The International Steam Pages

Malawi to Mocambique by Train, 2004

The plan: By train from Blantyre, Malawi to Nampula in northern Mocambique The reality: Liwonde to Nayuchi, Malawi, on Central East African Railways (CEAR) 3rd class passenger train, then Cuamba to Nampula, in Mocambique on Caminhos de Ferro de Mocambique Norte (CFM-Norte) thrice-weekly passenger train.

Distance travelled by rail: About 700km (including return Nampula-Cuamba)

Total cost of train tickets: $21

10th January, 2004  - Flew into Blantyre, Malawi, with the express aim of travelling overland to northern Mocambique, using the trains as much as timing and Fiona's patience would allow.

Arrived Saturday to find that the next Central East African Railways (CEAR) passenger train north from Blantyre was on Monday, so opted to head north to Liwonde by matola, one of the country's ubiquitous, overloaded and dangerous minibuses.

I regretted missing the Blantyre-Liwonde train journey as I am told the mountain scenery is spectacular, but we needed to get a move on. Picked up the Monday train from Liwonde to the border town Nayuchi. Fare was 100 Kwacha (less than US$1), which in terms of value, was some of the best train travel I've ever had.

The coaches were a mix of former Malawi Railways and ex-South African Railways steel 3rd class stock, and was pretty full by the time the single MLW Co-Co 'Shire' class loco dragged us eastward dead on time at 08.00. A fine journey, mist covered mountains to the south, rolling miombo forest to the north, and we made good time. This line was built in the early 70's as a link to Mocambique's CFM-Norte system but has hardly been used due to the damage wrought during the civil there.

The line is single track and CWR, and operation is radio-controlled. Most of the stations en-route are in poor repair but there is no lack of passengers, nor of vendors who wait for the train with mangoes, bananas, kapenta repellent dried fish on a stick barbecued corn on the cob and live chickens.

We made rapid progress, climbing the side of a low hilly range, giving a superb a view of the miombo-covered plain which stretches up to Lake Malawi. Having conquered the hills no-one could tell me what they are called the train loped along easily on the flats to Naycuhi, skirting the massive floodplain of Lake Chilwa which lies immediately to the south. Arrival at Nayuchi was pretty much on time at 11.15. The station building is now the immigration office (although CEAR plans to change this) and customs was friendly and rapid. There being no onward train service into Mocambique (at least not until the rotten 77km of track from the border to Cuamba is rehabilitated), we piled onto a chapa - a flatbed truck for the journey. Not the way I would have preferred to travel - not with 25 people and a couple of tons of dried fish and potatoes, and a wicker lounge suite but that's how it goes here. There's little transport and people must take what they can get.

Mocambique immigration was slow and corrupt. How many places have you been where there's a charge to get into the country? We bargained down the $5 entry fee for which one gets an outrageous receipt to $3, and persuaded them that if they didn't take Mozambican money, they weren't going to get anything at all.

Due to CFM-Norte's lack of locomotives, the passenger train from Cuamba to Nampula runs only on alternate days (eastward Mon/Wed/Fri, westward Tue/Thu/Sat). It being late Monday by the time we arrived in Cuamba after an arduous truck ride, we were forced to loiter here for a full day to get the Wednesday train.

Filthy and parched after the truck ride, we conned ourselves into paying $30 for a room at the Hotel Vision, purely on the basis that we would a) get a hot shower and b) have aircon and ceiling fan, important to us as the temperature was in the high 30's, and there were flocks of mosquitoes to deal with.

