Into Africa: Tracking Into Botswana With Conrad and Casanova

In which the author, exclusively for CounterPunch, goes by train but also by ferry, bicycle, plane, and rental car from Nairobi, Kenya, to Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa. This is Part VII. To read part I, click here.

A sleeping car of the National Railways of Zimbabwe, on the line in Bulawayo, a junction near South Africa and Botswana from where it is possible to take an overnight train Victoria Falls.

The (Very Slow) Night Train from Harare to Bulawayo

I was sorry to leave my Airbnb perch in Harare. (There’s a mournful passage in The Fear: “Thats what this place does to you. It makes you want to belong.”) I don’t often get to eat my meals with a cockatoo perched on my shoulder, and it was a pleasure to have a bicycle, not a pleading taxi driver, to take me around. And the guest room came with a purring orange cat and a cascade of hot water (my first in Africa).

The night train to Bulawayo, even though I was in first class, had fewer amenities. The sleeping car looked to be of a 1950s vintage. The initials “RR” (for Rhodesia Railways) were etched into the filthy glass. I took my place in compartment D, which had an ample berth and open window; otherwise, with the faded mahogany of the paneling and dim lighting, it felt as though I had booked passage on a sinking ship.

Consisting of a few coaches, the sleeper, and some freight cars, the train departed exactly on time, at 20:00, and I slept with my door chained shut, although a determined thief could easily have shoved it open.

The conductor, instead of wearing a hat and uniform, had on a Pittsburgh Steelers’ sweatshirt, and some Antonio Brown bling around his neck. When he demanded to see my ticket and wanted me to move compartments, I recoiled, fearing a scam, and asked to see his railway badge, which he produced. So I changed compartments. But he had lacked a solution for the problem that no running water was present on the train, including in the toilets.

I went to bed thinking that at least I would wake up when the train arrived at 7:00 in Bulawayo. I spent an unsettled night, as the air in the compartment was chilly and the ballast of the old tracks caused the train to rock and roll. The line seemed a long way from Cecil Rhodes’ transcontinental colonial dream: “Now we shan’t be long to Cairo.”

In the early morning, when I saw we were entering a large station (not all have signs), I thought maybe we had arrived, but it turned out to be the town of Gweru, which is 138 miles from Harare. In ten hours the train had averaged 13.8 m.p.h. We were halfway to Bulawayo.

Needless to say, the National Railways of Zimbabwe isn’t in the habit of attaching dining cars to the few trains that it operates, so breakfast was the last of my water bottle and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I retrieved from the recesses of my Kindle. The stories of Charlie Marlow would, I hoped, distract me from thinking about hot coffee.

Between Gweru and Bulawayo, the landscape is largely uncultivated. In a few towns, I saw a handful of small factories—one was making shoes, another spark plugs—but essentially the land is a prairie in search of little houses.

What a shame that, when Mugabe’s supporters all decided they needed to live in the wild, he didn’t let them move onto these unclaimed lands. Instead, the settlers were instruments of revenge for more than one hundred years of colonial white rule.

Breakfast with Joseph Conrad

It was surreal to be reading Conrad as the train ambled across what is called the Matabeleland, the prairie brush land between Gweru and Bulawayo. We were five hours late, and for the first time in my African adventures, none of the stations had hawkers selling cookies, hard-boiled eggs, and bottled water, any of which would have sufficed for breakfast.

I first read Heart of Darkness in Harry Shaw’s high school English class in the eleventh grade. I still have my paperback copy of the book, and see now that mostly I underlined words that I didn’t know (trireme, concertina, morose), probably to sharpen my SAT skills. Since then I have thought of Conrad as a great writer, even though at times his English can sound like Google Translate, as if transcribed from Polish.

Heart of Darkness was written early in the twentieth century when Belgium’s King Leopold was using his Congo colony as a private forced labor camp for the embellishment of Brussels and the royal family.

Since high school, I have read the short novel every five or ten years, as the mood strikes me. On this reading, maybe because I am older, I found it stronger as a reflection on man’s fate (“We live as we dream—alone…”) more than as an account of colonial barbarism (“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. . . ”).

