The Party Train to Bulawayo
Taking the Train from Mozambique to Zimbabwe
Part 2: Sango to Bulawayo
“We will arrive at 4 PM…”
“No! 10 AM!”
“No! 7 PM”
So in Part 1 of my adventure on the train from Mozambique to Zimbabwe, I had completed the first train ride from Maputo to Chicualacuala and crossed the border into Zimbabwe. I was now waiting in a field alongside the railroad tracks in the essentially nonexistent border town of Sango. The train to Bulawayo had not arrived yet.
The Waiting Game
The train to Bulawayo eventually rumbled in, but don’t get too excited. Like most trains in the region, it is a mixed freight and passenger train. It still needed to switch its freight in Mozambique.
I got to the Sango/Zimbabwe side of the tracks at around 8 am and didn’t realize I had a full day of waiting ahead of me. In fact, nobody really knows when the train will leave.
Luckily, Zimbabweans are great and they already had a giant cookout in full swing. You can go eat some french fries (chips) cooked on a wood burning fire, or try a warm plate of sadza and beans with the odd chicken kidney thrown in. Everyone there loved to watch me try and eat with my hands. Aka they loved laughing at me. But I swear it’s tricky!
There’s also a clever entrepreneur with a big battery and tons plugs who will happily charge your phone or other devices for a dollar each.
If you make enough of the right friends, you will be able to take a shower in the police camp nearby. In fact, Sango is pretty much just that police camp that staffs the border. They seemed pretty bored out there.
Boarding the train to Bulawayo
Although spending the afternoon hanging out with all the Zimbabweans was just wonderful, we were all still anxious to leave.
See also: My Zimbabwe Travel Guide
When you see everyone running towards the train it means it is finally time to leave. The train came back from Mozambique at 15:26. It started loading passengers at 16:00.
During the cookout, one Zimbabwean woman, I will call her S, took it upon herself to keep on eye on me and make sure I missed neither the train nor the latest gossip. She went to Mozambique monthly to buy supplies to sell in Bulawayo, and so she was a total pro at taking this train. In fact, most of the people on the train took it frequently and so they all seemed to be friends with each other.
She and I also befriended a young Mozambican girl, V, who was in her second year studying at Solusi University outside of Bulawayo. She was also traveling alone.
We all decided to share a first class, 4 berth sleeper car together, which was awesome. There were also 6 berth couchettes available in the second class, but the fact that most of the people traveling were vendors stocking up on supplies means that everyone had ridiculous amount of bags and luggage…so the second class sleepers ended up feeling extremely crowded.
There were three of us in our 4 berth sleeper, and it was filled to the brim with supplies. It would have been impossible to fit another person in!
Costs and Departure
The first class sleeper cost 14 USD per bed on the train to Bulawayo. There were 2 or 4 berth options available. The second class sleeper cost 12 USD per bed. I don’t remember the cost of third class because I could not imagine spending another night sitting up. 3rd class was also completely full so you wouldn’t be able to lay down anywhere. It is total party back there so you probably wouldn’t get any sleep anyway.
The conductor came around and collected our payment. There was no bedding provided so bring a sleeping bag.
“What in the world are you doing here?” he asked me.
The train left at 16:10. This is subject to change depending on how much freight they have to change in Mozambique.
I’m not gonna lie, this train looked like it had been hit by a bomb. The Mozambican train was very uncomfortable, but it was overall just a better, newer train than this Zimbabwean one.
But I also found myself loving this Zimbabwean train to Bulawayo. You felt like you were in a museum in those sleepers, and it was easy to imagine what it must have been like to take them in their heyday. They were all marked Rhodesia Railways, the colonial name of the National Railways of Zimbabwe. It was fun to imagine all the people who might have traveled in them over the years.
The weather was perfect when I was there. Good company, great views, the calming rumble of the train…I was in heaven!
I laughed thinking I had to go all the way to Zimbabwe to be able to afford a first class sleeper, but the train- with its holes in the ground and peeling paint-felt regal and new and the epitome of luxury for me…especially after the Mozambican train.
The Laziest Safari
Unlike the Mozambican train, this train to Bulawayo is the train where you should be glued to the windows for the first few hours. The first part of the journey is through a wildlife reserve and you may catch a glimpse of an elephant.
S told me that she had seen elephants and giraffes from the train before. The tracks are slightly elevated over the bush so you have great visibility. You can literally lay in bed and search for elephants at the same time. That’s my kind of safari.
