March 19, 2019

My first trip to Victoria Falls on a train

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After being persuaded by a colleague, Nomalanga Sibanda, I decided to take the dreaded trip to Victoria Falls from Bulawayo by train this past weekend.

I was attending the annual Victoria Falls Carnival that was to begin on December 29 and run until the wee hours of January 1. I have attended this event for the past five or so years and have always taken the bus, save for last year when I decided to drive.

Taking the train has never been an option, well unless if it was the modern Gautrain. NRZ, no ways I’d sworn. I must admit though that comedian Carl Joshua Ncube — the self appointed tourism ambassador as well as his partner in crime — wife Nelsy played a huge role in my decision to board the train as they had marketed the journey by train so well on their Facebook accounts.

So on December 28, 2018, I found myself in a Mbira Tours and Safaris passenger lounge at the NRZ Bulawayo station, patiently waiting for the train host to give out the boarding call announcement.

The train was to depart for the Majestic Falls at 7:30PM to arrive the next day at about 11AM so we were at the station by 6:30PM. Long journey it seemed, but I was fully prepared as a premium coach had been reserved for me as well as 10 other passengers who were all attending the carnival courtesy of Mbira Tours and Safaris. Add onto that, I had carried almost all my gadgets (iPad, laptop, mobile phone and Bluetooth speaker) fully charged and loaded with music and movies to ensure that I would be well entertained for the approximately 16-hour journey.

For some odd reason, I thought there was going to be a whole train exclusively arranged for us, meaning there would be no other carts. But I was in for a rude awakening because when the boarding call was made, all the people who were loitering around the station started making their way to the train with their sacks and all. At this point, I got agitated as it felt like I was boarding some bus at Renkini. I felt a little bit insecure considering I would be spending the better part of the night with so many strange faces.

Generally, I love being given VIP treatment but there is no such thing at the NRZ train station — everyone is equal. Considering that we walked for about 3kms and had quite a lot of luggage, bags and cooler box filled with drinks and ice, I hoped to get some assistance in the form of a trolley but there was no such thing. Even those I saw with empty trolleys did not seem keen to assist, something that baffled me. I even offered to pay some people who seemed like baggage handlers to carry my stuff with the trolleys, but I got funny responses like “the trolleys are for station managers and other bosses here”.

However, one of the people we were travelling with as well as one of the managers at the station came to my rescue and assisted me with my luggage. Our host, Englebert after noticing that I was uncomfortable with the hundreds of people I was seeing boarding the train, assured me that there was no need to worry as we would be in our own space with doors locked. True to his word, when the 12 of us settled in our premium coach, the doors connecting our coach to the rest of the train were locked and we were handed keys to our rooms. The rooms came in different sizes with some with one bed, the other two and others four. My friend and I got one with two beds.

As we settled, we took a walk around the coach to acquaint ourselves with our new home as we were going to spend the whole duration of the carnival there as the train doubled up as our accommodation. Not bad we said to ourselves as the Sleeper Rooms had fairly new mattresses, two charging ports, adequate lighting as well as six windows with four of them being small ones.

The windows also had nets that would keep bugs away in the event we did not want to completely close the windows which worked to our advantage as it got hot on the coach sometimes.

As we made our beds (that sadly had no pillows), the train departed and the excitement of boarding a train for the first time started kicking in. We had bought some food which we would have for supper as the onboard kitchen was not working. After eating, we played a movie which both of us only watched for a few minutes as we fell asleep.

This is how comfortable the beds and ride were, but the annoying part about the train is the countless stops for pickups and drop offs. We would wake up each time the train stopped but after getting used to the routine, we eventually slept flat out and only woke up in Hwange where the stop was long.

This was now just after 8AM and we used this opportunity to catch up with friends and family on WhatsApp as the better part of the journey did not have good network connectivity. We also got to do some catching up of our favourite dramas — The Queen, The River and The Throne on DStv using the DStv Now on-the-go online platform.

As we left Hwange, Englebert advised us to open our doors so that we have a nice view of the Hwange National Park. Unfortunately, we did not get to see the Big Five but the view was still amazing.
Two hours later, I took a nice hot shower and a few minutes later, we arrived in Victoria Falls and everyone else disembarked with our coach

being separated to park on its own rail. Fortunately, we were parked near the CBD so we walked to most places in town — saving us from cab fares.

What I liked most about this ride is the way I and the other train-mates blended well. It was like we were one big family as there were no fights at any point of the journey, but love. We got to know each other better and precisely did almost everything together.

After the carnival, it was time to return home and at that point everyone was tired so there was not much talking, but eating and straight to bed only to wake up in Nyamandlovu.

Over and above, this was an amazing experience which I will gladly partake in over and over again and would recommend fellow

Zimbabweans travelling to Victoria Falls to try out as it’s not tiring like the journey by road as you get there freshened (on condition you take a bath on the coach).

Notes from other passengers
Overall we had a great experience! Would love to do it again! Everyone blended in, no fallouts! Felt like we were one big family! The hospitality from Engelbert was superb and had that personal touch! The bed linen was beautiful, certainly the best I have seen in the hospitality industry. Most places including 5-star hotels tend to have the traditional white linen which can be boring!

There are a few things we could look at to improve the whole experience and attract more customers.

1. Information must be clear about the train journey itself, things like what platform the train is and distance to the cabin.

There is need to warn people about the steep stair case to get on to the coach and in the cabin itself and time of arrival into Vic Falls. Put all leaflets from companies that provide activities like bungee jumping, helicopter rides etc and costs. Information to warn tourists not to disembark at any station before final destination (as they may be drunk) and warning them about danger of wild animals, mosquitoes etc is also important.

2. Housekeeping in the cabins. It would be good to invest in single mattress covers as the NRZ mattresses are so run down, but if covered, it gives them a fresh look before putting sheets. Also, pillows are needed so people can just relax when in the cabins. It would be nice to get someone from Day 1 to do some bit of tidying up of the toilet and shower so they remain in pristine condition always. If anyone wants their room cleaned, they can pay a small fee. By the time guests get into the cabins, make sure beds are already made to give a good impression at the start of the journey.

3. Contingency Plan — It would be interesting to know what plans are available to get us to the destination if the train breaks down.

4. Keeping in touch — The phones needed charging but some of the sockets in the cabins don’t work.

5. Trolleys — NRZ must avail many trolleys for passengers to carry their luggage to and from the train as it’s quite a distance. — Melissa Mpofu

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