On this reading I confess I didn’t love the ending, when Marlow meets Kurtz’s girlfriend (“The Intended”) and glosses over the circumstances of the trader’s death, stating—to protect her delicate feelings—that his last words were her name, not “The horror! The horror!” (words few jilted brides would want to hear).

Nor could I figure out why Marlow became such a Kurtz fan out there on the river, except that he admires the trader’s perseverance and loyalty, however misplaced the cause.

Earlier Marlow had said about Kurtz: “His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines.” But like many of us, he changed his mind when he met him.

At least reading Conrad as the train crept through western Zimbabwe did give my own travels some meaning, as at times on these African roads I had felt as aimless as Marlow adrift on the river, heading upstream for unknown destinations.

Conrad writes: “I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.” I read it as a credo, although I finished the book still unsure if I am more Marlow or Kurtz.

Bulawayo: Cashing Out of the World Economy

No more than ten passengers got off the train in Bulawayo when it arrived six hours late. During the night the express (so to speak) had picked up a number of empty coal cars, giving me the feeling, as I walked along the platform, that I had spent the night hopping freights.

I still didn’t have any local currency (Zim bonds) or small U.S. bills, although that wasn’t an issue at the colonial-era station (the cornerstone was laid in 1913), as no taxis were waiting. I thought of testing the advertised shower room but knew that such a plan would only end in disappointment.

I headed into the downtown, walking past the cooling towers of a power plant and along a raised, covered sidewalk as if entering Bulawayo in a cowboy novel.

On the walk, with the mid-day sun creasing my neck, I decided that while in the countryside Zimbabwe looks like the American West, in town it feels like the Deep South, in the early era of desegregation.

The architecture was that of the planter culture, even though the tempo in the streets was African. Bulawayo might well have been Greenville, South Carolina in the early 1960s.

I went to about six ATM machines, including those of Barclays and Standard Chartered, only to discover that all of them were without local cash, which meant I couldn’t take a taxi or pay for the hotel where I had booked. Nor could I use any of my credit cards.

Not having eaten or drunk anything in fifteen hours and feeling like some disoriented pilgrim on hot, dusty roads, I retreated to the Bulawayo Club, in the center of the small city, and cut a deal with the manager to pay for a room with U.S. dollars.

On one of my train websites, I had read that the club is a bastion of colonial culture, and after I had settled into my room—as if some English subaltern on assignment to the colonies in the nineteenth century—I drank a cold beer and ate a club sandwich in the courtyard restaurant.

Around me were portraits of a vanished Rhodesia, which declared Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 but surrendered power to Mugabe and ZANU-PF in 1980.

Alexandra Fuller writes in Dont Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight: “Rhodesia has more history stuffed into its make-believe, colonial dream borders than one country the size of a very large teapot should be able to amass in less than a hundred years.”

Whites are now less than one-half of one percent of the population. Of the 16.6 million people in Zimbabwe, only about 28,000 are white, and most of them live in or near Harare. Before they were spread across the land, especially in farming communities along the border with Mozambique.

Mugabe’s ethnic cleansing ended that era. But his racialist policies were also a disaster for black families. Godwin writes in The Fear: “The farmers’ organization JAG (Justice for Agriculture) claims that more than half a million displaced farm workers and their dependents have perished in the decade since their expulsion, of starvation and disease.”

The saddest part about Zimbabwe is that for the first decade of majority rule it was all so promising. White farmers and their culture were accepted as an important minority in the country’s future, and the economy was among the strongest in Africa.

That changed when Mugabe felt threatened not just by the whites but by moderate black parties. Godwin hears in one of his interviews: “In a sense, I would say that Robert Mugabe is a prisoner of his own past and he is a prisoner of his own political generation. I see in his character many similarities with Ian Smith—[particularly,] obduracy . . .”

Godwin also poses this question of his homeland: “Why have we allowed him to become the Kim Il-Sung of Africa? We are cosmopolitan and worldly-wise.”

Perhaps the answer can be found in Conrad. On his way up the river, Marlow says about Kurtz: “The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.”

