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The Last Train From Victoria Falls


ISSUE:  Autumn 1997

Paul Theroux is my favorite travel writer. He goes places that I imagine going to—remote, alien places such as Mongolia or Sri Lanka or John O’Groats—but don’t really want to visit. He is an intrepid traveler; I am closer to the Accidental Tourist. He is sardonic about traveling even though he obviously loves it. I read every travel book of his I can find, and one time my wife Susan and I had the serendipitous experience of reading, in Theroux’s The Kingdom By The Sea, a description of an island off the eastern coast of England at the precise moment that our train was passing by it.

Theroux has written a lot about traveling by train. He has also lived in Africa. So far as I can recall he has never written about taking a train in Africa. I never wondered why until I took a train from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to Pretoria, South Africa. Now I think I know why.

I

Susan and I have done a lot of traveling, almost exclusively in what is euphemistically called the “first world.” That is not by accident. I have usually been the travel planner, and I have a recurrent instinct that Second or Third World travel and I are not too compatible. When our 30th anniversary came up, Susan wanted to go on an African camera safari. I wanted to go to Italy. We compromised on a trip that included a game reserve near Kruger Park in South Africa but also featured Cape Town and Stellenbosch. The highlight of the trip for me was going to be a “first-class” train ride which would begin at Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe/Zambia border and wind down through Zimbabwe and Bostwana for two scenic days, with good food, a large compartment, and the romance of Orient Express-style train travel.

We had taken some marvelous trains in the past: the TransEuropean Express and several on British Rail. I share Theroux’s view of planes as cramped cocoons, suspended from time, while trains are relaxing idylls that nonetheless give one a sense of progressing somewhere. I also like the effortless punctuality of certain European trains. In my pre-trip imagination the Victoria Falls train ran on a comparably perfect schedule.

II

I was apprehensive about traveling to Africa because of some inarticulate feeling that it was a menacing place. I associated the menacing feeling largely with malaria-carrying mosquitos and strange, undiagnosable viruses. Advance warnings had also surfaced about the rising crime rate in South African cities. All the more reason to have those two days on the first-class Victoria Falls train.

In my world as a writer, the line between imagination and reality is constantly blurred, so I can’t trace precisely the sources of my perception, which surfaced almost immediately after arriving in South Africa, that the African continent was even more menacing than I had feared. I was not prepared for the utter wildness of the animals in the game reserve. Our only experiences with undomesticated animals had been in zoos, and although we thought of ourselves—and still do—as animal lovers, we had never experienced a bull elephant or a pair of young lions or a pack of wild dogs in their habitat. I had never seen an elephant who did not appear docile; this bull looked at our Land Rover as if he were going to charge it. The lions got so close we could have touched them. They slid their tongues across the front of their mouths. The wild dogs appeared friendly and curious, coming right up to our Rover. In the ranger’s searchlight I saw their teeth. They were like those of the raptors in Jurassic Park.

At siesta time in the game reserve hut, I picked up the South Africa-India cricket match as a distancing mechanism. But baboons loped by and poked around the hut. It was the animals’ territory, and we were novice interlopers. I tried to learn some Zulu words for the animals as an accommodating device. Learning languages has always been a help to me while traveling. But calling a male lion “Mdodah” wasn’t going to help in the bush.

The feeling of menace continued. I got bitten by a mosquito. I came down with a fever. By the time I left the game reserve I had had enough sense impressions for an entire trip. Susan was in a state of bliss. We took a plane from Phalaborwa to Victoria Falls via Johannesburg. We flew through a thunderstorm. I went up to the cockpit to calm down. I arrived in Victoria Falls without my suitcase, stolen somewhere en route. The airline attendant just shrugged.

Vic Falls, as residents of southern Africa call it, provided a temporary respite from the menace in the air. Our hotel, reportedly seedy and on the decline, was a pleasant surprise. Since I had no clothes, we couldn’t eat dinner in the formal dining room, which we found the next morning offered bad food, nonexistent service, and the kind of atmosphere associated with a Carribean hotel catering to wealthy tourists where the gratuities have already been included.

We had a great walk around the cliffs overlooking the famous Victoria Falls, which the explorer Henry Stanley correctly described as a sight of indescribable beauty and power. The Zimbabwean government raised the admission prices from $2 to $20 per person to celebrate the December holiday season, demanded Zimbabwean currency, and gave us 10 entry permits, each as a little joke, but we gladly accepted the ripoff. I had developed an overwhelming thirst for bottled water, and it was the perfect companion for both of us during the climb.

