Not So Blue! Cape Town to Joburg on the Shosholoza Meyl train.
There is something special about long distance train travel … it’s trainsformational!
There does not seem to be much on the interweb covering stories about long distance train travel. So here’s to a new genre and I hope it inspires you to take your own trainsformational journey sometime …
Reading time: 11 minutes.
Not So Blue!
Cape Town to Joburg on the Shosholoza Meyl train.
I arrive at Cape Town railway station before eight o’clock. As always wispy white cloud hangs over Table Mountain. The market stalls surrounding the station entrance are already open. With trade underway, colourful trinkets shine in the morning sun. The station concourse is quiet compared to the streets outside. I find Platform 24 with the usual kind help I’ve come to expect in this city. The tatty waiting lounge is surprisingly busy, already full of old white people – not what I expected. I check-in my bag as instructed and wander back out to the platforms.
Two worn carriages are slowly being loaded with cars. There is not much else going on. I exchange pleasantries with one of the workers. The only people working are black. Back inside the waiting room, plastic folding chairs are brought for the overspill. I get one and also a cup of strong tea. There is some light chatter but most people bury their heads in their smartphones. I continue reading the wonderful “Water Music”. I am nearly through it and will finish it on the long journey to Joburg. It’s a thirty-six hour journey and, like Sunday’s drive to Agulhas, it will give me another indication of this country’s vastness.
A solo traveller around my age comes in and then a young backpacker too. They look strange compared with the rest of the aging crowd. Back outside, a loud, dirty diesel manoeuvres the car transporters. Black fumes spread along the platform. One worker is happily singing to himself as he empties bins. I smile at him and he smiles back. Further beyond our extremity of the station, normal commuter trains operate. The yellow and grey metro deposits rushing workers to their jobs in the city. A female voice announces several delays over the Tannoy. I peer into the empty and much posher Blue Train lounge further down the platform.
The light blue train slowly rolls in and connects to the car carriers. I walk down the platform towards the locomotive. It looks so small compared with the long snake of carriages it will pull for the next day and a half. I find my carriage. There is nobody here and the compartment doors are closed. I walk back three carriages to the nearest baggage man. I spot my bag on his trolley. With a pleasant smile that exposes his lack of teeth, he points to another carriage, “No air-conditioning that end, sir. You are here.” He carries my bag into my small compartment. A white man sits on a chair in the compartment next door. I nod. I give a tip to the old baggage man. “Thank you, sir. I am sixty next week, sir. I have been doing this job for forty-five years.”
In the next compartment is Gerd – yes, another German on this trip and a strange man who doesn’t smile. He looks to be in his sixties and in very good shape but he has old eyes behind his wide rimmed spectacles. His hair is grey and cropped. His German accent is heavy when I introduce myself to him. He tells me he spends half his time back in Germany and half here, driving around the country. He tells me he has travelled on a container ship and across Siberia by train. When I tell him I have too, he doesn’t react at all. He just continues to tell me quietly that his car is very old; a Toyota that the crew laughed at when driving it on the train. I warm a little to his tales of travel but he is so sad that it’s tough to engage fully.
Rumbling very slowly out of Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background, we are asked to join the welcome drinks in the lounge car. Four carriages ahead, I join the two younger passengers I saw earlier in the waiting room for champagne and snacks. François is a pleasant French-Swiss and on his way back home after driving around the Karoo. Jethro is Dutch but speaks with a grating American accent. He says he honed it working in Columbia and Burma. He is so loud yet so hard to decipher and his use of the harshest swear words is embarrassing. He is now living in Dublin and is overweight and overbearing. I hope I warm to him as we are allocated our dining table together.
Shosholoza Meyl provides long distance train travel throughout South Africa and is a much cheaper alternative to the swanky and more famous, as well as more expensive, Blue Train that operates between Cape Town and Joburg. The name is derived from ‘Shosholoza’, which is a popular South African song about Ndebele workers travelling from their homes in Zimbabwe by train to work in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa. ‘Meyl’ simply means long distance train.
