When going to a new country for the first time, especially one that takes over 24 hours to get to, you get there and just really want to SEE IT ALL. Who knows when you’ll be back when there’s so much of the world to see? That’s how I feel on all of my trips, stuffing in as much as possible into everyday of our trips. Our March adventure to South Africa was no exception. As we pre-meditated our trip we contemplated how to get from point A (Johannesburg) to Point B (Cape Town) across the country. There was flying, which would be roughly $60USD a person and take about two hours. OR there was the train. 27 hours and $110USD. The decision was an easy one. We booked our tourist class tickets for the Shosholoza Meyl and boy was I glad for that decision after all the flying.
After our 36 hours in JoBurg we grabbed an Uber to Johannesburg Park Station, which we were warned beforehand that we had to enter through the front and go directly downstairs. Unfortunately our driver brought us around back, demanded money for the toll, and then in the confusion and conundrum of not having change for him our bags were blindly taken by a porter into the station. It was the scariest 5 minutes of our whole trip. Thankfully, Z ran after the porter and managed to secure our bags (yes, we had 4 suitcases)— prompting a security guard to take us under her wing and escort us to our gate. We waited underground in possibly the dirtiest train platform I’ve ever been in. At this point, my heart is racing and I’m wondering if we’ve made a horrible mistake. An older gentleman helped us find our car, where we had booked a little sleeper room for two people. There are also options for a room for 4 or a shared room with strangers. We opted for a little privacy. The Shosholoza Meyl tourist section is the one of the nicer sections of the train. Each room has a sink, a fold down table, a couch that folds down into a bed and a top bunk that pops down. There is one window looking out into the hallway, and another window that gives an amazing view of the South African countryside— this window you can roll down to feel the wind and experience all the senses as the train chugs along. For an extra ZAR10 ($4USD) they will provide bed sheets and blankets as well. There is a shared bathroom for each train car, which is pretty basic but does the job. There is no heat or air conditioning but again, the windows do open. For hygene's sake, I advise bringing a packet of face wipes, deodorant, and other personal cleansers for when you start to feel stagnant and sticky. As for your luggage, there is an overhead compartment within your room so you don't need to fret over it getting lost in the confusion of all the stops.
Chugging along we left the city of JoBurg behind, making our way through shanty towns and eventually, the desert Karoo. Train staff came around every so often to wait on us, making sure we had everything we needed from water and drinks to food and snacks. We had brought plenty of our own snacks and beverages, but it was nice to know that there were options available if we had not. As we drove through the Karoo we looked out for animals, seeing Ostrich, cows, horses and the odd baboon. As night fell we made our way to the dining car, just two cars behind ours, which was also a nice escape from the confines of our room.
The staff was pleasant, and the meal cheap even by South African standards. We ordered two bottles of great white wine (for under $2USD each!) and dug into our meals of fresh vegetables and rice for me and all of that plus meat for Z. We were able to take the unfinished wine back to our room where we sat in the dark, sipping our drinks and looking up at the night sky.
They always tell you that the sky is brighter and you can see further when there’s less light pollution. But Holy Toledo was this an experience. Us both being city kids we had never seen so many stars. At one point we noticed a bright blue swirling cluster that was no doubt a galaxy that we could actually see with our bare eyes. We fell asleep with our heads against the window, waking up for a few moments as we made mid-night stops in other major SA cities including Klerksdorp, Kimberley and Beaufort. Each stop lasted about 5-10 minutes as passengers either hurriedly left or rushed to get on to their designated seats. Our car was mostly full of long-haul sleeping tourists so we were not bothered much during the night.
We awoke the next morning ready for breakfast. Needing a stretch we ventured back down to the dining car where we were served a full English Breakfast. We made our way back to our room for more wildlife watching and some light reading. We drove through more enthralling scenes, leaving dusty desert for mountain ranges complete with lush vineyards and farms. The closer we got to Cape Town the more topographical it seemed to get.
Arriving in Cape Town’s Kaapstad station was a complete 180 from Johannesburg Park Station; with glistening white walkways, organized bell whistles, and helpful staff to help with unloading your baggage. Without a doubt, it was very easy to find our way to where we needed to go. Within minutes we had exited and were hailing our Uber amidst happy students in the sun, palm trees swaying as if we were in Los Angeles. And just like that, we had traveled 1,400km, 27hours, and seen more of South Africa than we ever could have imagined. If we had the chance to do it over again, we would.
Have you ever taken a lengthy train journey? Where did you go!?