Zimbabwe’s stunning 80 km safari train

Zimbabwe’s stunning 80 km safari train

(Image credit: Imvelo Safari Lodges)

On the route between Dete and Ngamo Sidings, the “Elephant Express” offers guests an utterly unique safari experience.

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We rattled out of Dete Station toward the northeastern border of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, an eager dozen—nine tourists, two engineers, and a safari guide—en route from Victoria Falls to the Ngamo Plains, an elephant-laden grassland where dwindling acacias meet forests the arid sprawl of the Kalahari sands.

I peered into the midday sun and sipped a gin and tonic, balancing on one foot and leaning out the side of our purpose-built private train car, hoping to get a closer look at a lively bird perched atop barbed wire. A fellow passenger had his camera zoomed all the way in. We caught glimpses of electric blue, a fairly long beak, a large head, but the light made identification difficult.

As the train picked up speed and left our target, we continued the debate. Was it a kingfisher? Some kind of woodpecker? Hearing our fruitless and futile musings, one of the railroad engineers identified the bird as a lilac-breasted roller. Relieved to have an answer, I added the bird to my running list and settled into my chair.

The Elephant Express, a single-car train that can accommodate up to 22 people, may seem like an unlikely safari vehicle, but it offers a completely unique safari experience. Instead of searching for the big beasts in a 4×4 or on foot, passengers encounter them randomly, adding a sense of serendipity to the wonder.

Hwange National Park is the largest park in Zimbabwe, covering more than 14,600 square kilometers (Credit: Graham, David/Alamy)

Hwange National Park is the largest park in Zimbabwe, covering more than 14,600 square kilometers (Credit: Graham, David/Alamy)

We were not far from Dete station when the engineers slowed down and pointed to the right. A group of baboons swarmed at the entrance to the park. There must have been 100 of them—massive men peering suspiciously over their shoulders, teenagers bolting and beating each other, mothers carrying babies with Velcro around their necks.

How to ride the Elephant Express

The train runs in both directions between Dete railway station and Ngamo Siding (near Camelthorn and Bomani Lodges), with the 80km journey typically taking two to three hours depending on wildlife sightings.

Currently the train is only available to guests staying at Imvelo properties – Bomani Tented Lodge or Camelthorn Lodge – who can book the Elephant Express as part of their transfer experience.

During the remainder of the approximately 50-mile (80 km) journey, we slowed down several times to allow families of elephants and herds of kudu to cross the tracks. We stopped to watch giraffes graze in the canopy while zebras and ibex munched on the undergrowth. We saw more lilac-breasted rollers and a flock of huge southern ground hornbills, saw a brown-hooded (and orange-billed) kingfisher, and heard the cry of a gray bird flying away just in time to see it.

When Mark “Butch” Butcher – general manager at Imvelo Safari Lodges – First considered launching a tourist train in the 1980s and committed to years of navigating the Zimbabwean bureaucracy to make it happen. His vision wasn’t just about the grandeur of Hwange’s wildlife. Rather, he wanted to channel the park’s history, thereby highlighting the importance of the region’s growing community tourism and conservation efforts.

Railroads have been part of the park’s story since its inception. Zimbabwe’s railways were originally built to connect the mining and farming areas of the landlocked county with coastal ports in neighboring Mozambique and South Africa. This particular stretch of track was laid in 1904, 24 years before Wankie Game Reserve (Hwange’s predecessor) was established. This led British colonial officials and wildlife experts to question the wisdom of creating a protected area for animals that would be flanked by a functioning train. But the plan went ahead and despite the tracks, Wankie Game Reserve was established in 1928 under the leadership of game warden Ted Davison.

Railroads have been part of the park's story since its inception (Credit: Graham, David/Alamy)

Railroads have been part of the park’s story since its inception (Credit: Graham, David/Alamy)

Today there is not an animal in this part of Hwange that remembers a landscape without trains. It is not uncommon to see lions sleeping on the sunlit rails or using them for cover while hunting on the plains. So when the Elephant Express started in 2015 and brought people to Imvelo’s lodges, Butcher knew it would give visitors a special safari experience. “Park rangers have been hitching a ride on the maintenance trolleys on these tracks for years,” the former Hwange park ranger told me.

