Rain, floods, inundated plains
and a lone passenger
train surrounded by water; a paddle steamer pushing its way against the current
of a mighty river in full spate. The place: Mozambique, the year 1934.
I was a schoolgirl then, going home from Rhodesia to Nyasaland
for the Christmas holidays. The train journey normally lasted two days and two
nights, travelling on three different railway systems: The Rhodesia, The Beira and The Nyasaland Railways.
The route was Salisbury to Umtali overnight,
Umtali to Dondo Junction outside Beira all day, spending the second night at Dondo in the coaches. Next day we continued to the Zambezi River and thence to Nyasaland, arriving in the afternoon.
The engines belched black coal smoke
which found its way into the coaches, leaving a film of soot which was accepted as an uncomfortable fact of life on a train
journey in Central East Africa.
In those days there were no catering
facilities on the Rhodesia Railways. Breakfast was always at Browns Hotel in Umtali and to this day I remember tearing up the hill with
my companions, cramming ourselves with bacon and eggs and eating until the last minute, sometimes
lingering to the extent that the engine driver gave a "toot-toot" summoning us back.
this trip we changed from the Rhodesian line to the Beira Railways after breakfast and set off in pouring rain. The passing scenery did not interest us and it was only later as we approached the Pungwe Flats
we began to realise something was amiss. The train slowed down to a walking pace then
stopped. As there was no station or siding
we rushed to the corridors and windows to see
scene was astonishing. All around was
water stretching to the horizon. The only part not under water was the raised portion of the
this was suspect as gangers were out in front bolstering sleepers and shoring up the banks.
Doggedly the engine crept along, starting and stopping whilst the gangers went ahead. It is only now that I realise the
line must have been in a dangerous condition
for such a procedure.
and there in that vast expanse of dirty water, detached roofs of huts sailed by on a
sluggish current. All kinds of
dead antelope and little creatures bloated and repulsive floated alongside domestic cattle
and goats. At times the stench was nauseating. Huge uprooted trees bobbed up
and down, roots thrusting skywards undignified in death.
for the murmuring of water lapping the embankment the whole of nature was silent. Here was a vast lake
where no lake should be. It was a lost
world, the kind of world that Noah must have viewed from the Ark.
animals had taken refuge on the only dry place available, the railway line, from which they were
forced by the approach of the engine. Starved and weak they could hardly swim and most were unable to struggle back. Many of us shed
a silent tear for their plight. This was one time when the harried conductor did not have
to worry about us school children jumping off at whistle stops. The prospect was unattractive and there was nowhere to walk anyway.
a long, hot and tiring day, we reached Dondo late and spent the rest of the night in the coaches changing to those of the Nyasaland Railways next morning. We were
now more than halfway home and were excited at
the thought of getting there that evening but the weather decreed otherwise. Normally, on reaching the Zambezi River we embarked on a
paddle steamer which took us across to our rail
link on the other bank. The crossing could last one or several hours depending on
the level of the river and how many sandbanks had to be negotiated.
This time the line on the other side
was under water and we were told the houses of the residents and shopkeepers in the village were knee deep over floor level. The Shire and the Zambezi Rivers were in flood and we were in the area of their confluence.
The only alternative
was for the steamer to make its way upstream to Dona Ana, the site on the north bank of the new Zambezi Bridge still under construction.
The paddle steamer resembled a Mississippi Steam boat of the last century. It had a
few cabins, toilets and baths
but one had to pay for a bath so we elected to remain grimy as
funds were running low. There was a dining saloon where lunch was available at something like two shillings and sixpence a head. The "upper" deck was pleasant and cool, furnished with deck chairs so that one could catch the breezes and obtain relief from the oppressive heat. There was a "lower" deck through which one had
to pass to climb the slippery iron steps
to the upper deck.
Sometimes barges were secured to the sides of the
steamer on which third and fourth class passengers embarked amidst pandemonium, carrying their bundles, babies, baskets, chicken coops, goats
and other sundry belongings.
Captain of the steamer was much taken up
with his duties this day as he would certainly have blown his top to
see us innocents drinking Pim Cups
on the deck of his ship. Owing to dwindling re sources we pooled our money and were able to share one drink be
tween three of us which was just
as well as we had no idea how potent it was even when diluted with lemonade.
Zambezi was coursing strongly and, unlike the lake
on the Pungwe Flats, the river
was full of pulsating life, mighty and powerful. This did not deter the canoeists whom we saw every now and again,
usual crocodiles were not much in evidence as there were no sand banks or shoals on which they
could bask in the sun.
steamer had to battle against the heavy current and it took nearly all day
to reach Dona Ana. When the bridge came into view at last, we all
cheered for it was a proud sight shining in the distance. Known as the Lower Zambezi Bridge then nearing completion. It was
said to be an engineering triumph of concrete and steel consisting of thirty-two
spans with its length about one-and-a-quarter miles.
we disembarked we were much relieved to see our train waiting to take us on the final lap for by this time we were dirty, bedraggled, hot and tired. Our arrival in Limbe was approximately twenty-four
hours late and, dirty or otherwise, our
parents were extremely happy to
greet us with extra special hugs. However we could not understand why everyone was making such a fuss over what,
to us, had been an exciting adventure.
Nowadays the children of Malawi
attending schools outside the country probably travel mainly by air. Perhaps they are wise for the old romance of the train
journey has gone. If they do travel by train, they cross the Zambezi River over a structural marvel of steel instead
of a river boat. Probably meals are served in a dining car instead of scheduled hotels. And
it is likely the whole journey has been streamlined
may be progress but my fellow travellers and I do at
least have our memories and, at
the risk of being trite, can only say:
Those were the days when much water passed under the bridge.