National Railways of Zimbabwe make me love Kenya Railways

An NZR coach: I've had better.
An NZR coach: I’ve had better.

I spent some time in Zimbabwe on my holiday recently. One of the highlights of the trip to that country was that I had to see the world famous Mosi-Oa-tunya which in the local dialect is the “steam that thunders” (some people have give the place the mistaken name of Victoria Falls but that is a story for another day.) These are the most majestic falls in the world by some reports.

The place is about 800 kilometres from the base that is Harare and I had opted to go there through several towns with a stopover in Kwekwe then onto Gweru Zimbabwe’s third largest town followed by the second largest town Bulawayo also known as the city of Kings. Bulawayo was established by Shaka Zulu’s general Mzilikazi as the headquarters of his newly formed Matabele kingdom and that is why the folks from that part of the country speak Ndebele which is related closely to the Zulu language I am told.

The last leg of my journey to Mosi-Oa-Tunya was a 450 kilometre journey east to the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia to see the wondrous and wonderful wonder. I had been taking the bus throughout the earlier part of the journey and I wanted to have something different so I opted for the train. It was not a very difficult choice to make really as I have used Kenya Railways also known nowadays as Rift Valley Railways to Mombasa from Nairobi a few times and I always have a pretty good experience. The journey is all nighter and 2nd class costs Kshs2335 – child at kshs.1550 – and includes a bed with bed sheets and some breakfast for those who need some sustenance before going about their duties. Both National Railways of Zimbabwe (NZR) and Kenya railways (KR) have some pretty old coaches. However I figured that as Zimbabwe was surprising me in how well it run as opposed what I have been watching on CNN and BBC in the last half decade I figured it might have a similar service. I was wrong.

The price in NZR’s second class is more reasonable at US$12 (Kshs840) – minors at US$6 (Kshs660) – per person and I was to find out why fast. First off, the compartment that I got was without lights. Turns out that some of the carriages do not have lights and if you do not ask in advance, those are the ones you are stuck with. That meant that you are stuck in a dark compartment all night trying to figure what to do with your life. If you have those smartphones with dodgy battery life and you had left the charger in a previous town you are stuck twiddling your thumbs. You can’t social media or play games. You can’t even read the book you had brought in case of boredom.

Then the biggest shock as far as I was concerned. No blankets and bed sheets; not as far as I could tell. So I was stuck in a long journey all night in the freezing cold. Without food. Yep. If you needed any sustenance you needed to go to a certain carriage in compartment B and all you get was alcohol – Carling black label or Chibuku and a soft drink – coca cola. There were some snacky things – biscuits in a little pack, that sort of thing – that made me wish I had thought ahead and brought some food.

One the way back I was informed that first class was nothing like the second class and I could get a sleeper that would cost me US$30 for the whole thing. This was because it was specially designed for tourists coming from Mosi-Oa-Tunya. Hmm. I figured let me give NZR another chance in the spirit of African brotherhood and I got my family in there. The blankets thing came up again. Turns out I had to hire blankets at US$4 for each set which meant I paid US$8 for two sets. Total cost US$38.

I had my blankets and this sleeper had lights (although I suspect whoever had last used this place had smoked some very illegal substances and there was little issue with cleaning up). The food issue again reared its head up again. For anything I had to go to compartment B again. Fortunately this time I had prepared and had brought something to eat and drink.

The long and short of this story is that sometimes in Kenya we take some of the services we get for granted. Yes some of them are really bad (Zimbabwe kicks our behinds in so many areas if I start you might think I work for the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority) but the people at Kenya Railways are not our weakest link.

So when going Mosi-Oa-Tunya please remember while in Zimbabwe, please steer clear of the train. My good deed of the day sorted there.