From the sublime to the scary: Chris Tarrant braves the Diamond Railway to Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls

The presenter feared he'd end up in a Zimbabwean jail when he had a run-in with the police while filming Extreme Railways

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In the new series of Extreme Railways, Chris Tarrant chugs into Arctic wilderness on the Alaskan railroad and travels on an oil train with the explosive potential of a small nuclear bomb.

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But – as he explains below – it was his 1,500-mile journey from Cape Town across Botswana to the Victoria Falls that proved the most extreme, in more ways than one. Known as the Diamond Railway, it was funded by controversial 19th century British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who made a fortune from diamonds and used the railway to extend British rule across Africa.


Extreme Railways isn’t a typical travel show. Which was your favourite journey?

The Blue Train in South Africa is fantastic. You start your journey in a VIP lounge where you have your own individual steward who shows you to the train and looks after your cases, and it’s champagne all the way.  

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Boarding the Blue Train: Matjiesfontain

That doesn’t sound too extreme.

Well, they are extremely luxurious! And extremely different from anything we normally do. We had a great day on it and then we had to get off. Normal passengers stay on for four or five days, but we had to get off at three in the morning in the pouring rain at a dining mining town called Kimberley, so the luxury bits don’t last long.

Where else did Cecil Rhodes’ Diamond Railway take you?

We switched trains and then went on through Botswana, which is a wonderful young country – it really gives you hope. The people are great. I interviewed a wonderful young lady train driver out there – the first one in Africa I think – and she was such a cool girl who drives a huge freight train through the night. 

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Getting on the Botswana Locomotive

Then we got over the border to Zimbabwe and that is a really scary place to go to. The trains were dreadful, just falling apart. In the middle of the night, there were a lot of big men at the bar getting aggressive because they were drinking a lot of whatever it was, and the doors on the train just kept flying open. So we’re going along at about 70 mph and the doors keep coming open. Health and safety doesn’t exist in Zimbabwe.

Did you manage to stay out of trouble?

I’d been warned that the biggest problem would be roadblocks because at one point there was no railway for a couple of hundred miles, so we had to get off the train and into a 4×4. And the roadblocks happened almost straightaway: some very large gentlemen in police uniforms and serious-looking rifles just stand in the middle of the road and slow you down. They don’t want to shoot you unless they have to, although they probably would – they just want money.

They went around the car, touching everything: “What’s this? Does this work? Turn your lights on”. They had a table in the middle of the road piled high with US dollars because the Zimbabwean dollar has collapsed completely. Somewhere I’ve got something like a 100 billion dollar Zimbabwe bill, which is actually worth 5p. So these guys with rifles see our recording equipment, camera equipment. They’re just looking for any excuse to say: “You’re breaking the law, give us dollars.”

On the recce – the director goes out and runs through the whole route – our driver was stopped at a roadblock. He’s a lovely young black guy called Zammo and he was doing no harm to anyone, and they put him in handcuffs and arrested him. Our director had to talk him out of trouble. So we were sat there thinking: we do not want to end up in a Zimbabwean jail.

Did you bribe them?

It’s not a bribe – you just pay some stupid fine but you know damn well you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s just a way of getting money out of people, out of white tourists.

So you wouldn’t recommend following in your tracks?

No, I wouldn’t recommend it! But then we got to Victoria Falls at the end: at dawn it’s one of the most beautiful sights you will every see. We stayed at The Victoria Falls Hotel, a luxury hotel that looks out over the falls. I don’t understand how that hotel functions because everything else in Zimbabwe is absolutely skint. In Bulawayo, which is the second biggest city, every single shop – the chemist, the butcher, the baker – has got these huge stainless steel bars all over their windows and doors. Crime is rampant because people are penniless. It’s a sad place to go to. I was glad to go home.

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Chris Tarrant beside Cecil Rhodes grave in the Matopos Hills, half-an-hour’s drive south of Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo

Do you have a newfound appreciation for British trains after four years of Extreme Railways?

No, I really haven’t. If you go to Japan, even at the pokiest little station, every single train is arrives and leaves on time – not to a couple of minutes, within 30 seconds. In Canada, they have constant problems with massive avalanches and bear attacks on the line, but all these problems are solved immediately. 

The day after I came back from Japan, I had to go to Manchester to make a commercial and when I arrived at the station there was a big sign saying: the 6.05pm will leave at 7.20pm. No announcement. And when we finally got to Manchester Piccadilly, we were told that because of late-running engineering works, the train would sit outside the station for 45 minutes.

I love being British but our railways are shocking. We are so inured to how appalling our railways are. And the idea in almost any other country in the world that leaves on the line would be a problem! 

Have you always been a bit of a railway buff?

I’m not a trainspotter but I love railways. I had a book when I was a kid called The Big of Railways Around the World or something and I suppose that’s how I got into them.

I love the way railways have been built against all odds and the way they open up the world. We went on a train in Bolivia that went over a mountain where people just come out from behind a rock, which turned out to be a request stop. Without that railway they’d never see another human being apart from their own village. There are definitely places we’ve been to where we will definitely have been the first human beings they’ve seen. Bolivia was one of those. The Congo certainly was. And parts of Africa has been like. So 

Where do you like to travel when you want a break from trains?

After Christmas, I’m going to have a nice safari in Africa with my wife. I absolutely love safaris. I go at least once a year. And then I’m taking the whole tribe out to the Caribbean for four weeks. So it’s not a bad life. I don’t work anything like as hard as I used to. I just do things I like doing.

Chris Tarrant: Ice Train to Nowhere airs on on Channel 5 at 9pm on 31 October. Chris Tarrant’s Extreme Railway Journeys is out 3 November (John Blake £20)

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