The Sunday Mail
My first journey on a train was as a toddler in the late 1980s, travelling with my parents to our rural home in Rusape.
But at such a young age, there is only so much you can take from the memories.
So to help me stitch up the picture of what transpired during that night, my mother would seize every opportunity she got to talk about how adventurous the journey was.
“She had to hide you under the seats so that the ticket inspectors would not make us pay for your fare,” father would chip in with disguised awe.
And the drama in their narrative created a huge desire in me to have another go on a train ride.
However, it was only until a fortnight ago that such an opportunity came again.
Amid increasing talk on how services at National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) have diminished, I was assigned to travel to Mutare aboard one of the trains.
I was also to stay conscious and have an appreciation of the train experience.
The prospect was so exciting such that I arrived at the Harare railway station at 7.30pm, about 2 hours before departure time.
However, it was then that I came face-to-face with contrasting realities of my childhood picture and what actually goes on the ground.
There was little life on the dilapidated railway station and its ambience was as ghoulish as the locomotives that occupied the platform.
With a barely audible Alick Macheso tune screeching from two old speakers hanging from one of the poles, the station certainly felt like a ghost town.
As I was settling into the environment while waiting for the train, a pressing call of nature came and I had to visit the gents.
There, an even more ghoulish situation awaited.
There was unbearable stench and darkness in the toilets. My small torch saved me from stepping onto grime.
I returned to the station to find people trickling into at least eight old coaches of the Mutare-bound locomotive.
They were divided into three classes namely economy, standard and sleeper; which costs $4, $5 and $7 respectively.
The other wagons were reserved for baggage and on closer inspection, I realised that this was the most popular section of the train.
“You know what my brother,” said one of the loaders, in between drags of a cigarette.
“Our baggage section is the cheapest and most convenient way of moving property between cities. But people have developed a negative perception towards NRZ so they choose buses and trucks which charge them high fees.”
In one of the dim-lit standard class wagons, I identified a strategic seat and sunk myself in it, silently observing movements in the carriage.
It was barely occupied, carrying not more than twenty people, just a third of the total capacity.
There were more vendors than passengers occupying the wagon.
A terrible stench wafting through the carriage from the toilets certainly did little to kill appetites as some could be seen munching doughnuts, home prepared meals and snacks.
A rumbling engine and a signature raucous horn signalled the start of the journey as the train slowly pulled away from the platform at 9.30pm.
There was a sudden warming up of the atmosphere as passengers exchanged jokes and laughed on top of their voices.
Not minding the dim lights, the stench nor the screeching steel wheels, the travellers seemed to be relieved that the journey had finally started.
In front of every seat, there were labelled sockets and buttons to either play FM stations or CDs. None of them worked.
As such, the need for entertainment on such a long journey and night led some to bring along their own radio sets and mini hifis, which they played during the journey.
In the neighbouring coach, an economy one, a preacher could be heard telling people, on the top of his voice, not to give in to sleep but “stay awake and listen to the word of God”.
As the train meandered through Msasa, to Mabvuku, I decided to walk around the coaches to get a feel of what was happening in the economy and sleeper classes.
It was then that I realised that for all the bad things associated with NRZ trains, the floors of the wagon were very clean and well-scrubbed.
According to one passenger, the economy class is associated with huge crowds, cross-border traders, Mozambican nationals and even thieves.
The sleeper class, on the other hand, was dead quiet. Although its occupants were still awake, they were very few and each one was minding their own business. They are the class that could afford to travel by bus but had chosen to sleep on the journey for various reasons.
As the journey progressed, a regiment of ticket inspectors scoured through the carriages to check tickets and relegate travellers to their rightful classes. At this point I returned to my seat, took a sip of my energy drink and looked through the window into darkness. For a while, the noise of the horn and screeching steel wheels kept nagging such that it sounded like the train was coming off the rails.
But I gradually got used to the noise and the train’s speed gradually increased, reaching probably as high as 90 km per hour at one point.
At exactly 11.30pm, we arrived in Marondera, well on schedule.
Here the train stopped for only 15 minutes as some passengers disembarked and new ones embarked.
The train left Marondera with little movement in the coaches as people started falling asleep, their heads cupped in their palms and some rested on steel panels.
While other travellers were in deep slumber, one of the guards in the train and a young Mozambican woman seemed to have connected at a personal level. After several brief visits to the belle, the guard finally took the seat next to her for almost the entire journey.
Passing through Macheke and Headlands between 1am and 2am, the train kept its timetable. Very few people were still awake, however.
It was also at this point that I briefly gave in.
As we were approaching Rusape with the temperatures getting cooler, I realised that the adjacent window was broken and letting in some cold wind.
At 3.04am, the train arrived in Rusape. lt resumed the journey at 3.21am with the bulk of travellers still in deep slumber.
From here, the journey was more of a pain and less of an adventure as temperatures continued to drop.
After Nyazura, around 4am, a scuffle ensued in one of the wagons after one dubious character was accused of trying to steal from a sleeping traveller.
Following the intervention of the security guards, the brawl died down. However, it had woken up a lot of people who stayed up until the journey ended at 6.12am at Feruka railway station in Mutare. It was far from a satisfactory journey given the noise, the dilapidated condition of the coaches and the amount of time you stay on it.