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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.

 the Wau Express 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 littleDinka tribesman beside a railway trackuneasy. 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