Saturday Star, 16 July 2005

Often it’s not wise to revisit places where you’ve had a good time. It’s better just to keep the memory intact. But Maputo today is as magical as it was on our last visit 35 years ago. Jazz musicians, ranging in age from 18 to 65, make fantastic sounds in the mosaic-tiled rooms of a 100-year-old railway station. The locals drink beer and vinho verde, clapping and tapping their feet.

Dark-eyed senoritas laugh and flirt as they sway to infectious rhythms. This is not the Buena Vista Social Club in old Havana but Maputo, over the border down Mozambique way. We, the pleasure-seeking passengers on the Shongololo Express, are the first tourists to find this gem of a place, a pub with no name. It opened only yesterday and is a safe walk from our hotel on wheels, the refurbished Rhodesian Railways train that carried the British royal family around southern Africa in 1947.

This grand old lady, fitted out in teak, is appropriately berthed for the weekend in the exquisite semi-deserted floodlit Maputo Railway station, designed by Frenchman Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame. Willy-nilly, my mind flashes back 35 years to my first visit to Mozambique – the days of Lourenço Marques, Portuguese steak sandwiches at the Polana pool, sharing piri-piri prawns and Laurentina beer with sailors and their girls in the infamous Penguin dockside club. For conservative Vaalies, it was like another planet.

Now here we are, a group of adventurers from all walks of life, spanning 18 to 80 years of age. A merry group of friends who have dressed the part get the party going. Their ringleader Alan Louw says, “We’ve been doing this every year for 20 years. We decide on a destination, then off we go!”

Young and old, we’re having the time of our lives listening to a fusion of jazz, Afro-Portuguese and popular music, after an afternoon touring Maputo, which is an amazing multi-cultural city. After years of devastation, there’s an upbeat feel to the capital, the same air .of hope and prosperity that pervades the country in general.

After falling victim to droughts, floods and wars, it has regained the old laid-back air and its resilient citizens are taking up where they left off and mapping out a happier future. The forward-looking government appreciates the link between tourism and the economy. South Africans no longer need visas. All the large South African companies and stores are here, occupying big modern buildings. The old ones are showing signs of revival against a backdrop of tropical vegetation, bougainvillea and blue skies.

The produce market, touted as Africa’s oldest commercial market, hasn’t changed: nor have its tropical flavors and fragrances. Expect to see heaps of shimmering prawns and silver sardines, baskets piled high with tomatoes, shiny green peppers and mounds of cashew nuts. We found carvings, pottery and pictures and they were the real thing, not tourist tat.

The city’s past is linked to its present by monuments, cathedrals, historical sites. Forts and statuary are somehow not boring because of the tropical feel. Bright skies, balmy sea air and exotic sights go well together. The Shongololo Express has a clever concept. British and European tourists have been doing their southern African train tours for years. Our train was the Southern Cross.

Six Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 12-seater buses are on board, pulled along on flat-bed trailers. So we sleep on the train, wake up in a new place, hop onto the buses and go sightseeing with our own experienced guides. We were on the short Thursday- to-Sunday Maputo trip, but the 16-day journeys traverse all the neighboring countries. The train travels mostly at night, so you could wake up at Victoria Falls, Sossusvlei, Kruger or Hwange national park, Kariba, Chobe …

Train travel is incredibly exciting. Most of us hadn’t slept on one for 35 years. Some of the younger people had never ridden on one. Right at the start, in Johannesburg, my heart leapt when the train creaked and jolted forward. Then the clickety-clack, swaying coaches, a soulful hoot as we stopped at a siding.It’s almost organic, with a life of its own, particularly at night. The rumble of the wheels and things that go bump in the night. It’s comforting to be part of this huge benign creature.

Then there is the activity of lurching along the passage, squeezing past fellow travelers, laughing, meeting in the lounge or pub for a drink – all part of the fun. We even had our own brilliant entertainer, Jacques Lagesse.

We enjoyed superb food in the elegant dining car, produced by our resident chef Paul Gutu, and Swiss-trained guest chef Phillip Fishpon. It was a miracle how they created delicious cordon bleu meals for 70 people.One of the treats of capsule travel is that no one can get at you. You have no responsibilities and inhabit your own little world. You can sleep and read the day away as a never-ending movie show slides by. I didn’t realize the beauty of the Mozambican bush and countryside. Rivers, streams, mountains. A bird’s-eye view of straggling villages, huts and small children by the hundreds.

We drove north from Maputo for a day at the beach. Busy markets and roadside stalls lined the road for 30km. Here we had a glimpse of the Mozambican entrepreneurs at their busiest and most innovative.

Freshly baked bread, carved doors, building materials, bright plastic funeral wreaths. There’s a vibe of energy and industry here, but also heart-rending poverty, beggars, urchins, shoulder-to-shoulder huts and shacks – a poignant sight, repeated along many of the roads.

We rode on a cheerful little blue ferryboat along the Nkomati River towards the sea, the bright sun smiling on green reeds, golden sands and flocks of waterbirds.

Time works differently in Mozambique, so our lunch was late. But this gave us plenty of opportunity to explore the beaches, watch the fishermen, loll about and swim. The whole experience reminded me of Inhaca 35 years ago: few home comforts – but then we’d have a heavenly day’s snorkeling on the tropical reef or picnic on a deserted island. This time round, we sampled traditional restaurants and pubs but also had a stunning banquet on the lawns of the Holiday Inn – which must be the most impressive of its kind in the world, with its Mediterranean architecture, towering palm trees and sea view.

While this is not The Blue Train or the Palace on Wheels, we’d recommend the Emerald or Gold cabin: both have private facilities. The Ivory accommodation is more like a regular train compartment with beds and shared modernized ablutions.

The public carriages – lounge, dining room, pub, smokers’ carriage – are all nicely refurbished with elegant decor … and another thing about train travel: wherever you go, you won’t have to unpack. Train travel and Maputo are everything they used to be … only better.

The Shongololo Express has different excursions to seven countries on the southern African continent: South Africa , Namibia , Mozambique , Botswana , Swaziland , Zambia and Zimbabwe.

By Sylvia Gill