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An African adventure Aboard the Rails



public transport systems

Africa is known for its underdeveloped and often unreliable public transport systems, presenting a unique set of hurdles for travellers. However, venturing across the continent via public transport offers an unparalleled opportunity to witness the unseen corners of Africa.

Embarking on such a journey requires one essential piece of advice: be prepared for the unexpected.

Despite being one of the fastest-urbanising continents, Africa’s public transport infrastructure needs attention. In 2015, two resourceful students, driven by limited budgets, embarked on an ambitious adventure relying solely on public transport.

Their remarkable journey commenced at Cape Town’s Bellville railway station, where they boarded the Shosholoza Meyl train, bound for Pretoria with a connecting train to Komatiepoort, their gateway to Mozambique.

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The initial leg of their expedition went remarkably well, as they comfortably settled into bunk beds and enjoyed the luxury of hot water on their train to Pretoria. However, their first challenge arose when they learned of maintenance work along the railway between Pretoria and Komatiepoort. Thankfully, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) swiftly organised buses to transport the travellers, proving to be a quicker alternative. Yet, the early arrival at Komatiepoort station left them facing an unexpected night spent on the station floor, a first for both adventurers.

Undeterred by the hiccups, they continued their journey, reaching Maputo with relative ease. This allowed them a few days to spare before catching their train from Maputo to Chicualacuala, a small town bordering Zimbabwe. During this time, they seized the opportunity for a tranquil island escape, embarking on a leisurely ferry ride across Maputo Bay to Inhaca Island. There, they savoured the beach-bum life, camping at the island’s sole backpackers and relishing locally sourced fresh fish cooked over an open fire.

Returning to Maputo, they indulged in pastel de natas from local cafes, preparing for their train journey from Maputo to the Zimbabwean border. Arriving at the station early, they secured seats after joining an already-formed queue. The subsequent train ride proved to be a gruelling 20-hour-plus journey, concluding in the dusty town of Chicualacaula, where a simple walk across the sand led them to the border post. At this point, their existence was marked solely by a handwritten name in a book and a passport stamp.

Having successfully crossed into Zimbabwe, they found themselves in the village of Sango, where a railway line traversed the bushveld. Although lacking a visible platform, they patiently awaited the train’s arrival, passing the time under the shade of an acacia tree. Amidst napping, reading, and observing the surrounding chickens, they delighted in a long-awaited and sumptuous meal of pap, goat, and spinach cooked over an open fire.

Eventually, their wait paid off as a train emerged on the tracks, signalling their onward journey. An encounter with a conductor revealed the need for cash-only transactions, luckily accepting South African rands. The train, adorned with the vintage “Rhodesian Railways” logo, boasted brass sinks in each carriage room, and its age traced back to the 1930s, according to the conductor.


As the train made its unhurried progress, the travellers revelled in the comfort of their bunk beds. Arriving in Bulawayo with a day to spare, they immersed themselves in the vibrant city before embarking on another overnight train bound for Victoria Falls.

Of all the legs of their journey, Zimbabwe stood out for its punctuality, providing a smooth and hitch-free travel experience. In a surprising turn, one of the conductors invited them to a “bar” in an adjacent carriage, where they encountered merry passengers, predominantly train staff, exchanging laughter and refreshments.

Glimpses from the train window offered a unique perspective on Africa’s countryside, revealing remote villages, endless bushveld expanses, and, if fortunate, the occasional wildlife sighting.

Finally, their African expedition culminated at Victoria Falls, where the refreshing mist from the falls served as a welcomed rinse, even after days without a proper shower. Their next frontier awaited as they prepared to cross yet another border into Zambia, driven by a spirit of exploration and an enduring appreciation for their adventure.

Embarking through Africa’s public transport systems demands adaptability and resilience. Still, it rewards intrepid travellers with a tapestry of unforgettable encounters and a glimpse into the hidden wonders of the continent.


Source: A train journey through Africa goes awry

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