The International Steam Pages


Case Notes - Steam in Zimbabwe, Part 2
Dett to Thomson Junction 1984/6

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Click here for the Case Notes Index.


On 25th October 1986, 15th 421, fresh from overhaul was at Bulawayo. It was seen again a few days later based at Thomson Junction (TJ).

Most people came to Dett for the Hwange Game Park, in 1984 it was an inexpensive and convenient place to stay. Both the station and yard still had a heavy military presence, buildings remained protected by rolls of barbed wire, it had not thrown off the siege mentality from the civil war period.

In 1984 I saw several freights out of TJ with a crew carriage behind the engine, I was told this meant it was an out and back train to Bulawayo with crews working in rotation. Dett was still under military control and supposedly no crews were allocated at the time. However I also saw freights on the Dett Bulawayo sector without crew carriages. Maybe it was a time of transition. By 1986 Dett had crews to work towards Bulawayo, generally changing trains at Sawmills and they also worked the trains to TJ

I was able to collect a hire car at the Game Park to chase animals and trains as the line ran beside the border of the Game Park. Elephants and other wild beasts could be encountered near the line!

On 16th September 1984, a 20th passes the Game Park approaching Dett from Bulawayo.

On 31st October 1986, a 15th and 20th taking water at Dett before continuing to TJ.

On 3rd November 1986, 15th 421 heads a freight from Bulawayo into TJ where it was to be based.

Thomson Junction. Getting up early in the morning was not my style 1984, but the timetable suggested early morning could see two trains running upgrade to Bulawayo, on my first morning here neither ran. After a visit to the mine railway I returned to the Baobab hotel for a drink and cool down swim in the pool. I hung over the edge to watch a 15th power upgrade on a loaded coal train in 27C midday heat: How decadent!

The Wankie mine railway 19Ds provided a distraction when NRZ traffic was not on offer. This was the 6th November 1986, the ZR stands for Zambian Railways!

Next day,  I was keeping a wary eye on a troop of baboons as I was encroaching on their territory when this 19D worked upgrade to the mine.

On 6th November 1986, the overnight Bulawayo Mail looked ready to depart TJ 

I had dropped a fellow rail fan off at the station to catch the train. It was a scene of activity as the 15th was uncoupled and headed to the depot. The 15th class pilot was busy and two other 15ths arrived light engine, one to work the Mail and another for the late running train 25 (18.25 dep). Surprisingly the crew of the freight built up a starting fire and conducted a brake test, I left thinking surely they would not run the freight ahead of the passenger train; but that is what happened. I had stopped at the bridge leading to the hotel to listen to the ascent of the Mail; instead it was a hard working 15th pounding away on a coal drag that passed me. Back at the hotel I stood in the gardens to watch the Mail with its brightly lit carriages climb through the dark towards Lukosi. Another memorable night I stood watching the Mail as an electrical storm lit up the clouds, the Baobab was a great hotel to watch trains go by!

Earlier I had watched a coal train bound for Dett power upgrade behind a 15th before the sun had made an appearance. I decided in 1986 to go back armed with a video to cover such action. The area around TJ was perfect for video with the reverse curves on a steep grade, the locomotives really slogged away on the freights here, so in 1986 armed with a video I returned to film the action.

The security situation might have improved in 1986, but unpredictable running was still to thwart the railfan. I was now a convert to early mornings and one morning I was at the lineside at 05.45. Plenty of smoke was seen in the distance at TJ, but two frustrating hours waiting for trains followed. I eventually I drove to the station to visit the Control office staffed by two helpful Indians. They explained all traffic had been delayed and the Victoria Falls Mail was about to arrive. I went out to the Deka River Bridge for what I thought would be rare video of the Mail in daylight; it became apparent it was not so rare to see the Mail late as I was to video it again on two other mornings.

On 18th September 1984, I caught 20th 730 on the reverse curves below the Baobab Hotel on an early morning freight to Bulawayo, the crew car behind the engine indicating that this was an out and back train for Bulawayo crews. Dett was supposed to had no crews allocated at the time due to security issues.

15th 421 followed on the heels of 20th 730, again note the service carriage.

Two years later, on 4th November 1986, with Dett depot back in action there was no need for a service coach and relief crew. 736 is seen in the same spot below the Baobab Hotel.


Rob Dickinson

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