe, was Garratt. Steam was by then confined to the south-western quarter of the country, with its activities centred on the land’s second city of Bulawayo. “Four-and-a-half” classes featured in this show, as follows. 14A double 2-6-2; 15th double 4-6-4 (many of these, named); 16A double 2-8-2; and 20th / 20A double 4-8-2 (the difference between the two varieties of this class, being a minuscule technicality – according to the scholars, the diameter of the inner pony truck wheel). Photography ad lib was possible on this tour, and done, with very little difficulty; but – as mentioned in past essays of mine on “Travellers’ Tales” – I was a lousy and never-enthusiastic photographer, and life’s turmoils and tribulations have meant no longer having in my possession, any rail pictures that I ever took – which is a mercy for the photographic art. There were reports in the gricing literature at that time, of a certain degree of official hostility and spy-paranoia in Zimbabwe, toward railway enthusiasts / photographers; I personally encountered first-hand, none of such. At all events; last word in this piece, on anything phot-related…

Flying to Zimbabwe from Britain meant doing so to its capital, Harare – at the opposite end of the country from the steam action. On Harare arrival, I booked a ticket (first-class, with sleeping berth) on that night’s overnight train to Bulawayo, and spent the time till then, looking round the capital.

Conditions in the country visited, is a subject which will inevitably surface here from time to time. Concerning rail passenger services and their timekeeping, in the time I spent in Zimbabwe – “shambolic” is unfortunately not too strong or unkind a term. It became clear early on that if travelling by rail, one had to either accept that this was how things were, and “go with the flow”, or go mad… The overnight Harare – Bulawayo departed at least fairly punctually: initially electric-hauled, changing to diesel at Gweru. En route, this screw-up and that one, befell, and we finally reached Bulawayo a good few hours late. (Credit where due – though train-operating on NRZ when I was there, seemed mostly to be a mess, the system’s track appeared, everywhere I went, to be kept in excellent shape.)

Got into Bulawayo in time to see the arrival of the daily passenger stopping train from Lobatse in Botswana – by timetable 1150, actually 1300, behind a diesel loco (everything on this line within Zimbabwe, according to the learned journals, and “see onward”, theoretically steam). Per the “master plan”, this train’s corresponding southbound working, to be travelled on that day, most of the way to the border. The spectacular lateness of my train from Harare had had me wondering whether – what with ticket-getting -- the supposedly generous connection with the Lobatse local, would be missed; but this proved, happily, not the case; and yet more happily, the Lobatse train finally set off with me aboard (at 1545, not the scheduled 1340), behind 15th class 422 “Inkonkoni”. Delightful hour-and- fifty-minutes run of some 75 km. behind the double 4-6-4 to Marula, where I alighted. “Gricing intel” had strongly suggested a bad and hyper-suapicious scene, security-wise, at the Zimbabwe-side border station on this line, of Plumtree; I felt it made sense to “bale out” short of that location. Prepared for some roughing-it, I had a tent with me – had foreseen scenario of supplicating from Marula stationmaster, putting-up of tent -- whether in his domain; or outside of it , where would be not his problem. Encountered here for the first but far from only time in my stay in the country, the great kindness and generosity which proved to be, throughout my visit, the “leitmotiv” of the people of Zimbabwe, of whatever race. Marula’s (“coloured”) stationmaster insisted on my enjoying his family’s hospitality for the evening, and spreading out my sleeping-bag in the spare room of his station house.

