The International Steam Pages

Steam and Travel in Southern Africa 2016

Dave Habraken writes::

Together with my wife and (for the steam locations) Ameling Algra, I made a trip through Africa from Tanzania via Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana towards South-Africa. Needless to say, this was a great experience. The major obstacles were finding the right information and getting all the necessary visas for my wife as she has Chinese nationality. Just about everything else went much smoother than we expected.

The Tanzanian part of the trip was non-steam, so I will not go into further details.

In Zambia, we took the bus from Lusaka towards Livingstone. This bus takes about 6.5 hours for this journey with only one “sanitary stop” so it’s probably wise advice not to drink too much the evening before. This journey was made with the Mazhandu Family Bus Services and cost USD 10 per person.

In Livingstone, you have plenty accommodation, varying in quality and price, starting from USD 17 for very basic accommodation. There are plenty of taxis which we used where needed on a ride per ride base. To give you an idea: a single way ride from the centre to Vic Falls bridge cost USD 5. You can eat quality Chinese food in the Golden Chopsticks Hotel at prices around USD 8-10 per dish. We also tried the local restaurants, but their menu was very basic.

Bridge runs at Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe

The reason we visited this place was to make pictures and video of the Royal Livingstone Express, hauled by 10th class No. 156 on Wednesdays and Saturdays between the Bushtrack Station in Livingstone and the Vic Falls Bridge. While planning our trip, the news came in that also between Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and the bridge, steam trains would run again (on Tuesdays and Fridays) so this was a nice bonus!

We arrived on the 21st July 2016 in the evening, soon to find out that we’d just missed the first trial run of 12th class No. 204 between the Bushtracks compound and a station some 15km away on the Mulobezi line. 2 days afterwards, this engine was being scoured manually as a preparation for painting. After the painting job, it was planned to make another trial run on the line to Vic Falls bridge to see that the engine performs well on this line. Unfortunately, nobody could tell us the exact date of the next trial run, so we decided not to change our plans for this possible test run. Anyway, loco staff told us that the trial run was satisfactory, only leading to some minor repairs to be made.

We saw the Royal Livingstone Express on two occasions (Saturday 23rd and Wednesday 27th July). The train starts at the Bushtracks site, pulling the train over a switch before pushing it towards the south side of Livingstone station. The engines then pulls the train again towards the station to get permission for the pushed movement towards the bridge (some 5km). I feared that the photographical potential would be limited because the engine pushes the train for most part of the trip, but it turned out to be ok, as the wind blew the smoke to the right side in our case. For video, it’s another story of course. The train stays on the bridge (the engine will stay in front of the bridge) until immediately after sunset and then pulls back some 2 km, where the passengers get a luxury dinner. With a good camera, you’re able to make a shot when the train is leaving the bridge at dusk.

Interesting news: Bushtracks recently bought the 2 Class 14A Garratts from BCL at Selebi Phikwe (numbers LO809 and LO810). They were supposed to be transported by rail sometime during August 2016. They will be repaired and put into action for the Royal Livingstone Express as the engines currently used belong to the Zambian National Railways and the National Heritage of Zambia. For the moment, there are no extra plans for longer trains with these engines.

If you want to get more information or arrange something with the people from The Royal Livingston Express, you can get in touch with their train manager: Lawrence Mwanawina phone: +260972417010. 

We found a good taxi driver who understood what we wanted and charged reasonable (USD 20 for one-way train chasing between Bushtracks and the bridge during 2 hours). His company is called Teddy Taxi Services and you can reach him via +260977325392 or +260966325392 or +260955325392.

As told before, on the Zimbabwe side of the bridge, there is also a steam train running again. This train is a bit shorter than the one on the Zambian side and the passenger only get drinks. This train leaves Victoria Falls station around 16:30/17:00 (depending on the season). after arriving on the bridge, the engine is uncoupled, leaves the wagons on the bridge and runs light engine to the Zimbabwe side, to get the fire cleaned. Around 18:40, the engine is coupled to the cars again and will leave with the train towards Victoria Falls station.

So: this train is pushed from Vic Falls towards the bridge and is pulled back by Garrat 14A 512. The photographic potential is rather limited in comparison with the Royal Livingstone Express. 

