A train journey through Palestine to Egypt, 1945

Bill Garrett

"There followed the most colourful and picturesque journey one could dream of as the little rail led the train down towards Galilee. On the one side the hills and even the narrow ledge carrying the rails were covered in grasses and wild flowers, while on the other was a sheer drop to a racing turbulent river below. Beyond the river the hills rose precipitous and beautiful forming a deep valley leading down to Galilee that was a floral delight for travellers. Rattling away downhill the heights seemed to grow and the narrow river came nearer. Looking forward I saw a narrow spider's web of a bridge spanning the river far below it and the train turned on to it following an incredibly tight turn in the rails causing the wheels to grind ominously and the little carriages to lurch and shudder. Crossing the bridge, all that could be seen of it from a passenger's viewpoint was a shadow on the tumbling waters below.

Stopped at a halt on the way down, there was a pause for a goods train labouring up from Tiberias loaded with oranges in bulk. The delicious aroma of fresh fruit came up with it and filled the valley. The line cleared by its passing, our little engine steamed onwards and at a lower level was delayed by a dozen goats grazing on the ledge. Angrily the driver banged his fist on the side of his cabin and one by one the goats stepped off the rails and teetered perilously on the brink of the abyss while the train steamed slowly by. After the most delightful stretch of rail travel I ever hope to enjoy we arrived in Tiberias station with a glimpse of the sea of Galilee on our right.

The whole station and its goods sidings smelt only of oranges. The goods trains seemed to carry nothing else. Oranges were spilt everywhere. Moving on towards Haifa, the train treated us to a view of Palestine's rural plenty. Miles of flat productive farmland reeled by and as we approached a level crossing a group of people waved to the driver who dutifully stopped the train to allow them to climb aboard. The waiting passengers included an Arab woman with a calf which, with a little help, was persuaded to travel by rail. Perhaps it was market day in Haifa. It was a delightful little railway.

Journey's end for the day was a transit camp in Haifa with sound buildings, good sound beds, the Mediterranean sea on one side and Mount Carmel on the other. No travel had been arranged for the next day so we were able to visit Haifa. Whatever happened at the rifle meeting, we were enjoying the journey to it.

The town was dominated by its waterfront and it bustled with noisy activity. There were many very modern buildings and broad thoroughfares that contrasted starkly with its ancient origins. The sea inevitably aroused old desires to set sail across it and return to our native shores. This desire for home was growing apace in all of us. Migratory birds respond to it by spreading their wings.

Wednesday April 4th saw us bidding farewell to Haifa in mid-afternoon as we boarded the train, a full-sized normal gauge train, for Cairo. The coaches seemed huge and luxurious after the little trains we had patronised and it rolled in full majesty through the orange groves, stopping at Lydda and Gaza as darkness descended and we contemplated how to snatch a little sleep. There were so many passengers, room to stretch out was a premium. Our coach contained a number of young Palestinian sailors. Palestine was still British Mandated territory and boasted a navy with a gunboat or two. They too desired to sleep and unpacked their hammocks and strung them across the coach hung on the luggage racks. Some lay on the luggage racks and others in the central corridor. British servicemen, not being equipped with hammocks, curled up on the floor or on the seats or joined the Palestinians on the luggage racks which were grossly overloaded. Some of us formed a card school and played into the early hours with hammocks swinging heavily over our heads. A good soldier, it is said, does not stand up when he can sit down and only sits down when unable to lie down. The Haifa to Cairo train as it rumbled across the Sinai desert during the darkest hours was full of such good soldiers.

The onset of dawn provided a diversion that was bizarre.

Two Military Policemen appeared through the door at one end of the coach and shouted, in voices designed to wake the dead, 'Come on, let's have you - baggage search.'

Despite a chorus of indignant protests, they stepped between the kitbags and sleeping bodies, shaking one and all to rouse them. It was the Palestinians they were seeking. They were compelled to turn out of their hammocks or off the luggage racks and empty their kitbags. Proof of British nationality gave immunity from a search but not to being trodden on or partly buried in Palestinian undergarments. The Redcaps were searching for hashish. They worked their way through the coach and disappeared without finding any and the scene they left behind them was like a mad hallucination.

The train halted at Kantara. It was April 5th and we were back in Egypt."

'A Private Viewing' by William Garrett