Elephants on rails and in the wilderness: Garratts in Zimbabwe

miles and miles of African bushland

Botswana: June 19th – June 24th, 2009
Zimbabwe: June 23rd – July 7th, 2009

Garratts are still running in Zimbabwe and there is positive news.

We have had encouraging reports direct from Zimbabwe (not from western news sources) and they are surprisingly encouraging, especially when it comes to the situation around the steam operations at Bulawayo.

There is positive news from Zimbabwe, particularly from Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, despite the continuing political troubles and general economic hardships of the country. Since last year things have improved in part because the Zimbabwe dollar is no longer being used for most transactions. This is so, because many shops no longer take Z$ as payment. Foreign exchange is now used in the shops, and for taxis, hotels, local transport operators, and long distance buses, etc. Petrol is readily available and the price today is US$0.80 per litre, with the most expensive filling station charging US$1.00 per litre.

On the railway, the line between Bulawayo  and Vic Falls is in perfect condition, and operation is normal (but: many railwaymen are on strike at the moment, they want their salaries in US-Dollars). Unlike last year, water tank wagons are not an issue, and the railway is receiving coal in reliable quantities from Hwange. (Which also means the Hwange colliery steam locomotives are working regularly).

After the shift to US dollars (and Rands from South Africa or Pulas from Botswana) there is plenty of food in the shops if you have foreign exchange, and for visitors in restaurants. And beer is readily available. There is no water problem in Bulawayo, and if, for any reason there is no water, the Cresta Hotel in Bulawayo has connected good bottled water to all the rooms. Cholera is in the north-east and around the capital of Harare, where our tour will not be going. Bulawayo is a long way to the south, and from our report is not a problem. We’ll not drink water from polluted wells (instead harmless bottled water and beer) or visit any hospital. Even this would be close to risk-free in Vic Falls, because there are no cases of Cholera in this region. According to trustworthy hospital staff there have been eleven cases in Bulawayo so far, all travellers from the eastern region who came to Bulawayo.

From our point of view visiting Zimbabwe is not dangerous at all.

Bernd Seiler, February 11th, 2009

Our trip combines exciting steam photography based on chartered freight trains with wildlife and the wonders of African scenery. This is an excellent trip for railway photographers and spouses or other family members who want to experience the real Africa!

Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with fascinating wildlife and scenery. The spectacular Victoria Falls, known as “the smoke that thunders,” is one of the absolute musts when travelling to Africa. Friendly, welcoming people and their warm hospitality make a stay in Zimbabwe pleasant in all respects. Last but certainly not least, Zimbabwe still offers commercial steam services. We’ll visit it all, the sights of the country, the wildlife, as well as the “elephants on rails”, the last mighty Garratts in regular service in the world. The Garratts that we will see are probably the largest working British steam locos (Beyer-Peacock) anywhere. We strongly recommend that you do not delay in seeing these wonderful locomotives while steam is still in daily operation, even though this is normally only a shunting operation.

We have chartered several freight trains on the most interesting sections of National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ). For a few days we’ll have our own Garratt based in the shed at Thomson Junction. From there we’ll pass through the one and only tunnel on the NRZ network, swing through the curves along to Dete and climb up the gradient to Zanguja.

The Victoria Falls bridge with Garratt 15A 414 on it






Flight Europe/America - Johannesburg, arrival next morning



Connection flight SA/4Z 8112 Johannesburg 11.35 hrs - Bulawayo 12.55 hrs, by chartered minibuses to our hotel in Bulawayo



Early morning visit to the Bulawayo depot, afternoon by chartered minibuses to Botswana, Hotel in Selebi-Phikwe



Visit to the BCL copper mine and linesiding, hotel in Selebi-Phikwe



Linesiding along the railway lines of the BCL copper mine, hotel in Selebi-Phikwe



Visit to the BCL copper mine and linesiding, early afternoon return to Zimbabwe, arrival in the evening, hotel in Bulawayo