To get on the bridge, you can get a special paper permit (from both sides, free of charge), so you don’t need to worry about the validity of your visa here. Just announce yourself at the customs office and they will explain you how it works. Like this, you can freely walk around in the zone of 1km between the 2 border posts (Zambia – Zimbabwe) and use a path (south of the bridge on the Zambian side) which leads you to some nice positions where you can take pictures of trains on the bridge with the falls behind in the afternoon/evening.

15th Class Garratt at Hwange, Zimbabwe

At Hwange Colliery, one Garratt is still in service being used for shunting and to transport coal wagons between the washery and Thompson Junction (exchange station with the National Railways of Zimbabwe, loco staff likes to refer to “TJ”). The length of this line is some 2km.

I searched quite hard to find information about this place, as you can find the very last Garratt in regular service for non-tourist purposes here. Unfortunately, it was really not easy to find up-to-date information. Luckily, I could get in touch with a manager of the mine who was willing to guide us around. ISince then he is not working for the mine anymore, but future visitors can make arrangements with ms. Rosemary Binamu via phone: +263777710498 or +263712612950 or +263773202089. She is the personal assistant at the mine who will arrange the permit for you (at a cost of USD 20 per day per person).

We arrived with high hopes but low expectations at this place, because there is only one engine in service (15A 395). After getting our permit, we got to the shed, where the engine was just being serviced. Well, it quickly became clear that the action we would see was much better than we ever could have imagined.

From the beginning of our visit, train staff was very cooperative, asking to join them in the loco, dropping us at nice photo locations and making runpasts, sometimes even without us asking for it.

However, what really stunned us, was that the mine employees haven’t been paid for 2 years already! In December 2015, they got a compensation of 20 dollars to buy food, since then not a nickel was being paid for their services. As they were very cooperative to us, we decided to buy a bread and a drink per person and per shift for the train staff. Ameling and I doubted a bit if this was the wise thing to do, as we didn’t want to spoil it for next visitors, but in the end, we felt this was the only correct thing thinking about their difficult working and living conditions. 

Anyway, on the first day, we had a long loaded train from the washery towards TJ before noon (light engine back) and a long train of empties in the afternoon (light engine towards TJ first). The engine had to build pressure before the level crossing near the washery so we could easily pass it on foot to make a second shot.

The second day, we had a light engine towards TJ, followed by a nice rake of empties. In the afternoon, same scenario again with a second rake of empties.

The third day was a Saturday, and it was clear this was not the best day to visit them. We had a loaded train before noon, but that was it.

The most interesting moment of the day to get a train with empties is around 16:00, as the sun will then be at its best position for pictures along the line. Once they understood what we wanted, the shunting master and the train driver of the afternoon adjusted their schedule to get empties around that time. The only day this didn’t work out was on Saturday as there were no empties, so we leave it to the imagination of the readers to think what might have happened at that time to fill up the gap. Let’s just say, we were not disappointed.

The first shift stats around 06.00, but they always waited for us to show up before the started work. They just asked at what time we would be there the next day, to prepare their work. Shift change is at 14.00, the second shift lasts until work is done, which was always around 18.00 in our case. There is no night shift. On Sunday, they only work on demand, but they try to avoid this. Saturdays are calm too, as said before.

They’re currently working on their private 15th Class with number 10 in their small workshop. Staff told us this engine is in a very good shape, but they’re currently waiting for parts from Bulawayo, which they can’t afford right now. Once they have these parts, the engine can be ready relatively fast, so they told us.

We stayed in the Baobab hotel at a rate of USD 45 for a double room and USD 30 for a single room. At the end of our stay, we had a long discussion because apparently they gave us better rooms than we should have had for this price. Not our fault of course, but just a word of warning to be careful, as these more expensive rooms normally cost the triple price. Breakfast was included (not sure if this was the normal case for the budget rooms…), but also here a word of warning as they normally charge USD 15 for a very basic breakfast. There is also a USD 8 breakfast, so we heard. Dinner costs about USD 15  We found a better option to have dinner at the local golf club, which offered us nice meals between USD 6 and 7.

A nice surprise at Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

The bus from Hwange to Bulawayo costs USD 10 per person, but we could join somebody by car to make this journey. The plan was to take the Monday train towards Francistown the day afterwards, but the station master at Vic Falls told us, this was suspended for the moment (just for the record: the night trains from Bulawayo to Vic Falls and back ran normally). On the blackboard of Bulawayo station, the train to Francistown was still mentioned, so we’re not sure if it actually runs or not. Anyway, in our case it didn’t matter anymore, because during a “sunny Sunday afternoon walk” around the steam shed, I found out that 15th Class 414 was being prepared for a test run the next day. This made us change our plans: instead of immediately going to BCL at Selebi Phikwe, we decided to stay one day extra in Bulawayo to see this surprise action.

