For many people, the mention of great rail journeys in Africa conjures up visions of one of the continent’s classic vintage trains. The equivalent of luxury hotels on wheels, they transport passengers through savannah, desert and mountains in full-on, five-star luxury, complete with crisp linens and fine wines in the dining carriage and full-size baths in the en-suite compartments.
Not for Griff Rhys Jones, apparently. When he embarked on his 7,000-mile rail odyssey for the ITV series Slow Train through Africa, the presenter was determined to keep things real. Yes, he got to enjoy a brief taste of the high life in the final episode, when he stepped aboard Rovos Rail’s famous Pride of Africa. Most of the time, though, he joined the locals on public services or hitched rides on rough-and-ready freight trains to get to out-of the-way places. “It’s going through Africa by the back trail,” he explains. “The rail service across the continent is good in places, hugely efficient in others, dangerous in no-go areas and almost non-existent in others. It’s slow in places – but it’s the ideal way to meet people and to experience the beauty of Africa.”
Five-star service couldn’t have been further away at times. Travelling through Namibia, Griff bought his own mattress, folding chair and umbrella to provide rudimentary comforts for the open-topped freight wagon transporting him across the Namib Desert. In Zambia, his train arrived 33 hours late and in Tanzania onward travel was thwarted completely when sections of track were washed away by heavy rains. But then these journeys aren’t so much about the trains themselves as the countries they pass through and the people who live there.
“There’s nowhere else quite like Africa,” he says. “A billion people speaking thousands of languages; breathtaking landscape and astonishing wildlife. The diversity is incredible. Fes, in Morocco, is one of the greatest medieval cities in the world; you walk through the streets and you could be in ancient Rome. Then you go to Kenya and suddenly you’re travelling through Tsavo. This is Africa, too! Wild and open and limitless. In the Algerian city of Constantine, built on rock linked by suspension bridges with wonderful views across a deep gorge, you think, ‘Am I in Africa, or am I in Switzerland?’ And Namibia is different again, an almost empty country with vast deserts and huge landscapes.”
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It’s also clear that the routes of the tracks Griff travels upon reveal much about the continent and its past. “There’s a history overlying the railway, which is the history of the struggle for Africa. You can’t avoid that. The lust for gold and diamonds was what pushed the railway forward. In Zimbabwe and in Kimberley in South Africa, you come face to face with the story of human greed and power, which built these railways. The story is about colonials who brought the railway to many parts of Africa; about how the modern world arrived in Africa, usually to exploit it.”
But the doom-laden headlines we’re used to seeing in the west also fail to tell the full story of the continent. “Ninety per cent of the stories that come out of Africa are about disease, poverty and war,” Griff points out, “but the majority of the population get on with their lives and don’t encounter the brutal end of it. The whole overview is a look at ordinary people living and working there.”
So he set out to uncover other, more positive stories, with visits to date farms, cattle ranches and oyster beds, and encounters with everyone from travelling salesmen peddling traditional Berber medicines to young athletes training for international competitions.
If you ask him to pick a highlight of the trip, he’s hard pushed to choose just one. But he was undeniably impressed by the bridge that spans the Zambezi gorge next to Victoria Falls. Cecil Rhodes’s vision to connect Britain’s African colonies with a Cape-to-Cairo line may never have been completed, but this awe-inspiring bridge was perhaps its greatest legacy. “It’s one of the most spectacular stretches of track in the world,” says Griff. “There is a tangible sense that the line is a monument to a dream – and even 500 million litres of water per minute, a 350ft gorge and the crocodile-filled Zambezi river couldn’t stop that dream.”
So does he feel he’s come any closer to discovering the real Africa? “You never find the ‘real’ Africa,” says Griff. “What you find is the mix that created Africa from way back. It makes you realise what an extraordinary, beautiful and varied world we live in.”
Watch Slow Trains Through Africa with Griff Rhys Jones at 9pm Friday 1st May on ITV