Here's a little lesson in how aid stuffs up countries: Cuamba's power is generated by a Norwegian-funded hydroelectric scheme, built some time in the 1980's. It would have been more helpful if the water was piped straight to the town; the hotel had no running water a fact Fiona discovered halfway through her shower which was more of a trickle really (the purpose of the large tubs of water infested with mosquito larvae in every room was suddenly clear). And the power failed at midnight, stopping the crucial fan and aircon. Go, Norway, what a brilliant scheme! The only things that saved the evening from total ruin were the ice cold beers we guzzled on the hotel's wide verandah while listening to some superb stack-talk as a GE diesel shunted Cuamba's station yard. Tuesday was interesting only in that the bank refused to change South African rands into meticais, posing an immediate problem for our continued welfare in Mocambique, and that I was arrested by the police for taking pictures of an ailing GE U20C shunting the next day's train. My passport was confiscated and I was detained for an hour as tried to explain to the obtuse police commander that I was a tourist and liked taking pictures. I was supposed to have a permit to take pictures. At no time was a 'fine' demanded, nor was one payable. It was merely power mongering, and it was not the last time that I would be hassled by security by taking pictures (at one time, a security guard jumped on to the train I was on and demanded that I stop).

Mentioning that I was a friend of CEAR who are soon to take over the operation of the Malawi-Nacala Railway made no difference to Mr Plod. Brad Knapp of CEAR told me later that he would have arrested me too for taking pictures of what is effectively Mozambican junk. We were back at the station at 04.00 to ensure we got a good seat. A man I had met at the station the day before had saved us a spot in his compartment, which was just as well once we saw the horrors of 3rd class. Four backpackers who had journeyed with us from Liwonde had been too late to get 2nd class tickets (100 000 meticais, about $4) and had to travel in 3rd (50 000). Ordinarily there would be nothing wrong with that, except that all the 3rd class saloons were full to bursting; people had started boarding before midnight to make sure they got a seat and by 04.00 there was not even standing room in the aisles. People were even standing between the seats. It was like a Central Line train in rush hour. With the immense cargo of potatoes, building timber, goats and chickens, huge suitcases, bundles of firewood and sacks of maize meal, there was, literally, no room. The train is euphemistically referred to as a 'mixed' but the five boxcars are attached solely to carry passengers' goods and chattel. When those are full, the overflow is loaded into the passenger saloons. Dead on time at 05.00, we rolled off into the dawn. We quickly forgot about the filthy state of the 2nd class coach as we were stunned by the magnificent sight of a pink sunrise lighting up the sheer face of a granite dome mountain rearing a thousand feet or more out of the miombo forest. This set the standard for the rest of the day as the line picks its way through the forest in the shadow of countless granite mountains. At every stop, vendors thronged the train, desperate to make any kind of sale for a few thousand meticais (Note $1 = 24 000 meticais). There was more on offer here than in Malawi plates of roasted chicken, maize fritters, Portuguese bread and brown half-litre bottles of 2M beer (say 'doe-zhem'). Sacks of mangoes cost 5000 meticais (about US$0.20), and live chickens were being sold by the bunch. Little boys carrying a bottle of water and a tin mugs tried to flog water by the cupful to thirsty passengers. I was thirsty but you don't drink the water here much safer to drink beer. Any hope for our backpacker friends that people would get off and make room for them were dashed. At every stop, more people crammed on, including hundreds of what Indian Railways calls ticketless travellers hanging onto the steps of every coach. A particularly brutal security guard made it his job to beat them off with his baton while the train was moving. More power games if you have power here, no matter how little, you must use it to clamber over the heads of your fellow humans. As day passed, a woman in our compartment stocked up at every stop. Soon there were bags of mangoes, bananas, avocados and onions spilling over the seats. She bought tomatoes by the hundred, bushels of garlic and mounds of peas which she and a friend began shelling as we rolled along. Five live chickens were stashed under the seat and we forgot about them until they squabbled briefly among themselves. It was a good place to do grocery shopping, and if I'd known that there would be no vegetables on the coast ('Nada, vegetables are out of season', the restaurateurs told us) I would have stocked-up too. It was a good load nine saloons, five boxcars and two cabooses (cabeese?) and probably a thousand people. The U20C up front, No. 127, smoked along with her train. She looked like a piece of junk, but at least she could move.

