The express train from the south clanged carefully over points crossing a myriad of lines and stopped with a satisfied sigh beside the long platform of Bulawayo Station. It was home, and so was I.
This large-hearted, spacious city is the capital of Zimbabwe's Matabeleland province, its streets built wide enough for a span of oxen to turn a wagon in them. The quiet suburbs lined with acacias and jacaranda trees, plumbago and hibiscus hedges are where I spent the early days of my life. From this rail station, with its happy jostle of people, friends from Zambia, Malawi, and all over Zimbabwe exchanged exuberant greetings after school holidays and bade tearful farewells to parents before taking the two-to-three-day journey back to schools in South Africa.
As a small child, I used to drop in to see my father in his office on the second floor of the station building. I'd sink into the depths of a leather chair and peer at him over his massive desk. In my youthful understanding, my father had built and now ran the Rhodesia Railways almost single-handedly. Just as his father had built the South East India railway before him. The love of trains had been passed on to me and was nurtured from an early age.
As I grew enough to see over my father's big desk from my perch on the front edge of the chair, it dawned on me that while he was a senior executive, most of the town was involved in the railways. This extended from the porters who gave us smiling greetings to the important man from England to whose wife I once presented flowers.
When war broke out in September 1939, it was from Bulawayo Station that a company drawn from the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment was rushed to Victoria Falls to protect the bridge that spanned the gorge, the safety of which was vital for communications to the north and the country's wealth of mineral resources required for the Allied war effort.
Bulawayo was the core of the communications system, and life was hectic.
To add to his challenges, my father was newly widowed with two small children. Every day, he returned home to have lunch with us. Every evening, he pulled us close to him and read from books geared more to my elder sister, but which I must have absorbed through osmosis. "Alice In Wonderland," "Through the Looking Glass," "Sherlock Holmes," "The Jungle Book," and other Rudyard Kipling stories were among them.
Most Sundays, he took us on picnics. We would drive to Khami Dam, to fish and explore the terraces and passages of the granite ruins. Or he would take us on excursions to the extraordinary rock formations of Matopos National Park with its cave of Bushman paintings and clamor of baboons and vervet monkeys.
In those early days, an African who had been with my father since before his marriage took charge of the household and affectionately kept us in order. The wife of another railway executive would drop in to welcome us home from the local school. She would bring two little bush babies who leapt up curtains and peered mischievously, with huge ape eyes, from out-of-reach places.
Later, my father invited a relative to live with us. She brought her own daughter into the family, an attractive, vivacious young woman in her late teens. The house was filled with my cousin's songs: "Mother may I go out dancin'...," "Good morning, good morning, we've danced the whole night through...." And, over time, we invited into our home Royal Air Force trainees from a nearby air base.
After the war, Rhodesia expanded rapidly, and the railroad was hard-pressed to keep pace with development. When the rains came, they came in torrents, and railway lines were washed out. Track had to be relaid and raised on embankments. My father would have to "go up the line" to plan new routes, examine damage, and inspect repairs.
HIS home during those trips was a railway coach, beautifully appointed with green leather and rich teak woodwork, and in this he would be shunted onto a siding or disused track, sometimes on the outskirts of a wildlife reserve such as Hwange. He thrilled us with stories of his adventures. Awakened one night, swinging from side to side, he found he was encircled by elephants using the coach as a rubbing post. Lions roared within feet of him, and monkeys and baboons poked their heads through his windows.
On my most recent visit, I rode a new train plying the route to Victoria Falls and the Hwange game park. Really, though, the train was far from new. Its coaches of green leather and teakwood have been refurbished, and its cargo of laughing, chatting tourists is drawn by a puffing Garratt locomotive.
All trains excite my interest, but this one is special to me, a traveling monument to my father's times. Each clack of the wheels echoes some personal story or incident that occurred in the veld it rumbled through. When the train comes to a halt in Bulawayo, it emits a sigh as contented and secure as my father made me feel those years ago - the loss, separation, and difficulties all dissipating in the steam.