Bulawayo to Francistown: One Hundred Miles

Without any ability to convert money into local currency until I checked out of the Bulawayo Club, I had to content myself as a club man, which was no hardship. I was tired from the restless night on the train, and I spent the afternoon catching up on my notes and studying my road and rail maps, trying to figure out a way out of town.

For most of the weekend, I was the club’s only guest, which made it feel as though I was alone in an English manor house, attended by a large and obliging staff.

Looking back, I wish I had known that the Movement for Democratic Change parliamentarian David Coltart lived in Bulawayo, as his book, The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe, is among the best on the dark politics of the Mugabe regime and that of the struggling opposition.

Cheerful as were the waiters and porters in the club, none of them had any good ideas about how I might get to Francistown, in Botswana, about a hundred miles to the southwest. Everyone knew that buses went there, but not everyone agreed on where they stopped or what time they departed.

On one of my walks around town, I found a busy street corner that was catering to long-haul buses, and there learned that if I turned up on Sunday around 12:30, I would have my choice of “long-haul” carriers to Francistown. When I asked how long the ride took, a tout shrugged and said, “Only about two hours.”

On Sunday just after noon and with a heavy heart, I left the club (it had served me Sunday breakfast in the formal dining room, knowing that I would enjoy the ambiance). I trudged along Fourth Street in the hot sun until I found the makeshift bus depot, which was an intersection of hawkers, minivans, big buses, and pedestrians hiding in the shade of a sidewalk overhang.

At last I had a few dollars of local currency. For $10 I bought a ticket to Francistown and sat on a sidewalk stone for twenty minutes until the bus arrived and I was hustled on board. Finally, I thought, I might be having good luck with an African transportation system. Little did I know.

The bus sat there for about an hour and a half in the baking sun. The driver and the conductor climbed on and off the vehicle about two dozen times. They drank water. They spoke on their cell phones. They joked with friends from other buses. They smoked cigarettes on the street. They rolled up official-looking papers and unrolled them. In short, they did nothing for ninety minutes that could not have been done in ten.

While the passengers were glued to their seats, hawkers crawled all over the bus, selling frozen bottles of water and peanuts.

To the pass the time I read on my Kindle; it’s my traveling bookstore. For awful moments (such as this one, on a sun-baked stalled bus in Bulawayo), I carry on with the twelve volumes of The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt 1725-1798, which I have been reading, on and off, for the last four years, when nothing else will hold my attention. The memoirs have to be among the finest in any language, despite or because of Casanova’s endless pursuit of women. (His elegant prose is a form of seduction.)

When I looked up from my reading (“Love is three quarters curiosity…”), it was to scan the horizon for an inkling that the bus might soon be departing. Still, I didn’t worry too much, as my night train was at 21:00. I still had seven hours to travel a hundred miles. In my mind I even hummed some verses of Peter, Paul and Mary:

If you missed the train I’m on
You will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles
A hundred miles, a hundred miles,
A hundred miles, a hundred miles
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles

Finally, the bus left downtown Bulawayo at 14:30, crawled through the outskirts, and headed toward the border, 60 miles to the south. It had taken a while, but, now, I hoped, we might make up some of the lost time. The road was empty, and the landscape on the other side of the two-lane asphalt was a broad African plain, as if borrowed from a London Underground travel poster.

We had not driven twenty minutes from Bulawayo when the bus slowed down and turned right off the highway into a dusty rest stop. All the passengers piled off the bus and lined up at a makeshift grill in the center of the sun-baked parking lot.

The meal stop lasted about 30 minutes. When we left, it was close to 15:30. In four hours I had only traveled ten miles from the club. I recalled that man-about-town Casanova always had better luck (in all senses) than I did, as when he writes of eighteenth century travel: “The next day we ascended Mont Cenis in sedan-chairs, and we descended to the Novalaise in mountain-sledges.”

Into Botswana: Trafficking on the Outlaw Express

A little before 17:00 the bus pulled up to a border building, a relatively (for Zimbabwe) modern structure. All the bags on the bus—many large sacks containing who knows what—were offloaded and lined up on the pavement.

