The British Empire Library

Sitimela: A History of the Zambesi Saw Mills Logging Railway 1911-1972

by Geof M Calvert

Courtesy of OSPA

Graham Roberts (Engineer, Zambesi Saw Mills 1970-76)
The book's title, Sitimela (pronounced S 'timela, the siLozi for "train"), will be familiar to those who know Barotseland in Zambia, and it was there, in the Zambesi Teak Forests, that the author Geof Calvert worked from 1961 to 1964. Geof had joined the Northern Rhodesia Forest Department as a Learner Forester in 1957, and transferred to the teak forests when the opportunity arose. He became fascinated with the logging railway that served Zambesi Saw Mills, and since that time has collected photographs and both written and oral records of the company, especially its railway, culminating in this book - a labour of love for over 40 years.

Zambesi Saw Mills was founded in Livingstone, and its origins go back to 1911. Based upon the extraction of Zambesi Teak for conversion to railway sleepers, mining timbers, furniture and flooring, its area of operations extended from Livingstone to Sesheke, Kataba and Mulobezi in the Barotse Province of Zambia; forests were also exploited south of the Zambesi River, east of Victoria Falls. Initially, haulage of the timber was by ox-wagons and river barges, later followed by a 2-foot gauge wooden tramway, which was superseded in 1924 by a standard South African 3'6" Cape gauge railway line using an eclectic mixture of steam locomotives. The author describes how the company developed from a simple advert in the Livingstone Mail to becoming one of the largest industries in Zambia, second only to the mines, with its logging railway claimed to be "the longest privately owned railway in the world".

Apart from its historical importance, the book is enjoyable for a lovely blend of drawings, contemporary advertisements and old photographs (mostly black and white, but four pages are in colour). I particularly like Geof s whimsical drawings, and David Shepherd's two sketches which capture the essence of "track gangers resting in Situmpa forest". The book is essential for students of colonial railway history, but it will also be appreciated by those who have lived and worked in the African bush.

British Empire Book
Geof M Calvert
Barotse Development Trust


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