The School Train

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Much Water Under the Bridge
Val Tomlinson
(My Wonderful recently deceased Mom).

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.

On 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 what was going on.

The scene was astonishing.  All around was water stretching to the horizon. The only part not under water was the raised portion of the line and 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.

Here 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.

Except 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.

Many 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.

After 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.

The 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.

The 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, but the usual crocodiles were not much in evidence as there were no sand banks or shoals on which they could bask in the sun.

The 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.

When 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 and shortened.

This 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.



I'm very proud to include this article written and illustrated by my Mom, Val Tomlinson, from whom I inherited the writing genes.

Copyright (C) Trish Jackson 2014