After slowing through Bellville, the train picks up pace and rattles speedily through the mountainous countryside. In my single compartment, after only a few pages of “Water Music”, I sleep soundly. I wake as we rumble slowly into Worcester station just before midday. Neat green football, rugby and tennis pitches and, behind them, a white church welcome us into the town. I disembark with a few others to stretch my legs. My carriage is near the rear of the train. The other carriages of light blue, just darker than the sky, continue as far as I can see down the platform. After we leave Worcester, the landscape turns to the shrub and sand of the Karoo.
Lunch is a three course meal in the dining car. Jethro, already ruddy faced from the sun and last night’s booze, orders a bottle of red wine for himself. François and I have a small taste but stick to soft drinks. Jethro is pleasantly quieter and more circumspect once he realises we have travelled as much, if not more, than him. Interestingly, both my companions are happy with the progress of post-apartheid South Africa. With all the passengers on board being white and the staff all black, I still think it’s too slow. (However, I have no idea how to speed it up. It also makes me smile in that, conversely, I want to slow down my life rather than speed it up.) The train slows through the derelict station of Touwsriver and I return to my compartment.
We jolt to a stop at Matjiesfontain. The train is too long for the platform so it is not possible for my end of the train to get off. Gerd gives me a sad commentary in his German-English, “Blue tvain stops here and uzed to do tour in beefeater buss. Von hotel, wiz honky tonk music, a gut museum and observatory fon 1800 England.” With a bigger jolt, we depart north-eastwards towards Kimberley. Despite the miraculous recovery of Ned Rise in “Water Music”, with the heat and the motion of the train and the endless Karoo landscape, it is impossible to stay awake.
High tea is scheduled for four o’clock and I am woken up to be told there will be a thirty minute delay. I walk the length of the train and count ten passenger carriages, two dining cars, two lounges, one smoking car, two car carriers, one empty carriage, two drivers, one policeman and twenty (all black) crew. This is all for the fifty (all white) passengers. Inside the train it is hot, the warm wind blowing strongly through the open windows.
Back in my room, Gerd watches me battle with the air-conditioning controls. He does the same in his room, muttering about the heat. I make a comment that his old car has no air-conditioning either. He doesn’t smile, just responding that it’s different in a car. However, the mention of his beloved car awakens him. Still speaking slowly and deliberately but with a little more joy, he shows me the Toyota car magazine that contains an article about him. I read it. It describes him and the vehicles that he owns both in Germany and in South Africa. The article states that he is seventy-two and, sitting next to me in my compartment, he tells me the story was done over two years ago. I can connect with him when he is like this. He explains he will zig zag from Joburg to Durban and back to Cape Town all by himself in his 1973 Toyota Corolla.
We are interrupted by the train assistant advising us that high tea is being served and we reconvene in the cooler dining room. Gerd sits back in the high comfy chair, almost sinking into it. He continues his stories of far off travel. His voice is distant and sometimes I don’t understand his words; certainly his dates are lost in time when I check facts with him. He talks of journeys recent and old in the same sentence, all as one big trip for him. He mentions a South African girlfriend who recently died in Germany and two other female friends here who have recently passed away, yet I can’t find out what pulls him between these two countries. His eyes moisten when he tells me his friend, a lorry driver, recently died in a head-on collision on the stretch of the N1 motorway close to where the train is now. Both the driver and his son perished in the crash, so Gerd drove out here to place some flowers, a child’s toy and some coffee beans at the side of the road – the same goods that his friend was hauling in his truck. He says lorries still beep their horns now in respect as they pass the spot. When I ask when this was, he says he can’t remember. Every now and again he will ask me something but mostly he is away in his world of “memoreeze”. I sense a sadness that he has never settled anywhere for too long or had any children or perhaps that he is coming to the end of his travels.