Unfortunately I had to buy clothes. Susan took over and somehow managed to come up with a fairly decent array of things to tide me over for the next two days on the train. The train’s brochure had billed the trip as one in which “Gentlemen often wear dinner jackets in the dining car, although that is optional.” I had not brought a dinner jacket, and was doubly glad since it would have been stolen. But I thought I at least needed a blazer, shirts, and a tie. Susan came up with those, a pair of shoes, and other necessities in what to me, sitting dazed in the heat of the Victoria Falls stores, was a virtuoso performance. Of course I completely lost face with the male clerks—not only did my wife pick out and pay for my clothes but I just sat vacantly, looking 40 years her senior—but at least there were no mosquitoes in the stores. Africa had not yet vanquished me, and we were ready for the train. We laughed about how lucky it was that Susan’s bag hadn’t been stolen. I didn’t laugh at the time about having had to wear her clothes.

III

The brochure said that the train ride would be “launched with a ‘champaign’ reception at Victoria Falls.” We weren’t apprehensive despite the spelling error. We expected the reception to take place at the hotel, which was about 500 yards from the railroad station. Having showered and changed into “suitable” clothes, we were ready for a drink.

Instead we were presented with one of the clearest omens I have experienced. The “champaign reception” was not held in the hotel, but on the railroad platform. The temperature was about 90, and the sun was blazing. When we arrived, there did not seem to be any tourist-type passengers on the platform. A long, impeccably polished train stood with all its compartment windows shut. We walked toward it, a porter helping us with Susan’s large bag and a makeshift bag with my clothes. As we walked down the platform, on either side of us black residents of Zimbabwe waited to meet passengers arriving on another train. That train was dirty and crowded, without air conditioning. Its passengers stood in the windows, looking out for their friends or relatives or just looking at the station. We felt as if they were all looking at us, white American tourists with a porter, entering a luxurious-appearing train parked on a track paralleling the local train. Susan said, “I really feel uncomfortable.” I couldn’t decide whether to feel embarassed or scared, and chose to feel both.

The “trainmaster” of our train came up and greeted us by name. We later learned that he did that because we were the last passengers to get on at Victoria Falls; the champagne reception had been moved inside the train because of the heat; and the management wanted to know why the Whites hadn’t shown up for the reception. But I felt at the time that the greeting proved what a classy outfit the train company was. Susan just wanted to get off the platform as quickly as possible.

The trainmaster then introduced us to lan, who was to take us and our bags to our compartment, which was several cars down the line. We walked with lan past the crowds on the platform, cringing inwardly, until he identified our car. He then helped us with our luggage and ushered us into a compartment where the air conditioning had inadvertantly been turned off. It was completely dark, and so was the entire railroad car. There was no one else in the car. Susan later said that it was exactly like being shown into an oven.lan then disappeared.

I suggested that Susan stand in the door of the car to get some fresh air while I found the trainmaster. He had disappeared, but another trainmaster was visible at the far end of the platform. I eventually returned with him, and he showed us how to turn on the lights (no mean trick in complete darkness) in our compartment. He also turned on the air conditioning. It turned out that the train had been on the Victoria Falls platform for four hours, so, given that the windows were completely shut with shutters drawn, the door of our compartment was closed, and the weather outside in the 90’s, it took quite a while for the temperature in our compartment to get below 95 degrees. The trainmaster suggested that perhaps we might want to go to the observation car, where the rest of the passengers apparently were having “champaign.”

The observation car was filled with smoke, not a good sign for militant nonsmokers, but it at least had an open-air platform at its end. Unfortunately the view from the platform was a view of the local train and the crowds on the Victoria Falls platform. Everyone in the observation car was a white tourist having a drink. Were we the only people bothered by the juxtaposition of affluent tourism and the visible poverty of the onlookers on the platform? Was I the only person in the car expecting to be assaulted from sheer rage or contempt? In fact the black Africans in the local train and on the Victoria Falls platform had seen that juxtaposition many times before. If some were angry or contemptuous, they never showed it. But the atmosphere of menace had powerfully returned for me.