In-parenthesis background – there were in 1991, passenger-accessible-wise, two routes running out of Bulawayo with steam action: long one (North line) north-west to Victoria Falls, and short one (South line) south-west to Marula and border-point Plumtree (These terms employed henceforth, for the routes concerned.) In my stay, I “mixed-and-matched” exploration of them – for purposes of this narrative, will do “geography not chronology” -- tell together, of experiences in each direction. There was also another possibility – the branch from Heany Junction, a little way east of Bulawayo, to West Nicholson: as at 1991, this line had lost its passenger service, but had busy freight traffic, normally all steam-worked, generally by a mix of 14A and 16A classes. Being a non-driver, dependent on public transport or foot, and a sometimes timorous type – I “wimped out” from the West Nicholson branch. Given the highly friendly and hospitable Zimbabwean national character, I have little doubt that I would have been welcomed into the guard’s van or onto the loco of the West Nicholson freight – but, coward and largely-unsociable individual that I am, I didn’t give it a try. Thoughts re matters sanitary / relieving oneself, played some part in described reluctance.

One always tends toward deploying the wisdom of hindsight: in that mode, I could wish both to have organised my limited time in Zimbabwe more efficiently, and to have been more venturesome. The facts were, though, that the trip had been decided on and arranged, in situation of an “impulse” decision and short notice; additionally, this being so, there was no alternative to my travelling alone. Furthermore, though the general trends and scheduled doings of Zimbabwe’s steam situation were well reported in the journals available in Britain, to those interested – things on the spot tended toward the chaotic, and all manner of happenings, and expedients to try to cope with them, could show up at any time. In any actual visit, there unavoidably featured a considerable “suck-it-and-see” element, likely to include unavoidable stuff in the realm of disappointments and wasted journeys.

Marula’s kindly stationmaster told me (confirming the words of the journals back in Britain) that in principle, all trains, passenger and freight both, on the Bulawayo – Plumtree line, were rostered for steam haulage – but things often got fouled-up, causing diesel substitutions. The smallish segment of NRZ, based on Bulawayo, which still used steam, had diesel locos plentifully in evidence too; some NRZ’s own machines, some on hire from the South African Railways. The day after my night at Marula station, the northbound local from Lobatse which took me back to Bulawayo (arrival there 1420 as against scheduled 1150) was headed by 16A class 615. Its southbound return, leaving Bulawayo at 1540 as against the scheduled 1340 (this seemed to be something of a pattern) was diesel. In the main, I had good luck on this bash as regards steam haulage, in a distinctly “lottery” situation.

As well as the daily Lobatse local in each direction, there was a once-each-way-weekly long-distance train between Johannesburg and Bulawayo, rostered for steam on the Plumtree – Bulawayo Zimbabwe legs of its journey. “Something’s got to give”: in the only midweek spell of my visit -- the time of week when the Jo’burg train in both directions did its stuff -- I was away up north.

In the latter part of the bash, I took another shot from a somewhat different angle, at the Bulawayo – Plumtree line. With Plumtree reckoned a bad, anti-gricer place (and likely, a Godforsaken border outpost with nowhere to stay the night), I conceived the plan of travelling to Francistown, the first community of any size over the border into Botswana; overnighting there; and returning to Bulawayo on the local from Lobatse the following day – its scheduled Francistown departure time 0535. An all-or-nothing gamble, if you like – should things go wrong (far from unlikely), it would be diesel haulage from Plumtree to Bulawayo – though hopefully, crossing a steam-hauled freight or two during the run. Otherwise, steam from the border to NRZ’s “Steam Central”.

A sad commentary on the state of NRZ’s passenger services: experience hitherto, had indicated likelihood of the daily “stopper” ‘s reaching Francistown at its scheduled time of 1925, as being remote; many hours later, was seen as probable – likely too late to get a bed for the night; and with a wildly-early-morning departure the next day… I committed treason, and travelled Bulawayo – Francistown by road coach (which same ran plentifully and conveniently, numerous times per day). Approximate on-the-road time between the two towns, 150-plus kilometres (“non-beeline”, road and rail alike) apart, was some two hours (border formalities quick and non-traumatic) – as against the six-odd hours (scheduled – capable of being much longer) by rail. En route, seeming black smoke-cloud to the right – correct for line of railway – would have appeared to indicate steam haulage of the day’s northbound Lobatse – Bulawayo local passenger; but only smoke seen, nothing known for sure. Comparing the road and rail public transport situations on this route; some wondering is prompted, as to why any passengers ever used the train (plenty in fact did). Presumably rail was cheaper -- have forgotten the respective fares that I paid -- and / or gave better opportunity for taking one’s stuff with one…

