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As the Stimela Star rolled out of Victoria Falls train station on its inaugural overnight run to Zimbabwe’s oldest and largest game reserve, one passenger was particularly nostalgic.
“I remember as a kid in the 1960s, riding overnight from Hwange National Park to Victoria Falls on this train,” recalled Mark Butcher, managing director of Imvelo Safari Lodges, which operates several camps in Hwange and near Victoria Falls. “We’re trying to recreate that experience.”
Built at the turn of the 20th century, this line was once part of the British imperial dream to construct a railway all the way from Cape Town to Cairo. But in the decades since Zimbabwe declared independence in 1980, the country’s passenger rail service deteriorated to the point where tourists opted to drive or fly into Hwange instead.
Butcher is on a mission to reverse that.
“It’s time to put international tourists back on this line again,” he said, as we toasted our on-time departure with champagne.
Butcher, a native Zimbabwean and former Hwange game ranger, then gave me a tour of his rolling stock reclamation project he affectionately calls “my faded lady.”
Attached to the regular National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) Victoria Falls to Bulawayo overnight passenger train, the Stimela Star can comfortably accommodate up to 24 passengers. Its four private carriages include two sleepers with twin berths — their mahogany doors and frosted windows still engraved with the old Rhodesian Railways initials — along with a dining car and a lounge. The dining car and lounge are each furnished with restored midcentury chairs, sofas and tables that recall the days when traveling by train here was popular among tourists. Original Formica still covers the carriage walls, which contain contemporary photos of Hwange wildlife crossing these same tracks.
Over a delicious three-course gourmet dinner of kebabs, chicken curry and chocolate brownies served by Imvelo Safari Lodges staff, Butcher told us that he initially tracked down several old Rhodesian Railways Premier Class sleeper carriages, some dating back to the 1920s, discarded and gathering dust in Bulawayo railway workshops. He then had them repaired, refurbished and finally put back into service after lengthy negotiations with NRZ authorities.
While the results don’t match the luxurious standards of South Africa’s Blue Train or Rovos Rail, the Stimela Star has its own nostalgic charms, including a name that evokes a golden age of African steam engines (“steamela” is the traditional Ndebele and Zulu term for traveling by steam engine).
As the Stimela Star made a scheduled stop, Butcher recounted the story of Ted Davidson, Hwange’s first park warden, who first rode this same train one night in 1928.
“I consider Ted Davidson to be one of Africa’s three greatest game rangers,” he said. “He came to work here on the train as a 24-year-old man with nothing but a .303 rifle and a backpack. This young man — who had been given a map with lines drawn on it by colonial authorities — had to go and turn the land into a game reserve.”
Davidson soon discovered that he was in charge of an enormous game reserve with no rivers running through it. During the long harsh dry season when the water holes evaporated, Hwange’s elephants migrated away. So, he started pumping underground water to fill them year-round.
With plenty of water, the elephants stayed, and today they number more than 46,000 as one of the largest herds in Africa. But still, relatively few visitors came.
“To me, Hwange is one of the forgotten great parks of Africa,” Butcher said. “It is an immense national park that sees very few visitors.”
The continent’s third-largest national park after Kruger in South Africa and Zambia’s Kafue, Hwange only welcomes about 40,000 visitors annually, compared to well over a million in Kruger. Hwange is also one of the few game reserves in Africa with a railway line running all the way across it. The line predates the park, which makes arriving in Hwange by rail even more fitting.
By 3 a.m., the Stimela Star came to a stop, unhitched from the main NRZ night train at a siding bordering the park. A few hours later, we awoke to a hot breakfast, then bid farewell to the faded lady as we boarded Imvelo safari vehicles waiting to take us on a morning game drive.
It was a wonderful maiden run onboard Zimbabwe’s first private sleeper train in decades, as well as a journey back to a bygone era when the familiar sound of the old steamela engines echoed through the African night.
About Imvelo Safari LodgesFounded in 1994, Imvelo offers tailormade safari experiences with an emphasis on responsible tourism. It currently operates four luxury safari lodges and tented camps in private concessions in and adjacent to Hwange, as well as a lodge perched on the edge of the Batoka Gorge near Victoria Falls and a tented camp in Zambezi National Park.
Booking Tips- Stimela Star 2018 departure dates are Aug. 12 and 19; Sept. 3 and 30; Oct. 9 and 22; and Nov. 5. - Rates are $419 per person, double, through Dec. 31. This includes accommodation; all meals as stated (dinner and breakfast); soft drinks, beer, wine and local spirits; and entertainment. To book, email Imvelo Safari Lodges reservation offices at [email protected] or [email protected]
The DetailsImvelo Safari Lodgeswww.imvelosafarilodges.com