The train was mainly populated with Brits. Not all the passengers were British, but the ones that were not spoke Afrikans, and we don’t. We only made the acquaintance of three couples during our trip, and they all knew one another. They were Brits with grammer school accents, self-made men and their wives, on holiday, playing some golf, taking the train all the way to Cape Town. One couple actually lived in Cape Town for part of the year and spent the other part on the island of Crete in a “colony of Brits.” The man had made his money in England and had met his younger wife there. He had the kind of ruddy face that comes with regular exposure to the sun, burnished by regular drinking. There were several other Brits on the train, a collection of types. One couple had public school accents, which we rarely heard because they didn’t speak aloud much in public, sitting for long periods in the observation or dining cars in silence. We had experienced this custom of public silence in England before, but the couple looked daggers at each other from time to time and we wondered if there had been some falling out.

As it turned out only Susan’s equanimity kept the Whites from having a falling out of their own. Little by little my illusion of “first-class” train travel from Victoria Falls to Pretoria began to unravel. I would like to blame the situation on my being sick, which I was for the whole trip. Or perhaps on being scared by a combination of fever, running low on my asthma prophylactic, and the abiding sense of menace. Or just generally on myself. But the truth is that the train trip had a lot to do with it.

We were scheduled to leave Victoria Falls at 6 P. M. , but didn’t leave until about 7:30, with no explanation ever given. More fundamentally, no explanation for anything that happened or did not happen on the train was ever voluntarily given to passengers. There was no functioning intercom on the train. The list of the train’s itinerary, available in our room, bore no relationship to what actually transpired. The train ran hours behind schedule for the entire trip, and eventually we had to get off well before Pretoria in order to make an airline connection at Johannesburg.

The “schedule” had us passing through Zimbabwe in the night and arriving at Bulawayo, a medium-sized city, shortly after breakfast. After talking to the Brits in the observation car until the train finally left Victoria Falls, we went to our room to unpack and get changed for dinner. I had nothing to change into, but Susan did. When we went into the dining car, all the two-person tables were taken. The headwaitress looked like we had ruined her trip by asking to be seated by ourselves at a four-person table, even though no one else came in the dining car after us. The dinner was cold, my meat gristly, and the service abominable. The staff was either vacant, affirmatively unpleasant, or patronizing, contemptuous of the rich drunken tourists they expected to be serving.

The only pleasant part for me was observing how the men were dressed. Our British acquaintances all had on dinner jackets. One rather large male non-British passenger wore an open shirt, no coat, and no tie. The rest of the non-Brits wore sport coats of various types. The next day I held forth on men’s attitudes toward clothes with the man who lives in Crete and Cape Town. I asserted that men are very interested in clothes but don’t admit it; that subtle differences in men’s dress are widely noticed by other men, and significance attached to them; and that I could tell a lot about the other male passengers—at least the British ones—by what they had worn to the dining car. He looked at me as if he hoped I wouldn’t be in his company much more.

In the night Susan and I learned again why we haven’t enjoyed overnight trains. Despite a large, comfortable bed, the air conditioning having taken effect, and absolute darkness, we got almost no sleep. The train first stopped, without any warning, for hours. Then it started up, stopped, and started up again in a completely arhythmic pattern. Then the cars shook violently and crashing noises were heard. At one point, after a particularly loud series of crashes, which felt as if our car was a domino being besieged on all sides by other dominos, I heard a radio blaring and laughter in the night. I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I was on an overnight train in Africa.

This nighttime scenario continued for the entire trip. I am sure I must have slept some, but I can’t remember when. Susan slept off and on, but then I would wake her up in some kind of frenzy or delirium.

Nights were matched in awfulness by the days. The train was obviously running late—we got to Bulawayo at about 1 P.M. instead of 8 A. M. —but no one seemed to be able to say why. I could not find any train personnel who knew where we were on the route. At one point I saw some wildlife out the window. When I asked if we were going through a game reserve, or just in the wild, the two staff members I asked said they didn’t know where we were. I eventually found out that the train had no cellular phone service in Zimbabwe and Botswana, as well as no intercom, so even if I had gotten so exasperated as to demand that someone from outside the train tell us where we were, that couldn’t have happened. I wondered what would happen if I got really sick. Or had an asthma attack. Or got bitten by the Giant Mosquito.

