IT'S a hot night. Fireflies glow in the grass beside the tracks. Up ahead, the big steam engine pounds down through the low veld toward the Zambezi River. I lean on the our coach's window ledge and watch the shadowy round huts of an Africa kraal go by in the darkness. For someone as irresistibly drawn to trains as I am, this is rail travel at its finest - steam in its full glory. This is the night train to the Victoria Falls.
The falls, in south-central Africa on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, has attracted visitors from all over the world for more than 100 years, ever since David Livingstone first visited here in 1855.
Most people today arrive by plane, since the air service from larger African cities is good. But for those who wish to see something of the countryside of southern Africa and get close to its people, I recommend the night train from Bulawayo - with a few caveats: This is not a gleaming, high-speed train but an African train that runs on ``African time,'' with stops at all hours for coal and water, passing freights, ash-pan cleaning, and engine exchanges. The air conditioning is by means of windows lowered on leather straps - which let in the breeze but also black coal dust. Toilet paper is usually missing from the lavatories; so you'll want to carry your own. And the tiny buffet car, which doubles as a stand-up bar, is usually crowded and noisy.
But these are minor inconveniences, compared with the singularity of the occasion. After all, how often does one get a chance to ride across the grasslands of Africa, en route to one of the world's great natural wonders, under a sky brilliant with stars, behind one of the giants of the all-but-extinct era of steam travel?
Bulawayo, where the train originates, is Zimbabwe's second-largest city, 275 miles southeast of Victoria Falls. The train has 19 passenger coaches, with economy class up front (very crowded, not recommended for tourist travel); standard or first-class sleeping coaches at the rear (clean, comfortable, and comparatively private, with two- or four-berth units); and the buffet car in the middle, which, despite the crowded conditions, serves hot, well-prepared meals.
Each evening at 7, the big Manchester-built Garratt engine leaves the Bulawayo steam shed and heads out into the countryside, northwest, toward the Zambezi River.
The 12-hour journey is a lively one, filled with the color and sounds of Africa on the move - women going to market or to show off new babies, men returning to the communal lands from work in the cities, children off to visit cousins or married sisters.
Outside Bulawayo, the villages bunch up one after another like knots on a string - Mpopoma, Luveve, Nyamandhlovu, Umzibani. As each one emerges from the darkness, the train slows to a stop. Doors bang open. People come and go in a tangle of bright cloth and babies and plastic bags.
There is an outburst of frenzy as the conductor moves nimbly through the coaches to make sure no one gets on without paying.
Then, silence. The whistle blows, the cylinders hiss steam, the connecting rods clank, and once again we move off into the darkness.
By midnight the train has moved into the open countryside, and we settle down to a lulling pattern of clank and sway, chuff and groan. I climb into my bunk and drift off to sleep, waking every now and then to check our progress. Outside, the night is bathed in moonlight. A herd of impala watches silently as we pass by.
Next morning, a few hours late because of a poorly steaming engine, we arrive at a little bougainvillea-covered railway station in the heart of the town of Victoria Falls and a few steps from the historic Victoria Falls Hotel.
Even travelers not staying at this hotel usually like to take a moment to look it over. It was constructed in 1905 as a bunkhouse for railway workers building the bridge across the gorge between Zimbabwe and Zambia (then known as Southern and Northern Rhodesia). Since then, the hotel has become one of Africa's most elegant resorts, the kind of place with spacious sitting rooms, thick carpets, and white-jacketed waiters bearing silver tea trays down quiet corridors.
On its rambling terrace, you can sip a cool drink and watch the trains passing over the 657-foot-long railway bridge and, beyond that, the spray rising from the falls.
Cecil Rhodes, the Cape Colony industrialist who spearheaded much of the development of the two Rhodesias at the turn of the century, decreed that the bridge should be located so as to catch the spray from the falls as the coaches passed over it. It was a grandly romantic idea very typical of Rhodes. His style was always theatrical, and his vision of a Cape-to-Cairo railway was one of the consuming passions of his life.
Below the hotel, a trail leads down through the woods to the great waterfall itself. The effect that Victoria Falls has on people, particularly first-time visitors, is compelling. More than a mile wide, 355 feet high, and with an average flow of 38,000 cubic feet of water per second, it is awesome in its power and savage beauty.
It is also strangely ethereal, because of its mists and elusive rainbows. People often become so absorbed in their contemplation of the falls that they stand transfixed at the cliff edge, unmindful of the heat, the humidity, the drenching spray, and one another.
So it was with David Livingstone. On Nov. 16, 1855, the explorer-missionary beached his canoe on an island on the upper edge of the falls and peered below. He was so moved by what he saw that he wrote in his journal ``...scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.''
There is a bronze statue of Livingstone in the Victoria Falls National Park. It is a massive, stolid, grim-faced likeness, standing in a small clearing at the edge of the falls. It commands what surely must be one of the most magnificent views in the area, all down the length of the wide chasm from Devil's Cataract to Danger Point. Most people begin their walking tour of the falls from this point, and the brooding presence of Livingstone lends a sense of history and solemnity to the occasion.
Since the magnitude of the falls can be best appreciated from the air, however, consider taking United Air's ``Flight of the Angels'' tour. The flight offers a superb view of the Zambezi as it glides over the lip of the falls and thunders down into the chasm, sending plumes of spray so high that they can be seen from 20 miles.
From the air, you get an understanding of how the waterfall has worked itself back upriver over successive geological ages, creating an accordion-pleat effect of deep folds in the landscape. The 15-minute trip costs about $25 per person and is well worth the money.
If you go
Write Zimbabwe National Railways, PO Box 596, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, East Africa, for information on train schedules and rates. The Bulawayo and District Publicity Association (PO Box 861, Bulawayo) is an excellent source of information on hotels and other tourist attractions nearby.
For information in the United States, write to the Embassy of Zimbabwe, 2852 McFill Terrace, N.W., Washington, D.C.; or call (202) 332-7100.
In Canada, contact the High Commission of the Republic of Zimbabwe, 112 Kent St., Suite 1315, Place de Ville, Tower B, Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5P7; (617) 237-4388.