The Little Town That Could

Umniati River in flood with the new bridge under construction

Umniati River in flood with the new bridge under construction

The Little Town That Could 

The Beira and Mashonaland Railway Company completed the rail link south between Salisbury and the Globe and Phoenix Station, later called Que Que, in 1901. The link to Bulawayo was completed a year later. Now coal fired boilers could be introduced on the Globe and Phoenix Mine, meat to the market and women arrived in Que Que.  The daily passenger trains from Bulawayo and Salisbury still passed through Que Que, at the ungodly hours of one and two am respectively a half-century later.

The Little Town That Could

In January of 1953 clouds hung low and heavy like wet blotting paper while thunder rumbled ominously across the sodden land.  The heavens opened and torrential rain for the eighth day bucketed down.

Riverbeds that had been sandy wastes for the past two years were now raging torrents, carrying away precious topsoil, uprooted trees and the bloated carcasses of cattle and goats.  Roads were impassable in many places. The railway bridge over the Umniati River, linking Que Que to Gatooma and the towns to the north, collapsed.

Holidaymakers were returning home in time for the new school term. Behind the hissing Garratt steam engine passengers looked anxiously out of rain-streaked windows.

“What do we do now?”

“How long before the bridge will be repaired?”

“We are pretty low on cash.”

Dad, was mayor.  He reassured the crowd on the platform, “We’ll make things as easy for you as we can.  The railway engineers and their gang are already on the job.”

A rota system was organized.  The large kitchen at the boarding school was opened.  The Red Cross provided food; the Women’s Institute brought hot meals to the elderly on the train as well as magazines and books.  The ladies stayed to chat and give cheer to the worried folk.

The school bus ferried groups of passengers to the school for meals.

The welfare bus took others to the mine shower block for a hot shower.  Soap and towels were provided.

The Globe and Phoenix Mine Compound Manager, pith helmeted A. J. Liebenberg, cranked his car into high gear and arranged housing and food for the third and forth class African passengers at the First Aid Pavilion.

Much to the Hirsch children’s consternation, their home at #1 Silver Oaks Road was opened to families with young children, who had the run of the very large, long verandah.  They had use of our toys!  My Rosebud dolls suffered broken limbs and  torn clothes.  Brian’s Meccano set lost nuts and bolts, levers and gears and David’s golliwog disappeared altogether.   Mom was impervious to our complaints.  How could we be so selfish?

Our commodious kitchen was opened to mothers with babies to feed and bottles to sterilize late into the night.

Stranded motorists occupied all the rooms at Sloman’s Que Que Hotel.  Mattresses were put down in the lounge to accommodate the overflow.  Homeowners opened up their homes as well.  One family had measles.  Dad found a similar family in town.  All were sick together.

Teperson and Malkow’s Midlands Bakery did a roaring trade sending their “boys” down in their plastic capes with trays of hot sausage rolls, meat pies, chips and sticky buns for sale.

Mr. Kluckow of  Vernon’s Café, not to be outdone, provided enamel jugs of hot coffee and tea, packets of biscuits, sweets and Willards chips, as well as cigarettes and matches.

The Medical Officer of Health did a splendid job with sanitary pails.

Telephone lines were down, but news still came over the wireless at six in the evening.  A daily bulletin was posted on the station notice board chronicling progress on the damaged bridge.  Bets were laid.  The town’s rallying to the stranded passengers plight and the cheerfulness of all was catching.  A festive air developed.  Soccer matches and other games were played on the platform.

Extra food and hot drinks in thermoses were sent to the hard working railway engineers and their gang.  Ribald jokes were shouted across the turbulent river to folk on the far side who had come to watch the river and monitor progress.

After four days the bridge was deemed safe.  The Garratt was unhooked, the fire stoked.  Smoke rose in the soggy air.  With a few optimistic hoots the engine rumbled its way out of sight to test the bridge on its own.

For what seemed like eternity the swelling crowds waited and listened for the returning Garratt.  Youngsters put their ears to the line…then they heard it: the engine’s whistle, a whistle of success.

The whole town turned out to bid farewell to the passengers.  Dad wore his red robe with its ermine collar and mayoral gold chain.  There were tears of happiness and relief.  The most enthusiastic cheers were from the three Hirsch kids.

