This article was copied from Tree Life Vol. 284 October 2003


Many people may be unaware of Zimbabwe’s old Railway plantations, which date back to the late 1920s and early 1930s. From AH Croxton’s Railways of Rhodesia, published by David & Charles (ISBN 07153 602S6) we learn that the then General Manager of the Beira Mashonaland Railway, Col Birney, decided in 1926 that it would be advantageous to plant trees alongside the railway line near ganger’s cottages in Matabeleland with the object of growing timber for railway needs. The planting was done by Pat Judson, son of the Pioneer, Col Dan Judson of Mazowe Patrol fame. Pat Judson had gained a diploma in forestry at Potchefstroom Agricultural College under the Returned Soldiers’ Scheme after World War I. He was later to make his name as an early Rhodesian pilot of light passenger planes.

The plantations, mainly of eucalypts, “were soon to become a pleasing break in the monotonous sand veld with its low scrub between Heany and Gwelo.”

Robin Taylor, who supplied me with this information, also said that the Railways planted various species of eucalypts in 2-acre experimental plots for timber and for wagon construction. The plantings were done near six gangers’ cottages between Bulawayo and Gwelo, and six cottages or water tanks between Gwelo and Fort Victoria, and it was said that “the trees would remove the barren aspects of long stretches of line, and provide travellers with a pleasant view of well-ordered activity”.

How well these plantations met the objective of providing timber for wagon construction is something I don’t know, but I suspect that little came of that. I remember these plantations very well from my days of travelling the “School Train” between Fort Vic and Salisbury in the 1940s. The branch line between Fort Vic and Gwelo covered a distance of some 165 km, and it took all day to travel it, 8 am to about 5 pm. It really was a tedious journey, and gave rise to multifarious, non-scholarly activities such as smoking. One of the things I remember particularly about this six-times-a-year train journey was that the engines were partly wood-fired. They would pick up a load of eucalypt logs at the periodic stops for water at the overhead water tanks, and these would be used in conjunction with coal to fire the engines. I did travel on the school train between Bulawayo and Salisbury a few times, but this was a much faster train with Garret engines, and there were no stops to take on firewood. However, goods trains might have done so.

Many years later, during my Forestry Commission days, I did have the opportunity of inspecting one of the railway plantations-the fairly large one at Lochard Siding where the main road crosses through the plantation-and what a hotchpotch of Eucalyptus species! From memory there were E. tereticornis (the most common), E. camaldulensis, E. citriodoraE. sideroxylonE. paniculata/siderophloia (these two are inextricably mixed in Zimbabwe), and the odd E. grandisE. botryoidesE. polyanthemosE. crebra, and E. melliodora. This mixture of very hard and moderately soft timbers makes it almost certain that the plantations were ultimately put to use for very little other than firewood, whether for the railway engines or for the old ganger’s cottages. Do gangers still exist on the Railways?

During the 1980s the Forestry Commission’s Research & Development Division looked very seriously at locating some if its dry-zone species and provenance trials, and progeny tests, within the railway reserves, and the Railways Management indicated an interest in the proposal. Such trials would have been conducted over a very wide range of site conditions close to various sidings where there was a Railway presence for security and protection. In the event the idea was eventually shelved.

So, if you have ever noticed and wondered about the plantations that still exist within the railway reserves, that is the story-or at least a good part of it. My thanks to Robin Taylor for supplying the information that has made this note possible.

Lyn Mullin