Travelling by train within South Africa can be a great,safe and relaxing way to see the magnificent scenery. But don't expect everything to be plain sailing.
Cape Town beckons.
When travelling in South Africa, a visit to Cape Town is a must. However you will almost certainly need to arrange travel between Johannesburg, South Africa's central hub, and the wondrous city of the Western Cape. A number of budget airlines ply this route, enabling you to slip seamlessly from one gleaming international airport to the next. However, if you are looking for a truly memorable journey, and you don't mind a few attendant hassles, then take the slow train.
Which train and where to begin?
Any traveller of unlimited means should take " Rovos Rail" a two night luxury cruise train, or the famous overnight "Blue Train". Apart from a champagne reception, free drinks, cigars and other "necessary" luxuries, the advantage of these rail journeys is is that they begin and end in Pretoria, rather than the more "edgy " capital city of Johannesburg. But be aware that for most of the journey, whatever the price of your ticket, the scenery will be equally spectacular.
So if you do wish to begin your journey in Pretoria, and pay a high price to sit in elegant carriages and sip free pinotage as you gaze over desert, distant mountain ranges and manicured winelands,then you are welcome to. Otherwise, you can choose between the bargain priced Shosholoza Meyl or mid priced Premier Classe trains and buy your drinks from the bar. And you can even avoid the "mean streets " around Johannesburg's Park Street Station , by taking the ultra-modern suburban Gautrain, which will deliver you safely to the Johannesburg station concourse
We would have preferred to take the highly recommended Shosholoza Meyl train, and were ready to make our reservation as soon as bookings opened for our preferred slot. Alas, we were told that there was no room, and had to opt for the more expensive Premier Classe Train,run by the same company.You can book with African Sun Travel(www.southafricanrailways.co.za)or call +27 11 774 4555 .
Our journey commences
We had spent the previous night in the state capital of Pretoria, which lies at the farthest end of the Gautrain link. South Africa's guest-houses are a well kept secret, but offer fantastic accommodation, often set in lovely gardens with private pools. The "Fernivy Guesthouse" was just perfect, and within an easy and safe stroll of the government Union Buildings, along streets lined with the ubiquitous jacaranda trees .
We arrived by Gautrain at Park Street Station early the next afternoon to begin our journey. As I pulled back the door to our spacious private compartment and collapsed onto the faded moquette, I was lost in the world of Agatha Christie , dreaming of travel on the "Orient Express". After all, this journey was billed as' luxury on a budget, with five course meals in the dining car thrown in. There was even a welcome glass of champagne on offer. Alas , like the carriage itself, everything was a little "faded" or run down. We were already running two or three hours behind schedule, as the original train had broken down, and new glasses and crockery were being rapidly unpacked in adhoc fashion. The view soon faded into twilight as night approached, but at least we could look forward to some spectacular scenery the next day. Meanwhile there was dinner to enjoy at our elegantly set table in the dining car. Sadly, while the decor resembled that of a stylish if rather outdated hotel, the meal was more reminiscent of schoool dinners, and so unlike the quality of cuisine that South Africa can so frequently produce.
After dinner we found our beds made up in our compartment...fresh cool white linen...and lots of space ...while the rythm of the wheels against the rails chuntered promises of the day to come.
The journey continues
The following day was long and hot. The inadequate air conditioning struggled to combat the soaring temperatures that shimmered above the Karoo desert beyond our compartment window. We wandered between our carriage and the lounge cars in an effort to create a breeze. Drinks from the bar, and meals and snacks in the restaurant car gave a pattern to the stifling day, while the vast panorama of windpumps, straggling sheep and isolated farmsteads and villages kept us fascinated. Sometimes the train raced on, at other times it crawled. Occasionally the train manager would call by, to explain in utterly charming fashion , the reason for the latest hold up or delay.Our journey was boring and riveting in equal measure as the day dragged on.
And then, just when the monotony had seemed almost unbearable, there was a sudden crack, and the train plunged into utter darkness. I could not see my own hand. It was cooler now as I waited, patiently at first, for light to return, but we were in a tunnel, as endless as a descent into hell. We were in the Hex River Tunnel system, over ten miles long, and the longest in Africa. Once, when traversing the Hex River Mountain range, before the tunnels were completed in 1989, trains would go so slowly that passengers would take the opportunity to jump off and stretch their legs. Alas, as my husband recounted to me of his student days when travelling between Zimbabwe abd Cape Town, one of his fellow passengers got left behind. Was he still struggling through the mountains that towered above us, I wondered ?
The Western Cape
Beyond the tunnel, the barreness of the Karoo was soon forgotten. The train was now rushing through lush river valleys, neatly tended areas of orchards and vineyards, and past prettty Cape Dutch whitewashed farmsteads. And as ever, the whole scene was overlooked by vast and distant mountain ranges, each one distinctive in shape and form. This was the most beautiful scenery of the whole journey, and lifted our flagging spirits.
The final approach
And yet there were even more delays to come. We passed the wine growing centre of Paarl, which revealed to us in intimate and depressing detail, hundreds of rail-side shanty town dwellings with their ingenious constructions of metal and wood. The train was crawling now. It was to be a further hour or two edging past railway sidings, graveyards of rusting steam engines and dillapitated carriages, stopping and starting at endless signals, before we pulled up into Cape Town Central station.
Was it worth it?
With the thought of Cape Town ahead, of long white beaches and botanical gardens,of exciting cafes and restaurants like the Olympia cafe in Kalk Bay(0217886396 ) or the River Café at Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate, (0217941812) our excitement returned. The journey had been hot and tiring, and the food indifferent.
So, would I make the journey again? Well, yes I would, but this time in the reverse direction, so that I could enjoy the scenery of the Western Cape while fresh and alert. And besides, the staff had been utterly charming.and solicitous. How could we possibly complain?
Next time however, I would try to obtain a ticket on the Shosholoza Meyl train. With berths in a smaller compartment and buying meals from the restaurant car, one can feel more like a local than a tourist. But whatever train you are on, at whatever price, nothing can be more exciting than sleeping in a comfortable bed as you speed towards your destination, and raising the blind to see some of the most amazing scenery in the world. That is something an aeroplane can rarely deliver.