The day afterwards, things started very, very slowly. First they had to wait for the driver for about 3 hours only to quickly find out that some adjustments had to be made to the driving gear (of course, it was a test run, so this was not abnormal). Things eventually started for real around 14:00, when the engine drove to the station with a passenger car to get permission to make the test run to Cement (tender first). At Mpopoma, they put 5 loaded coal cars behind the passenger car and after 30 more minutes, they left for Cement. The engine was working so hard, that we couldn’t catch it anymore before Cement. Over there, they wanted to change the position of the passenger car to have it immediately after the engine on the way back. Just before sunset, they headed back for Mpopoma and Bulawayo. 2 minutes before sunset, we could finally make our picture of a chimney first Garratt with its test train. Mission accomplished…

We rented a car for the whole day. The driver really understood what we wanted, so I really can recommend him to future visitors. His name is Egypt and you can reach him via +263784262255. 

19th class at Selebi Phikwe, Botswana

Due to the surprise at Bulawayo, we shortened our visit here with one day, staying only 2.5 days. Looking at it afterwards, we should have stayed a bit longer as the operation is very interesting but traffic levels tend to vary considerably from day to day.

This company is a very modern one. Safety rules are tight, in general they make a very professional impression. Unfortunately, they find themselves in difficulty because of the low prices for cupper and nickel right now. They hope to get state support in the near future as they provide work to a lot of people in this area.

As it is a very modern company, security is relatively tight. It’s best not to show up at the gates before having contacted Ms. Motiki, their Public Relations manager: OMotiki@BCL.BW. For operational questions, you can also contact Mr. Kgomo, the foreman of the steam shed and BIG fan of keeping the steam engines running: jkgomo@BCL.BW. Mr. Kgomo can also help you to find your way around, he was so kind to drive with us the first day so we understood the operation a lot better. It is advisable (own experience…) to contact them some months before your visit, as they don’t always have the possibilities to immediately answer on e-mails. For the rest, they’re very professional and helpful people to talk with. At the moment, they don’t charge you for visiting the mine properties, but Ms. Motiki suggested us to make a donation via books or financial support for an orphanage nearby, which we did with pleasure of course.

At the gate, you will be asked to provide all serial numbers from your camera gear, because they will check what you take in and out of their site. Laptops are normally not permitted, but they didn’t make a problem of it (we carried our full luggage on arrival). Count 1 hour to get through the whole process on your first arrival. Afterwards, things will go a lot smoother, which is especially helpful when you’re leaving the plant to chase a steam train towards one of the mines (which are situated off-site).

The first afternoon, we arrived around 15.00, which was just after their shift change. This was mainly a visit to get the paperwork done (which turned out to be the best decision, the day afterwards). The foremen came to say hello and he told us, things wouldn’t get moving anymore until 20.00. So after taking pictures at the stabling point, we went to our hotel/guesthouse.

The next day, LO807 had difficulties during the night to get it’s regulator closed so this had to be repaired before they could go to the shaft “Selebi Phikwe” as planned. This eventually happened after the morning shift change (normally during the night, so not bad for us). Empty trains run tender first to the mine, working hard all the way. After 20-30 minutes of charging, they return chimney first. At the departure, the engine worked hard, afterwards, there is only one gradient where we saw it working.

When this train arrived back at the plant, we heard a whistle far away. It turned out that the other engine (LO812) was bringing empty coal cars to the exchange station with the nation railway. We immediately tried to catch that one, only to find it at the yard ready again to return tender first with full cars. This was sad, as on a level crossing nearby the best shot of this system (in our eyes at least) can be made with an empty train running chimney first towards the exchange yard. 

After this disappointment, we headed back to the stabling point to find out that LO807 would leave soon with a train of empties (tender first) towards the shaft Selebi Phikwe North. To reach this shaft, the trains use most part of the line towards the other shaft (Selebe Phikwe) before turning right for the last kilometre. Also at that shaft, loading takes about half an hour before returning. After this busy action, things got quiet again until 19.00.

