Rhodesia Railways

The Early Years

Train on line to Bulawayo 1899

Rhodesia Railways train en route to Bulawayo 1898 or early 1899.

This picture is taken directly from a photograph which may be viewed by clicking on the above link.
The following account of the early years of the railways in Rhodesia, and some tales of the times, was written in 1904 by Mr. E.H. Smith Wright of the British South Africa Company.

When the British South Africa Company first took over the administration of the country which is now known as Rhodesia, the nearest centre of railway communication was Kimberley.  Appreciating the importance of keeping in touch with Cape Colony, and of having railway connection with a British port through British possessions, one of the first steps which the Rt. Hon. C.J. Rhodes took after the Charter had been signed, was to obtain permission to extend the Cape Government’s railway from Kimberley to Vryburg in Bechuanaland.  The extension was begun in November, 1889, and was opened to Vryburg in December, 1890, the distance (126 miles) having been completed in a little over a year.

Before extending the line northwards from Vryburg, it was deemed expedient that a separate Railway Company should be formed, and the Bechuanaland Railway Company was accordingly incorporated in May, 1893, in which month the extension was begun. The line was gradually pushed on through Mafeking, Palapye, and Francistown, until on 19th October, 1897, it reached Bulawayo, which, from being the head kraal of Lo Bengula in 1893, had by this time become an important and thriving township.

The urgency of having railway communication right through to Bulawayo was intensified firstly by that fatal cattle disease, the rinderpest, which denuded the country to a very large extent of its means of transport, and secondly by the Matabele Rebellion which broke out in the beginning of 1896, during the worst period of the cattle epidemic.

These two causes hastened on the completion of the Railway to such an extent that the last 228 miles Palapye to Bulawayo were completed in the incredibly short space of four and a half months; and taking into consideration  the fact that all the railway material  had to be carried over a single line, on which for the greater part of its length a large amount of additional traffic had to pass, it must be admitted that this achievement was a triumph of railway building.

Thus the iron horse reached Bulawayo, and the formal opening of the line on 4th November, 1897, at which a large gathering of distinguished and influential visitors was present, will always be remembered as the birthday of a new epoch in the history of Matabeleland.

Whilst the Bechuanaland Railway Company (now known as the Rhodesia Railways, Limited) was bringing the line up from the South, railway construction was also being carried out in Mashonaland, the Eastern portion of Southern Rhodesia. Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia, being less than 400 miles from the coast, was naturally anxious to obtain railway connection with the Portuguese port of Beira as soon as possible.

In spite, however, of the comparatively short distance over which the line had to be laid, there were many obstacles in the way of constructing it.

In the first place, the country from Beira inland for about 200 miles belonged to Portugal, and though in 1891 a treaty was made between that country and Great Britain, in which the former agreed to construct, or cause to be constructed, a railway from the Pungwe River to the British sphere of influence (Rhodesia), it was not until the right to construct this line had been handed over by the Portuguese Government to the Mozambique Chartered Company, by this Company to Mr. Van Laun, and by Mr. Van Laun to the British South Africa Company, that through them the Beira Railway Company was finally formed.

Another more serious obstacle to the actual construction of the railway was the nature of the country through which it had to pass.To say that the altitude steadily rises from sea level until only 330 miles from Beira it reaches 5,600 feet, gives only a feint idea of the sort of difficulties with which this little Pioneer Railway Company had to contend.

Fontesvilla, 35 miles up the Pungwe River, was the spot chosen as the starting point of the line, which was of a two-foot gauge, and from here the first section was laid in a westerly direction for a distance of 75 miles, and was opened in October,1893.

For the first few miles, across what are known as the Pungwe Flats, the actual laying of the rails was not a difficult task, in spite of the frequent washaways which occurred; but in such a low lying and swampy country, situated within the Tropics, the awful ravages of malarial fever worked terrible havoc amongst the construction parties.  Slowly but surely, however, the work went on, and in mid November, 1894, the line was opened to Chimoio, a distance of 118 miles from Fontesvilla.

First train from Fontesvilla to Chimoio, Portuguese East Africa, 1894
First train from Fontesvilla to Chimoio, Portuguese East Africa, 1894

As Chimoio continued to be the railhead for some years, it may not be out of place to give a short account of the line as it then existed.