I need a break, so I leave him to reminisce alone. There are some sullen storm clouds outside and a few drops of rain out on the endless plains. The N1 is further away now, just dots of colourful lorries out on the horizon. There are no cars, it seems, on this long laborious stretch between the country’s two major cities. The empty landscape of desolate and abandoned farms reminds me of my train journeying across the US. The world has so much space yet the cities are packed full.
At six o’clock the clouds are darkening, taking away what’s left of the daylight. The train stops at Beaufort West. There is nothing here, just a small poor town, fenced off from the station platform by barbed wire. I step out for some air. The train’s policeman patrols the platform.
After an hour’s stop we leave Beaufort West. I walk to the lounge car for a drink. “No sir, dinner is ready.” Ok, don’t sweat the little things – my mantra from my time here in South Africa. I am one of the first to sit at the designated tables. It takes a while for the wine to arrive but, as it does, Jethro and François appear too. The light of the day has almost gone after the briefest of sunsets. After the first sip of wine, the electricity fails plunging our carriage into darkness. In the dimness, we witness a thunder storm. The lightning flashes outside brightening up our dining carriage temporarily. Once the power is back on, dinner is served; five delicious courses of soup, fish, meat, desert and cheese. I skip desert and join Jethro with the last of the wine and some cheese. François abstains. Jethro has calmed so much that he is now a charming dinner companion. We talk more of our travels.
Each carriage connection is soaked after the downpour. Back in my compartment, my bed has been made for me and the shutters have been drawn. After a fifteen minute stop in the middle of nowhere, it’s time for Mungo Park again and some sleep. With the sound of the light rain and my window rattling, I consider it to have been another great day. I need to do more long distance train journeys.
The normal moans and groans of the train are always much louder at night. Nevertheless, I sleep well, waking only once for a big jolt and a squealing of the brakes at one stop. Just after five o’clock the dawn breaks through the sliver of shutter I have left open. After a light doze and a meditation, I am ready to get up. I use the shower room at the end of the carriage. I sing happily out of the half open window as we pass a bunch of houses with the locals eating breakfast outside. I am ready for the day.
I decide to skip breakfast to balance out the amount of food from yesterday. According to the schedule we are now supposedly three hours from Joburg. Townships dot the landscape outside. The Karoo’s dry lands are long gone as grass and short green trees cover the arable plains. The sky is blue again, with a few white clouds and no sign of last night’s rain, and it’s much cooler now than it’s been over the last few days. Gerd comes back from breakfast and informs me we are two hours late.
Another township signals another derelict station. A worn out white sign with black letters says, “Makwassie, 173 miles to Joburg.” Gerd comes into my compartment. “It’z zad, de country iz getting vorse. Dis uzed to be great station, now nozink.” It seems there is nothing at all between Cape Town and Joburg, just a few poor townships and the rolling fields of the Karoo.
I wander to the lounge for morning tea. A township slum, run down shops, car and trailer repairers and food and liquor stores provide our welcome to the town of Klerksdorp. An old rusted steam locomotive sits on the platform. Its metal plaque declares that that it was built in Glasgow in 1892.
Our policeman strolls along the platform for the few minutes that we stop. A freight train passes us in the opposite direction. It’s only one of very few that I have seen, yet the roads are filled with haulage lorries. The lounge is only half full. Most people are still sleeping or reading in their little cells. I drink my tea with François for company. Just after eleven o’clock, close to our planned arrival time, I head back to my compartment to read.
Two hours later we are offered sandwiches in the lounge car. I walk there with Gerd. The drinkers and socialites are still there from earlier. On this cooler day, the air-con is working at full pelt, blasting cold air out, so we eat quickly and depart. Gerd continues with his complaints about changes to the country, the lack of safety and the disappearance of local communities. He comments on the corruption in crossing the border to Mozambique and the bad traffic manners when cycling on the country roads. I wonder out loud why he stays here. He shrugs and says that he likes it.