“I’m so happy to meet you! I have never met an American before. I want to shake your hand because I am so proud that you elected a black man to be your president!” -Older Zimbabwean man in the waiting room. [As of 2017 I wonder what he thinks now…]
The most scenic train in Zimbabwe
The overnight train to Victoria Falls from Bulawayo was the most scenic of the trains I took in Zimbabwe. It departs after dark (at around 19:30), so you can’t see anything out the windows until morning.
During the last few hours of the train journey you travel right next to Hwange National Park, and so you will probably be able to see some animals as you lumber along. I saw a bunch and there’s nothing like laying in bed and watching Zebras roll by!
The Bulawayo Train Station
The Bulawayo train station has an old first class waiting room. The electrical outlets did not work in this room, so don’t expect to charge your devices here. There wasn’t any toilet paper in the bathrooms, either, but by this point you probably already know to bring toilet paper with you wherever you go in the region.
See also: My Zimbabwe Travel Tips Page
It was nice to have this waiting room option since otherwise I would have had to wait after dark for the train. It was my rule not to walk through the streets alone at night during this trip! I only broke that rule by accident a few times!
One of the men working at the train station went with me to the grocery store (just search for the local Pick N Pay on google maps) to pick up some things for his family. I needed to buy my enormous bottle of water and snacks for the ride.
My huge water bottle would have quenched the thirst of an entire football team! But after the train from Harare to Bulawayo where we were left for 17 hours without access to water, I wanted to be prepared. Thankfully the station attendant was a total champ and helped me carry it back to the train station.
Outside of the Pick N Pay they were selling dried caterpillars! I did not stock up on those…
Booking your ticket, costs, and departures for the train to Victoria Falls
Like with all the trains I took in Zimbabwe, you have to book your ticket for the train to Victoria Falls on the day of your departure.
Unlike the other trains in the country, this train does tend to fill up and so I recommend that you arrive early to book your sleeper.
Well, ok let’s be real, you don’t have to arrive that early. I arrived at around noon and was fine.
A few days before, when I arrived in Bulawayo from Harare at around 14:00 there were only one or two sleeper compartments left for that evening’s train. So, if you want to be safe, I would recommend buying the ticket before early afternoon.
A first class sleeper cost me $12, and I got lucky and had the entire two bed compartment to myself.
The train departs daily at around 19:30.
Conditions in the Train to Victoria Falls
Choo choo and we’re off! It felt great to be on the train to Victoria Falls. It would be my last train ride in Zimbabwe.
I could tell the my compartment was at one point the epitome of luxury. All the carriages have RR branded all over them for Rhodesia Railways, the colonial name for what is now the National Railway of Zimbabwe.
Fast forward to the present and this poor train had seen better days, but it was nice to imagine what it would have been like brand new.
Also, my compartment was comfortable, BUT in one corner there was a tiny, at one point luxurious, little sink. It was in bad shape and by the smell it was clear that some passengers thought it would make a convenient toilet…
There was a dining car on this train, but I didn’t visit it because I was feeling antisocial and I had already eaten. Plus, I hadn’t made any friends on the train. If it was anything like the other dining car I have been on on the train from Mozambique to Bulawayo, it would be filled with hoards of drunk men within the first hour. Those weren’t the friends I was looking for!
Safety on the train to Victoria Falls
In addition to the normal safety protocols one would take on these trains, the train to Victoria Falls had, well, a special safety precaution. The conductor kindly mentioned this to me, and now I will mention it to you:
DO NOT SLEEP WITH YOUR WINDOWS OPEN!
Ok, fine, it may get hot so you can have them open a crack, but treat it like your car in a parking lot…don’t open them far enough for a hand to reach in…
Ah so now you think that while you are sleeping there will be gangs of robbers trying to reach into your window. Not quite. Try baboons!
Early in the morning the train stops at some places where packs of baboons just love crawling all over the train. They know there is food in the compartments (all my snacks), and you definitely do not want a wake up call from of those haggard things.
These weren’t baboons from the forest. They were train yard baboons, dirty with dust, playing with garbage people threw out of the windows, all touting gross injuries from climbing around heavy machinery. It was quite a sight to see them climbing all over the train. It was even freakier to see them climbing INTO the train…
The ride over the risk
I remember looking out the window and feeling so euphoric on that train. It was one of those movie moments where you know that you are really on an adventure and you can’t wait for what happens next.
But suddenly the train turns a corner, and, among the bleached bones of elephants and buffalo long gone, you see a full train of overturned carriages just like your own mangled and upside down, littering the hillside with broken glass and twisted metal. Was it the remnants of the Dete train crash?
I never asked, and although I am glad I took the risk and took the train to Victoria Falls, it’s the moments like this that ground you in the realities of the region. It’s all fun and games for me, but lots of Zimbabweans depend on this outdated, often unsafe mode of transport. Who knows what the future holds for this rail system.