Jonathan Lee

Worldly Images

Malawi September 2012

Having arrived almost directly from the USA, via a day in London, I met up with two travelling companions at the Kabula Lodge in Blantyre, a place I’d stayed on my previous trip to Malawi. Airport pick-up was arranged through the hotel and they actually sent one of the taxi drivers they use to collect me at a cost of US$20.

The Lodge was in complete darkness when I arrived due to a power cut but electricity was soon restored and dinner was served by 2030. Rooms cost $20 per person and doesn’t seem to be charged by the room itself.

Wednesday 5th September 2012

A taxi was pre-booked to get us to Limbe station which cost 3150 Kwacha and Mr MacDonald (of which there are loads in Blantyre) was bang on time. We were dropped at the booking office entrance to Limbe station, which is round some side street. Having walked round to the “staff” entrance we were on the platform 20 minutes later after blagging the security guard, and were first onto the train to secure our seats for the day. Tickets from the booking office were 800 Kwacha each for a single journey to Bilila, they can be bought on the train if need be. The girppers are quite ruthless and nobody gets away with it. Some people can have their ticket checked about 15 times in a journey.

The main Limbe Workshops are over the back of the station and an MX615 could be heard moving about within, this turned out to be 510, which shunted a coach onto the rear of our set before departure, then was left in the middle road, shut down. 520 was the train engine, which had been working the passenger train solid since the previous Wednesday. In a spur off the workshops, at the Blantyre end of the station area, 3 demic Bombardier MX615s could be seen in various states of disrepair. They were all in the old CEAR green livery #’s 503, 502 & 500. There was also a steam loco in the station confines, also at the Blantyre end, I’m reliably informed that this is Henschel/1954 2-8-2 No. 49. It looked in a decent condition, externally anyway. The other steam loco in Limbe, “Thistle” remains plinthed outside the station entrance.

Departure from Limbe was 40 late after the coach was shunted in, the train was already quite full but it was solid by the time we departed Blantyre. We had seats though and even though there was a spare one in our bay of four the locals opted to dump their crap on it rather than sit in it. The luggage racks were full of all sorts of produce being taken to other locations along the line and there were people stood everywhere. Still the 7 hour journey to Balaka wasn’t that bad, and we actually arrived early. 520 was a bit of a beast as well, by far the best of the four MX615’s I’d had in the country. It was meaty, clagged well and had a great transition too.

At Balaka we got off the train and did what the train crew do, which is check into the Mlambe Hotel, 100m up the road from the level crossing. There were three rooms available, which cost 3000 Kwacha each, including breakfast. We ended up paying in US$, which cost us $12 each in the end. The rooms are clean enough, have electricity and a shower and the bed sheets were spotless. Within minutes we were heading back to the station, big bags left in the hotel.

The train consist from Limbe had been 3 freight wagons, 6 passenger coaches and a crew van on the rear. 520 had shunted all the freight wagons into position to be offloaded and reloaded and then ran the crew van round to the front of the train before departing for the short run to Bilila and back. It was empty in both directions and we could relax. More to the point we could savour the thrash a bit more without the freight wagons in front of us. The tickets to Bilila and return were 150 Kwacha each way, each.

Thursday 6th September 2012

Up at 0500 for the 0600 departure to Nayuchi. At the station a full ticket check was going on as people walked towards the train, we were directed to the ticket office though and bought our 700 Kwacha tickets to Nayuchi, on the Mozambique border there. There were plenty of seats still available, all towards the rear of the train though.

We had no myther all the way to Nayuchi and had pleasant conversations with two folks on board, a guy called Blessings who couldn’t understand why we weren’t religious and just laughed at us in disbelief and another guy who’d lived in Malawi but had since moved to Nampula in Mozambique and would be travelling on the same train as us the following day in Mozambique.

At Liwonde we came across MX615 #504 shunting wagons in the station area and then passed CFM GE U20 D127 at Lambulira, with a freight heading into Malawi. The freights across the border to Liwonde were worked by CDN locos, on my previous trip in 2008 the MX615s had worked through to Cuamba. There was a list in the Station Masters office at Liwonde of CDN locos and the weights they could take from Liwonde to Cuamba: YDM4’s C101-C106 = 600 tonnes, GE U20’s D126 = 760 tonnes & D127 = 1000 tonnes.

I’d never been so glad to find a toilet as I had in Nayuchi. The immigration office handed me a key for a brick hut opposite the station and off I went. There was no way I would be lasting until Cuamba inMozambique, especially with the journey we faced, in the back of a truck!

The immigration office is part of the station buildings and queuing is regulated at the door, so there’s no free for all. All we had to do was fill out a departure card and we were stamped out of the country. Our transport across the border to Cuamba was arranged, it was an open truck with 20 or so bags of rice in the back and on top of those 15 or so people, and their luggage, including 3 white guys. Leaving 520 behind, as it finished shunting its train together for its return journey to Balaka we headed off towards Mozambique, a couple of hundred meters away………

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