The Last Train from Victoria Falls

Article excerpt

Paul Theroux is my favorite travel writer. He goes places that I imagine going to-remote, alien places such as Mongolia or

Sri Lanka or John O'Groats-but don't really want to visit. He is an intrepid traveler; I am closer to the Accidental Tourist. He is sardonic about traveling even though he obviously loves it. I read every travel book of his I can find, and one time my wife Susan and I had the serendipitous experience of reading, in Theroux's The Kingdom By The Sea, a description of an island off the eastern coast of England at the precise moment that our train was passing by it.

Theroux has written a lot about traveling by train. He has also lived in Africa. So far as I can recall he has never written about taking a train in Africa. I never wondered why until I took a train from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to Pretoria, South Africa. Now I think I know why.

I

Susan and I have done a lot of traveling, almost exclusively in what is euphemistically called the "first world." That is not by accident. I have usually been the travel planner, and I have a recurrent instinct that Second or Third World travel and I are not too compatible. When our 30th anniversary came up, Susan wanted to go on an African camera safari. I wanted to go to Italy. We compromised on a trip that included a game reserve near Kruger Park in South Africa but also featured Cape Town and Stellenbosch. The highlight of the trip for me was going to be a "first-class" train ride which would begin at Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe/Zambia border and wind down through Zimbabwe and Bostwana for two scenic days, with good food, a large compartment, and the romance of Orient Express-style train travel.

We had taken some marvelous trains in the past: the TransEuropean Express and several on British Rail. I share Theroux's view of planes as cramped cocoons, suspended from time, while trains are relaxing idylls that nonetheless give one a sense of progressing somewhere. I also like the effortless punctuality of certain European trains. In my pre-trip imagination the Victoria Falls train ran on a comparably perfect schedule.

II

I was apprehensive about traveling to Africa because of some inarticulate feeling that it was a menacing place. I associated the menacing feeling largely with malaria-carrying mosquitos and strange, undiagnosable viruses. Advance warnings had also surfaced about the rising crime rate in South African cities. All the more reason to have those two days on the first-class Victoria Falls train.

In my world as a writer, the line between imagination and reality is constantly blurred, so I can't trace precisely the sources of my perception, which surfaced almost immediately after arriving in South Africa, that the African continent was even more menacing than I had feared. I was not prepared for the utter wildness of the animals in the game reserve. Our only experiences with undomesticated animals had been in zoos, and although we thought of ourselves-and still do-as animal lovers, we had never experienced a bull elephant or a pair of young lions or a pack of wild dogs in their habitat. I had never seen an elephant who did not appear docile; this bull looked at our Land Rover as if he were going to charge it. The lions got so close we could have touched them. They slid their tongues across the front of their mouths. The wild dogs appeared friendly and curious, coming right up to our Rover. In the ranger's searchlight I saw their teeth. They were like those of the raptors in Jurassic Park.

At siesta time in the game reserve hut, I picked up the South Africa-India cricket match as a distancing mechanism. But baboons loped by and poked around the hut. It was the animals' territory, and we were novice interlopers. I tried to learn some Zulu words for the animals as an accommodating device. Learning languages has always been a help to me while traveling. But calling a male lion "Mdodah" wasn't going to help in the bush. …