Rovos Rail’s train from Dar Es Salaam to Cape Town is run like clockwork. Dinner is at 7pm sharp, restaurant quality five course meals are whisked up in a kitchen the size of a broom cupboard, and if you reach the bottom of your champagne flute, someone will be at your elbow with another bottle. Africa, however, is on a completely different timetable. “We have the watches, but they have the time. Always remember this is Africa.” our train manager, Daphne, said in her opening speech.
Most trains I’ve been on have the same soothing rhythm: clickety clack, clickety clack. The Cape Gauge track through Southern Africa produces a more terrifying Gah-DOOMP, Gah-DOOMP, Gah-DOOMP as the trains rolls from side to side like a ship in stormy seas. It doesn’t matter how lavish the train is, the journey from Dar Es Salaam to Cape Town on those narrow-gauge rails is a rough ride.
Mark and I were upgraded to the middle class of cabin – a wood-panelled glance into yesteryear with Victorian lamp shades, brass fixtures, a writing desk and a sprawling double bed. It was opulence I’d never seen on wheels before. Rumours bubbled in the lounge that the fanciest compartments even had claw-footed baths.
Tanzania passed by at a top speed of 40 miles an hour. We sat in the open air observation car at the end of the train, ice cubes in gin and tonics clinking with every shudder of the carriage. Sometimes we walked the half-mile length of the train to burn off a sixth or seventh scone after afternoon tea, bouncing off the walls like pinballs. The humid air of the Indian Ocean shores thinned as the train trundled towards the Rift Valley. Waxy green banana trees gave way to rugged hills that looked more like home in Scotland than the Africa I had pictured.
In Zambia, sand coloured huts rose from dust to make the villages lining the railway. Women in colourful headscarves scattered grain for skinny chickens. Children in brilliant white school shirts but bare feet ran alongside the train, close enough to reach out and touch. They cried “Mzugu!” with delight. At first I thought it meant “hello” and shouted it back.
“You are shouting ‘white person’” Daphne said throwing her head back and sticking her tongue out to laugh. She had taken a break from looking at her map and checking timetables to wave to the children. We were running a day late.
“Always remember, this is Africa.”
I tried to capture images of everyday life in Zambia through my camera lens, but the jolting train snatched them from me in an upwards blur. I started looking with my eyes. Men hunched in fields wore heavy scowls as they hacked at the dry earth with hoes. Furrowed brows turned into beaming grins when the final car passed full of waving Mzugus. I felt a ripple of relief each time a scowl turned into a Cheshire Cat grin.
The first sign of the border with Zimbabwe was pure white smoke rising from flat earth, just as Livingston had written. He didn’t have the benefit of a 650 foot rail bridge to get him across the Zambezi. As we settled into our first night in the hotel at Victoria Falls I still felt the dip and rise of train travel lurch in my stomach.
Zimbabwe saw the end of sand coloured villages and smiles. Concrete block houses lined brown fields. Workers in puffa jackets bleeding white filling looked up through narrowed eyes. No amount of waving would change that. We cut into perfectly cooked springbok in the oak-panelled dining car and I asked what happened to the food we couldn’t finish.
“We give the cakes to children at the next train station and the extra food to the adults,” Daphne said. My Western guilt eased a little but I couldn’t help feeling more like a voyeur than an open-minded traveller.
That night stones ticked against our window as the train rocked back and forth. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in a claw-foot bath or fold-away bunk, it’s still got to travel across some of the roughest track in the world.