The passengers went inside to get stamped out of Zimbabwe, and then we stood around the luggage for another thirty minutes. I asked one of my fellow travelers what we were waiting for, and he said: “They’re scanning the bus.” It made the bus sound like a trick knee, from an old football injury.

Around 17:45 the bus returned from the scanner, all the luggage was returned to the hold, and we drove a half mile to Botswana immigration and customs. A woman on the bus said to me, somewhat ominously: “This side can sometimes be a problem.”

I breezed through the border procedures, which included disinfecting my sandals. (I had to stand in a puddle of some chemical product.) A customs guard went through my backpack carefully. He wasn’t looked for guns, ammo, or cocaine. All he wanted to know was: “Do you have more shoes?” (I let him discover on his own that my packing of choice is the hobo’s roll, plus a computer, Kindle, and enough maps to outfit the German General Staff.)

Past the Botswana frontier—it is called Ramokgwebana—the passengers had to walk for a kilometer to a parking lot outside the controlled border area, where again we had to wait for the bus, presumably getting another scan.

Now it was 18:15, and I was getting nervous for my 21:00 train, for which I needed to buy a ticket. I had tried to buy one online, as Botswana Railways has a surprisingly good website (overall, compared to most African countries, Botswana is functional). But each time I had logged on, there was a glitch when it came to paying.

In the Ramokgwebana parking lot, the bus drivers took another forty-minute break (smoking, talking on their phone, shuffling papers, etc.). I watched the sunset over the savanna, beautiful even near a border crossing, and fretted even more about my 21:00 train

We had sixty miles to cover, and, when the bus finally began rolling, I figured we could certainly cover that distance in less than two hours. But by this point, I had traveled about eighty miles in seven hours.

No sooner had the bus accelerated to an acceptable speed than I saw ahead of us (Botswana has excellent roads) the flashing blue lights of a police car manning a military checkpoint.

I had thought that, compared to lockdown Zimbabwe, Botswana might be a country of indifferent police, but here in the darkness on a remote stretch of road the bus was stopping at a security checkpoint. My heart sank further.

A squad of Botswana police—at least they were dressed nicely and had an unthreatening manor—boarded the bus from both ends and began carefully studying passports and visas, as happens in World War II thrillers in Germany.

Mine were no trouble, but near to me a woman and her children were escorted off the bus, where on the side of the road I could see several open trucks full of people who, clearly, had some issues with their papers.

Just when I thought the visa checking was done, more police arrived on the scene. Behind me, I could hear scuffling and commotion until a woman officer boarded the bus with several pairs of handcuffs and headed toward the back.

After a few minutes, the police led off about ten men who I had never seen at any of our many stops. They were scruffy looking, with dark complexions (perhaps from the Congo?), and it turned out they had been hiding in the bus bathroom and in the luggage hold, to get into Botswana or South Africa. So much for those Zimbabwean scanners.

The appearance of the illegals prompted the police to shout loudly: “Where’s the driver? Where’s the conductor?” I was tempted to say, “They might be having a break,” but this wasn’t a moment for levity. The man next to me whispered to me that they had legged it into the nearby woods.

It took a long time, so it seemed, to handcuff all the turnstile jumpers and lead them off the bus.Then an army woman, with a menacing glare, announced: “This bus is being sent back to the border and is part of a criminal investigation.” (Lloyd Bridges as controller Steve McCroskey in the movie Airplane!: “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop smoking…”)

The Getaway Car

Fortunately, I had kept my backpack with me and had stashed it over my seat. I had resisted stowing it underneath, just on the off chance I needed to do a runner, which was now.

I grabbed my backpack and got off the bus, and said to the policewoman in charge of the bust: “I have a train in Francistown at 21:00.” It was now 19:45.

Around me, the other passengers were pleading with the police and army not to impound the bus and send it back to Ramokgwebana. They were talking about jobs waiting from them in Gaborone and bus connections to Angola.

I was prepared for the policewoman to order me back onto the Outlaw Express (motto: “Escape in our spacious restrooms…”). Instead, to my pleasant surprise, she said in a voice of quiet confidence: “I’ll help you. Follow me.”

