Sunday, June 18, 2017

Adventures in Africa Part I

In 2009 Don Richard and I went to Africa in search of riding some of the last steam locomotives in regular railroad service in the world. For a guy who loves trains this was really big. Think about seeing the last dinosaurs on the planet. We took a really long flight from JFK to Johannesburg and then changed planes for a short flight to Victoria Falls. The first flight was 16 hours and the second was maybe an hour and a half. At Victoria Falls we went straight to the falls. They were spectacular! One of the wonders of the world. We spent the afternoon walking the paths around the falls, then crossed the spectacular bridge next to the falls into Zambia. What an experience! We were tired because we did this straight through from the US without a night in a hotel. We then scored a ride in the cab of a steam locomotive pulling a dinner train. It was a special sort of locomotive called a Garratt that was mostly used in Africa and never really caught on anywhere else. For part of the ride we sat on the roof. At one point I spotted an elephant dashing into the brush. What an amazing time.

We weren't done yet. After all of that we bought train tickets to ride to the town of Hwange which is the site of a large national park and also a coal mine that still used steam locomotives. We Really didn't know much about what was going on there and were getting tired. Now were read a lot of information about traveling in Zimbabwe and there were a lot of advisories like if you ride the train lock yourself in the compartment and don't open the door for anyone without a badge. We also read not to go out at night, not to be alone at night, and be warned that there were a lot of petty crimes. So at the train station we decided we wanted to get some pizza and beer. Don wandered off on his own to find pizza and I started asking about where to buy beer. Some kid hear me talk about beer and ran up offering to help me. I gave him $5 and he took off running. I thought I'll never see my $5 or my beer, I was also waiting for a guy who told me he would sell me a Zimbabwe license plate so I hung out. A few minutes late the buy arrives with 6 beers! For $5! I took the beer and gave him another $5 and thanked him. He was a happy kid. My guy arrived with the license plate, which is a great souvenir because they are durable, flat, and light. Don arrived with the pizza and we boarded the train.

We got underway and the conductor came along and checked out ticket. He came back a minute later and said if we had any left over pizza he would like a piece.  We said to have one and offered him a beer. He turned it down saying he had diabetes, left with the pie of pizza only to return a minute later saying he would take us up on the beer. We finished the pizza and beer and soon were really tired. It was about a 4-5 hour train ride to Hwange and we closed our door and tried to sleep but it was bloody hot. We ended up opening the door and the cross breeze made it comfortable and soon we were both asleep, just like we were warned not to do. Nothing bad happened and soon we were in Hwange.

Now keep in mind that we had been two days traveling and had not been in a hotel room. We soon found out that the train actually didn't stop at Hwange but rather at Thompson Junction, a few miles outside of town. We got off and found the station was very basic, it has one light bulb and no taxis. We were miles from town, didn't know anything about the hotel situation, and had no reservations. The few people who got off were dispersing quickly. We went to a guy with a pickup truck and said we needed to go to a hotel, there was only one as it turns out. We hopped into the back of his pickup and off we rode into the African night. The starry sky was amazing, second only to the one we say a few years prior in Inner Mongolia, China. The Baobab Hotel sat on top of Baobab hill and overlooked the town of Hwange. Our driver took us straight to the hotel and wow, had a spectacular view. We gave him a few buck and he went on his way. How lucky we were that the guy was honest. Between Don and I we probably had more cash than he had seen in a lifetime. We were in luck because the hotel had space for us. Finally, we got to sleep in something that was not moving.

In one single event we traveled from Wilmington to Hwange, Zimbabwe over two days with only sleeping on the plane and train. We saw Victoria Falls, named in honor of Queen Victoria at the height of British colonialism. Rode on the roof of a steam locomotive and took a train to a town we didn't know, got in the back of a pickup, and somehow safely ended up in a decent hotel without a reservation.

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