As always in Mocambique, there was plenty of physical evidence of many past derailments countless twisted boxcars lying on their backs at the foot of embankments, lone bogies half-buried in the red soil and at one fine right-hand curve, the flattened cab of one of the 'new' Alstom Co-Co AD26C's which arrived in 1991. It's good that CFM got at least a decade's use out of it before wrecking it.

Rows of boxcars, rusting tankers and battered gondolas are marooned on almost every siding. Much of the old colonial infrastructure concrete water tanks, stations, workshops - still exists, but only the stations are in use. Some stations have brass bells but no-one sounds the departure on them anymore.

Despite spirited running on some sections were rattling along at 90-100km/h we rolled into Nampula at 2.30pm, about 1.5 hours late, although no-one was complaining. From here, the line continues to the port at Nacala, with another branch to Lumbo (site of the famous Atlantic over the Indian photo in Steam in Africa) off the main line just before the coast.

My hopes of visiting Nampula's locomotive shed to see the restored Henschel Atlantic, No. 813, evaporated on arrival. Passengers were herded off the train by security, and into the streets. My request to go to the loco shed was answered with a swift 'Nao', and a wave of a baton. Anyway, it was depressingly hot, and an afternoon of beer drinking in the shade of the bougainvillea next to Olympic-size swimming pool at the Clube Ferroviario was much more appealing.

It's clear that equipment-wise, CFM-Norte is on the ropes. I was told that the 914km railway is being run with just six locomotives. There is no passenger service from Nampula because of the loco shortage. D127 seemed to be the train's dedicated loco.

On the journey down, we had crossed two freights, both impressively long, made up entirely of boxcars lettered for CEAR and MR, and CFM tank cars, emphasising the point that this railway is a primarily a transport corridor for Malawi. Each freight carried its own contingent of security guards. But there was little evidence of CFM rolling stock. Most of what we saw on the sidings looked like non-runners. But then, it's hard to tell the difference between most of the running locos and the wrecks too. Our return journey ten days later was made in altogether more comfortable circumstances. Arriving at the station early to avoid the vicious scrum for tickets (the ticketing is a disaster; it's like getting caught in a riot), I was told there was no 2nd class saloon the next day because it had to go to the 'usinas' workshops and, yes, there is only one second class coach on the railway.

But for 400 000 meticais we could go 1st class. This was new to me. There had been no 1st class coach on the down train, because it had been in the usinas. So, as it happened, had the restaurant car. Remembering what 3rd looked like, we stumped up $16 apiece for two 1st class tickets, and arrived at the station at 3.30am the next day, just in case. AVC 208 is clearly one of CFM's last classic 1st class saloons. It is a beautiful vehicle wood pattern formica panelling, and two picture frames in each of the upper bunks, which amazingly still contained B&W photos dating back to the Portuguese era. Being an aircon saloon, the windows could not opened, denying us one of the pleasures of African rail travel. But the upshot was travelling in splendid isolation, with the temperature hovering around 21 degrees, back to Cuamba.

The dining car was also in the consist and we spent a good few hours here knocking back icy 2M's and eating fried chicken and batatas fritas. The diner is concessioned to a feisty Senhora who made sure the food was freshly cooked and that her patrons weren't eating stuff they had bought from the vendors. 'I pay for this concession,' she shouted at two shifty-looking chicken munchers. 'You don't take your own food into a restaurant!' She kicked them out of the diner and chucked their chicken bits out the window. A fine gastronomic experience, and it really stuck it to the junk food purveyors and sterile cafeterias on trains in the developed world. This was one of the best rail journeys I have done. It is a real African experience in dramatic scenery. If the blanks Nayuchi to Cuamba and Nampula to Lumbo could be filled-in, Blantyre to the Indian Ocean, a four part harmony, could be one of the great railway journeys of the world. You should do it.

Paul Ash
February, 2004

Rob Dickinson