Sunday Times, 07 November 2004

ROMANTIC TRAIN JOURNEYS ARE HOT tourist favorites, and Henk Rossouw found that Maputo is the perfect destination.

Aboard the Southern Cross I can stretch out on my bunk, and, through the cross hairs of my feet against the cabin window, watch the world pass by.

I am a traveler who would rent a hotel room in the same street as my house merely for the pleasure of packing my life into a small bag. Many of my fondest memories of travel over the years are no more than the hotel room itself. The Ibis, with a view of the thousand hills of Rwanda, while listening to the street murmuring below my balcony; The President, in Botswana, where I lay in bed watching the desert sun make patterns on the pure white sheets. And even the Quality Inn, in Florida, where the Cuban maid had tuned the alarm radio to the island music she longed for, while cleaning the room, and the next morning I leapt out of bed, a rare occurrence for me at 6am, to find myself dancing a bareback rumba on the linoleum floor.

So, what greater pleasure then than escaping the Highveld winter and traveling to Maputo, that city of soft consonants and warm breezes, in a moving hotel room. Aboard the Southern Cross, on a four-day train trip over 1000km, I can stretch out on my bunk, and, through the cross hairs of my feet against the cabin window, watch the world pass me by.

When I embark at Park Station, Johannesburg, I dawdle at my foldaway table, taking great satisfaction in describing the cabin in my notebook. The interior is polished teak, as wide as my arms out-stretched, high enough for me to stand, and the bunk bed is as long as my six-foot frame. First-class passengers may have tables and plush chairs in their cabins, but my cubby-hole is a perfect fit, like an eggcup for my soul.

The carriage was built in Sheffield, England, in 1951, and so the brass handles have the patina of a thousand journeys before mine. Twist one of the handles and a hatch opens up on either side of the roof to let in the breeze. Pictures hang in the cabin of steam trains, but it’s not the only anachronism. “Please Do Not Expectorate”, says the first rule on a Victorian list on the wall, a relic from the carriage’s heyday; “RR”, Rhodesian Railways, is still embossed on the glass.

I declare my independence and spit into a basin in the corner. Voila! Still, the basin is my favorite object in my cabin, a happy marriage between a water fountain and a milk can. Turn the spigot on, fold the basin upright on its hinge and the water flows out onto the rails below. Finally, I pull up the slatted shutter by its wrinkled leather strap so that when I wake up in the morning the first thing I’ll see is bars of sunlight against the teak walls.

The train leaves in the evening, and rides through the night. Since 1895, trains have taken the same route across the high plateau of the Witwatersrand and through the Lebombo Mountains, after Paul Kruger laid down enough track to meet his Portuguese allies at Ressano Garcia, on the edge of the escarpment.

After dinner, I lie flat on my back, listening to the click of the wheels on the rail, a steel lullaby. They say a rocking train is excellent for the digestion, but the journey to the sea wasn’t always this easy. In 1838, Louis Trichardt trekked from the Highveld to what was then a languid ivory trading post on Delagoa Bay. A bronze monument in Maputo marks the failure of the Boer Republics to thwart the British and find their own outlet to the sea. Realizing too late that only a steam-powered ox would survive the tsetse fly, most of Trichardt’s span had died on the coast.

When I pull up the shutter in the morning, the train is perched on the lip of a valley, and I can see women washing clothes in the Incomati River below us. The train has skirted the southern boundary of the Kruger Park and stopped at Ressano Garcia, before descending to the coast. Here, after years of war, Samora Machel tried to negotiate an end to South Africa’s support of Renamo while on board a carriage, at the junction where the two railways meet. Is a train safer? Either way, in 1986, Machel’s plane crashed not far away, in the mountains.

As the train chugs across the coastal plain, so flat it seems endless, we pass a few colonial-era homesteads open to the sky, their roofs long collapsed. They are forgotten, like statues of a mayor whose name no-one can remember. Along the journey, at almost every station, there are abandoned railcars, some so old there are trees growing through their rusted floors and out the glassless windows. It reminds me of the aringas, 19th century forts of living trees that Mozambican bandit chiefs made by building walls from green timber, which took root and proved almost impossible to breach, even with cannon.

Later, in the smoking lounge, I sit alongside an elderly woman called Eileen, who looks out the window and notices one of the empty houses. About 60 years old, she wears gold lamé shoes, a plastic flower tucked behind her ear, and aviator sunglasses.

“It’s derelict, isn’t it?” she says.

“Yes,” I say. “It is.”

She pauses for a moment, then asks, “What happened to them?”

“The Portuguese? They went back to Portugal,” I say.

“Oh,” she says, then pauses.

“I like their nation,” she says suddenly. “All my staff are Portuguese.”

I assume she is talking about her servants, but actually she owns a backyard company that makes soccer nets. I grow fond of this wild, happy grandmother: every morning, she emerges from her cabin in a new muumuu dress in the colours of cocktail umbrellas, decorated neck to toe with gold thread, buttons, and sequins.

But Eileen is by no means the oddest-looking passenger on board the Southern Cross. A travel agent’s husband has yellow eyes, eyelashes as long as Dietrich, and a leaping tiger on his silk shirt. And Eileen keeps confusing me with Darrel Bristow-Bovey, another journalist on the train, who, like a pious Muslim (but with a beer can), wears his djellaba from Egypt.

