Namibia: Walking maybe faster (The African train experiment)

Namibia was my first taste of Africa and I had a lot to learn…

Namibia… 825 square kilometres of vast plains, mountains and deserts.

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“Just jump on a train and a bus anywhere and do a risk assessment,” were the instructions from the boss before I left. Unfortunately for me, he considers himself somewhat of an expert in Namibia, he holidays here often and after his last visit convinced himself that a month long expedition could be done on public transport. A visit to the train station and a look at the timetables reveals that he has been seriously misguided in this vision.

The train station itself looks normal enough, all very ornate and colonial. Until you get down to that cumbersome detail of the trains themselves that is… it appears that the trains only run about 3 times a week and take at least double the time of a bus. When I enquire at the ticket office about prices I am told that no information is available and I must make an appointment to see the Director of trains. Fine, but what about sleeper carriages I ask (since all the journeys are at least 8 hours and overnight)

“Oh well, yes there are some” the ticket assistant volunteers

” Which days and which journeys?” I ask, with pen poised

” Errmm , well it depends….”

” what on?”

“Well if it’s a public holiday, sometimes we have them, it depends”

“Any other time?”

” if it’s the third Thursday of the month and… the sky is blue and … well if a sleeper carriage turns up really…”

“Right, glad we cleared that up then.”

“Oh and you must purchase your ticket in person from this office at least 3 weeks, 2 days and 63 minutes before travel and it must be on a Monday afternoon after my tea break.”

My meeting with the Director the next day reveals the price structure to be similarly haphazard. He presents me with a full book-sized document and warns me that it’s complex… but then admits that well, basically they just make it up as they go along really. When I mention that 200 plus students may be wanting to use his trains he goes a purple colour and struggles to stop his eyes nearly popping out of his head.

A couple of days later and arrive at the station ready to board my train for Swakopmund, a coastal town 4 hours away by road, and a mere 9 by train. All that is standing on the platform is a single carriage.

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“Where is the 8pm train to Swakopmund”, I ask.

“There” says the station master.

“No, I am looking for the overnight train to Swakopmund”, I try again..

“Yes that’s it” he says pointing at the single, lone carraige. When I point out the distinct absence of a locomotive he looks perplexed.

“Yes there isn’t one yet” he concludes, as if this was new information to him. On I get and am impressed by the reasonably comfortable interior: a toilet and a TV – not bad for Africa I think. By 8.30pm there has been no movement and at 9.15pm I wonder if we are going anywhere tonight. I chat to my fellow passengers and they tell me long delays are normal. At 10pm I am thinking I might be quicker to walk.. I ask the station master what time he thinks we might be leaving.

“Ah yes, well you see the problem is we don’t have a locomotive yet” he says. “Yes… but do you know if the locomotive is coming?” I ask

” Well… I think so… maybe it will be here by 9pm” he says.

” It’s 10pm now” I say, he looks very surprised at this news but still doesn’t seem very interested and gets back to chatting with his colleagues. A relaxed aura hovers over the station. Some people are sitting on the train, others are milling about on the platform but no one seems in the least bit anxious about the two hour delay. I chuckle to myself imagining the fraught, angst ridden scene that would accompany this type of delay in England. 10.20pm and with an abrupt jolt the locomotive arrives and is fixed to the train within seconds, we are off! The train rolls slowly into action and we trundle forwards for a mile… and then backwards for two, before setting off again, full speed ahead. Now I see why so many people have smirked when I have asked them if they consider Namibian trains to to be safe: you could literally walk faster than the train.

The night passes slowly and restlessly in my hard seat. The train rocks gently from side to side and I am lulled into a half-sleep by the constant clanking and creaking. Every so often we stop at a station and I look out into the night in a daze. No one else in the carraige stirs, even the token screaming baby has fallen in to a deep sleep. There are no lights, no signs, no announcements and no way of knowing where we are. Apart from the snoring of my fellow passengers I am alone with the silence of the Namibian night. I wake to the bright glow of sunrise over the browny-yellow desert landscape. I can just about make out the blue hues of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance, and for the first time since arriving I suddenly understand why people fall in love with Namibia.

 

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