She walked me forward of the crime scene—I counted about thirty illegals in two army trucks, many wearing plastic handcuffs, some cradling babies. It was The Raft of the Medusa, having washed ashore into the savanna.

The policewoman and I stood silently on the side of the dark road, waiting for a passing car or some other vehicles to appear. We might have been on a lonely stretch of highway in Holcomb, Kansas (where the random killings in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood took place).

It took five minutes, but eventually, with her flashlight and reflective vest, she waved down a passing car, opened the back door, told the driver about my train  deadline in Francistown, and pushed me inside. If I had ordered Uber to this remote road in northern Botswana, it would not have been as magical as this ride.

The driver was not at all nonplussed, said to me in English that he knew the train station, and took off at high speed, committed to the game of getting me to the train on time. We did stop for two other hitchhikers, but they were told that the first stop in Francistown would be my train station.

Everyone rode quietly in the darkness, but the driver drove with excellent judgment and speed. How ironic that the only time in Africa I felt completely safe was while hitch-hiking at night in Botswana.

Just when I thought, “I might just make this train,” I saw more flashing blue lights ahead, and yet again I was back in the snare of a police checkpoint. The driver pulled over the car. The police looked at everyone’s passport. And then, to my immense relief, we were sent on our way. Mercifully, no one was hiding in the trunk.

We arrived in Francistown (a small city) at 20:35. Five minutes later I was at the station, where I found a long, orderly queue (Bechuanaland was once a British protectorate) to buy tickets.

I had no choice but to stand helplessly in the queue. But when a real ticket agent poked his head out of the office shed, I pounced and told him I needed to pay with either dollars or a credit card.

“No, you can’t,” he said, but in a friendly manner, “we only take pula (the Botswana currency). But I can take you to an ATM.” Imagine an Amtrak clerk dashing with a confused foreign passenger to a nearby cash machine.

We left the station line on the run and found a bank machine around the dark corner. I madly inserted my ATM card and prayed that this time the machine would have cash. It did. By 20:56 we were jogging toward the train platform. “You can buy your ticket on the train,” the agent said with a friendly wave, “now that you have cash.”

With stunning promptness, the brand new night train to Gaborone and Lobatse left the station at 21:00. I still cannot believe that I was on it.

The Train Across Botswana: Nights in White Satin

A few minutes later I gave the conductor about $25 (in pula) and one of his assistants kindly walked me forward to a sleeping car, where I had the top berth in a compartment with four beds. The car felt factory new. I could easily have been in Germany.

The other three beds had sleeping men in them, so all I did was take off my shoes, stow my bag, climb a ladder, and slip into my bunk (it felt like a dream), where I slept, without waking, until the sun began peeking through the curtain at 5:00.

All of my fellow travelers got off the train at 5:30 in Gaborone, the Botswana capital. I was staying on the train until Lobatse, which is, relatively speaking, close to the South African town of Mafikeng (in the Boer War it was called Mafeking, and it was the scene of a fateful siege that lasted almost a year).

There my plan was to study the siege lines and catch a short flight to Johannesburg. But first I had to get from the train station in Lobatse across the border to Mafikeng.

My Botswana train, incredibly, arrived on time. By 7:45 I had taken a taxi from the station to the local bus terminal, where I was told to stand near a minivan (here they were called combis) destined—so everyone said—for Mafikeng.

Because of the Outlaw Express, I had missed lunch and dinner (save for some cookies) the day before, and breakfast this morning. The only food group on sale at the bus depot was an eye-opener of “pineapple-flavored Fanta,” but it was cold and I drank it.

The driver for the Mafikeng van never showed up, so I was put aboard another combi that was headed only to the Botswana border. From there, I was told, I could walk across the frontier into South Africa, and on the other side catch a local bus heading into Mafikeng, one of the fulcrums of the Anglo-Boer wars—those first shots in the African wars of independence. 

Up next: Walking from Botswana into South Africa. Remembering the novelist Alan Paton. The siege of Mafeking. Winston Churchill escapes from his Boer War prison. To read Part VI, please click here.


Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.