Chris Kapolka visits The Bulawayo Railway Museum, established in 1972, which recognises the importance of Cecil Rhodes’ railway-building initiative in Central Africa.
Photography: Chris Kapolka, unless stated
Bulawayo Railway Museum is just a short walk from the city’s station, and offers a wonderful, historical insight into the railway and its development. With rather more amenable climate conditions than is regular in Britain, this museum is very much an outdoor concern. However, some of its prized artefacts are housed under cover, to protect them from the unforgiving sun.
The museum’s entrance is through a small, colonial station building, of the sort once typically seen peppering the line between Mafeking and the Congo. It’s a wooden-framed structure, clad with corrugated iron sheeting. A central doorway provides access to two offices, then on to the trains.
The ticket office remains as such, and the former goods office now houses artefacts and items for sale. Gently-spoken curator, Gordon Murray, with his infinite knowledge of railways, is the perfect host to visitors, making them incredibly welcome. He’s accumulated a lifetime’s passion for saving the railway heritage in this part of Africa.
Haven of tranquillity
With your entrance ticket in hand, you step into a natural haven of tranquillity, where railwayana sits comfortably in a beautifully-tended garden. The seats on the platform just entice you to sit and absorb the ambience of the botanic setting and contemplate, even before wandering through the museum. The station building itself has been moved several times in its history, although its original location is unknown.
In a game of ‘musical stations’, it was Kildonan station in 1930 and then, in 1931, it moved to Shamva where it remained until being dismantled and transported to Bulawayo. It just sits so comfortably at this final location, and the canopy gives visitors a refreshing place to sit in the shade.
Dominant, in the garden setting, are the striking red leaves of the Poinsettia plant (Euphorbia Pulcherrima) which, ironically, isn’t native to Africa, but indigenous to the Central Americas. Crunching down the various walkways leads visitors on a voyage of discovery – almost like entering a little, secret world.
The Main Hall building was the original refrigeration plant and wiring works, where refrigerated wagons were overhauled and electrical motors were rewound. The framework of the building was created from expired lengths of railway track, and even shows the manufacturer’s name and date of casting.
The first locomotive to arrive at the museum was a classic ‘old timer’ – loco No 43, of the 7th class. This 4-8-0 tender loco was built at the North British locomotive works in 1903, at a cost of £3,153. When retired, in 1964, it had clocked-up 1,120,750 miles.
The opening of the museum on November 4th, 1972, celebrated the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Vryburg-to-Bulawayo railway line. No 43 was driven into the new museum by the then Minister of Transport, Mr RTR Hawkins, towing the museum coach, Cecil Rhodes’s coach and a guard’s van. Since then, the museum has expanded considerably, and has become one of Bulawayo’s most popular tourist attractions.
Regarded as the centre-piece of the museum is a little, green 0-6-0T loco, with the name Jack Tar. Built in 1889 by Manning Wardle & Co of Leeds, it was used by contractors to build part of the Midland Railway’s line between Dore and Chinley – now known as the Hope Valley line. It was then re-gauged to 3ft 6in and sent to Africa, eventually becoming loco MR7 on the Mashonland Railway. Thereupon it was sent inland to work as a ballast loco on the construction of the railway to Northern Rhodesia, via the Victoria Falls.
This little loco was then dismantled and sent across the Zambezi over the Blondin Cable in kit form, then reassembled. It became the first locomotive to work in Northern Rhodesia, then the first to work over the newly-constructed Victoria Falls Bridge. The museum now contains some 17 steam locomotives – including the mighty 20A-class Beyer-Garratts – and a selection of eight diesels, including one of the ‘sanction busters’ that, in reality, proved far too complex to keep operational.
However, this museum is much more than just a collection of locomotives. Historic coaches are also represented, and various displays relate to the theme of railway construction. Anyone contemplating a visit would be well advised to acquire a copy of the museum’s guidebook, which is a brilliantly informative, easy-read guide to the collection.
For those aiming for photography, the morning or late afternoon light is best, as the sun at midday produces very harsh shadows. Trip Advisor gives the museum a 4.5-star rating, which speaks volumes. This really is one of the nicest and most enlightening museums around, considering it exists in a nation that struggled so much with corruption and mismanagement.
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