When Butcher started as a park ranger more than 40 years ago, the tension between the parks and the communities was palpable. This is partly due to the way British colonial forces selected the land for conservation, and how this played out in later tourism efforts. When government officials of what was then Rhodesia defined the boundaries of what is now Hwange, they claimed it was because there were few human inhabitants – an explanation that ignored the largely nomadic families of black Zimbabweans who called the area home – and created a symbolic barrier between animals and humans.

Thanks to Davison’s decision to drill boreholes to create a permanent water source and the protection of dedicated gamekeepers and park rangers, Hwange’s wildlife population grew over the years. The increasing number of animals attracted paying hunters and tourists from abroad, but they and their money remained in the park rather than taking advantage of surrounding communities.

Unfortunately, Butcher explained, the growing population of animals and humans has also led to more conflicts with local villagers, who fear elephants will eat their crops and lions prey on their livestock. By the time Butcher arrived in Hwange, he noted that the “village saw the animals as belonging to the park”. Villagers saw no income from these animals that threatened their own livelihoods. And in Zimbabwe, where many depend on subsistence farming and 60% of people go hungry, Butcher said, “wild animals have to pay to survive”. For some, poaching and illegal hunting fill this void.

Cecil, one of Hwange's most beloved lions, was tragically hunted and killed on the edge of the park in 2015 (Credit: Stacey McKenna)

Cecil, one of Hwange’s most beloved lions, was tragically hunted and killed on the edge of the park in 2015 (Credit: Stacey McKenna)

Suddenly our train came to a stop. We peered expectantly out the open sides of the train car for animals, but Vusa Ncube, a Ngamo villager and our main safari guide on the trip, asked us to gather. On the left side of the track, a wooden sign reading “Cecil’s Tree” was taped to a tree. Ncube solemnly told the story of the tragic and illegal murder of one of the area’s favorite lions.

Poaching has also decimated rhino populations in Hwange. Only a handful of black rhinos are believed to remain in the area, and white rhinos have been locally extinct for over 15 years. In response, Tsholotsho Villages along the border of Hwange National Park are partnering with Butcher and Imvelo Safari Lodges to ensure residents benefit from conservation and associated tourism. The Elephant Express connects its passengers to two such projects: Imvelo’s Camelthorn Lodge, built on community-owned land; and the Community Rhino Conservation Initiative (CRCI), a project that will relocate rhinoceroses from other parts of Zimbabwe to a series of communal land sanctuaries that will eventually spawn in the park.

My visit was in May this year, when US-based adventure travel company Wilderness Travel teamed up with Imvelo to take a small group of travelers to witness the arrival of CRCI’s first rhinoceroses, Thuza and Kusasa. On arrival at Camelthorn Lodge we were welcomed by Siboe Sibanda, lodge manager and Tsholotsho resident who keeps everything running smoothly for Camelthorn guests. And because the lodge is on community land, rather than deep in the national park, she can return home at night to spend time with her family. “I want to work in tourism,” Sibanda told me. “But normally you have to stay away for many days. That way I can go home in the evening to my family.”

Similarly, the CRCI project is based on the idea that to succeed, wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe must fit with the lives and priorities of community members. When we arrived at Johnson and Dorothy Ncube’s home, the Ngamo village chief and his wife greeted us in rhinoceros themed t-shirts. As we sat in a circle and drank tea and coffee, Ncube remembered how excited he was when he saw rhinoceroses as a child. “Most of the kids in this village have never seen a rhino,” he said, shaking his head. “But that’s about to change. These are their rhinos. Our rhinos.”

The Elephant Express offers a unique safari experience Imvelo Safari Lodges

The Elephant Express offers a unique safari experience Imvelo Safari Lodges

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