It was a strange time to arrive in Zimbabwe, with Mugabe having finally resigned as president on 22nd November 2017 bringing to an end decades of authoritarian rule. Having done a bit of online research before arriving, I was aware that this had brought hope to the citizens of Zimbabwe (with parties in streets immediately after his resignation) and they truly believed that this was the start of a new era.
I arrived Harare ‘Robert Gabriel Mugabe’ International Airport at around 1 pm on Friday 8th December 2017, with a distant hope that the reported three times a week train would be running from Harare to Bulawayo that night. Having arrived directly from India, where everything is so cheap that it’s not normally worth haggling on prices to save a couple of cents (not dollars), Zimbabwe seemed very expensive and the prices seemed non-negotiable.
The taxi from the airport to the train station was US$25 and there wasn’t much of an alternative solution (it's not like I could just walk to town), so basically the taxi drivers had zero interest in bartering with me as they fully knew that one of them would get my business eventually. After 15 minutes I gave in and paid the going rate.
Harare station and departure board
At the train station, the departure board had the day’s departures handwritten in chalk on it and sure enough there was a train to Bulawayo at 8 pm – I was still a bit dubious but I eagerly went to the ticket office, to make sure I got a seat before it was sold out. But there was no need for that. The train had three classes – sleeper (1st), 3rd and 4th – I have no idea what happened to 2nd class. Amazingly I was the first person to purchase a ticket in 1st class for that evening’s train so I was kindly given a two person compartment all to myself.
The ticket in 1st class was US$12 (no bedding). 1st class (or sleeper class) means you get a bed in either a 4-person or 2-person compartment but if you opt for 3rd or 4th class it means you just get a seat. 3rd class was US$10 (airline style, two by two seating) and 4th class was US$5 (bench like seats or three by two airline style seats). There were two types of carriages, the ‘modern’ 1980’s blue and grey carriages and the older, 1950’s beige and cream carriages some of which had wooden panelled interiors. Both types had certainly seen better days but for some reason the older ones, especially the wooden panelled carriages seemed much better maintained inside.
Railway workers at Gweru station
As I had several hours to wait, I walked around the town centre but all I could find for food was overpriced chicken and chips (US$5) and a slightly more useful supermarket selling some essentials for that nights train journey.
That evening, the train departed on time but seemed to make slow progress. I had a two person compartment to myself, with a fully functioning door lock and a window which opened fully. At no point, on the train, at the station or even around town did I feel worried about my security and safety and everyone I talked to was friendly and cheerful - perhaps something to do with Mugabe's recent resignation.
During the night, the train made several stops, each accompanied with a sudden jolt both when stopping and starting but even with this (and the lack of bedding) I slept relatively well until sunrise. A note about the bedding - I didn't realise it even existed until getting my ticket checked on the Bulawayo to Victoria Falls train the following night - and I don't remember seeing anyone with bedding on either train anyway.
In the morning it was clear the train was late. It was due to arrive Bulawayo at around 7 am but at 6 am the train was still in Gweru (only about two thirds of the journey had been completed). I didn’t mind this at all for two reasons, firstly because I had to spend all day in Bulawayo (with my rucksack) meaning I now had less time to spend there and secondly because it allowed me to watch the world pass by from the train window. This is after all one of the reasons why I travel by train.
As I had no safety or security fears on the train, I put my cash and passport in my pocket, closed my room door (which you can't lock from the outside) and carefully left the compartment without anyone seeing I had left. I then quite happily walked up and down the train, listening to children singing, watching the world go by and taking a stroll outside when the train stopped at stations. One thing I do to make it less likely someone will go into my compartment when I'm not there, is keep the door closed whilst I'm inside. This means from a corridor perspective, people passing by don't really know if I'm inside the compartment or taking a walk up the train. It's clearly not fool proof but it's better than nothing.
Time passed by quickly, and the train arrived Bulawayo at around 12.30 pm - 6 or so hours late. It was the end of another incredible African rail adventure.