If it is clear you will also be able to enjoy a magnificent sunset over the wilderness.
My lazy, in-bed safari was a bit of a bust considering that I only saw a pack of baboons, but I didn’t care!
The Dining Car and Solo Female Travel
The dining car on the train to Bulawayo is also great. You feel like you are walking back in time, and it is kitschy in the best sort of way.
It is divided into two sections: the smoking/bar section and the eating section. If you are a lady and on your own I wouldn’t recommend going into the bar portion of the car because it is pretty much the same as walking right into a pack of lions. No women spent time in the bar car for the entire duration of the trip.
In fact, S told me she loved drinking beer, but later she told me that she probably drinks one beer a year. I would later learn from a Zimbabwean friend in Victoria Falls that the only women in Zimbabwe who go to bars and drink regularly are sex workers. So, going to any sort of (non tourist) bar and drinking alone as a woman is basically the same as shouting “I am a sex worker!!” to everyone there.
My newfound friends and I enjoyed a great chicken and sadza meal. Tip: go eat dinner early because then you will have your choice of pieces of the chicken. It was $1.50 for a meal of chicken, sadza, and vegetables. Breakfast was an egg sandwich for a dollar. Beer also cost a dollar.
What to pack for the train to Bulawayo
Unlike the train in Mozambique, nobody was selling snacks at the villages where the train stopped. The countryside changes a lot between the Mozambique and Zimbabwe and frequent villages and subsistence farms are replaced by open field and a lot of emptiness.
If they run out of food in the dining car, one option is to go back to third class. People were selling lots of snacks back there. In fact, tons of people were also weaving baskets so you could probably learn how to weave a basket in no time back there.
I really recommend bringing some sort of bag for your trash. Your bottles, wrappers, and papers start to pile up during the journey. When I asked the conductor what I should do with an empty can he just took it out of my hand and launched it out the window into the wildlife preserve. Eeeeek.
I ended up keeping the rest of my trash and I threw it away in Bulawayo. I can’t imagine their waste management infrastructure being the best in the world, but at least I wasn’t throwing trash into a gorgeous wildlife preserve…
The train arrives in Bulawayo!
We finally arrived in Bulawayo at 13:00 the following day. That means that the train to Bulawayo lasted a grand total of 21 hours.
Roughly adding things up and including the waiting time, it took me 47 hours to take the travel by train from Maputo to Bulawayo. Maputo is just about 1000 km from Bulawayo. If a direct flight between Maputo and Bulawayo existed it would literally take an hour and a half…haha.
So yes, I understand that spending 47 hours in a series of dilapidated trains isn’t everyone’s idea of a fantastic vacation, but to me it was 100% worth it and I would happily do it again.
I took almost every train running in Zimbabwe and eventually ran into some other tourists. Bulawayo is the train hub of Zimbabwe and so I ended up passing through there more than once during my trip. On the train from Harare to Bulawayo some older tourists told me that you can go take a shower at the Bulawayo Club if you go eat lunch there. I can’t confirm that since eating there wasn’t in my budget, but it may be worth a try if you don’t get shower at the police camp at the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border.
Some last details about Bulawayo
The train station in Bulawayo is about a 20 minute walk from the center of town. A taxi to town should cost $1 but if you’re obviously not from Zimbabwe they will rip you off. This includes Mozambicans. By ripoff I mean you may pay $1.50.
There is a left luggage room at the far end of the station that is ok to use. I think it costs a dollar. There is also a train museum nearby, and I detail my experience going there in my things to do in Bulawayo post.
Lastly, if you’re not so keen on spending a lot of time in quiet Bulawayo, one option is to take the train to Victoria Falls that leaves from Bulawayo every night, or even the train to Harare that leaves a few times a week. They are both overnight trains, but they will take less than 21 hours. Be sure to check out my posts about my experiences taking these trains!
S and her family
Finally, if you’re wondering, I ended up going back to S’s house that evening and meeting her whole family and community. They taught me how to cook and laughed at me a lot. In fact I slept on her couch!
Her husband is a police officer so they live in a police camp. Sure, many people didn’t have good things to say about the police in Zimbabwe, but politics aside I was happy to see what their lives were like. Also, safety-wise, a guarded police camp seemed like an ok place to stay.
We still keep in touch! Trains are the best for meeting locals.