The History of Southern Africa, by Train
It’s the best way to make sense of the continent’s epic
scope, wild splendor and bloody colonial history.
original here (with photos)
JUST A FEW HOURS INTO our train ride, we know the passengers in the cabins on either side of ours: On one side are two young Canadians on a monthslong, round-the-world backpacking trip. On the other are four middle-aged women on a trading expedition from their towns in Zambia to Dar es Salaam, where they’ll buy supplies for their shops, including clothes and spare parts for cars. They’re not waiting to get to Dar to get started: At every whistle-stop town along the way, vendors try to sell things through the window — often produce at prices far below those in the Tanzanian metropolis. So the women are stocking up on items they can sell for a profit when we arrive in a day or two: tomatoes, oranges, passion fruit, boiled peanuts and, just this morning, roasted caterpillars.
Much of this trading takes place in the corridor outside our cabins. Chilesi, one of the Zambian women, tells me what’s good, and what to pay. Yesterday: “That papaya. Five hundred shillings,” or about 25 cents. Today: “No, don’t buy the caterpillars. Just try mine.” She has bought a plastic bag containing three or four pounds of the roasted amber morsels. I pop one in my mouth. It’s lightly salted. “Mm,” I say, and make a face. She and her travelmates laugh.
Later, something will blow through an open window and lodge in Chilesi’s eye. An hour passes and it’s still there, so the call goes out for help: One of the Canadians has contact-lens solution, and we have eye drops. And later yet, when Chilesi’s better, the ladies will gather in the corridor in a happy mood and sing as the train rumbles through the Tanzanian night. As they harmonize, we realize it’s church music.
THERE’S SOMETHING about trains. They’re laid out in a way that lets you move around — if you get tired of your seat, your car or your companions, alternatives are close at hand. What’s more, unlike an airplane, trains often tell a story of national ambition, and when you’re on one, you’re a part of that story. Cross the American West on Amtrak and it’s hard not to think of the transcontinental railroad, binding the coasts together in 1869. Ride the Trans- Siberian Railway, which traverses seven time zones, and you get a sense of both the majesty of Russia and the sheer vastness of the earth. Those who rode the Orient Express, from Paris to Istanbul, could feel a part of elegant old Europe, with a homicidal frisson of Agatha Christie lurking in the next car. When I was 22, I spent four months hopping freight trains in the American West, traveling with hobos. I was conducting ethnographic research for my undergraduate thesis — which eventually became the subject of my first book — but I was also living out a romantic chapter of American history, because in the DNA of freight trains resides Jack London, country music and the mythos of the West.
Africa has trains too, and I wanted a chance to ride them. The main lines in sub-Saharan Africa tell the story of British colonialism. There’s the train from Mombasa, Kenya, to Uganda (nicknamed “the Lunatic Express”), which was established in 1896 as a way to consolidate what was then British East Africa. An even more ambitious project was that of the 19th-century mining magnate Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company, which leveraged its wealth from gold and diamonds into dominion over vast areas of southern Africa. Rhodes built rail lines north from Cape Town, eventually crossing the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls and reaching all the way to present-day Congo. But his ambition stretched far beyond: He dreamed of creating rail and telegraph connections from Cape Town to Cairo that would tie together two edges of Africa. (At its peak in the 1920s, Britain did briefly claim an unbroken chain of territories between the two.) Rhodes died in 1902 at age 48, and his railway never even reached the halfway point. Even so, the phrase “Cape to Cairo” retains some sort of incantatory power, Rhodes’s unrealized version of Manifest Destiny.
In her memoir about growing up in Rhodesia in the 1970s, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller wrote:
Up through South Africa, the train labored in the heat … slicing on hot wheels, ever north. This was where Cecil John Rhodes had intended for we British to go. From Cape to Cairo had been his dream. One long stain of British territory up the spine of Africa.
Fuller’s family decided to leave the country after the civil war. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and their farm was sold off in 1982. Now the Africans are in charge, conflicted about their inheritance — imperialism was not about love. Lately, South Africa has been agonizing over images of Rhodes in particular. Last year, after a statue of him at the University of Cape Town was splattered with human feces during a protest, a South African Rhodes scholar who had graduated from Rhodes University wrote in The Times about “the aesthetic and moral assault on one’s entire being that occurs when a black person walks across a campus covered with statues and monuments that celebrate colonial conquerors as heroes.” The statue was eventually removed. Someone attacked the bust of Rhodes at nearby Table Mountain National Park a few months later, removing its nose with a grinder after failing to cut off its head.