The last day, we just missed a train coming from Selebi Phikwe which ran just before sunrise. This was extra sad, as this was followed by a derailment in the unloading facilities. It took until 15.00 to get the car back on the track and to get things moving again. We hoped for a train after shift change, but once again, this would only happen after 19.00. Luckily, around 12:00, we had a train towards and from the exchange yard. This time, we went to the level crossing in time to get a great show of LO812 pulling its empties up the hill towards the exchange yard.

19th Class LO807 and LO812 were in service, LO813 received a washout during our visit. The fourth engine (LO804? I forgot to write down the number as it was parked very bad for pictures anyway) got a hydraulic test and passed.

The two Class 14A Garratt’ at Selebi Phikwe (out of use for some years already) have been sold to Bushtracks. I spoke to a person from the technical crew of Bushtracks (who was at BCL to prepare the transport). They expect transport to start near the end of August.

I asked about the future of these engines too. They will be put in service again, to have some strategic reserve. The problem is that both engines in Zambia are not from Bushtracks: one is from the state railway, the other one is part of the national heritage. For the moment, they don't plan longer trips than the Royal Livingstone Express, but that could of course change in the future.

By the way: BCL wants to buy one of the engines formerly used at Sappi with the money they gained from selling their Garratts.

Practical information:

We stayed in 2 different hotels: Ameling stayed in the Creston Hotel, my wife and I stayed in the Sesame Guesthouse. The Creston was of course more luxurious and higher priced. The Sesame Guesthouse was OK too for a lower price (but still 400 Pula). We rented a car via AVIS at the airport of Francistown. Service was OK. 

In total, we stayed here for 2.5 days, which was looking back too short. We could have had one day extra here, but it was a quite logic choice to wait for the trial run in Bulawayo and give up the first day at Selebi Phikwe. Traffic levels were rather low during our visit, so let’s hope future visitors will have more luck. This system is quite logical and pretty open towards gricers. I’ll definitely try to go back there.

Special thanks go to Edward Buchanan and James Shuttleworth for helping me getting with vey useful information about this system.

Reefsteamers and Friends of the Rail, South Africa.

In South-Africa, we were supposed to see a train from Reefsteamers between Johannesburg and Magaliesburg, however, this train was cancelled. So instead, I visited their depot. They are clearly working in a very professional way. I hope to see one of their steam engines in action in the future.

The day afterwards, we went to a small festival of Friends of the Rail. In the afternoon, I could take some pictures from their Class 24 3664 with the “Tshwane Explorer” between their new compound in Hermannstad and Pyramid South. Normally, they follow another route for this train, but due to track maintenance, this alternative route was followed. Not comparable with the real steam we saw the weeks before, but still it was a nice sight. While planning our trip, this train was scheduled for Tuesday, but they moved the date to Sunday, which was probably a good commercial choice and was in fact better for us too, as we took the airplane back on Tuesday evening.

Conclusions after this tour

Ameling had been to Africa in 1990, when there was still some mainline steam. Still, he was pleasantly surprised by amount of activity and the possibilities the places we visited. 

For my wife and myself, this was our first visit to Africa, both for trains and in general. Africa is really a great continent to discover. 

We were a bit worried about our safety, especially after the recent riots in Zimbabwe against their 93 years old president who just doesn’t get it. These fears were unnecessary as we never felt unsafe. Zimbabwean people were extremely kind and open to us, but also in Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa we were received with much enthusiasm.

Victoria Falls are very nice for tourists, but also for the luxurious trains, especially on the Zambian side. 
Hwange was just fantastic. Much, much better than expected!
The trial run at Bulawayo was a nice extra.
Selebi Phikwe deserves another try, hopefully with some more action.
I’ll keep South Africa in mind for a possible next visit. However, it seems announced special trips can change suddenly here, which makes it a bit difficult to rely on when planning a visit here.

My wife and I are already considering a next tour, as we really are charmed by its beautiful nature and people. As long as Hwange and Selebi Phikwe are active, it makes sense to combine these two destinations in a steam tour or (like us) to pass here during a bigger tourist tour. It seems as an interesting option to combine these destinations with a rented car. We’ll certainly consider this option for next time.

We were challenged to find the right information about Hwange, so we hope, this report will help future visitors who want to visit the last Garratt in action.

Rob Dickinson