Nobody who travelled to Salisbury viâ Beira in those days, can forget the excitements, the diversions and eccentricities, not always delightful, in which this curious little railway indulged; but, primitive though the the railway no doubt appeared to one only accustomed to English travel, no one could have heard the shrill whistle, or seen the puff of real train smoke rising above the malarial mist on the banks of the Pungwe, at 6 o’clock in the morning, without experiencing a joyful thrill in the thought that, in spite of all his previous hardships, in spite of his two or three hours’ rest on some mud bank up the river the night before and his subsequent introduction to “all the comforts of a modern Hotel” at Fontesvilla, he had at length regained a portion of that civilization which he seemed to have cast off for ever when he left the boat at Beira.

In Mr. Leo Weinthal’s Guide Book “Round Africa”, Beira is described in 1902 as the “one of the bleakest places on the whole East Coast” and its streets as being in a “disgraceful state”.  This as it may be, but nevertheless Beira might almost be called a paradise today, compared with what it was in the days of the Fontesvilla-Chimoio Railway was opened.  At that time it was nothing but a narrow strip of sand, the monotony of which was only relieved here and there by a low galvanized iron house, an evil-looking kiosk or drinking saloon, and a so-called hotel.  To-day it has got streets, and its streets are paved on either side throughout the town. Then, so far from having pavements, the barren waste spaces of sand between the houses could not even be honoured with the name of streets. The “UpperTen”, or probably less, had their own private bogey carriages which were pushed by natives along tiny tramway lines, but the rest of the inhabitants had to plough through the sand as best they could.

Gladly did the traveller turn his back on Beira, and face with alacrity the little steam launch on the Pungwe River, on which, to distract his attention from gloomy thoughts, he could usually interest himself while the daylight lasted, in watching the monkeys playing in the forests, whilst every now and then a gaping crocodile would glide from the muddy bank into the water, and in the distance could be discerned the snout of a great hippopotamus.

Not so interesting did he find the situation when night had fallen, and the steam launch, as was often its wont owing to the shifting of the river channels, had unceremoniously landed him on a bank of sand or mud; and when it finally reached its destination late at night, the traveller might well have wondered by what strange chance the name of Fontesvilla had been given to it.  Surely the Portuguese Dom who christened it must have been akin to the Muses themselves, that he found scope for his poetic fancies in such an abandoned spot, and could picture fountains playing through the poisonous reeds of that miasmic swamp!

In short, the traveller found in Fontesvilla an infinitely worse place than Beira, and it is not surprising that he hailed with delight the little railway train which was to carry him far away from such dismal surroundings, towards the higher and purer altitudes of Mashonaland.

The discomforts of that railway journey were speedily forgotten in the joy of being once more in a train, and in the new and varied excitements which the stranger found everywhere along the line.

He heeded not that his favourite rug, which had so often reclined in safety on the rack of an English railway carriage, was being steadily reduced to ashes by the sparks from the wood fuel, which for many years had to do service for coal, whilst he watched, with all the joyous wonder of a child first visiting the Zoological Gardens, zebras, buffalo, and eland, and many other strange and beautiful animals in all the wilderness of their natural freedom.

Time was no object in those old days, and it was not considered unusual for the engine driver or guard to stop the train occasionally, in order to bag a brace of partridges, or risk a shot at a wandering lion, who, with all the proud indifference that might be expected from the Lord of the Forest, shewed very little respect for the Beira Railway Company.

A great many stoppages were inevitable, for besides the halts for fuel and water, the gradients at some points along the line were so steep that the little engine had sometimes to make several attempts before it reached the top, and before each attempt it would go back a little way and wait until it had accumulated sufficient steam to make it worth its while to try again.  Up some of the worst of the zigzag ascents the services of natives had even to be employed, whilst the traveller himself would perhaps be requested to take his share in the performance by walking before the engine and throwing sand on the rails.

The 118 miles were travelled in anything from 18 to 30 hours according to the diversions en route though it must be admitted that very liberal time was allowed for dinner at the 80 mile peg.  Still, no one who travelled by that first railway could complain that he had not been given sufficient time to observe the scenery, which, whether flat or mountainous, wooded or bare, cannot fail to attract through the mysterious charm of its unbounded wildness.  The only regret he could have felt was that the railway line did not go further; for a coach journey, except apparently in the “good old coaching days,” is as a rule a most uncomfortable experience, the more so when one does not know for how many days and nights  one may have to endure it; and, when coaching in the rainy season, this is always an open question.

