Page last updated at 10:53 GMT, Saturday, 12 June 2010 11:53 UK

Aboard the Victoria Falls Express

By Petroc Trelawny
BBC News, Zimbabwe

Once regarded as an iconic train journey, the Victoria Falls Express has become a casualty of Zimbabwe's dwindling tourist industry.

Victoria Falls with a rainbow
Victoria Falls is known as Mosi oa-Tunya or "the smoke that thunders"

"The train? You're taking the train? Good luck," they said. Everyone I mentioned it to seemed incredulous. Some insisted on driving me, others offered their 4x4s, one suggested a friend who owned a small plane.

I had been working in Bulawayo for a week and had a few days free before heading home.

I was determined to have a night on the train and then a day visiting the one feature that still lures foreign visitors to Zimbabwe - the Victoria Falls.

As recently as a decade ago, the Bulawayo-Vic Falls sleeper was a key part of the central Africa backpacker circuit, something to tick off a long list.

That is not the case any longer. Since 2000, Zimbabwe's once-vital tourist industry has all but collapsed.

My friend and I were the only Europeans in the line for tickets.

'Stand clear'

The journey takes five hours by road. By train it is scheduled to take 11. "So we'll arrive around seven?" I asked the friendly ticket office clerk. "You'll certainly be in by 10," she answered, smiling.

That evening, clutching food, water and wine, I was back at Bulawayo Station. An old, illuminated advertisement for Gilbey's Gin helped light platform one.

zimbabawe

Easy listening music was piped through the loudspeakers and on platform four, sat the night train to Victoria Falls.

The carriages, built in Birmingham in 1951, were already packed and in total darkness. As hawkers sold clothes, toys and mobile phone credits, families loaded parcels on board.

My compartment was in Car 1068. As I approached, a man in a white tuxedo stepped out into the chaos of the platform and introduced himself as the night steward.

He was apologetic about the lack of electricity but was keen to show me the fold-down tin basin in the corner of the carriage. Then he solemnly apologised again for the fact there was no longer running water.

We pulled out at exactly 2000, the well-spoken station announcer urging those not travelling to "stand clear".

Bygone days

Like so many elements of the surviving infrastructure of Zimbabwe, the compartment was a reminder of times when this was a rich, productive country. Framed pictures hung on the teak panelling.

I walked the length of the train, to find the driver looking anxiously at his engine, its front wheels six inches clear of the track

One was a view of Bulawayo, smoke emerging from the six power station chimneys that form a famous part of the city's skyline.

Now Zimbabwe has to export most of the limited amount of coal it produces and the cooling towers lie dormant.

Another photo showed a train rolling through fertile agricultural land.

Not far out of Bulawayo our train passed near several formerly white-owned farms, seized by so-called war veterans. In the moonlight a few small patches of tall maize created long shadows.

But this was mere subsistence farming, untended. Most of the fields were quickly turning back into scrubland.

Clutching pangas

People gathered quickly to collect buffalo meat
Pounds of fine fillet dripping with blood were stuffed into dirty white plastic bags

Through the night I slept fitfully, woken by shouting at remote stations as well as crashes and scrapes from the elderly train who lurched forward.

By dawn we were well on the way north, when suddenly we braked violently and ground to a halt. A great cloud of acrid smoke blew back from the engine. "Buffalo!" someone shouted: "We've hit one."

I quickly dressed and walked the length of the train to find the driver looking anxiously at his engine, its front wheels six inches clear of the track.

It turned out we had hit seven buffalo - all of them dead - their final act, to derail the Victoria Falls Express.

Within half an hour of the crash, locals arrived clutching pangas and started hacking away at the carcasses.

Whole legs of meat were carried off over the shoulder and pounds of fine fillet dripping with blood were stuffed into dirty white plastic bags.

I went to look for the steward to see how long we might be stuck. I found him in an empty compartment, white jacket long gone, frying up his breakfast over a gas canister stove.

He was vague. "Game on the tracks is a common problem," he said, though full derailment was, he admitted, unusual.

Scattered bones

In the cutting where we had stopped, women and children gathered twigs, lit fires, and soon a dozen impromptu barbecues lined the length of the train.

train crash
The train can often hit buffalo and elephants on its cross-country journey

I was offered a taste of the meat, blackened on the outside, rare within. The buffalo meat was tough and fibrous, which was not surprising as it had been alive little more than an hour earlier.

Some seasoning might have been nice but this was certainly one of the more exotic forms of railway catering I have ever encountered.

At least the buffalo did not die in vain. By the time a rescue train arrived, several hours later, there was little of them left, save for odd piles of offal and bones scattered over the concrete railway sleepers.

Everything edible had been carried off to the pots and fires of the remote trackside villages.

We eventually arrived at Victoria Falls at lunchtime after a 17-hour journey through the heart of today's Zimbabwe.

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SEE ALSO
Audio slideshow: Zimbabwe at 30
19 Apr 10 |  Special Reports
Country profile: Zimbabwe
07 May 11 |  Country profiles

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