I've hitched rides before – a mate's Kombi, a stranger's Vespa – but never have I sipped a gin and tonic while hitching an overnight ride with an African commuter train.
It is almost dark when we board the Stimela Star for her inaugural journey from Victoria Falls station to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe's biggest national park. Comprising four 1950s carriages, the privately owned Stimela Star hitches a lift on the National Railways of Zimbabwe night train that runs from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo.
For 180 kilometres we'll flounce behind like a peacock's tail, the Stimela Star's restored carriages adding a jaunty edge to a staid workhorse. In the early hours of the morning (while we're still sleeping), we'll be shunted into Ngamo sidings on the edge of Hwange National Park near Bomani and Camelthorn lodges, our homes for the next three nights.
"This isn't South Africa's Rovos Rail or Blue Train," says Mark "Butch" Butcher as we sip cocktails in the lounge. "This is a fun train." Butch is the managing director of Imvelo Safari Lodges, and the restored wagons are his brainchild.
The dining and lounge carriages are a cross between grandma's sitting room and your favourite hipster café. The original mismatched armchairs are here, so too the Formica-lined walls and tapestry dining chairs.
The two sleeping carriages, which can accommodate a maximum of 24 guests in 12 cabins, are made up with twin beds, a small table and original washbasin. The lack of en suite is compensated for by the cabin's authenticity, its timber panelling, mirrors etched with the old Rhodesian Rail insignia and original fittings providing tangible links to Zimbabwe's rail history.
"We are travelling on the same tracks as Cecil Rhodes' uncompleted Cape to Cairo railway," says Butch. "My vision is to relink Victoria Falls with Hwange National Park."
After cocktails and canapés it's time for dinner – shared tasting plates, chicken curry with vegetables and a chocolate brownie with ice-cream. "Relaxed, home-style cooking," says Butch. "It's how we Zimbos do it."
I fall asleep easily, the full moon casting its incandescent glow across my cabin as the breeze from the open window fans my face. In my dreamlike state it seems the African continent is exhaling against my cheek. By daybreak I'm awake, our lone carriages sitting on the tracks like a toddler's abandoned train set, grass and acacia trees stretching to the horizon.
It may look empty but Hwange is famed for having Africa's largest pachyderm population – about 45,000, as well as more than 100 species of mammals including lions, leopards, wild dogs, giraffe, zebra and cheetah. The only thing missing are large herds of tourists – where Kruger sees about 1.3 million visitors annually Hwange attracts a modest 40,000.
After a quick breakfast we are amongst it; laughing at the antics of vervet monkeys with their shockingly blue testicles, watching in stunned silence as a bull elephant tries to charge, and tracking four female lions, all granddaughters of Cecil, the ill-fated lion killed in Hwange by that American dentist.
Over the coming days we spend our nights in luxury at Camelthorn Lodge, built by Imvelo, not in the national park but just outside on community lands where rents and revenues go to the community. On one day we cross the Ngamo Plains on horseback, on another we crouch inside a half-buried shipping container, watching as 20 elephants drink from a watering hole a few metres away. From here I can smell their musky breath.
On our last day we hitch our final ride, this time on the Elephant Express, an open-sided railcar repurposed for game viewing by the ever resourceful Butch. "If you're after a checklist of animals, you can go anywhere in Africa," says Butch, handing around pink G&Ts as a herd of giraffe lope past. "But if you want the best experience come to Hwange."
Qantas flies from Sydney to Johannesburg (Melbourne passengers must fly to Sydney first) with connecting flights to Victoria Falls. See qantas.com
Bench Africa offers an 11-day Wildlife and Waterfall Rail Safari beginning at Zambezi Sands River Camp before travelling on the Stimela Star to Hwange National Park where you have seven days staying at Camelthorn and Nehimba lodges. Prices start from $8290 per person including most meals, local drinks, overnight train and game viewing. See benchafrica.com.au phone 1300 237 422
Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of Bench Africa and Imvelo Safari Lodges.