This was a ride from the dry, dusty, polluted brittle interior of South Africa in early spring to the blue and liquid Cape – a train ride from Johannesburg to Cape Town. It’s been 16 years, I think, since I did this trip. That last time, I was in uniform. This time round, I scored lots of space – Schalk, the train driver with whom I was first lined up for sharing a compartment wangled us both coupes for ourselves. I slept very well in the railways bedding (R35), my head in the Karoo moonlight.
Though it’s now callled the Shosholoza Meyl, this is pretty much the same old Trans-Karoo train of yore, dressed up in a new but now somewhat tatty colour scheme. It’s marketed using the very under-stated slogan, “A pleasant experience” – which is just as well, really, because one’s experience probably could vary somewhat depending on how many people one has to share with. Though they do seem to not book up every last berth, there’s no telling before you get on the train whether you’ll be sharing with one, three or potentially even five other people. Nor is there any way to choose. Which is rather unfair really. But choice is obviously not included in the R320 (£20, $40) ticket.
Booking is a schlep – a ticket reserved by phone has to be physically collected from the station several days before the departure date.
The food is pretty much unchanged from the 1970s. Burgers, fried fish, bacon and eggs. And extremely inexpensive. You’ll dine quite comfortably for R50. I suspect they don’t take credit cards.
The train departs Cape Town or Johannesburg three times a week, and takes between 26 and 30 hours, depending on delays, to get you across the country.
Yet despite the shortcomings, there was something deeply refreshing about taking this train. In a country now obsessed with immaculate presentation of expensive goods and services, the Shosholoza Meyl just is the way it is. And everytime I felt myself tempted to gripe, the sheer joy of unrushed and spectacular travel shut me up. It was a pleasure being amongst my fellow travellers, happily companionable ordinary South Africans of all hues, with a sprinkling of foreign tourists.
I travelled this way because it was (I hope) lower in carbon costs than flying, allowed more baggage, was most inexpensive, and just good going slowly – and I’ll do it again.
Another advantage was sheer convenience – getting to Johannesburg’s Park Station is much less painful than the haul out to OR Tambo International – and on arrival in Cape Town, I simply got onto another Metro train out to Fish Hoek, from where I might even have walked the last kilometre to my Clovelly mountainside, had not a kind friend collected me and my 40kgs of baggage.