All day long the train chugged through the dry lands. The map named it the Kalahari Desert but it was nothing like the deserts in that picture book I had as a kid – no sand dunes, no camels. We passed through flat lands with dwarf thorn trees and mile after mile of grass – grass sparse and yellow but sufficient to feed some scrawny cattle grazing by the side of the rail.
The map called it Bechuanaland but that name has long been abandoned and the train replaced by aeroplanes. But the sands remain just as they were in the days of my youth.
Dust got up our nostrils. The smell was not the smell of the Kalahari sand but that of the coal of the engine that pulled our train. Grit of cold cinders lodged in my hair.
As dusk fell a cheerful attendant came to raise our compartment’s back rests and turn them into beds. A second brought bedding for six beds. Now we had to lie on these bunks or to sit awkwardly on the bottom one, leaning forward. Most of us youngsters adjourned to the dining coach for a beer. The waiters greeted us like old friends. We had, after all, vacated these same tables only an hour earlier after our evening meal. We might have preferred to remain seated but they had insisted we move to give them a chance to clear up. The break gave us a chance to rinse the Kalahari dust out of our noses or even to wash grains of cinder out of our hair.
The train whistled, then stopped at a station to take on water. “Palapye” shouted a guard and a signboard confirmed it. There was not much to be seen apart from two water tanks. A few Africans in ragged clothes offered roasted peanuts. Others held out wooden carvings of giraffes and lions. The lions had strips of fur around the neck to simulate manes.
We got off the train briefly to stretch our legs. A black man was shovelling coal from the tender into the engine’s boiler — the only African on that train.
Several new passengers climbed on. They greeted us cheerfully and sat down wherever there was an empty seat in the dining coach. One came to sit at my table.
“Jock”, he introduced himself. “Jock Campbell. The next round is on me.”
We thanked him. All of us were students and some of us were poor. I certainly was. It was a thirsty three-day journey to university.
Jock appeared to know the waiter and called to him to join us for a beer.
“Thanks, mate.” said the other “I’ll be with you – just now”. First he had to serve a few more thirsty passengers.
Jock enquired after a waiter called James. “James? This is his weekly break. Wednesday he will be back on duty.
“So what do people do in this place?” one of us asked Jock.
“Work at the abattoir” he replied “the biggest employer around here. I’m the accountant. Charlie over there is our vet.”
“How many employees?” I chipped in.
“Is that all?”
“Well, six white men.”
“Lots of munts, of course. Some thirty-five at the last count. Even more in high season.”
“So where are you travelling?”
“Nowhere,” he replied, and when we looked puzzled he explained.
“We take the train from Palapye to Mahalapye and then back again. Twice a week there is an up train waiting when we get there. We climb aboard and steam back home.”
We knew it was a single track rail so there was no risk of missing the other train.
“Expensive?” I asked.
“We don’t pay,” he laughed. “The waiters are our mates. Most of us do it twice a week.”
“Nothing more exciting to do at Palapye?” one of us asked.
“Bugger all! There isn’t even a pub. It’s the train or nothing.”
“Why do you stay?”
“Money is good. And – to get away.” Then he amplified: “Woman trouble. Have to get away from that wife.”
Even before our train reached Mahalapye several of us bade Jock a good night and turned in. Lying in our bunks some smoked. Others chatted:
“What a life!”
“Wife must be a horror.”
“He didn’t wear a wedding ring. Did you notice?”
“You wouldn’t either, if you had a missus like that.”
I thought no more about Jock until the end of the academic year when I was on my way home again. On the train was the same waiter. He even seemed to recognise me.
“Seen Jock again?” I asked. “Jock Campbell?
“Haven’t you heard? It was in the papers.”
“The police came for him. Two big burly fellows from Francistown. But he did a bunk…. grabbed the vet’s car. You remember Charlie the vet?”
“Why were the cops after him?”
“Bigamy! They say he had one wife in Francistown and another at the Cape.
“He did tell us he was getting away from his wife.”
“Well, that was — half the truth.”
“And he stole a car?”
“Oh no. No, no, no! Jock was a white man. A real white man. He abandoned it in Jo’burg but he posted a letter to Charlie enclosing the key…. and telling him exactly where he’d left it. He was a real white man. ”
The train chugged on through the dry lands.