Night spent at Francistown, in hotel where patrons accommodated in novel-to-me locally-authentic “rondavels”. Over hotel dinner, got into conversation with a pleasant and friendly elderly local white guy – interesting reminiscences from him, of travel on the main line here, “S.A. – Botswana – Zimbabwe” decades earlier, when Rhodesia Railways operated the whole stretch through what was then Bechuanaland, and when, of course, everything was steam. Up with the lark or its southern-African equivalent, and to the station for the 0535 – which arrived fairly punctually, behind a Botswana Railways diesel loco. There followed not altogether pleasant on-train interaction with bad-tempered and hostile-tending Botswanan customs / immigration personnel. Border reached – and then, train (ultimately – very much so… nonetheless, oh joy !) taken over by NRZ 15th class 420 “Indlovu”.

It was ascertained that 420 arrived at Plumtree at 0830 (scheduled time for departure for passenger train to Bulawayo), hauling a southbound freight. While the Botswanan diesel loco took the freight train on southwards, the Garratt needed to be turned and watered, and to undergo servicing – she finally departed at the head of the “local”, at 1006 – 96 minutes late… The extremely easy schedule for the run (three hours and twenty minutes for 101 km.) meant that despite the loco’s steaming poorly and coming to a halt several times between stations; and a half-hour wait at Figtree to take water and cross a southbound freight – a small amount of time was recovered, with arrival at Bulawayo a mere hour-and-twenty-minutes late. Rather surprisingly, the local’s opposite number, Bulawayo – Lobatse, departed at its scheduled time of 1340, behind “15th “ 370 “Ibhalabhala”.

The majority of the (plentiful) freight workings observed on the Bulawayo – Plumtree line were indeed steam-hauled – these duties shared about equally between the 16A class double 2-8-2s, and the 15th class “double Baltics”. It was only on the Plumtree line, that 16As were seen performing line working, on this visit; from my observations, they appeared not to venture onto the North line to Victoria Falls. For the visit overall, considerably more line working was seen handled by 15ths, than by any other steam class. As I understand things, a few years before my visit, NRZ had done some rejigging of its steam operations: Bulawayo – Plumtree, which had long been totally diesel-operated by the connecting Botswana Railways, was made NRZ-worked, and (“on paper”) all-steam. From then on, all NRZ’s steam operation took place only on the Plumtree, and Victoria Falls, lines out of Bulawayo, and the West Nicholson freight branch; plus extensive shunting / piloting / trip-working operations around Bulawayo.

In the time I spent in Zimbabwe, there appeared to be a higher concentration of steam working on the Plumtree line, than on the much longer route to Victoria Falls. However, in a situation of a probably once-in-a-lifetime visit to Africa, it would have felt outright criminal not to go to see the world-famous Falls – they being, after all, on a line on which steam did feature in plenty. Early in the visit, I accordingly set out on the one “daily” (actually nightly) passenger train which served the North line northbound. Travelling by scheduled passenger trains was – no getting away from it – not the most effective way to grice Zimbabwe; but a combination of things unavoidable, and personal preference, meant that that’s the way I did it, for better or worse. The passenger workings (one each way “in the 24”) between Bulawayo and VF, ran overnight: they did some first / last-hours-of-daylight running, especially at the northern end of the journey – but most of the time (in contrast to the Plumtree line, whose passenger doings were daytime ones) one couldn’t see the landscape through which one was riding. That was the deal…