Flight Europe/America - Johannesburg, arrival next morning



Connection flight SA/4Z 8112 Johannesburg 11.35 hrs - Bulawayo 12.55 hrs, by chartered minibuses to our hotel in Bulawayo, evening meting with the Botswana group in our hotel



Visit to the steam shed of Bulawayo in the morning, visit to the shunting operation in Bulawayo, noon departure by charter bus to Dete, hotel Hwange Safari Lodge



In the early morning we'll go to New Hwange and take a steam hauled freight train to Dete via Hwange and Lukosi. In Lukosi we’ve planned a break (maybe barbecue) We'll reach Dete around sunset. By charter bus to the Hwange Safari Lodge near Dete. Alternatively you can spend the day in the national park and watch the wildlife. A guided tour is about 50 US-Dollars.



Early morning by charter bus to Thomson Jn. (or stay in Hwange to watch the wildlife), in the morning we'll wait for a train on the Hwange colliery line and in the afternoon we will enjoy a charter steam freight from Thomson Jn via Hwange to Lukosi (via “404 curve”) and return (bunker first). By charter bus to the Hwange Safari Lodge near Dete)



Steam around Thomson Jn. We have planned two steam hauled trains today (one in the morning and one in the afternoon), covering some of the most scenic parts of the NRZ railway system. Hotel Hwange Safari Lodge near Dete



Early Morning call again! We'll go by charter bus to Thomson Jn where we need to arrive around 6.00 am. Charter steam train Thomson Jn - Victoria Falls, hotel in Victoria Falls



According to the experience of former tours it would be wise to give the National Railways a day off after the long distance charter from Thomson Jn to Victoria Falls. So we’ll take a day off too and visit the spectacular water falls in the morning. In the evening we’ll enjoy a sundowner cruise on the Zambezi river where you often can watch rhinos, crocodiles and elephants. Hotel in Victoria Falls



In the morning we'll take a steam hauled charter train from Victoria Falls to Thomson Jn. Arrival in Thomson Jn. in the afternoon, Hotel in Victoria Falls. Alternatively you can stay in Victoria Falls, sleep in, visit the waterfalls and visit the crocodile farm nearby.



As there are plenty of opportunities we'll arrange another day of different trains around Thomson Jn. By charter bus to our hotel in Victoria Falls.



In the early morning we'll arrange a steam train (class 14A) over the famous Victoria Falls bridge to Livingstone, visit to the railway museum in Livingstone (if by then open to visitors) Return to Victoria Falls by train (bunker first). Hotel in Victoria Falls



Return flight from Victoria Falls SA 41, dep. 11.50 hrs via Johannesburg to Europe/America



Arrival Europe/America


Details of the tour

passing a lake

We have arranged a number of charter freight trains over the most scenic sections of the National Railways of Zimbabwe. We will try to arrange trains of some 15 wagons with different freight wagons. We have not attached passenger coaches to these trains as we’re trying to avoid wasting money on non-authentic trains. We’ll travel by these trains in the train crew service car and the brakevan. To get the best photographic results we’ll use the early morning light whenever possible as well as the late afternoon light. At noon, when the sun is high on the sky, we won’t try for photographs or videos as the results are often disappointing. Usually the state railways are heavily delayed, we need to expect that our charter trains will be delayed as well. (see remark)

Bulawayo is a medium sized city that in many ways seems unchanged from several decades ago. It is an important crossing of railway lines with a large yard and two loco depots, one for steam and one for diesel. A visit to the amazing large steam depot is worth the trip alone! If you haven’t experienced a sunset in Africa before, we guarantee you’ll be impressed by the stunning colours of the sky at dusk. Together with one of the mighty Garratts, as they steam around the yards at Bulawayo, there are many wonderful photographs possible, especially at dusk. Line service was suspended in the mid 1990’s. Moreover, there are sometimes freight movements between the railway stations of Bulawayo, which are very much like line operations and are entirely authentic, and – so far as the coal supply allows – there are some shunting movements around the yards and industrial areas. There are many Garratts dumped at the shed and all of the steam facilities. On good days the depot sees four Garratts under steam. Outside of China, this is probably the biggest surviving steam depot in the world.

