Adventures in the Ultramar #2

We arrived in Komatipoort at about 7:00am. The train had no sooner stopped than all the passengers we’d accumulated throughout the night set to unloading baggage of every shape, size, and variety. Adhering to the “when in Rome…” maxim, we passed our gear out the window to the platform, then stepped off the train to survey our new surroundings.

The station at Komatipoort was not, in reality, much of a station at all, consisting of little more than a very weathered cement platform and several parallel tracks. The platform was crowded with people, luggage, and commerce. We were later told that it’s possible to avoid some of the customs fees normally applied to imports by entering Mozambique via rail, which explained the ponderous loads of fruit, food, and other assorted miscellany stacked in heaping mounds all over the station.

Everyone seemed to be in something of a hurry to get their stuff off the train, so, thinking that it must be leaving soon, I ducked back onto the train to make sure we hadn’t left anything in our compartment. I was standing looking into the top bunk when there was a sharp crack and the entire car gave a mighty lurch. I was sent flying across the compartment into the opposite wall and bunks, and ended up in a heap on the floor.

As I extricated myself from that undignified position, I became aware that the train was now rolling down the track. Very much in spite of a disconcerting numbness in my left leg, entirely unsure of what was going on, I stumbled down the hall and onto the platform, where Kendall informed me that another engine had “just run into” our train. Heidi woozily emerged from the still-rolling train some seconds later-she had been in the bathroom and taken a nasty bump on the head in the collision.

Our original plan had called for us to hire a car from Komatipoort to Maputo, so Kendall and I wandered down the platform to get the lay of the proverbial land. Beyond the masses of humanity and produce, though, we didn’t find anything especially noteworthy, and saw no sign of any car likely to make the trip to Maputo in one piece. Willing to accept our defeat, we headed back to the luggage, where the rest of the gang had struck up a conversation with a Mozambican named Januário, his wife, Doris, and their friend, Alexandre. They were on their way to Maputo, and informed us that the reports we’d heard of the Komatipoort-to-Maputo line’s demise had been greatly exaggerated, and that, in fact, there was a train leaving to Maputo in about an hour.

In light of that happy revelation we settled down to pass the intervening minutes getting to know our new friends. Januário and Alexandre had spent the last several months working in South African mines, but, not having come into the immense fortunes they’d imagined, were now on their way home. Alexandre was especially proud of both his English and his irrepressible hip-ness, and felt compelled to burst into song at irregular intervals, a condition doubtless exacerbated by his prodigious alcohol intake – he had almost single-handedly downed an entire bottle of vodka by 9:00am. By far his most popular musical recitation was the refrain “We are Emily” (sung to the tune of “We are a family”) which he first performed upon making Emily’s acquaintance, and was to repeat almost incessantly for the rest of the morning. Januário was a genuinely cool guy, who was very willing to fill us in on the local scene without making a buffoon of himself.

Our train arrived with a punctuality not often seen in Africa, rolling into the station just after 8:00am. I suppose at one time it was identical to the one we’d taken from Joburg, but to say that it had seen better days would be an almost ridiculous understatement. Its doors were missing, its windows uniformly broken out, and its exterior otherwise battered, dented, and occasionally bullet-holed.

We stowed our stuff in the first available compartment while our African friends occupied one a few doors down. Alexandre wasted little time in coming to join us, announcing his arrival with a loud, broken “Yeah, wassup!” followed by high-fives for everyone. As the train left the station we were treated to our first views of the countryside by daylight – the Limpopo River was clearly visible off to the left, as were the flotsam, jetsam, and swathes of bare earth that marked the extent of that spring’s flooding.

We hadn’t traveled far before arriving at the border crossing. What followed was a scene of much confusion, lengthy queues, and lengthier waits before the train’s many passengers had disembarked, checked through customs, re-embarked, and we were ready to continue.

This train was markedly slower than the first, but afforded impressive views of the passing scenery – primarily vast green expanses of subtropical vegetation as far as the eye could see. Occasionally we’d pass clusters of two or three thatch huts, or the blasted and burnt remnants of pre-colonial houses, but otherwise the verdant spread continued virtually unbroken. The bridges we occasionally crossed were all guarded by abandoned, shot-up, and lonely guard towers placed at either end. Januário explained that, during the civil war, much of the area through which we were traveling had been controlled by Renamo, a group whose propensity for destroying bridges, rail lines, and the like had necessitated a rather concerted effort by the government to keep the railway open.

We, meanwhile, had attracted a rather unhealthy amount of attention from our neighbors in the next compartment, who took to surveying our group with less-than-subtle stares, and inquire after us to the other passengers. More disconcerting still were the Russian assault weapons nonchalantly stowed in their compartment. Needless to say, Alexandre’s antics and the striking scenery became secondary concerns as the train limped its way into Maputo.

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