As understood by the gricing cognoscenti at the time, in principle the Bulawayo – VF passenger trains were booked for diesel haulage between Bulawayo and Thomson Junction (about three-quarters of the way to the Falls); steam on the last leg, between Thomson Jun. and VF. Discovered “on the ground” in my visit, that this was indeed the “theory”. In practice, though, there were difficulties with operating this section – railway staff with whom I talked, spoke of “signalling problems” – tending to cause many delays. This situation frequently led to diesel locos – with their better acceleration and often greater reliability, relative to their steam counterparts – being substituted on the passenger trains on the Thomson Jun. – VF section. The picture was got, that NRZ were truly trying their best to run the passenger service between Bulawayo and the tourist-magnet of the Falls, as efficiently as possible. The spell of time which I spent on the Zambezi, would seem to indicate that diesel was thus roped in to work the passenger between Thomson Jun. and VF, a good deal more often than not.

On overnight rail journeys in Zimbabwe, I unashamedly did the elitist / colonialist / snob thing and travelled first-class, with a sleeping berth – shrinking from “slumming it” in jam-packed seats-only second class -- thus it was from Bulawayo to VF. Emerging in the early light, north of Thomson Junction, looking out of the window revealed that disappointingly, we were still being diesel-hauled – and we arrived at the Falls behind diesel. I finished up spending three days based at Victoria Falls – witnessing total of six arrivals and departures of the overnight passenger. The first five of those, were all diesel – the usual culprit being class DE 10A.

On this whole bash, my most usual ploy was to walk from where I was based, out along the railway line into the bush, and spend the majority of the day at a deemed-suitable spot, to watch and “value” what came by along the line. After three days quartered at Victoria Falls, largely doing this, I figured self to have fairly comprehensively (in relation to limited total time available) sucked the venue’s blood; and that I must get that evening’s train back southward (in fact, chose to go right back down to Bulawayo), regardless of its traction. This bash was a lucky one for me, haulage-wise: my 1730 departure from VF, was headed by 15th class 377 “Udwai”. Great pleasure had therefrom, especially for the couple of hours of remaining daylight. As per programme, a DE 10A came on at Thomson Jun.

At a crossing-point, still in daylight, between VF and Thomson Jun., a northbound coal train was passed, headed by 15th class 370 “Ibhalabhala” (also encountered on the South line), with attached at the rear, coaches for the tour group “Rail Safaris”, which in those years did much business on NRZ’s steam sections. Department of mixed feelings in play here – I being prone to snobbery-shading-into-bigotry about “genuineness” railway-wise, would have felt reluctance about taking part in an organised railtour involving, thus, the tour’s coaches tacked on to non-passenger workings. On the other hand – in a country such as this, with meagre and chaos-prone passenger services, sometimes running at inconvenient times; doing it “Rail Safaris’ ” way – with less of a “phony feel” than would be had in a situation of a specifically chartered steam special – would give a chance for traversing routes in daylight, thus seeing what one was travelling through; with, throughout, all the observable joys of ambient steam, on a rail system which operated steam plentifully, in for-real commercial service. A difficult one…

Having, by pure dumb luck, got genuine steam haulage (heavily against the odds) on my scheduled passenger train, I felt in a position to harbour great hauteur and contempt toward the wimps-and-sheep Rail Safaris participants on the other track of the passing loop. If my train had drawn a diesel loco to haul it, my “deadly sin” sentiment vis-à-vis them would probably have been envy instead.

I spent an afternoon in standard tourism at Victoria Falls – found the Falls and immediate environs fully as magnificent as reputed, and the adjacent railway bridge spanning the river into Zambia, likewise as impressive. Did not see anything on rail actually crossing the bridge; but at VF station at various times, diesel freight workings to / from Zambia were noted.

