Elephants on rails and in the wilderness: Garratts in Zimbabwe

It did become apparent that we’ll be a small group on the tour to Zimbabwe only. The accounting currency in Zimbabwe is the US-Dollar. Because of the sharp decline of the Euro against the US-Dollar and considering the already high price of this tour I have no choice but to cancel it, regrettably. I want to add that this decision is not caused by me having not the necessary contacts in Zimbabwe, as a competitor tries to make you believe in. It’s a pure financial decision, made before the registration deadline.

miles and miles of African bushland

Steam in Botswana: July 28th – August 2nd, 2010
Garratts in Zimbabwe: August 1st –13th, 2010

Our trip combines exciting steam photography based on chartered freight trains with wildlife and the won-ders 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 on a very limited base.

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



Our itinerary does not show every detail. Be assured we arranged everything in detail – and we arranged more than shown here, in the published itinerary. We’ll hand out the detailed plans to the participants about a week before the tour starts.






Flight Europe/America - Johannesburg, arrival next morning



Connection flight (probably SA/4Z 8112 Johannesburg 11.35 hrs - Bulawayo 12.55 hrs) to Bulawayo, 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 (probably SA/4Z 8112) Johannesburg (dep. 11.35 hrs) - Bulawayo, 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 and the afternoon, regular shunting operation in Bulawayo and visit to the railway museum, late afternoon by charter bus to Dete, hotel Hwange Safari Lodge



In the morning we'll go to Hwange and will wait for a train from the NRZ yard in Thomson Jn. to the Hwange colliery. In the late afternoon we’ll make pictures of one of our Garratt departing form Thomson Jn out of the setting sun. 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 light we’ll go by a charter freight train to Lukosi. Almost the entire line is uphill and will be a challenge for our Garratt. We’ll return in the early afternoon. Late afternoon we'll spend some time at the Hwange colliery branch and hope for an uphill train there (we’re in contact with them and will know their schedule). 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 around Thomson Jn. Our focus lays on the famous 404 curve in the afternoon light. 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 (probably SA 41, dep. 11.50 hrs) via Johannesburg to Europe/America



Arrival Europe/America


Details of the tour

Botswana: class 19D in the early morning light

BCL steam in Botswana

The BCL copper mine in Selebi Phikwe in Botswana runs about two to three trains during daylight with steam. They're using the class 19D and, sometimes, a ex NRZ garratt class 14A. For more information please check my trip reports from 2005, 2006 and 2007.

In Zimbabwe we have arranged a number of charter 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).

passing a lake

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! 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 with Garratts 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 three Garratts under steam. Outside of China, this is probably the biggest surviving steam depot in the world.

14A 525 quenched its thirst.

16A and 14A taking water

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 £120 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 and paid for at the border.

Vic Falls freight

The amazing African wildlife alone is a 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, but for 2010 we need to negotiate on the spot again.

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 photography with extreme long lenses.

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 (and never finished it), 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. However, we expect to see some five Garratts in use. 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 Robert 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. Please note, that we cannot guarantee anything beyond our control (see remark). 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. 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.

NRZ's only tunnel

Matetsi river

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.

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. Please contact your doctor if you're uncertain how to protect yourself.

Please bear in mind that accommodation and transportation in Zimbabwe as well as Botswana may fall short of EU or North American safety standards. Always use common sense when crossing roads and railway tracks. FarRail Tours cannot be held responsible and will not accept any liability whatsoever in the case of any accident, damage or delay. We suggest you take out a comprehensive overseas accident and health insurance policy.

towards the water falls

For exchanging money it is recommended you use US$. Inflation was a major problem for the local currency. Nowadays the local currency is no more and they accept US-Dollars and South African Rands everywhere. Credit cards are widely not accepted. You’ll need US-Dollars to pay the visa on arrival, entrance fees and food/beverages (see below).

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 twelve degrees Centigrade (in the early morning) and 30 degrees Centigrade (only in Vic Falls, Bulawayo has rarely above 27 degrees Centigrade at this time of the year). Normally it’s dry and sunny and very pleasant.

steam shed atmosphere in Bulawayo



Elephants on rails and in the wilderness: Garratts in Zimbabwe 31 to 40 participants £2,570
01.08.2010 – 13.08.2010 24 to 30 participants £2,890
  Single room surcharge £460
Registration Deadline: 20.05.2010
Real Steam in Botswana 6 to 30 participants £510
28.07.2010 – 02.08.2010 Single room surcharge £190
Registration Deadline: 20.05.2010

In addition you need to calculate with the following expenses:

Visa Fees in September 2008:

Country single double single
UK USD 55 USD 70 USD 140
USA USD 30 USD 70 USD 135
Germany USD 30 USD 45 USD 50
Austria USD 30 USD 45 USD 50
Danmark USD 30 USD 45 USD 50

Expenses for meals (2008)

Credit Cards are usually not accepted in Zimbabwe.

The price includes:

Not included are:

Christine's curve

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.

oiling the Garratt

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 agree to the following:

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, 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. The reason for this warning is not that we, FarRail Tours, do not have the contacts, offend railway people or are unable to make proper arrangements. Sadly to say, but a German person who has never been on a FarRail Tours trip tries to sell a different tour by telling lies in his promotional materials.

You need to understand that we’ll visit a country with 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 trains is to accept the opportunity of changes or even failures. However, the economic situation is much better now compared to 2008. The pictures here show what which results we got under really difficult circumstances. Taking part on this tour 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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