16A and 14A taking water

14A 525 quenched its thirst.

Due to lack of coal supply there are days with no steam activity at all (see remark). National Railways of Zimbabwe have agreed to stockpile some coal so we’ll probably see steam in regular use.

The line between Thomson Junction and Hwange is not very long, but offers plenty of the best photographic opportunities. Christine’s curve, the only tunnel on the NRZ and curving around the Baobab hotel hill are some of the best spots. Further on, the line to Dete offers many curves including the famous “404 curve”, baobabs, cuttings and embankments which offer very good positions. As there are so many good positions we have arranged several charter trains over this section of the line. We’ll try to change train compositions from day to day as we have ordered different stocks of wagons.

swinging round the curves of Hwange

Our train from Thomson Junction to Zanguja will lead us to the famous high embankment in a photogenic S-curve. The climb up to Zanguja is a highlight for sound recorders as well as for photographers and video film makers.

15A 414 at Zanguja bank

The Bulawayo Railway Museum is within easy walking distance of the steam shed and has an exceptional collection of locomotives, rolling stock and smaller artefacts from the Rhodesian Railways and National Railways of Zimbabwe. There are diesels, electrics and beautifully restored carriages and steam locomotives, and many of them well displayed. Our visit also helps to support the museum and its important efforts at preserving the country’s railway heritage. Moreover, the museum gives us an opportunity to purchase books, replica builder’s and locomotive name plates, original railway china and other items to make the visit even more memorable. The staff and volunteers are very knowledgeable and will help you appreciate the history of this fascinating railway system and Zimbabwe today.

The Hwange Colliery in Hwange (the former Wankie) uses one steam locomotive daily, if not in need of repair. They exclusively use one of their two operational Garratts. Beside these a class 19D locomotive may still be serviceable but not in use, and several other engines are at the shed or under repairs. The mine railway has an impressive gradient from the state railway station to the washery and there are several good photo opportunities, giving excellent chances for shots of real line work. There are usually two trains during daylight, depending on the production of the mine.

Hwange Colliery - on the way from Thomson Jn. to the washery

As they have increased the entrance fee to the loco shed by 250 % from 2005 to 2006 we haven’t applied for a permit to visit the washery and the depot. The procedure for paying this money has proved very time consuming on previous tours too. We’ll focus entirely on seeing a train on the line.

With our train to Livingstone we’ll pass over the impressive century-old, riveted girder arch bridge over the Victoria Falls gorge of the Zambezi River. Our charter train will pass this bridge two times to give us opportunities for taking pictures from a view point in the National Park of Zambia. It’s also possible to charter a helicopter to capture the train and water falls in the same scene. We can charter a helicopter for about £100 (ca. 120 Euros) per person. If you wish to take a shot from above, we’ll arrange everything. The price for the round trip flight of about 20 minutes is not included in the tour price and the arrangement with the helicopter has to be made two days in advance. Even with tight planning it is somewhat difficult to be at just the right position when the train is on the bridge, so we can’t guarantee you an air photo with the train on the bridge at the perfect location, but it is fun to try and everyone will do their best to help make it possible. For Zambia we need a visa which is issued at the border.

Vic Falls freight

The amazing African wildlife alone is a wonderful reason to visit Zimbabwe. You’ll have the opportunity to visit three of the outstanding National Parks with the most animals and a variety of natural habitats. At the water holes you can probably watch elephants, hippos, rhinos, crocodiles, giraffes, zebras, monkeys and a variety of birds. They have installed some viewing towers from which you can take photographs or just contemplate the vastness of Africa and the diversity of its wildlife. You can book a local guide who will guide you through the park and will know the best spots for meeting animals. As this is an expensive option, here is another one: the more relaxed version is to watch animals at a large water hole from the terrace of our comfortable hotel. While this latter version is free of (sur)charge, travelling to the park requires an ever increasing fee. This unpredictably growing fee is the reason why we didn’t include it in the tour price. In 2008 it was 50 US-Dollars for a morning in the park. If you want to spend the afternoon there as well, you needed to pay another 50 US-Dollars in 2008. We could bargain them down to 90 US-Dollars for both trips together.