“Final fling” of the bash – a rapid trip up the North line again (out on diesel overnight train, back on same the following night, intervening day spent on the lineside). This prompted chiefly by disappointingly low profile kept by the 20th / 20A class double 4-8-2s – big, impressive engines, which seemed to work only on the North line (whereon I’d seen to date, only three in action). I subsequently learnt that at this time, most of the class were in works for repairs / exchanging of parts. “Second expedition”, involved disembarking at Hwange – lineside day thereabouts, and in the event, the whole day-trip, start to finish, delivered no 20th / 20A whatever: all steam freight action seen, was in the charge of 15th class. Win some, lose some…

The town of Hwange – in the days when the land was Rhodesia, rendered as “Wankie” (‘nuff said !), is the country’s coal-mining centre; its pits being served by an industrial branch diverging from the national system at Thomson Junction, northwards from Hwange station itself. NRZ’s steam locos burn / burnt Hwange coal – in the recent difficult years, problems with production and supply of this fuel, have tended at times to mean less action by steam, than all concerned would have hoped and wished for. In 1991, the Hwange colliery lines were operated by the only non-Garratt steam locos in traffic in Zimbabwe: 19th class 4-8-2s, sold out of service from the national system. I did not try to investigate the coal lines, and saw nothing of their “Mountains”: as remarked earlier, only so much time available, mobility less than ideal, and grice planned and organised at fairly short notice. By the early years of this century, the colliery’s level of activity had declined, and the 19th class were no longer in action there; per the most recent reference which could be found, a 15th class Garratt was doing the work.

Another part of the fun of this “last bite of the cherry”, discovered on first return overnight run up north, depended on being able to bag one of the two lower berths in the four-berth first-class “coupé” (convertible for sleeping at night, and travelling normally in by day); lower-berth occupancy allowed, which upper ditto did not, view (if awake) out of window at passing points (single line ruled almost totally on NRZ), of opposite-direction freight trains, often steam, being crossed. Observation overall in time spent on the North line, suggested to me that its busy freight traffic was approximately half diesel-hauled (with a considerable presence therein, of diesel locos hired from the South African Railways), half steam. Throughout the trip, freight-train schedules seemed as chaotic as passenger ditto. I had details of the regular booked freight workings, which seemed often to be very many hours – sometimes whole days – out of kilter. The impression I had, was that the railways’ staff were struggling manfully to more-or-less keep things going, but under highly unfavourable conditions; felt that they deserved credit for not simply giving up on the losing battle.

At all events, I managed while in Zimbabwe, to see the “full set” of four steam classes in action – though with 20th / 20A, “only just”. The 14A double 2-6-2s were the mainstay of the busy shunting / piloting / tripping scene at and around Bulawayo, which inter alia kept several Garratts permanently visible and active at the city’s station (some doings there by 15th and 16A too). It turned out that I chose well, to visit Zimbabwe when I did: the country’s steam line-working scene lasted only a couple of years more. From end-May 1993, regular scheduled line operation by steam on the North and South lines came to an end.; all such line working on both routes, was thenceforth diesel. Busy steam action remained, as above, in the immediate environs of Bulawayo; in fact continued (albeit progressively lessening) over the intervening fifteen-plus years, though – as reported recently on International Steam Pages – the end of the road here, seems likely now to have been reached. I being a somewhat hard-to-please character, feel that only line haulage is truly “where it’s at”: for me, shunting and trip-working, though a pleasure to witness if one is on the spot anyway, are not something which I would make a pilgrimage of hundreds – let alone thousands – of miles for, if they were the only action to see; thus, would not have gone to Zimbabwe post-1993. “That’s just me”: in a favourite saying on the Internet nowadays, “your mileage may vary”.

In Bulawayo between “ventures to the interior” (or periphery !), I spent a couple of days seeing what might be seen in the city’s environs – including walking the few kilometres out north-eastward to the big freight yard / dispersal point at Mpopoma, with some subsequent hours linesiding on the North line beyond its nearby divergence from the Harare main. Plenty of doings witnessed by 15th and (in confines of Mpopoma) 16A; plus one solitary 20th / 20A.