We stopped for a “tour” of Bulawayo, which the train’s brochure had prominently featured. The tour was supposed to include a visit to an animal shelter, which pleased Susan (I was too zonked to be pleased by anything). But we ran so late that the tour was shortened to a half-hour’s drive through Bulawayo. Bulawayo was an interesting town: Cecil Rhodes, who has his footprints all over southern Africa, had designed the town’s streets to be wide enough to accommodate railroad cars, so Bulawayo allegedly has the widest streets in Africa. It also has some beautiful architecture and a lovely park. We stopped briefly at a wildlife museum and had fun indentifying the animals we had seen in the game reserve. At least until I felt I was going to pass out. I walked back to the train as if I was now much more than 40 years older than Susan.

After Bulawayo things became sort of a blur, with my trying to sleep and increasingly getting on Susan’s nerves. The train staff actually perked up a little on realizing I was sick, and were pretty nice about it. But they still could never furnish any information about where we were or how late we were running. They kept talking about things becoming clearer at the border. I thought they meant the Bostwana border. It turned out they meant the South Africa border, which we reached about half an hour before Susan and I had to get off the train.

A pleasant meal with the couple from Crete was the only stitch in the unraveling. At 5:15 on our last morning on the train I woke Susan up. I had decided that I probably had malaria and that I would be quarantined, stuck in a hospital somewhere in South Africa, and would not be able to go home to see my children at Christmas. I announced that we were going to have to leave the country immediately, and I was going to find someone, have them get in touch with a travel agent, and make the arrangements.

Susan suggested that I was not going to be quarantined and that I should let her go back to sleep. I decided to humor her. I waited unitl she seemed to be asleep, then got up, put on her bathrobe, and began to walk the corridors in search of someone to contact a travel agent. I walked the entire length of the train—some 15 cars—until I reached the car where the staff slept. At that point something told me that actually waking up a staff member at 5:25 A.M.to discuss my urgent travel plans was not entirely rational. I walked back to our room, hoping to run into someone on the way. Fortunately I never did.

IV

By noon on that day it was obvious we were not going to make our airline connection to Cape Town if we continued on the train to Pretoria. The trainmaster arrived, and he and I discussed options. We decided that Susan and I would get off the train at Magaliesburg, a town close to the South Africa border with Botswana.(I had never seen any of Botswana that I could identify during the trip, even though we traveled through a lot of it, but I guess that was because I was about to be quarantined). We actually arrived at Magliesburg only a little later than the trainmaster said we would, and his cellular phone was working.

When we pulled into the Magaliesburg station I decided that by god nobody was going to steal any more of our bags. I resolved to watch our bags like a hawk. Unfortunately the trainmaster opened the window of our compartment and threw the bags out onto the ground. They just sat there. The person who had been retained by the train company to pick us up and drive us to the Johannesburg airport didn’t seem to be around. Eventually, however, he showed up, and I scrambled out of the train and stood guard over the bags while Susan tried to see some humor in the situation and the trainmaster hovered around. The driver said to the trainmaster that he was going to take us to Soweto, right? (Soweto is a former settlement colony from the apartheid days that is now regarded as too dangerous for tourists to visit without bodyguards). I could tell he was joking. I said that sometimes I liked jokes and sometimes not. The trainmaster seemed to laugh, maybe because he was getting rid of me.

Why did I think that the train from Victoria Falls to Pretoria would be so great? Why didn’t I realize that Susan and I would hate the “colonial experience,” especially in a jaded, clumsy train version? Why didn’t I figure out that a brochure advertising a “safari by train” should have been a tipoff of disaster ahead? Why didn’t I expect that the staff on such a train would be patronizing, rude, indifferent, and completely uninformative? Why didn’t I research the train trip more carefully?

If I had I would have found out that the company that runs this train has no railroad privileges in Zimbabwe and Botswana. Their “first-class” train has to yield to every government local on the tracks. They aren’t permitted to have cellular communications. They allegedly aren’t even the parent company that offers the train rides, but a lessee of that company, and Victoria Falls-Pretoria is their only route. They are the dregs of the “first-class” train’s offerings. No one tells customers that, of course. Instead the staff apparently figures that affluent white tourists will just ride through Zimbabwe and Botswana in a drunken haze, eating mediocre food, not caring where they are, where they are going, or when they will get there. After all, the tourists are on holiday, and they don’t really want to see Africa anyway.

Maybe my perception of Africa as being menacing to outsiders has some basis in reality, and is reflected in the first class Victoria Falls train and its shadow local.

I hope to go back to Africa, despite those feelings of continental menace. But not on any overnight train. That was the last train from Victoria Falls for me.

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