In the Hwange national park

Victoria Falls National Park offers fantastic water cascades, rainbows, tropical vegetation and a large variety of birds. It’s easy to walk alongside the waterfalls on sign posted paths that feature amazing views and beautiful tropical vegetation. You should take plenty of extra film (or batteries and digital memory cards) inside the national park as there are many exiting photographic possibilities. In the evening we’ve planned a special event on the Zambezi River for you. Don’t forget to bring along some reading about African exploration and history, because this is really a chance to enjoy books about Burton, Speke, Livingstone and Stanley, Rhodes and many others, not to mention the construction of the railways. For something a little more relaxing, copies of Alexander McCall-Smith’s books set in Botswana about “The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” are a must! There are also several excellent books available on Zimbabwe Railways and their locomotives (you can purchase some of them in the Railway museum in Bulawayo).

Victoria Falls National Park, seen from Zambia

Photography opportunities in Zimbabwe are boundless, and everyone should get excellent photos or video on the trip. We will have the necessary permits and the people are friendly and receptive to photography. Be sure to bring lots of film or memory cards and we recommend a second camera just in case you have mechanical difficulties. A tripod is especially useful for wildlife.


Small Print

We’ll probably see all the Garratts that are now in regular use. Although NRZ has started a program to overhaul at least ten Garratts for regular use and Safari charter trains, it may be that only a few are operating during any period of a few days. In the case of a coal shortage, there may be days with no steam operations at all. (see remark) However, we expect to see some five Garratts in daily use besides our special charters. The reason for their survival is the poor economic situation in an anything but democratic country. Despite all the reports in the western press, we as tourists will find a peaceful country with very friendly and helpful people who will do everything possible to make our stay an enjoyable one. The crime rate is low, and food and beverages are easily available (although sometimes the selection may be limited). The people of Zimbabwe harbour no resentments towards white visitors at all. So you can feel relaxed and enjoy what you see. Most people speak some English, and many are fluent, and they are usually pleased to talk with visitors. The selected hotels in Zimbabwe offer a good standard but are expensive compared to European standards. Although many people are very poor, beggars are almost unknown. Please remember that any disapproving statements regarding President Mugabe or criticisms of the regime must be avoided after your arrival in Zimbabwe. Despite a regime that is oppressive, our visit will help support the National Railways and their efforts at steam operation and it will contribute to their steam development programme. We will also contribute to preservation at the Bulawayo Railway Museum.

storming through the bushland

Of course, there are some difficulties caused by the dire economic situation and fuel is, sometimes, not easily available. Please note, that we cannot guarantee anything beyond our control such as delays to trains or in obtaining fuel. (see remark) Fuel is available, but getting it can be time consuming.

NRZ's only tunnel

It’s not possible to guarantee a specific locomotive or train composition. It’s not even possible to guarantee that all our planned activities can be executed as planned. Heavy delays for various reasons are common and can lead to cancellation of trains. (see remark) We must admit that the Garratts are basically overhauled for shunting duties and it’s almost a wonder that they have performed so well on our recent tours. But when you take a close look to the technical condition you’ll agree that nothing can be guaranteed.

The visa for Zimbabwe will be issued at the airport. There is no Zimbabwean double entry visa requirement for our day trip to Livingstone in Zambia. However, you do need a visa for Zambia (issued at the border). If you want to come to Botswana you need a double entry visa for Zimbabwe. The visa fee is not included in the tour price.

