Aboard the Stimela Star


Sue Watt can’t resist a novel way of transferring from Victoria Falls to Hwange National Park

“She’s a bit of a faded lady, but she’s lots of fun,” Butch says of the new love in his life. And having spent the night with her, I have to say he’s summed her up pretty well.

His new love is called Stimela Star, not a raucous mid-life beau but a newly restored vintage train dating back to the 1950s that runs overnight from Victoria Falls to Hwange National Park. It’s the latest dreamchild of Mark ‘Butch’ Butcher, MD of Imvelo Safaris, who’s forever seeking different ways to ‘do’ safaris.

The last time I was here, some three years ago, we’d travelled on the quirky and charismatic Elephant Express, a single carriage railcar he’d adapted for game viewing. Together with a smiling, wide-eyed collection of local schoolkids we’d picked up along the way, the Elephant Express took us wildlife-watching from Dete, Hwange’s main gate, to Ngamo, where two of Butch’s lodges (Camelthorn and Bomani) are located on the remote eastern edge of the park.

But Stimela is more grown-up than the Elephant Express. Once every couple of months, she latches on to the regular Vic Falls to Bulawayo train departing at 7pm, although her four carriages are totally private. The two sleeper carriages accommodate 24 people in 14 cosy but comfortable compartments, complete with wood panelling, pewter fittings and green baize, which evoke that long-gone era of Africa’s railway heyday.

I love discovering all the clever space-saving tricks around our room: the fold-up bunks; a steel table-top that hides a small basin; a wooden shelf for the top bunks that with a bit of manoeuvering morphs into a table for the lower bunks; and tiny pewter lamps squeezed into corners.

And I can’t help but smile as I read the original yellowing notice asking its readers not to ‘expectorate’ from the window – it seems the old steam locomotive of days gone by had caused a build-up of phlegm from passengers best relieved by spitting. Today, there’s no such problem: the train runs on a modern diesel electric engine, yet the rules still apply.

Dinner is served in a restaurant carriage that pays homage to Stimela’s 1950s style, incorporating Formica panels, old photos of wildlife wandering along the tracks, and original dining tables and chairs emblazoned with the colonial ‘Rhodesian Rail’ insignia.

Our meal is a three-course affair accompanied by South African wines, with canapes to start, then a tangy chicken curry, vegetable kebabs and coconut rice, followed by deliciously calorific chocolate brownies. Before and after dinner, we chill in the lounge car with aperitifs and ice-cold G&Ts, and later, nightcaps of brandy or Amarula.

All the while, Stimela trundles on deep into the night until eventually our carriages are unhitched from the main train that continues its journey to Zimbabwe’s second city, and we’re left behind at Ngamo sidings.

I don’t know exactly when this happened since her gentle sway has rocked me soundly to sleep. As dawn breaks, we wake to the sight of Imvelo’s Land Cruisers waiting to take us on our first game drive and then on to our lodges to continue our safari.

It’s an extraordinary and fun way to travel to Hwange, far better than a tiring road transfer and much more immersive than a bush flight. Luxury our faded lady is not – don’t expect a Rovos Rail or Blue Train experience. Stimela is very much her own lady, with a distinctive, relaxed and utterly adorable charm. I can’t imagine a better way to start a safari…

Sue Watt’s visit to Zimbabwe was organised by Expert Africa, who offer tailormade trips across Africa, and she flew to Victoria Falls with Ethiopian Airlines. All images copyright Will Whitford.