As an illustration of this, and as another instance of British enterprise, the Salisbury Cricket Club, at the invitation of Bulawayo, went down to represent Mashonaland in the cricket field in the beginning of 1899.  It was a big undertaking, as there was not a yard of railway between Salisbury and Bulawayo; but funds were raised, a special cheap coach was hired  – in itself an expensive outlay – and, after an enthusiastic “send off” from the people of Salisbury, away the cricketers started in the best of spirits to travel the 300 odd miles.  The next morning a report reached Salisbury that the coach was on the bank of the Hunyani River, about 15 miles from Salisbury, and that its occupants were badly in want of food and drink, as it seemed more than probable that they would have to remain there several days, the river being quite impassable.  They did eventually reach Bulawayo, but it took them a long time, and it was not surprising if they lost the match.

Many stories could be told of those old coaching days: how the mails used to be delayed for weeks and weeks: how the coaches used to capsize: how oxen had to be employed to drag them out of the mud, at the risk of leavingthe wheels for ever sunk in the bed of some particularly bad “drift”.

In years to come no doubt they too will be spoken of as the “good old coaching days”, but as long as coaches run in Rhodesia, and as long as the experiences of coach travelling are in living memories of its inhabitants, it is not likely that they will be spoken of in any such complimentary language.

But to return to the railways.

On the 29th October, 1896, railway connection was opened between Beira and Fontesvilla by the Beira Junction Railway Company, and in 1897 the Mashonaland Railway Company was formed for the purpose of constructing a 3 ft. 6 in. gauge from the border of the Portuguese territory to Salisbury.  Owing to great survey difficulties the small gauge line of the Beira Railway Company was not opened from Chimoio to the border until February, 1898, and in the meantime the Mashonaland Railway Company had entered into a contract withe the British South Africa Company, whereby the latter agreed to construct the broad gauge line to Salisbury, and provide the necessary funds.  Work was begun on 11th February, 1898, and the line was completed in May, 1899.

The Beira Railway being only of a two-foot gauge considerable delay and expense were entailed in transferring goods at Umtali from one line to the other; also, owing to the narrowness of the line, only a limited amount of traffic could be passed along it.  It was therefore decided to widen the line to the standard gauge of 3 foot 6 inches, and the work was completed and handed over on 1st August, 1900, on which date also an arrangement came into operation for the working of the entire system from Beira to Salisbury under one management.  Before laying down the broad gauge between Beira and  Umtali, the line was partly re-surveyed, withe the result that some of the worst gradients were avoided, and a saving of 18 miles in the whole distance was effected.  From this date the line has been steadily improved; coal has, to a large extent, superseded wood, and the corridor carriages are as comfortable as anyone could wish them.  True, some of the excitements of the old time have disappeared, but theses things must always happen with the advance of civilization.

It is between Chimoio and Umtali that the most beautiful mountain scenery is found, especially in Manicaland, where the little Portuguese township of Massikessi and the Revue River are particularly worthy of mention; whilst the approach to Umtali through the Christmas Pass is one of the most perfect pieces of scenery imaginable.

Though none of the mountains seem to be individually high, owing to the altitude of the whole country, they nevertheless have a peculiar grandeur of their own; and the view round this portion of the line, particularly if seen on one of those evenings when the silver glory of a tropical moon blends with the last rays of the setting sun, whilst distant veldt fires, slowly creeping up the mountain sides like fiery centipedes, add weirdness and wildness to the scene, is quite beyond all description.

The site on which the township of Umtali is steadily growing is one of the prettiest that could be found throughout the country.  It is entirely surrounded by hills, some of great beauty and magnitude, and the colouring of which the artist would find difficult to faithfully depict.  If the traveller has sufficient time to spare, the park at Umtali, with its little river now running past banks of rich green sward, now breaking into tiny cascades, is well worth a visit.

After leaving Umtali ……..    to be continued – C.W.


Click on the pictures for a closer view.

The Amatongas Forest en route from Beira to Umtali c 1914

Passing through the Amatongas Forest en route from Beira to Umtali c 1914

(After a painting by Ellis Silas from the photograph below.)


A freight train of the Beira & Mashonaland Railways (B.M.R. - a forerunner of Rhodesia Railways) pulling up through the Amatongas Forest on its way from Beira to Umtali. Photo by Smart & Copley c 1914.A freight train of the Beira & Mashonaland Railways (B.M.R. – a forerunner of Rhodesia Railways)

pulling up through the Amatongas Forest on its way from Beira to Umtali.

(Photo by Smart & Copley c 1914)