Matetsi river

In Hwange and Victoria Falls there is a small to medium risk of Malaria. Please take either a Malaria prophylaxis or use a mosquito net and long cloths in the evening. At the moment there are no rules for special vaccinations. Our travel in the dry season makes the risk quite small, but it pays to be safe.

For exchanging money it is recommended you use US$. Inflation is a major problem for the local currency. Please read the recent trip report. Credit cards are accepted in tourist places and big cities. Changing money on the black market can cause big trouble if officials become aware of it. It’s better to avoid it. You’ll need US-Dollars to pay the visa on arrival, entrance fees and food/beverages (see below).

towards the water falls

Despite some power cuts we had no problems to recharge batteries in 2008. Our hotels use generators in a case of a power cut.

We expect temperatures between about ten degrees Centigrade (in the early morning) and 30 degrees Centigrade (only in Vic Falls, Bulawayo has rarely above 27 degrees Centigrade). Normally it’s dry and sunny and very pleasant.

Registration period expires January 2nd, 2009.

steam shed atmosphere in Bulawayo



Elephants on Rails – Garratts in Zimbabwe

from 32 participants

ca. £3,270

June 23rd – July 7th, 2009

from 23 to 31 participants

ca. £3,670


Single room surcharge

ca. £525

Botswana BCL

from 6 participants


June 19th – 24th, 2009

Single room surcharge


* land only

Land only price: please deduct 720 Pounds from the tour price

In addition you need to calculate with the following expenses:

Visa Fees in September 2008:





single entry

double entry

single entry


USD 55

USD 70

USD 140


USD 30

USD 70

USD 135


USD 30

USD 45

USD 50


USD 30

USD 45

USD 50


USD 30

USD 45

USD 50

Expenses for meals (2008)

25 US-Dollars
20 US-Dollars
20 - 25 US-Dollars
Bottle of Beer (0,3 – 05 l)
1 - 2 US-Dollars
Bottle of Water (0,3 – 0,5 l)
1 US-Dollar

Credit Cards are usually not accepted in Zimbabwe!

Minimum number of participants   23
Maximum number of participants: 38

The price includes:

Not included are:

As a service to our UK-based clients FarRail Tours accepts and will continue to accept payments made out in Pound Sterling until further notice. However, please note that from January 28, 2009, all prices quoted in Pound Sterling are indicative only and are subject to change without prior notice. This measure was taken by FarRail Tours due to the unprecedented volatility in the international foreign exchange markets and its impact on the valuation of the Pound Sterling versus other major currencies, namely the Euro as FarRail Tours' accounting currency.

Christine's curve

Remark: We guarantee that we’ll do everything possible to make the most out of the tour, to make it enjoyable and successful in all respects. We’ll offer as many photo and video opportunities as possible. To book this tour you should read this tour description and the tour report from the tour in 2008 carefully. Booking this tour requires that you fully agree to the following:

oiling the Garratt

We, FarRail Tours, can not be held responsible in case of any delay, train cancellation or short supply of coal electricity, water etc. No refunds can be claimed against NRZ or FarRail Tours in case of delays, cancellations, shorter than expected trains, train compositions which don’t meet your expectations, supply problems of any kind and so on. In short: Times, trains, locomotives, lines etc can not be guaranteed.

You need to understand that we’ll visit a country with very serious economic and political problems and where the mentality of the people, and the culture, is quite different from European, North American and Australian ideas and ways of doing things. If that were not the case we wouldn’t have any chance to see these fascinating locomotives and authentic trains on a railway which obviously hasn’t changed its appearance for decades. A tour like we offer would not have been possible at this (still reasonable) price, that is for sure. If we had included insurance against all possible contingencies which can happen the tour price would need to be tripled. The only way to approach this fascinating country with its mighty Garratts in front of real looking freight train is to accept the opportunity of failures or at least changes. However, it is a risk well worth taking as the participants in our earlier trips discovered. If you can accept this - welcome to our tour!

an impressive Baobab at sunrise


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