It was soon after that my wife, Margot, and I arrived in Cape Town from New York and checked into a dreamy hotel perched on a hillside overlooking the sea where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic; we could see pods of whales passing by. Although many people who visit Africa head straight to a safari lodge, our trip would be different: two weeks rolling on trains northeast to Dar es Salaam via Victoria Falls, from South Africa into Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, over 3,000 miles in all. Other rail lines exist but ours would get us the farthest north in the shortest time. The rides would be wildly various: We would whipsaw between luxury and something closer to freight-hopping. And along the way, we would see the land from a different perspective — literally, of course. But our conveyance would also be inseparable from the continent’s history and struggle to forge a different kind of present.
TO BOARD A TRAIN in Cape Town is to follow a well-trodden path: It’s what colonists did in the 19th century, disembarking steamships from England and Europe en route to centers of wealth such as Kimberley, which started producing diamonds in 1871, and Johannesburg, where gold was found in 1886. None did it more lavishly than Rhodes himself, whose personal coach now gathers dust in a museum in Zimbabwe. But a tourist can approximate it today, as we did, with an overnight trip on the Blue Train.
The experience is both comfortable and discomfiting. Walking with your fellow passengers from a private waiting room in the station onto the train itself is to feel the 21st century collapse into the 19th; we were back in colonial days, pampered members of the ruling race. The Blue Train is the fanciest train I have ever seen. Its exterior is painted lushly in its eponymous color; inside there is a lot of lacquered Italian birch and custom marquetry, and brass fittings galore. Margot and I sat across from each other in our cabin’s club chairs, gazing out of our big, clean window. The rough exurbs of Cape Town yielded to an amber veld with patches of irrigated green; hills rose and fell. We were rolling to Pretoria, the seat of South Africa’s executive branch of government, and the ride was awesomely quiet — quite a feat for an old train.
Our fellow passengers were an older, prosperous crowd, mostly British and Afrikaner, and mainly Caucasian. All the butlers, waiters, bartenders, kitchen and other low-level employees were black, as were the two armed guards who stepped outside the train at every sunny stop. Three of our 52 fellow passengers were black South African — a mother and her two adult children. The daughter explained to us that their mother had been saving for the trip for years.
At dinnertime, the Blue Train aspires to the grandeur of “Downton Abbey”: Women are instructed to dress in “elegant evening wear” and men must wear coat and tie. The spirit of upper-class occasion was reinforced by the almost baroque servility of the waiters.
“Ma’am-sir, good evening,” said ours. “This is Goodhope.” He was referring to himself. “Sorry to leave you alone. Will you be having wine?” Margot and I were sharing a table with a retired English couple, the Waterses, and we all said yes. “Goodhope will return,” he said, with a slight bow.
After the meal, we found that our cabin had been transformed: Our butler had lowered our beds from the wall and carefully made them, turning back a corner of each duvet. Electric mini-blinds covered the window; the lighting was golden and low. We found a movie on the room’s little TV, turned off the lights and opened the blinds so we could see the stars. The tracks clicked by beneath us, this train an instrument not of empire, but of tourism.
THE NEXT MORNING, waking earlier than I might have liked, I was rewarded with a view of thousands of flamingos in a shallow lake, a flurry of pink and white. As the day unfolded, landscapes, all different, appeared outside our window. Whereas on the first day, farmland had morphed into the vineyards of South Africa’s Cape Winelands district, bright green foliage over red soil, and then into sere Karoo with sagebrush reminiscent of prairies of the American West, the second day presented wild plains gradually yielding to populated lowlands. We were due to pass within sight of Soweto, the township and major suburb of Johannesburg. But heavy train traffic and delays led to a rerouting; instead of Soweto we passed by a different side of Jo’burg, often going quite slowly, sometimes creeping alongside the great city’s not-in-the-least-bit luxurious commuter trains with their open windows and open doors, packed with dark- skinned workers who stared at our train and us, sealed inside it.
We would end up arriving in Pretoria at 6:40 p.m. instead of 12:40 p.m., but the Blue Train was a pleasant place to be stuck. I spent a couple of those hours chatting with a staff member who lived in Soweto and was proud of it. “It has the only street in the world with the homes of two Nobel Peace Prize winners — Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.” I wanted to talk about the fate of the Rhodes statues but he demurred; employees, he said, were under strict instructions not to discuss politics with the guests. But he did allow that his country’s constitution was “still young — just 20 years. This will take time.” I commented on how stunningly quiet the train was. He explained that was partly due to its double-glazed windows, which also prevented stones from coming in. I raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, sometimes children throw them. They may break the outside window, but they won’t break the inside.”
