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Cape to Cairo Railway Journey

African Rail Adventures -


The vast dunes of the 2,000 km long Namib Desert stretching along the southwest African coastline, appeared to be swallowed by the onrushing waves of the South Atlantic Ocean minutes after the South African Airways Boeing 747 made its sharp left turn over heading for Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg.

Cover of George Tabor’s book

describing in detail historical features

of the route

Africa was then first revealed to me and was welcome after the long flight over the ocean from New York. The vast sea of sand and rock stretched to infinity across South West Africa (Namibia) and brought tears of amazement to my eyes. I had crossed the rock desert wastelands of the Nubian Desert in northern Sudan but I was not prepared for the sight of the endless Kalahari sands covering more than half of the width of the African continent. 1981 was the beginning of my African adventure; a three – year contract turned into a thirty – year stay in the country, eventually culminating in the accomplishment of a fantasy rail journey, from Cape Town to Cairo.

South Africa was an unknown quantity to me; these were the dark years of apartheid and it was impossible for me not to be “tainted” in the minds of some people for my willingness to live and work in that country. While this made me somewhat apprehensive at the same time added a necessary ingredient of excitement to my coming years in this region. I did know that South Africa was a great railway country and the starting point of Cecil Rhodes's dream of a Cape to Cairo Railway.

On the day I arrived in South Africa in November, 1981, I unpacked the treasure I had been carrying with me since purchasing them for about 200 pounds from an obscure book shop in Central London near Marble Arch: “The Story of the Great Cape to Cairo Rail and River Route from 1887 to 192[1]”. This massive tome weighs more than 25 pounds and some editions have sold for more than $4,600. From that moment, I set myself a goal of traveling this route from Cape Town to Cairo, by rail as much as possible, following the route set down by Cecil John Rhodes.

The idea of a railway bisecting the continent of Africa longitudinally has been the dream of men since the latter part of the 19th century, as the European powers began to carve up sections of the "dark continent" for long term political advantage.

Through his private business holdings in southern Africa, Cecil Rhodes exhibited imperialistic ambitions of his own. He attempted to secure vast land concessions east and north of Bechuanaland (on South Africa’s western border, later to become Botswana), and wanted the British government to give him a charter so that his company could govern the lands between the Limpopo and the Zambezi Rivers. He soon began touting the idea of expanding Britain’s imperialistic goals through construction of the railway, from the Cape to Cairo.

The body of Cecil John Rhodes, as per his wishes, still lies in the ground of the country which took his name (Rhodesia, later becoming Zimbabwe upon independence), amidst the bleak beauty of the rock-strewn Matopos Hills, just 25 kilometers south east of Bulawayo. My visit to the site was an emotional experience - the huge round boulders standing eternal watch over the grave site as the wind swished over the rugged surface, bending ever slightly the nearby thorn trees and scrub beneath a blue April sky. In every direction, only canyons of giant rocks, piled to seemingly impossible contortions, helped the wind play the natural symphony of sound. Mozambique lay to the east, and to the northwest. The Builder and Dreamer must undoubtedly lie content at this tranquil, yet strategic gateway to southern Africa and the routes to the North.

Along the length of the continent, there still are remnants of this north/south railway and it is possible to travel from south to north, covering nearly 80% the total distance by rail. There is enough historical significance and present-day fascination with the route to make the journey worth undertaking. So I decided to do it.

The early morning sun transformed the north slope of Table Mountain into a flowing green velvet carpet while further, the rock-strewn craggy face of the mountain just above the cableway station presided over another bright summer Cape Town Monday morning. "Morning baas" was the cheery uninhibited bilingual greeting from arriving commuters flowing out from the "other" Cape Town railway station. This “other” station served the masses of third class commuters (coloreds, in South African racial terms), segregating them from the white first class passengers. The inbound throng made its way to the office blocks and shops of the Mother city for another day's work.

Walking past the hurrying commuters in the opposite direction, I felt not a small sense of superiority. These unfortunate souls were looking forward to another work week in their offices or shops and I was less than an hour away from boarding the Trans - Karoo Express and beginning what has been my obsession for nearly ten years since I first arrived in South Africa - and it was now about to begin.

My journey would take me up the throat of Africa, across its vast deserts, along its greatest rivers and through the vast areas of scrubland and jungle in between; all of this riding on the continent's finest, and sometimes most deplorable, railway systems.

A couple of days’ later I had my first glimpse of the mountainous cloud of spray from Victoria Falls at Jafuta Siding as the train stopped to quench the NRZ Garrett's thirst for the last time. The Victoria Falls Hotel, the elegantly well preserved grand old lady of Zimbabwe hotels, is just a two-minute walk from the station platform and a fantastic African hotel adventure, if only for one night. The hotel is located just meters away from the steep slope of the Zambezi River gorge, just downstream from the falls, with roar and rising spray from the cascading waterfall visible as I enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast on the hotel’s veranda. After an overnight stay at this magnificent hotel set in what surely is one of the world's most spectacular geographic settings, I set out on foot over the famous rail/road bridge over the Zambezi River into Zambia to catch the northbound Zambia Railways express to Ndola.

Primarily because of the Sudd, there is no rail connection between Nairobi and the Sudan. The Sudd is a vast swampy inland delta of the Nile River in South Sudan that has been a barrier to transport for centuries. Since the time of Julius Caesar, the Sudd region has successfully blocked European expeditions up the length of the Nile. This blockage to travel, along with the unstable security situation in South Sudan, prompted me to fly from Nairobi to Khartoum as a prelude to the last leg of my journey.

It was nearly midnight in Atbara; the Khartoum-bound express should have left hours ago but I was one of two passengers waiting in the sleeping car parked in the freight yard to be attached to a string of empty oil tank wagons for the trip to Khartoum; the other passenger was a very drunk Sudan Railways official. This inebriated official was soon catapulted through the door of the toilet as the shunting locomotive slammed our coach hard against the tank wagons, making our Khartoum-bound train complete. “That is travel on the Sudan Railways” he slurred, after unceremoniously picking himself up out of the toilet.

So I dragged my way up the throat of Africa, boarding every available northbound train, traveling with some sense of history of the region, and observing what it had become with the passage of time, and changing politics. My first step was to walk into the Cape Town station, and buy a ticket. I met a variety of passengers along the way: from the white Zimbabwe racist on the train who was escaping a jail sentence in South Africa, to my Matabele “guide”, to whom I simply asked directions, but he insisted on walking with me through the streets of Bulawayo to show me the location of the Bulawayo Sun Hotel. There were countless other helpful, outgoing and friendly Africans, railway and government officials as well as ordinary passengers, who showed me the way and shared their thoughts many times during my travels. One Zimbabwe gentleman in the dining car asked if I could buy for him a car in the US and to ship to him? I found that the Cape to Cairo rail journey a truly fascinating adventure. At no time did I feel threatened with bodily harm, nor did I suffer from the variety of taste and quality of the food. It was truly a journey through the calliope of races, customs and traditions that make up the peoples of the eastern half of Africa.

In spite of some neglect of infrastructure and corrupt governments, the rail lines do exist and anyone can just buy a ticket and ride. Timekeeping and connections are not assured, but guaranteed are fascinating personal insights into the character of the African people and the quiet satisfaction of sitting back in your railway compartment and watching Africa roll past the window.

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