In response, the spokesman for the passengers concluded “Que Que is the little town with the golden heart, the little town that could.”

A big thank you to Eileen Underwood of New Zealand for this picture of the Umniati River and to Dora Dunkley (Candy) for details.








  • betty

    Reply Reply February 18, 2012

    Your best narrative yet, with excellent descriptions and a feeling of accomplishment, team spirit, and excitement….
    I know the feeling of despair…when we were part of the great evacutation of Houston before Hurricae Rita hit….no water, food , gasoline, toilets for 28 hours as we plodded toward Waco, with no hope of finding a pump with gas….one of the top 3 horrors of my entire life! Bully for Que-Que for rising to the occasion and giving people hope!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply February 18, 2012

      Betty, you said it all. I think people do rise to the occasion when the chips are down. Its a pretty universal story. I can just imagine Houston’s I 10 with 3 million people exiting north….must have been a nightmare! Diana

  • Avi Gonen

    Reply Reply February 19, 2012

    This story reminds me of my family’s experience.
    I don’t remember the year but we were traveling from Sby to QQ to visit my grandparents – the Pauls, as we did a few times a year.
    We took the train as the weather threatened all motor transportation as the road bridges were much lower than the train crossings.
    There were two trains that plied the SBY-BYO route – the express which passed trough QQ around midnight and the local (which stopped at all the stations on the way) and arrived at a “normal” hour. So we were on the local.
    From the station we would walk up to the Paul’s shop / house from the station.
    This time the rain was so intensive that even the rail bridges were flooded and we were stranded somewhere between Gatooma and QQ, between the Sebakwe and Umnyati rivers.
    The rail staff came along the train and said that we would have to wait for the waters to go down, and then if the bridges were passable, we would transfer to the express which would go by sometime in the middle of the night.

    The sun woke us up in the morning, and also waoke up the train staff who fell asleep and didn’t stop the express. Meanwhile the Sebakwe bridge became impossible and all that was keft was for us to “change into reverse” and go back to Sby.

    We never made it to QQ.

    PS AJ Liebenberg was my cousin Dora (Cissy) and my uncle. His pith hat was his trade mark!

    Avi Gonen

    Kibbutz Ein Hashofet


    • Diana

      Reply Reply February 19, 2012

      Avi, Yes, I just was looking at the 16 mm cine film last night. The floods of 1953 washed away a good section of the rail bridge over the Umniati. (and of course the road bridge beside it was totally underwater). It shows the frantic construction work to repair it as fast as possible. I will get some of these historic footages transferred digitally and post them to the blog soon. Those were the days. Typical of the train staff to fall asleep on the job!
      Thanks for sharing the experience.
      My dad had a great regard for AJ. Dad taught him to do all sorts of procedures at the native clinic…take x-rays, serve as anesthetist and so on which were not in his job description. Diana

  • Jenny Swift nee Waymark

    Reply Reply February 19, 2012

    Di, is this your BLOG that is wonderful, am so excited with all the stories. Well done. Jenny Swift (nee Waymark)

    • Diana

      Reply Reply February 19, 2012

      Yes, I am glad you are enjoying it. I have been doing it for over 90 weeks…browse the old ones and send me a picture and or story to broaden the scope.

    • Mike Stephens

      Reply Reply July 1, 2013

      Is this the Jenny Swift of KWEKWE – Bembezaan area?

      • Diana

        Reply Reply July 1, 2013

        Yes, Jenny Swift (nee Waymark) of Rhodesdale.

  • Val Barbour

    Reply Reply February 22, 2012

    My mom Mirle Atkinson used to catch that 2am train to get to Salisbury in time to go to Ikibana lessons (Japanese flower arranging.) I used to fetch her, feed her and take her to her lesson, then back again the next morning!
    Val Atkinson Barbour

    • Diana

      Reply Reply February 22, 2012

      Val, So glad you are still with me! Yes, everyone was dependent on the train for one reason or another. It was our lifeline to the outside, more sophisticated world. Diana

  • Frances Grant

    Reply Reply March 13, 2012

    Great story about Que Que and the flood of 1953. Just a typical example of what we Rhodesian/Zimbabweans have always been capable of doing. “MAKING A PLAN”

    • Diana

      Reply Reply March 14, 2012

      Frances, Agree! Everyone shared the notion that we could “Build a Nation”.

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