Don Richard and I spend about 9-10 days in Africa in search of some of the last remaining operating steam locomotives hauling freight in regular service. One of the stops was Slibe Phikwe, Botswana where there was a large copper mining and smelting operation operating by a large company called Bamangwato Concessions Ltd (BCL). BCL exclusively used steam locomotives to move the massive amounts of copper ore from the mine to the smelter. The place was off the beaten path and most train enthusiasts didn't bother to go there. Don and I have never been ordinary train enthusiast or ordinary guys.
To get there we traveled from Zimbabwe where we visited Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park plus saw steam locomotives near both places. We traveled by train from Hwange to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and spent the night in the Rainbow Hotel. While in Bulawayo we visited the Bulawayo Railway Museum which was nice but in need of money for upkeep. Actually, most of Zimbabwe needed money for upkeep.
After our time in Bulawayo we traveled by train to Francistown, Botswana with a border crossing near Plumtree. The train ride was awesome and there was an ancient wooden twin dinning car with a coal-fired stove. During the ride we went to the dinning car and a man came around with a pitcher of water and wash basin. He was dressed nicely and has a white towel slung over his forearm. After we washed up we were fed a chicken stew meal that we ate without utensils. We tore off bits of bread and pinched the chicken stew in the bread and ate with our fingers. The meal was really good and it was amazing to eat a meal cooked on a coal-fired stove in a wooden dinning car in 2010. We crossed the border near Plumtree, the border agents came through the train and checked our passports. The woman repeatedly asked me about my cam-air-ah. I kept telling her I didn't know what she was talking about, finally she held her hand up to her face and made motion of taking a picture and said it again. Oh... a camera... I replied. The always check things that might be of value at the border and we had to do the same.
In Francistown we made our way to the bus station and got a bus to Slibe Phikwe. It was a long way for a bus ride but the bus was comfortable and they had music videos on the television. Watching the African scenery roll by was amazing and the trip went quickly. In Slibe Phikwe we checked into a local hotel and the owner asked us where we were from. The normal answer is Philadelphia because nobody in the world has heard of Wilmington, Delaware. He asked where as he knew the area. We told him Wilmington and he said he knew Wilmington. He had family living in the Pike Creek area. What a small world.
So we got to see and ride the steam locomotives at Slibe Phikwe. The man there who was in charge simply liked the steam engines. Everything else about the facility was modern and up-to-date. They could have owned newer locomotives for sure. After we finished with the steam locomotives it was time to make our way to Johannesburg, South Africa. The bus routes were not direct and involved two days of traveling by bus. Think of going from point A to B by way of the two sides of a triangle instead of the hypotenuse. The shortest route had a road but no bus service. We decided to hitchhike. We had tried our hand at it in Zimbabwe and did fine.
The owner of the hotel told us where the road out of town had a place where hitchhikers could get picked up. We got dropped off there and waited. Soon enough a man in a station wagon picked us up and agreed to take us to Martin's Drift for a small amount of money. It seemed he made his living running the road and providing transportation services for small amounts of money. Martin's Drift was about 2 hours away by car and we picked up and dropped off various people along the way. We got out at the border control point and started walking. When we walked to the border control station the man there greeted us and asked us about our car. We told him we hitchhiked and he was shocked. He said he never saw white people come through the border on foot. He had a bowl of nuts on the counter and said they were good and to try some. I did and was eating a handful when Don says, "dude, these things have eyes." Yes, I was eating a handful of dried bugs, they were not really bad and by that moment I was committed so I finished them. Don passed on them and we got stamped out of Botswana.
Next, we then made a short walk down the road between the two countries passing a long line of cars and trucks jammed up waiting to get through. We crossed a bridge over the Limpopo River and then to the South African passport station where we were stamped in. Next we walked down the road a bit and started hitch hiking again and this time we were not picked up quickly. We began to worry a little because we were at a place called Martin's Drift and nobody in the world knew where we were and it was a long way to Johannesburg and there was no way to get there other than hitching. After a while a big double trailer truck pulled over and picked us up. We thanked the driver and he said he just had to pick us up because he never saw white guys hitchhiking at Martin's Drift. He also said he was driving alone for two weeks picking up uranium ore in The Congo and was happy to have some company.
We rode with him for a most of the day listening to stories about truck driving in Africa. Including being attacked in The Congo and hiding in the jungle until being picked up by the army and thrown in jail. His wife thought he was dead because he was missing for over a month. The trucking company somehow found out he was there and got him out of jail. We passed other trucks and he knew all of the drivers. We passed a spot where a truck hit a free-range cow and crashed badly killing the driver. This made Don very nervous and he stayed awake keeping an eye out for livestock. We listened to classic rock on the radio while we talked and the hours passed by quickly. He was driving right near the airport and we got dropped off along an exit and walked up the hill to a hotel and got a room. Wanderlust flows in my veins and this day was worth writing down.
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