Leonard Ncube in Victoria Falls
EXPRESSING talent is a hobby for many people while commercialising it is a rare ability of the few.
Mr Marthinus Nel (55), a diesel mechanic by profession based in Bulawayo, belongs to this unique bracket of talented entrepreneurs who smell opportunity when others see problems.
His is a story of an engineer with a passion for tourism, one who sought to use his professional skills to develop a product that contributes economic value to his hobby — travelling.
Recently, Mr Marthinus launched the Zambezi Tram in Victoria Falls, which he built from scratch at a cost of $140 000, probably making him the first Zimbabwean to ever make such a development in years.
The four-cylinder diesel engine machine, has an eight speed power shaft-four forward and four reverse and control decks on both ends and carries tourists to the Victoria Falls Bridge and Rainforest.
It can clock 80km per hour and can carry 30 passengers at one go. Its benches face one direction but can be tilted to face the opposite direction.
Mr Nel runs the business with his wife Cheryl (45), and the couple has attracted the attention of other countries who are interested in importing the model tram, which can bring the much needed revenue and create more employment.
“I already got some inquiries from operators in South Africa who want the trams. They want me to build a tram and export to South Africa,” said Mr Nel.
He said he was waiting for confirmation of the order and was likely to start working on the tram in the first quarter of the year.
“A South African company wants to sell the trams on our behalf in the neighbouring country and I guess that’ll be good for Bulawayo and the country as we make our contribution to Zim-Asset. If opportunity presents itself we should use our skills,” said Mr Nel.
The 30-seater Zambezi Tram started operating in the last half of December 2016 after Mr Nel completed it in October last year.
He said he started working on the tram in December 2015 and completed it in October the following year.
“We started talking about it in November 2015 with Cheryl and we held meetings with the National Railways of Zimbabwe to see if we could get a licence.
“We reached an agreement in December 2015 and started gathering pieces of metal. We acquired the rest of the equipment locally while only the engine was imported from South Africa,” said Mr Nel.
The Nel family, which now employs 12 permanent workers and scores of contract individuals, operates another similar service in the Ngamo area where a tram carries tourists in the game park.
“We started the business in 1992 as Nel Car and Technical Services in Belmont, Bulawayo. We also run Elephant Express, which operates in Dete and Ngamo Forest areas. That was our first experience,” said Mr Nel.
The Zambezi Tram enters a market that has not been tendered for a long time following the demise of the Victoria Falls Steam Train Company, which folded and was liquidated because of debts. Mr Nel said his idea was to enter the market and offer a permanent service.
“We got to know about the previous tram that was here and thought we could replace it and bring good fortunes to tourism in Victoria Falls,” he told Business Chronicle.
Tourists already love the Zambezi Tram.
“We completed it in October and drove over two days from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. It’s not designed for high speed hence we spent two nights, stopping at lodges as a marketing strategy,” added Mr Nel.
To make an impression into the market, the Zambezi Tram company took tour industry managers on a trial run recently.
The tram is fitted with a PA system from where a guide makes announcements and explanations to clients along the way.
The tram drive is one experience not to miss, with open sides fitted with slide safety ropes with a roof for protection against direct sun and rain.
It runs three daily trips in the morning, afternoon and evening depending on the NRZ schedule. A single drive costs $70 for adults while children pay half the price with those aged below three years riding free of charge.
A festive season special of $50 for adults ended on January 5.
Cheryl, who manages the business, said they looked forward to increasing the volume of tourist rides in the course of the year.
“We have been marketing through social media and some pamphlets. Recently, we took managers on a ride and we have applied to Trip Advisor to have the tram service added as we believe there is going to be more people coming into the country,” she said.
“The festive season is usually a quiet period in terms of business because a majority of tourists are locals who don’t do much of such activities and we expect international numbers to start swelling in March.”
Cheryl said the tram can run its scheduled trips even with two passengers as they are still marketing.
The guide, Mr Aaron Ndlovu, said clients were enjoying the ride. He said they were trying to reach out to locals especially couples doing weddings.
“This is a different activity altogether. A tram was a mode of transport from 1903 and it’s like we are simply reliving that.
“It’s so unique because of the open sides which gives clients a clear view of nature and the surrounding,” said Mr Ndlovu.
He said visitors enjoy viewing wildlife such as bushbucks, elephants, impalas, guinea fouls and sometimes hippos.