As mentioned earlier, I found those of the people of Zimbabwe – of whatever race and social stratum -- with whom I came into contact, almost without exception, most kind, pleasant and friendly. Impression thus formed: that in contrast to, or in parallel with, the many terrible things done in that country over the decades, on the political / making-the-news scene – it seemed chiefly inhabited by folk who were, “in their private and personal capacity”, very nice people. Something in the opposite “pan of the scales”, to the hideous image of the country which has, via the news media, predominated in recent years. Granted, things are now a great deal worse there, than on my visit nearly two decades ago (when there were ample indications that all was very far from well); and Mugabe has been, for sure, a dreadful ruler. Tourists have on the whole avoided Zimbabwe for the past few years. However, “takes” from venturesome folk who screwed up their courage and went there a couple of years ago (as relayed on these International Steam Pages), were to the effect that shortages and problems, while irksome, were not such as to render life impossible; and that Zimbabweans “of all shapes and makes” were as friendly and cordial as ever, and – despite everything – very ready and willing to talk with and befriend foreign visitors. This is not to try to deny that things there are, indeed, nowadays grim; just that much of the news media have political / ideological / other axes to grind, attending to which can cause them to depart from the straight-and-narrow of impartial reporting of how things are: whereby the media image tending to be imparted, of present-day Zimbabwe – Orwell’s “1984” piled on top of “Mad Max” piled on top of “Soylent Green” – is perhaps excessive, and certainly not the whole story.

Zimbabwe’s great tourist draws for normal, non-steam-loco-obsessed folk, are the celebrated Falls, and the big game. The country has long been, from many points of view, rather too full of people -- lovable though those people mostly are -- with the consequence that the bigger and more glamorous fauna are mostly restricted to the reserves specifically set up for them. (The North line runs for approaching a hundred kilometres, a little way within the huge Hwange game reserve; but the passenger workings covered this section at dead of night.) In context of my trip, I toyed momentarily with the idea of taking time out for a brief game-reserve visit; but time just for railwaying was already constrictingly short – plus, it turned out that both the season of year that it was, and the weather situation in that particular February, were not game-spotting-friendly.

Words come to mind by Dervla Murphy, a travel writer who I usually find to have something to-the-point to say, about whatever matter arises. Incidentally this lady, while not a railfan as such, demonstrates in her writing a considerable appreciation of the rail scene; and, the reader learns, a 1967 episode of missed footing at a bad moment, caused her a narrow escape from death or maiming by an oncoming Eritrean Mallet. Writing of wanderings of hers in Africa below the Equator, Dervla shows herself as a “genuineness-snob” after my own heart. While regretting the general bad times for African wildlife in recent decades, due to the huge growth of the human population, she reflects – and finds a little consolation therein – that an encounter (quite frequently experienced) while going about normal business, with a wild animal of a relatively humdrum kind, is for her worth two or more such, with a more-exciting-species member, to get which a visit to a game reserve is needed. A close parallel can be seen with the sentiments of many gricers concerning steam in genuine commercial use, vis-à-vis the same in preservation. In Zimbabwe I enjoyed a number of such “Murphy moments”, which did something to compensate for getting-acquainted with pachyderms, big cats, and the rest, not being on the menu. Beasts of a more “penny-plain” kind met by chance (all more than once, some of them at remarkably close quarters), were warthogs, baboons, and a medium-sized antelope of some sort. Plus, in most places I went, there was abundant and colourful bird life.

With time to go home, at hand; I returned from Bulawayo to Harare, by a domestic flight -- it has to be admitted that crossing the country thus, was accomplished in a fraction of the time taken by the at-best grindingly slow, and highly delay-prone, rail journey. If the Bulawayo – Harare rail run had been with steam, I’d probably have done differently; but alas, this was 1991 not 1961. Had the date been the latter; well, my “as was” twelve days would have been insufficient for a thorough bash of what was then Southern Rhodesia – to say nothing of the marvels toward all compass points therefrom – a thought-direction to be turned away from, on pain of much shedding of nostalgic tears.

Rob Dickinson