Don’t Mention The War – Steam In Rhodesia

Ever Present Danger Ignored In Our Quest To Photograph Garratts In Action

By the mid 1970’s he country known as Rhodesia was losing its identity. In 1965, Ian Smith, the then Prime Minister, declared independence from the British Commonwealth in an effort to hang on to power. The white population was completely outnumbered by the coloured members of the community and there was a grave fear of what would happen if they took over.

By the time we arrived there in the mid 1970s, tensions had increased considerably. Mozambique was under communist majority rule, and insurgents were entering the west of the country as well. Zambia to the north, had closed its border to passenger traffic, although trains still cross between the countries, and the main routes into this landlocked country for goods were the railway lines from South Africa and Mozambique, which had 2 great ports at Beira and Laurenco Marques (Maputo). Before we left on our epic journey through this part of the world, there were reports of convoys travelling from Salisbury to Beit Bridge, the South African border, being attacked by guerrilla forces of Robert Magabe, while insurgents of Josua Nkomo led raids into the western part of the country without warning.

Double Garratts head a train from Salisbury to Beira probably carrying sanctioned goods. Countries have very strange bedfellows in Africa

Having spent the last few months in a relative peaceful Mozambique, we were rather naïve to the dangers in this part of the world, and in my 2 visits there, I only saw a taste of what was happening.

Rhodesia was perhaps, the last Colonial outpost in Africa. By this time most European colonial regimes had been toppled, and although South Africa was still going strong under Apartheid, it was a larger area with its own issues. I remember passing large properties where a stone built homestead stood with men dressed in Khaki jungle suits with leggings, smoking pipes and reminiscing about colonial times. They had black servants to keep them in a lifestyle to which they were accustomed, for the moment at least! It was perhaps a fool’s paradise.

We arrived at the Zambian side of Victoria Falls, and camped there for a few days. This was a great place to view the falls and also the train movements across the bridge that completes the Trans African railway network.

A 20th class backs a train to the middle of the bridge where it will detach and return to Victoria Falls, lest it be stolen! August 1975

In order to cross into Rhodesia, we had to detour via Botswana, a 2 hour detour. From there, we spent some time photographing the Victoria Falls line, figuring out that our car couldn’t get much worse than it already was! The most elusive site was the overnight passenger train from Victoria Falls because it was ….overnight! Fortunately it often ran late, allowing some nice pictures to be taken. I believe this train is nothing like it used to be, despite the fact it had a few goods wagons at the front. In its day, it was a very prestigious train, especially considering it conveyed passengers to one fo the wonders of the world!

15A on the Victoria Falls Express. You only saw this train in daylight if it was running late. Love the typical African tree!

The railway line south from the falls went quite close to the Hwange National Park, home of the largest elephant population in the world at the time. On one side of the tracks it was a controlled hunting area, while the other was the reserve.

As we flew down the road near sunset, we came across some high flying giraffes, moving at speed like giant pendulums It was quite a sight.

Giraffes running right next to our car near Hwange game reserve

The mainstay of motive power on this railway line were 15A and 20 class Garratts. On one occasion in 1976, we photographed an interesting consist with a pair of Chinese Diesels destined for the newly built Zaire Railway. These had come from South Africa. Another bizarre situation. The Chinese were helping Marxist Zaire, whose government hated that of Rhodesia.

20th class on a freight headed for Zambia with 2 Chinese diesels in the consist. Let’s see white separatist Rhodesia with communist diesels bound for Zaire via Zambia 0 only in Africa!

Half way along this stretch of track was the Wankie Colliery with its own locomotives. These included ex South African 12 class locos.

12 Class on a coal train at Wankie Colliery

Afternoon lighting in Africa is a superb time of day, leading to glints of superlative proportions. At Wankie, I managed this trailing shot of a 12 and 20 class.

Thompson Junction looking along the main line.

Being extremely miserly as we were saving all our cash for film and travelling, we camped by the line in our tent. One night while trying to find a reasonably secluded spot, we managed to bog the car. This involved spreading sticks along the mud and then gently driving over them to get clear.

On another occasion we were awoken late at night by the lights of a Landrover. The occupant, heavily armed, was a farmer who when he saw who we were, suggested that Terrorists were operating in the area, and it was not a good place to pitch a tent! One other occasion, we noticed fresh Elephant footprints a few feet from our tent. We had obviously had visitors overnight!

Camping overnight may not have pleased the farmers, but it did enable us to get some great early morning shots. We chased this train for some distance.

During my two trips to Rhodesia in 1975 and 1976, we managed to not only cover the Victoria Falls line, but West Nicholson, some trains which still headed to Gwelo, and a we even ventured to Fort Victoria and Selukwe, where Chrome was being exported. There are some great shots in these areas too, but that will be told another time.

15th class number 370 on a coal train heading south from Thompson Junction



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