Day 294: Train Treasure Trove

Mon. 3rd June 2013

On the pump trolley!Nesbitt Castle is definitely proving to be high on the bizarre scale. Its not just the faux-castle design – I know an Englishman’s home is his castle, but this is taking it too far. In addition to the Trophy Room (see yesterday), the reception rooms downstairs hold a mini-museum of collectables (or junk?). The corridors form a mini maze but it still seems to be impossible to get to the restaurant without going outside. In common with the rest of our experience in Zimbabwe, there are more staff than guests at the hotel. Still, they do have porridge on the breakfast menu, so all is well with the world.

Make it snappy!Today is our day to explore Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe, and to hire a car so we can get further into the country. We are just booking a taxi with reception when Patrick, the manager, offers us a lift into town. We’re not sure why he did this (though we are grateful) as it seems to make him late for a meeting. He is also surprised that we want to go into Bulawayo – but then he does seem to be the type to find the cloud around every silver lining.

All you need to know about BulawayoIt is around 3 or 4km from Nesbitt Castle into town. The streets are wide – Patrick says that they were originally designed to allow an ox-cart to do a u-turn – and (as elsewhere in Zimbabwe) with relatively little traffic. The pavements are busyish and whilst there are some street vendors selling tat, we aren’t hassled and are just ignored by the locals. We do stand out though – we only saw 2 or 3 other white faces all day.

3 generations of Haddon & Sly department storeThere is a real mix of architecture and styles to the buildings – some are late 19th century others (with more concrete and less style) from the 60s and 70s. All, as Wikitravel puts it, with an air of shabby gentility. The Haddon & Sly department store seemed to sum up the entire city – 3 generations of building, one beside the other, each larger than its predecessor but less ornate and with less style. The newest building with its 70s design and logo is now a mini shopping mall containing dozens of small independent stores, a bit like market stalls within the outer shell of the building spread out over the 4 or 5 floors. Ah, what this country could be!

City Hall, BulawayoWe’re happy to wander, adopting our usual strategy of following our nose. City Hall with its gardens and fountains stands out. The carved panel on the clock tower depicts white settlers (presumably Rhodes) lording it over the natives. I’m surprised that it was allowed to remain. Perhaps it is a reminder of past wrongs. We do find the Avis office (more or less where Patrick said it would be) but it is shut – we are told that the man running it has had to go out and will be back later.

Original Shamva Station BuildingThe guide books mention a number of sites in Bulawayo including the Art Gallery and the Natural History Museum but the one that captures our imagination is the Railway Museum. It is a little way out of the town centre (by the train station, unsurprisingly) and we walk through some more run down areas and past a crowd of locals bustling around a handful of minibuses (reminding us of collectivos or bemos). When we get there, after a bit of perseverance, we are met at the front door of an old station building by the proprietor and greeted warmly. We immediately know that we have got lucky once again.

Rhodes' CoachThe entrance fee is $1 and for that we also get a couple of first day covers with train stamps on. We’re embarrassed as to how little we’ve paid and so we make a donation and for that we get more first day covers, some postcards and a couple more banknotes. This just makes it more embarrassing somehow. We’re also given a guided tour around the museum and in particular of the railcar used by Cecil Rhodes to travel around the country and which was used to carry his body to the Matopos (where we’re going tomorrow) for burial.

Olly at the controlsThere are half a dozen steam engines scattered around the museum. Other than telling us that it is our responsibility to be careful, we are free to climb aboard and around the engines. Climbing into the cab of a steam engine brings out the little boy in Olly and he wants to have a go at the controls. Janet and I have a bit of fun on one of the pump trolleys which, unlike the one in our lead photo, is unlocked and with a hundred metres or so of track for us to ride up and down on.

I'm a lady, please take me to the fallsThe history of the railway is, of course, linked to the history of the bridge over the Zambezi at Victoria Falls. We are shown the ‘Jack Tar’ which as well as helping move material down to the bridge construction site – after being disassembled and moved over to the Zambia side – it was also the first train to cross the bridge. Janet preferred the push-trolley which was used to shuttle tourists from the Victoria Falls Hotel down to the Falls and the bridge.

A great setting for some lovely old trainsEventually, we tear ourselves away from the memorabilia, the reconstructed station buildings, the Rhodesia Railways signs and, of course, the gentle giant steam engines. When we get back to the Avis office we find that it is open but they don’t have any cars available tomorrow. The manager does, however, ring Europcar for us and sets in train a complex set of events – several phone calls and a bit of Internet access – that sets us up for a car to be delivered to the castle tomorrow. Thank goodness for the local SIM in my phone – it saved our bacon this time.

Inside the Railway Chaplains carriageWhilst, we’ll never know about the other museums in Bulawayo we do know that in this country that we never planned to visit, on an itinerary that we are making up as we go along, we came across a real treasure trove today.

[Note from Janet: one of my favourites was a whole carriage for the railway chaplain complete with altar and mini organ as well as his own galley and sleeping quarters]


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