by Tobias Thornes
Cecil Rhodes once dreamed of a railway that would run right up the length of Africa, from Cape Town to Cairo through a long line of conjoined British colonies. One by one, most of the necessary tribes and kingdoms of ancient Africa had fallen into Britain’s grip by the end of the nineteenth century, but the scheme was scuppered by German East Africa, which remained a thorn in the British Empire’s side until the First World War, then by the Great Depression, the Second World War and the process of decolonisation that then ensued. Thus the dream went unfulfilled, but the British did complete the stretch from South Africa to Tanzania, half way up the continent on the Eastern side, albeit with a large gap between there and Sudan, where another line linked up to Egypt. It was on this great railway that I embarked, one fine afternoon towards the end of Southern Hemisphere autumn, and prepared to make my journey back northwards through the secret heart of Africa.
Only the famous ‘Blue Train’ did the journey from Cape Town to Tanzania in one stretch, a train that only the elite could afford to ride. My journey I took more gradually, changing trains regularly to ride alongside more ordinary Africans and experience something of the urban conurbations separated by such splendid stretches of countryside. Thus, from Pretoria, South Africa’s posher capital (and much less dangerous than Johannesburg) to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, to avoid the slick blue carriages with their solid gold taps and unappetising offerings of luxury, I was obliged to leave the train and board a bus to Botswana, thence catching an unhurried and somewhat rustic service, with more staff than passengers, which being slower gave me more opportunity to witness the changing landscape about me and the celebrated fauna living out their lives beside the roads and the tracks.
Zimbabwe was a name of infamy in those times, when memories of the lately deposed dictator-come-president Mugabe and his famously inept policies that may have shortened millions of lives were still fresh in many minds. Having had a currency so rattled by inflation that the wheelbarrows carrying mounds of cash were worth more than the dollars they contained and a Land Reform Programme that sought to dispossess ex-colonial farmers but in the process brought millions to the brink of starvation, the Zimbabwe I witnessed was a country just beginning to stumble back onto its feet. The new government wasn’t necessarily much better than its predecessor, and though few would have welcomed the return of Mr Mugabe, perhaps there was something of the man that was missed by a people that had once idolised their freedom-fighter champion of independence. The spirit of rejuvenation that he had once espoused had converted ‘Southern Rhodesia’ with its racialist rule into a free Zimbabwe governed by a long-oppressed majority. A new rejuvenation was what the country sorely needed, still dependent on tobacco exports as its major industry, still clearing forests to heat the tobacco barns and still suffering from elections essentially controlled by the ruling party.
I was not a common sight, in those days, as a European traveller, in a land where the tourist industry had long since collapsed and to which – thankfully from my environmentalist perspective – very few airlines bothered to fly. But there had been days when the British were a rarer sight still, most notably in 1855 when the intrepid David Livingstone first set a European eye on Africa’s brightest hidden gem, the world’s biggest waterfall, and renamed it Victoria Falls. The railway from Zimbabwe to Zambia still climbed through the once dark and mysterious forests that flanked the great impassable Zambesi River, crossing by a vast Victorian bridge, and it was well worth pausing there to be taken aback looking upon the incredible sight of what in the indigenous Tonga tongue was called the ‘Smoke that Thunders’. Unimaginable gallons of clear water, toppling from a rocky cliff with an unimaginably voluminous sound: this was indeed a wonder of Nature, a grand spectacle whose proportions had to be seen to be comprehended.
East Africa is a land of scrambling rivers, whose treacherous courses, impossible to follow, give a sense of leading towards some lost treasure: staircases to paradise that defeat all those who try to climb. An element of Eden, which was said to be bounded by four just such rivers, could be seen amidst those forests. To the West of Zambia flows the Zambesi, to the north trickles a tributary to the great Congo, their courses cutting across boundaries of artificially drawn-up states. The rivers were valued there, certainly: for their beauty; for the burgeoning tourist industry that they continued to bring to the old ‘Northern Rhodesia’; and, alas, for the potential hydropower to be had by damming them.
Zambia was a beautiful and relatively unspoiled country; its huge twenty-fold population growth of the previous century had largely occurred in the cities, where nearly half the people lived, leaving large parts of the countryside sparsely inhabited. Yet there was only one element that the big powers there had been focussed on for decades: atomic number 29, Copper. As a result of this, Zambia had become a good example of a country heavily influenced by the sway of capitalist markets. When the copper price was high, the money rolled in and the rich especially flourished; when the copper price fell, the money brought in by mining dried up and the poor especially floundered. In Lusaka, the people talked about increasing diversification of the economy, but the majority of exports were still those of element 29, and this was certainly not the place to be advocating hopes for a world with one hundred per cent recycling and the phasing out of mining for metals.
Another train brought me to another country, up through the picturesque flat pains of the Sarengeti into Tanzania, where the railway ran out. Here were Africa’s largest lakes – including Victoria (the etymology of which is again not difficult to fathom) and Tanganyika, the deepest, known for its unique fish – and Africa’s tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro. It was an astonishing sight. My slow travel had brought me through a truly foreign land, one where sometimes fatal superstitions still lingered amidst the majority rural population, where more than a hundred ancient languages were spoken, but where more than a third of the countryside was protected for conservation. It’ wasn’t difficult to see why. Erupting shards of earth, imploding pools of water, untainted air beneath the fiery autumn sun: all the elements were there in their purest form. A ‘heart of darkness’ indeed this was not, I reflected as the last red rays of sunlight set the western sky alight. This was the crowning star of Nature’s primordial display.