“Why do they throw stones?”
“Well, to some the Blue Train is still a symbol of apartheid.”
That made sense. Our lavishly comfortable car with its armed guards and passengers in formal attire had just passed one of those stopped commuter trains crammed with workers. But I also knew better than to draw a deep moral out of this. When I had been catching the rails with the hobos, I had to dodge rocks thrown by kids through the boxcars’ open doors. People throw stones at Amtrak trains as well — investigators once considered it a possible cause of a wreck in Philadelphia in 2015. So the stone-throwing might be apartheid — but it might also be the temptation of the train itself.
FROM PRETORIA, Rhodes’s rail line continues north, through present-day Botswana to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. From there, the route angles northwest to Victoria Falls, crossing the Zambezi River into Zambia. After two days on the Blue Train, we flew from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, and a very different country.
Zimbabwe’s economy suffered a near-collapse between 2007 to 2009, from which it’s yet to recover. Today, the most imposing building in Bulawayo belongs to the National Railways of Zimbabwe. But its profile belies its actual power: Freight carried by the railway declined from 18 million tons in 1998 to roughly 2.5 million tons in 2015. The station itself is semi-decrepit. Tickets are sold only on the day of departure; though we arrived before the ticket office opened we still had to stand in line for most of an hour: many people, one clerk.
It was a relief to finally settle in our compartment, but we soon noticed problems. Several of the lights inside the train didn’t work. The window, presently open, was nearly impossible to close. A tiny wash basin, cleverly hidden by a folding table, looked like it hadn’t worked for years. And pretty much everything in the compartment was filthy — Margot ran a hand wipe along the leatherette seat and it turned black: We had been spoiled by the Blue Train.
That night, I drifted into a fitful sleep, but Margot stayed up. The train made many, many stops, during which it became clear that it was a lifeline to villages that had no other connection to the outside world. “There’s a guy outside on a donkey cart!” she exclaimed around 2 a.m. By morning, this train to one of the world’s great tourist destinations was basically empty except for us; everyone else had gotten off somewhere along the way.
While Rhodes had aimed to lay rail north from Victoria Falls, toward Lake Victoria, about 1,200 miles away, the landlocked Zambians had a different goal: connecting to a port. In 1970, six years after independence and with the aid of China and the partnership of neighboring Tanzania, they built their own, the Tazara Railway, that headed 1,156 miles northeast to Dar es Salaam.
The Zambian terminus of this project is the grand railroad station in tiny Kapiri Mposhi. One of its best features, from our point of view, was its first-class waiting room. That lounge, with its upholstered furniture, portraits of the presidents of Zambia and Tanzania, and private bathroom, was where we met Chilesi, Catherine and the others who would share our first-class car to Dar. With about three hours to kill before departure, we exchanged food (our Clif bars, their fruit) and told stories. The Zambian women showed Margot how to wrap the fabric she had bought into a skirt. In short, we became friendly before the train ever left — the perfect prelude to a rail journey.
The train had linen service and offered meals in our compartment, as well — typically eggs for breakfast and chicken and rice at other times, all of it cheap and homey. The Chinese-made coaches, though showing their age, were cleaner than the train cars in Zimbabwe; even better, the windows worked.
Just as the Blue Train had slowed on its approach to Johannesburg and Pretoria, so too did the Tazara creep into Dar es Salaam. The advertised noon arrival somehow slipped to 11:30 p.m. We didn’t mind terribly much, except that I was worried we wouldn’t be met at the station by the driver we’d arranged for in advance. The end of a long train journey is like the end of a dream: You must leave the cocoon, the private compartment and the separate experience of time and space, and rejoin reality — in this case, a big African city we didn’t know. No more contemplating history; it was time to fend for ourselves in the present. For our Canadian friends, the dream ended before the train even came to a stop: Taxi drivers leaned in through the windows, wanting to know where they were going. We marched with trepidation onto the dimly lit platform. Colorful lights and music greeted us as we approached the station: the station’s restaurant was hosting a wedding party. A short tunnel led to the street; we waded into the throng. Two or three signs with names on them were being waved in the air, and I was stunned to see one with our name. The driver had waited 11 and a half hours for us; I practically hugged him. “You’re here!” I said.
“Yes, sir,” he said, reaching for our bags. His car was old and beat up. It was beautiful.