Timetable and Fares
Tickets for all classes of travel can only be booked on the day of departure and must be purchased at least 30-60 minutes before the scheduled departure time of the train. Tickets for 1st class (sleeper) are US$12 (excluding bedding) and that could be in either a 4-person or 2-person compartment. 3rd class tickets are US$10 (airline style, two by two seating) and 4th class tickets are US$5 (bench like seats or three by two airline style seats).
The ticket office opening hours can be found on the door of the ticket office - Bulawayo: Monday to Friday 08:00 to 19:30 and Saturday / Sunday 16:00 to 19:30. I can't remember the opening times of the ticket office in Harare but it was certainly open on Friday at about 3 pm.
Harare to Bulwayo train ticket and Harare ticket / reservation office
Trains from Harare to Bulawayo depart on Sunday's, Tuesday's and Friday's at 8 pm and are scheduled to arrive Bulawayo at 7 am the following morning. The return train from Bulawayo to Harare is schedule to depart Bulawayo on Monday's, Thursday's and Saturday's, arriving Harare the following morning at 7.30 am. All the night trains I saw in Zimbabwe arrived around 6 hours late so it's best not to plan tight connections.
Trains can also be caught to Mutare from Harare on Sunday's, Wednesday's and Friday's at 9.30 pm however as I did not catch this train, or even see it, I cannot add any further information. The Zimbabwean railways website has timetable information, but it seems to show many routes which I don't believe are currently operational. The Man in Seat 61 is also a valuable source of information.
What was the train like?
Both trains (Harare to Bulawayo and Bulawayo to Victoria Falls) were a combination of the newer, 1980's blue and grey carriages and older, 1950's beige and brown carriages. It seemed almost pot luck what you might end up with.
The Harare to Bulawayo train had two sleeper carriages (one old wooden paneled type and one new), one 3rd class carriage (new), two 4th class carriages (one old and one new), two luggage vans and a rake of goods trucks.
A 'modern' blue & grey economy (4th) class carriage - three by two airline style seats
A 1950's brown & beige economy (4th) class carriage - facing bench type seats
A 'modern' blue & grey standard (3rd) class carriage - two by two airline style seats
A 'modern' blue & grey sleeper (1st) class carriage - 4 berth compartment (each carriage has a mixture of 2 and 4 berth compartments)
A 1950's brown & beige sleeper (1st) class carriage with wooden paneled interiors - 2 berth compartment (each carriage has a mixture of 2 and 4 berth compartments)
A note about Zimbabwe’s currency situation…
Zimbabwe’s old currency, the Zimbabwean Dollar had been re-valued so many times over its existence that in 2009 it was completed abandoned and since then, the official currency has been the US Dollar supplemented by the Zimbabwean Bond – a form of currency that is pegged to the US Dollar but is completely worthless outside of Zimbabwe.
If you’re only travelling to Victoria Falls, it is unlikely you will come across the Zimbabwean Bond unless shopping in local stores (such as the supermarket) as all restaurants and tourist sites will give change in US Dollars. Outside of Victoria Falls the opposite is true, and receiving change in US Dollars is highly unusual.
Before travelling to Zimbabwe, every piece of internet advice suggested that credit and debit cards are difficult to near on impossible to use within Zimbabwe - unless paying for tours in Victoria Falls. I didn't actually use a credit or debit card in the country (as I had prepared myself with plenty of US Dollars) but it was clear that the locals definitely preferred card payments over cash. The supermarkets even had 'card only' tills. My advice - still take enough cash in US Dollars as the situation can suddenly change without warning.
There are always more photos to be shared, (but sharing them all on this journal page will just make it look cluttered - so if you want to see more photos for inspiration, check out my Flickr Zimbabwe album.
Part two: Bulawayo to Victoria Falls…
Continue reading part two of my Zimbabwean railway adventure, a journey from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls...