Tsetse fly caused equal destruction amongst the animals — donkeys introduced in the belief that they could withstand " the fly " all died. The rainy season revealed that the first 16 km 10 miles of line from Fontesvilla was submerged for about a month, and it was discovered that burials which were not deep enough either floated up or were disturbed by animals.
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The first rainy season was very heavy with most of the area flooded; the Agnes grounded 11 kilometres from the main stream of the Pungwe; there she remained high and dry for three years until, with the help of a canal, there was another flood tide high enough to float her off. The first section to Bamboo Creek, later Vila Machado, now Nhamatanda was extremely flat, teeming with wild game of all kinds and prone to flooding. Gondola was reached in October , an outstanding achievement considering that the line through the Amatongas Forest rose from metres ft to metres 2, ft in 40 km.
At one section the steep terrain could only be overcome by constructing a series of zigzags ending in dead-end spurs; the train reversing direction at each halt. Lawley employed over three thousand men on this section with the heaviest section requiring a 1. Chimoio was reached In November , the higher altitude bringing healthier conditions and the tsetse fly belt being left behind. Passengers paid 6d. The boat-trip from Beira to Fontesvilla cost 25s. At Chimoio progress came to a standstill for two years, partly because the initial contract had been completed and partly because of the combined difficulties of the rugged terrain ahead and escalating costs.
However arrangements were still crude, Kingsley Fairbridge travelled first class in a deck chair in an open wagon covered by a tarpaulin for shade. A herd of zebra raced the train and we all shouted at them. Our train did not run off the rails, but most train did and then the passengers had to get out and push them back again.
The Pungwe is a wide river with an awful smell about it. Next morning we went on but came bang on a sandbank where we stuck. There was a lighter fixed alongside of the tug and this went swing ahead breaking the ropes, then back again against the tug smashing the bulwarks.
Commentary on Railway Conversion the impractical dream by E A Gibbins | Transport watch UK
After an enormous amount of swearing on Capt. Well we managed to get off the sandbank and went in to Fontesvilla. It is on the right bank and is almost a river in itself. The room I had was on the level of the ground, and to get to it I had to walk with black mud over my ankles for about 10 yards from the verandah; I nearly lost my shoes in that mud they stuck so tight in it…Well I inspected the room, then went to lunch, about a dozen men elegantly attired in their shirt sleeves.
The lunch consisted of tinned beef curried, tinned beef stewed, minced, boiled and all sorts of mess and the pudding is quite beyond description.
Well we started, ten of us in the carriage. The Beira Railway is a queer-looking concern, very narrow and only a couple of carriages and about three engines. The carriages are long narrow things with hard seats on each side like garden seats and 10 inches wide.
The first 25 miles of line known as the fly country is flat and grassy almost under water at this time of year, trees and enormous palms growing in clumps here and there and any quantity of game in herds close to the line. The train conveniently slackened off for hunters to shoot at each herd of game. Mr Jansen shot a hartebeest, cut it up and put it on the train.
Then on to the 40 mile peg where we had to wait an hour for the Chimoio down train, so a fire was made, steaks were cooked and we picnicked under a big tree. After beer and canned pears for dessert we went on again through lovely forest…. At 60 mile peg at 2pm we came to a dead stop; the engine and first truck had run off the line and were lying gracefully on their sides against some rocks; fortunately, our carriage stood up…the engine diver jumped off in time and dragged the stoker with him.
Then help was sent for up and down the line. Next morning a man came along on a trolley with a basket of food, four chickens, two loaves of bread, a piece of high meat, some gin and beer.
I lived in a funk all along that line…At Chimoio a man had been wired to meet me, so I was taken to the hotel and slept til 10 next day. Then I sat on the verandah and interviewed everyone, some were rather whisky eyed too, but most polite. However, it also became clear that Fontesvilla was totally unsuitable as a port as the Pungwe River was constantly changing its course and the tugboats were endlessly grounding on sandbanks, additionally it was 80 km by water as compared to 60 km by land.
The river journey was advertised as taking four hours; in fact, it was rarely completed in less than twenty hours. The only solution was to add a further section of 56 kms 35 miles of rail to the port of Beira. Construction began from Fontesvilla with Lawley in charge. Crossing the Pungwe flats with the need for frequent small bridges and culverts slowed the work and the 56 kilometres 35 miles took fifteen months.
Charting a course along the Pungwe River was difficult with the sandbanks moving position after each high tide. At such times according to C. Hulley, Captain Dickie: " became ever more eloquent as each sandbank came into sight, doing all he could to avoid it, his vocabulary ranging from 'damn' to words of four syllables as he became ever more excited.
Railway Conversion: The Impractical Dream by E.A. Gibbins (Paperback, 2006)
He shook his fist, roared and yelled and then, remembering he was a gentleman, apologised profusely to the women on deck below him. If all these efforts locals failed, there was nothing to be done but to wait for the turn of the tide to lift her off the mud. To some the name of 'Fontesvilla' suggested cooling streams, but the reality was very different.
The yellow sickly appearance of the inhabitants suggested to our minds the idea of people who walk about to save funeral expenses. The houses were built on piles six feet above the swampy soil — the continuance of the railway to Beira doomed the future of the pestilential spot to nothing more than a sepulchre for the dead.
Travellers were left with two dominant memories of Fontesvilla, one being the Railway Hotel. In the dining room only buck steaks were served and they were tough and inedible; the bedroom furniture comprised a bed slightly over a metre in length with a wire foundation, no mattress, one coarse sheet and one small blanket.
The second memory were the rats. Dan Judson who was woken by the rats gnawing his candle was so disturbed he dressed and walked all night.
Once passengers had unloaded their baggage from the Kimberley , the next task was to find a seat on the train. Some were fortunate enough to have a covered coach but in the case of the Hulley family in this was derailed only 30 km out of Fontesvilla and the journey continued on an open truck loaded with timber; worse, it poured with rain for much of the journey.
Once the train was in motion and depending on the strength and direction of the wind, sparks from the wood-burning locomotive constantly threatened and arms and legs had to be continually slapped to prevent the passengers clothes from being set alight. Everyone now and then someone would smell clothes burning and there would be a general post to find who was alight.
Those who had their backs to the engine and could keep the cinders out of their eyes noticed that many of the telegraph poles leaned at drunken angles with broken gin bottles used as insulators — this section was within the tsetse fly belt and progress had been made as hastily as possible. Every two or three hours the engine would stop to allow passengers and crew to collect bundles of firewood left by African woodcutters at recognised sidings.
From Fontesvilla across the coastal plain to Bamboo Creek, then Nova Fontesvilla, later Vila Machado, now Nhamatanda and famous because elephants had been seen using the water tower as a spray bath! When it was dry the train could reach 20 kph downhill but after Bamboo Creek, on the steeper gradients, the passengers would often walk alongside the train giving it a playful push to help it on its way. At one point the gradient was so steep that a gang of Africans was kept pushing from behind. Passengers did not complain much; these discomforts were minor when compared to travel by ox-wagon or walking.
Besides, the passengers met the most unusual people: an heir to an earldom who ran a butcher's business; a baronet who opened a small hotel; ' Long ' Paley, grandson of a Bishop; ' Daisy ' Newbolt, nephew of Canon Newbolt; little Jean Menaut - 'Johnnie the Frenchman ' — short and broad with a long black beard who ran a shack at Bamboo Creek called by courtesy an hotel.
Varian wrote: " the eternal item of his cuisine was buffalo meat, no matter what other name it assumed " and there was Larsen the Swede, one of the earliest guards on the railway who later became a notorious ivory poacher and died in Angola. The only noteworthy building was the Railway Hospital at the 77 mile spruit.
Chimoio, the railhead in — 6 for two years had just a small collection of mud huts, one or two galvanised wood and iron stores and 'Lawson's Hotel' , the latter a series of huts with calico-covered windows and a door made of old packing cases on which was printed 'Keep the Contents Cool' , secured by a nail and string.
The furniture - two packing cases, japanned washstand ware, two wooden stretchers and a piece of sacking on the floor was considered relatively luxurious. Symington's mule-drawn carts could cover the final km from Chimoio to Umtali in 22 hours but many passengers preferred to walk rather than wait for the next cart which could be a week in coming.
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Travel in the cart pulled by fourteen mules was cramped, hot, dusty and bumpy, there was a strong possibility of the cart overturning, of vital parts breaking or of being stuck in a river or a donga, all of which meant lengthy delays. The first stop for lunch was at Vendusi where there was a store run by a golden-haired Frenchman whose native servant spoke English, French and Portuguese. Both articles are on the website www. Supper could be taken at one of four stores — Botley's, Fisher's five kilometres short of the border Brown's or Leslie's, the latter near the present site of Umtali.
At the top of the rise everyone climbed into the cart which rushed into Old Umtali where the mail was always eagerly anticipated. Late in Mansergh, the surveyor, reported that it was impractical to take the rail line over Christmas Pass at the lowest point of the Mutarandanda Range and recommended the route along the valley of the Sakubva River and over the Nyamashiri Range to the Odzi River, the next big obstacle.
The choice was clear: either the town moved to the planned site of the railway or it remained where it was and became an isolated backwater. The meeting agreed that the town would have to move and the owners of stands in Old Umtali would be given corresponding position in the new town with valuations of all buildings in the old town being calculated for which the BSAC would pay the owners. In addition, the BSAC would build suitable government buildings and a hospital and provide money for a water supply at the new site. Orpen, to allocate new stands on the new site.
Many of the workers deserted and returned to their kraals, but the railway line remained open and operational throughout. The company now owned 20 locomotives and wagons and Lawley decided that Mandegos, then Vila Pery, now Chimoio was the most suitable spot for a locomotive depot being at an altitude of metres 2, ft and roughly halfway from Beira to Umtali.