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A Long Gone Africa

PART 2 Robin Stobbs's childhood memories of a previous age



In Albertville we boarded a very different train to the ones we were used to in Kenya with those long corridor coaches hauled by massive, powerful Beyer Garratt locomotives


These Congo trains were almost toy-like with small carriages and, up front, there were two little close-coupled steam locomotives with coffee-pot chimneys like you might expect to see in old, flickering, black-and-white cowboy movies!


The railway wound up and down hills much as a road would. On every side there was thick, verdant 'pile-carpet' jungle that seemed to almost reach out to engulf our little train


Our little coffee-pot train took us from Albertville to Kabalo, a day and night ride over some 250km as a straight line - so probably 350km by rail! Kabalo is on the Lualaba River, a major tributary of the great Congo River. Here we boarded yet another boat



This time, however, it was a stern paddle wheeler - almost like those Mississippi steamers you see so often in the movies - more like a huge double-decked platform with a mixer on the stern


We had cabins on the upper deck - away from the noisy 'general cargo' who occupied almost every inch of the lower deck. At the 'sharp end' there was the Captain's accommodation and wheelhouse; at the 'blunt end' we could look down on the huge paddle wheel and watch the muddy river water churn into ribbons of foam like a long tail


The tropical 'Wild West' - first we travelled on a train with a coffee-pot puffing billy up front, then we cruise down the African 'Mississippi' on a paddle steamer!


Just imagine for a moment. With typical general background noise the gangplanks are hauled ashore, fore- and aft-lines dropped, and with a cheeky 'toot toot', and a 'clunk, splash, clunk, splash, splash' your paddle steamer slowly edges away from the small quay in the river. Almost immediately the river narrows, seemingly squeezed by the encroaching jungle that threatens to close in on your boat. The river becomes narrower and narrower. The narrow ribbon of muddy river winds between equally muddy banks that seem to become steeper like a slippery ramp into that steamy jungle


Your boat follows a bend in the river and suddenly those muddy river banks rise up and slide into the river. What? You instinctively blink! What was that we just saw! The river banks are still there but they just now slid off into the water! It takes a moment to realise that what you had seen were hundreds upon hundreds of the nastiest, meanest, scaliest, scariest crocodiles

you ever imagined slithering into the river from where they had been basking. At our disturbance they rose up en-masse and slithered silently off down the muddy banks and into the river


Of such scenes are nightmares created, and my one most vivid picture memory of our trip


We'd never seen so many ugly beasts before - we could never have imagined so many evil reptiles in one place. I don't know how well Norman slept that first night on the river, but I do know my night was a very restless one, taunted by hundreds of cold, mean crocodiles with their orange or red eyes shining back in the beam of the boats's search light


We travelled upstream to Bukama for many days through that lush green jungle edged with that awful moving carpet of muddy crocodiles! The river was low that year; so low that to negotiate many bends in the river, members of the crew had to leap ashore and manhandle the boat around while surrounded by those mean-looking crocodiles. With much shouting and chanting, pushing and poking with long poles, the bow crew would shove one way while the stern crew would push and pull the other way until the vessel freed itself from the sticky mud


Once or twice (I don't remember details) we stopped at some dilapidated wooden jetty adjacent to some small village where goods were offloaded and passengers disembarked or embarked. A typically African scenario with people milling about seemingly haphazardly, busy doing nothing but accompanied by much noise and chatter, and where time seemed to matter little


For much of our passage our little boat chugged along at good speed - around 3 or 4 knots I'd guess. But where there were those sharp bends and the river narrowed to little more than a metre or two either side of the boat, we moved at less than walking pace. I have no idea how long this river trip took, but it must have been `at least 4 or 5 days


Perhaps it was the frequent bashing of the paddle wheel against the river's muddy banks that eventually took its toll on our boat, because somewhere around the Upemba Lakes the engines (or drive mechanisms) broke down, and we were under tow until we reached Bukama. After about 400 kilometres paddling upstream, both vessel and passengers were in need of a change from narrow muddy rivers - and crocodiles - to a quiet berth! Not that Bukama was a thriving metropolis of great historical or cultural interest. After so many days of constant noise from engines and paddle wheel, the world seemed such a quiet place, but our solitude was tempered somewhat by the sad thought that we would never again spend lazy days gazing in wonder at so much dense jungle, so many muddy, nightmarish crocodiles, and the narrow strip of brown water that was our 'road' ahead


One evening, shortly before the end of this river trip, Dad told us how ropes and cables under extreme tension - such as was the case with our tow cable - would start to 'sing'; a sign that the cable was about to part. It could then snap back with devastating energy if they parted. It was either that very evening or the following one that our tow cable did part with a deafening crack as it smashed into our boat's wheelhouse, nearly demolishing it and, if I remember correctly, seriously injuring one or two crew. Our boat, now without steerage or power, careered off towards the side of the lake, while frantic efforts - accompanied by the usual load cacophony - were made by our tow vessel to 'capture' us before we ran aground. It was late evening before our boat was recaptured and towed the last few kilometres to the security of Bukama's quay


I think it must have been at Bukama that we first noticed private cars running on the railway tracks. It seems that road travel through most parts of the Congo was impossible - there simply were no roads! In order to travel long distances by car they were fitted with steel flanged wheels enabling them to run on the railway tracks just as a normal train would. Most of the cars looked like big American motors so to travel like this must have been luxurious compared to regular train travel - except for the lack of sleeper coaches...and an on-board loo!


At Bukama we boarded another Belgian Congo train which was to take us through the rest of the southern end of the Congo, past Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) and then, on the Rhodesian Railways network, into Northern Rhodesia. We crossed the Victoria Falls Bridge at night, and so although we could not see the falls we could hear them and feel the spray. Then on we went through a corner of Southern Rhodesia, followed by Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and finally into South Africa. Change trains in Johannesburg and then across the Karoo - to eventually - Grahamstown


Journeys end. Sad in a way. We had seen so much, done so much and travelled down half the African continent on six different trains, two lake steamers, a paddle riverboat, and a bus. Now we were tired, yet eager for the adventure to continue; to see this new country, and meet relations we never knew we had


PART 3 to follow


Grahamstown - during those war years this small city was perhaps the nearest thing to...

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