The train arrives at Estaçao Maputo around noon. Built a century ago, the two-story station is painted white and green, with latticed balconies, and a row of rustling palms guarding the steps. The cold war history of Mozambique is still written on the wall: next to a red star, the paint now fading, is the Russian word locomotive.

Alongside, on the rails, a pair of blue worker’s overalls are drying in the sun. Children play in the empty carriages, and a group of old men have pulled together the iron benches on the platform so they can laugh in a circle.

At the centre of Estaçao Maputo is a high bronze dome, designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1910, and now green with age. “If only they would clean it once in a while,” mutters an American tourist, wearing a giant khaki cabbage. What would she suggest, Brasso?

They, they, they, who are “they” exactly? The best way to find out is to stroll the boulevards of Maputo. “Don’t get mugged,” the tour guide warns my departing back when I ask to be let off the bus, alone. Unfortunately for her, “they” are every-where: coiffed women crossing their legs at pavement cafes, boys selling bottles of nail polish perfectly arranged according to shade on meter-long planks drilled with holes, mamas in long capulanas, their hips rolling like ships at sea. Later, a crowd of matronly cloth sellers wrap their arms around my shoulders – the flap of my bag is open, my wallet visible – because they want to see a photograph of my wife better, because they are Mozambicans, because in this city, where few speak English, touch is a language.

Wandering the streets of downtown Maputo, my neck starts aching from staring up. The best of the city’s architecture is closer to the sky than the pavement: a balcony with gables like a pair of wings, an abstract mural in the colours of the sea spread out across the east wall of a vast apartment block, and the Art Deco façade of a jazz club. Most of all, I am entranced by the city’s signage, in fonts from the 1920s. Almost every building has a beautiful sounding word painted on it, like the Bilheteira cinema, or bright plastic letters running vertically down the side, like Alinha Portuguesa.

Keeping my face skyward is how I become lucky enough to notice, through rows of slits in the steeple, a spiral staircase winding up to the top of the Praça da Indepencia cathedral. I dash into the glistening white church, and begin climbing 413 stairs, round and round and round.

Halfway up, it leads outside onto the curved roof. Another spiral staircase continues up into the bell tower, but the doors are locked. Nonchalantly, I look down and check that the caretaker is still sweeping, his head bowed, before examining the lock. It’s a double door, with a Yale lock, opening outwards. The guilt of breaking into a church sets my heart beating as I give the door a good jerk. It springs open, and I run up the stairs, inside the belly of the clock. The ticking of the gears knocks the word “hurry” against my ears. I am terrified that the hour hand will reach the four, and that the giant iron bells, so close they brush against my shoulders, will knock me off the stairs.

I climb, and climb, above the clock, until I reach the slits in the tower, where a view of the city unfolds before me. Higher up, the stairs stop altogether, and a narrow ladder leads into the cone of the steeple, which is decorated with small squares of stained glass. From the street outside the squares look black because there is no source of light in the steeple. How very Catholic! The only way to experience the wonder of the afternoon light streaming through the coloured glass is from the inside, perched on a rusting ladder.

Near the cathedral is the Casa do Ferro, also designed by Eiffel, a two-story house with a balcony made entirely from rectangular steel plates bolted together, from floor to ceiling. Dating from the early 20th century, the iron house tells the story of the boom years that overran sleepy Lourenço Marques after the arrival of the railway from Johannesburg. Overnight, the city became the closest port for the Witwatersrand, and, on the journey back, one of the largest sources of black labour for the gold mines.

Opposite the iron house a team of road workers take a break, sitting on the stairs in the shadow of Machel’s statue, their dust masks raised on top of their heads, all eating from blue lunch tins. These days, Maputo has returned to its languorous self, and it’s only after midnight that the city truly awakes, on its dance floors.

The next day, after sleeping on the stationary train, I take a ferry across the bay to the Catembe peninsula. The wind blowing gently through the pine trees on the beach sounds sweetly melancholic. All along the shore families are catching fish with nets, taking advantage of the slack tide. I sit down in the sand to watch, and a stray dog curls up at my feet, as if this were my stoep.

First, the men take the piled-up net out into the bay on a wooden boat, feeding it into the sea in a looping circle until they reach the shore again. Then, everyone old enough to stand begins pulling the net onto shore. A girl, about nine years old, scampers around their feet, coiling the rope up in a neat mound. As they pull the catch onto the beach, the women hold up a fine net between two poles, to trap the prawns jumping high in the air. A girl grabs the handful of kingfish in the net, and places them straight on the waiting coals.

As evening comes, a feeling of content-met passes over me. It’s as if the fisherman families going home, their voices drifting over the dunes, the skyline of Maputo lighting up across the bay, and the endless horizon of the Indian Ocean were all inside my hotel room. I am ready to unpack my bag, here on the sand, and not leave.

When I take the diesel ferry back to Maputo, where the train is waiting, it’s not the first time I’ve traveled across the bay, after a long day on the beach, nor will it be the last time. Five years ago, at night, I watched 50 village women in capulanas twisting and stamping in a circle on the deck of this ferry, while singing to the stars. If travel is a search for a home that can’t be reached, I know I will keep coming back to this city by the sea, arms outstretched.