109. Grit in my hair

No, it’s not contagious… that nostalgia.  Many an evening they appear on TV and weep… weep for the passing of steam engines. They hail the heroes who spend years restoring them lovingly with emery paper and wire wool. They applaud the old men who boast that once upon a time they drove them.

Not I!

Not recalled (by the way) is the man, sweating, stripped to the waist, who shovelled coal from the tender into the boiler… the only black man on the train. Even the waiters in the dining coach were white. At some stops Africans in tattered clothes appeared outside our windows, offered carvings of giraffes and lions for sale. The lions had strips of fir glued around the neck to simulate manes.

The journeys from my home town in Northern Rhodesia, to boarding school at Southern Rhodesia took some 28 hours. Later journeys to university in Johannesburg took longer – two days and a half. I retain no nostalgia for the smell of smoke in my nostrils nor for the coal grit lodged in my hair… hard to wash out in that small hand basin in the compartment with the cold water from a little tap. Most of that Cape to Cairo rail – the dream of Cecil John Rhodes but never completed – was single track with occasional sidings for passing. That meant long waits in the down train, waiting for the up train to pass. Only at one point – Bulawayo – was there a more elaborate station building with bathrooms – hot water, soap and towels. Cost? One shilling, if my memory does not deceive me.

One stop remains embedded in my memory because of the stink: Wankie, the coal mining town.  Today Wankie is called Hwange. Probably Africans always called it Hwange, but we Europeans got it wrong.

But I’ve since come across other coal mining places and they do not stink. Coke was made at Wankie.  Is that what produced the smell? Or did it come from that coal fired power station, close to the side of the track?

Between Hwange/Wankie and the Botswana border is a large game reserve. The rail cuts right through the reserve so trains often had to make unscheduled stops. “Elephants on line” the guard would shout. “Unpredictable. Don’t get off the train.” The engine driver hooted, again and again, but with little effect. Only when the elephants had finally got bored with studying us did they permit us to proceed. They may well have decided they had a better right to be there than those interlopers on the train. They were probably right.