This article first appeared
in Canadian Magazine
SLOW TRAIN TO WAU
It's a lot more fun than
walking. But not much faster.
by David W. Bennett
The Wau (pronounced "wow")
Express covers the 480 km of track between Babanusa and Wau,
Sudan in a little over three days. "When," the reader
may ask, "will I ever have to take the Wau Express?"
The answer is probably never, unless you are prone to seasickness,
detest mosquitoes and are in a "hurry" to get from
Khartoum to Juba overland on the way to Nairobi. In that case,
the two-to three-week riverboat journey up the Nile to Juba is
out, and the Wau Express is for you.
Actually, the train trip is only a small
part of the journey to Juba. After you reach Wau, a small town
in the middle of nowhere - i.e., southwestern Sudan - you still
face a five-day truck ride to Juba. Before it you have to get
from Khartoum to Babanusa. This is accomplished by taking a fairly
comfortable and punctual train from Khartoum, via Kosti. At Babanusa
you change trains and board the Wau Express; if it is there and
running, of course.
My companion and I were lucky.
The train was standing in the station, ready to go. It looked
as if it were built about the same time as the railway, the early
1900s, and consisted of a steam locomotive and about 25 decrepit
carriages. We were told it would leave in an hour's time, at
9 p.m. Feeling extravagant, we decided to splurge $5 on a couple
of second-class tickets (there was no first class that day).
This entitled us to a comfortable reserved seat in a six-seat
compartment. The compartment was empty when we boarded and, expecting
the train to leave soon, we bedded down for the night, hoping
that no one else would enter. No one else did, but then, since
the train was still sitting in the station the next morning,
this was understandable. Around 7 a.m. eight Sudanese who also
had the wisdom to travel second-class crowded into our compartment,
and the train chugged out of the station.
Although initially annoyed about
the overbooking of second class, we were pleased with our choice
when we saw the conditions in the third and fourth classes. Third
class consisted of a carriage filled with wooden benches. The
benches were jammed, and every square inch of floor space was
also covered with squatting people and their luggage. The luggage
racks were filled with children. Fourth class, a cattle car,
was beyond description.
The corridors of the second-class
carriages were crammed with people, making passage impossible.
We were therefore forced to use the window to enter and exit
our compartment. This would make it difficult to get to the dining
car when the train was moving but, as the dining car was negligently
attached to the train, it was of no great consequence. On the
roof of the train there must have been about a thousand people.
They were the lucky ones as far as space was concerned but that
must have been outweighed by the intense heat of the day and
the cold of the night. "Why are there so many people?"
I asked my fellow passengers. I was told that the twice-weekly
Wau Express was making its first trip in three weeks.
So the journey began. The train
travelled very slowly to start with. Later we came to the bracing
realization that it was travelling at the top speed: 12 km an
hour. Every 25 km or so the train would stop at a station for
an hour or two. This was so that the engine could be watered
down and rested. Each time, many of the passengers would disembark.
Fires were build, pots were produced, food cooked. Children and
clothes were washed, and five times a day Mecca was faced in
prayer. A quick blast of the whistle and the train was off again,
with hundreds of people scrambling to get back on.
We actually welcomed these delays
because they gave us the opportunity to stretch, cool down and
go out for food and water. Water was usually available, but the
choice of food was limited to boiled eggs, bananas and raw beans.
These were sold by scores of vendors who would appear fro nowhere
at even the most remote of stations.
Halfway to Wau, in the middle
of an inhabited, roadless desert scrubland, the train suddenly
stopped again, this time for no noticeable reason. Mechanical
failure, were told soothingly. After a few hours we began to
get a littleuneasy. Was
the engine irreparable? If so, would we have to complete our
journey on foot? Happily the answer to both questions was no.
Eight hours later the problem was apparently solved and we were
again on our way. During the last hundred or so kilometres a
number of extra stops were made. These were due to the antics
of the playful Dinka tribe, who enjoy placing large boulders
on the track.
Finally after three longs days,
thoroughly sick of our monotonous diet and crowded sitting and
sleeping arrangements, we wheezed into Wau station. My companion
and I looked at each other, flushed with the special relief that
accompanies great endeavours. "Wau!" we said.
David W. Bennett ©
1980 - 2000