Zimbabwe has been in the news a fair amount of late I do hope it makes a turn for the better as it is one of the most stunning countries in the world and with some of the friendliest and gentlest people too. This news prompted me to remember my visit there, in 1989 immediately after leaving university and before entering the big bad world of work.
The railways of southern Africa had some extensive systems but were with long distances on lightly laid track and heavy loads, the railway companies were confronted a difficult reality – how do you get a sufficiently powerful locomotive without making it too heavy for the line. Making a long locomotive with many wheels would have worked, only they would not have coped with the sinuous curves required to snake through the countryside. The solution came in the form of an articulated locomotive – essentially two locomotives with a single boiler slung between them. First patented by the Manchester firm Beyer Peacock these locomotives were synonymous with the railways of Africa, although they were found around the world.
The railway snaking around the contours was very much part of the railways of Zimbabwe and the need for an articulated locomotive is easy to see. It is the only time I have seen steam trains truly earning their keep – something that I will probably never see again as I understand that even the Chinese have withdrawn almost all of their locomotives.
As can be seen in the photograph, the railways of Zimbabwe do not use standard gauge track. They, along with pretty much all of the railways of southern Africa, use 3’6″ gauge – to the point where it is nicknamed “cape gauge”.
Due to the sanctions placed against Rhodesia and the economic condition of Zimbabwe, steam lingered on for a long time and has not totally faded out even as I write this; although I believe that the last remaining couple of steam locomotives are really pets and are largely wheeled out for tourists. I suspect that there are a lot of rusting hulks still in the country though and perhaps if the country settles down we will see a really proper number of them put back into use as the tourist trade picks up. It really is a wonderful country, so is worth a visit and I would love to do the journey again.
In putting this blogpost together I was conscious that most of my pictures were taken at relatively close quarters to the trains, because I was travelling on them. Therefore, to supplement my photographs, I contacted a few people who had posted their Zimbabwean railway photographs online. I am therefore I am indebted to Alan Crotty and Fabrice Lanoue for the use of their photographs in illustrating this blog – all rights to these photographs are retained by them. The good news, if you have liked the pictures, is that John and Fabrice were not the only ones who were prepared to let me use their photographs – therefore, there will be a part 2 to this blog post soon!