January 20, 2010
South Africa part two: by train to the eastern Cape
South Africa’s sleeper trains used to be famous. The Premier Classe is a luxury silver service sleeper train, running on a couple of routes out of Cape Town and Johannesburg. There’s nothing like this in the Antipodes, in fact you’d probably have to catch something like the Orient Express to get the same sort of experience anywhere else in the world (there is actually a network of even fancier sleeper trains in SA, called the Blue Train; I don’t know what you get for your money on those, but I can only imagine they’re very nice).
Cape Town train station is busy and noisy, much like you’d expect a third world train station to be, actually. The long-haul buses arrive there too, and there’s a market on the corner outside. Never fear, though, for the intrepid long-distance traveller the Premier Classe has its own lounge where passengers wait for the train in comfort, while being served food and drinks. When you get on board the train your bags are waiting for you, in your cabin with your name on the door. If I sound a little cynical about all this, it’s mostly because I found the whole experience a bit otherworldly. I hadn’t realised it was still possibly to travel like this, at least not without coughing up for a first class ticket with someone like Emirates. I could definitely get used to it, though…
Leaving Cape Town, we were talking to a man who’d lived there his whole life, and was pointing out lots of interesting things. A consequence of this was me taking many photos that I now can’t recall the significance of: never mind, it was still fun. It seems to be a universal rule of train tracks that they exit cities via the least attractive route. In Cape Town that meant a smattering of shanty towns (sorry, either informal settlements or townships, depending how much infrastructure they have), abandoned industrial sites, and ugly housing developments. There were some more attractive suburbs poking their heads through, however.
The landscape out through the back of Cape Town is nothing short of dramatic. Jagged peaks, Table Mountain’s little brothers and sisters, thrust almost straight out of a flat plain, tall enough for each to collect its own personal cloudbank. Every vista out the train window had at least one of these monoliths forming the background. Gradually we left the city behind and rose up into the hinterland. The Cape region gets its rain over winter: while we where there it was high summer and the inland parts were very very dry. It was as we climbed into the interior through the gathering dusk that we had one of the most magical experiences of the whole trip. Midway through the five-course dinner, with the view outside a rolling scrubland, there he was: a gemsbok, minding his own gemsbok business until my wife’s highly trained bok-spotting eyes chanced upon him.
Gemsbok (with the “g” to be pronounced as a throat-clearing noise, by the way) are the most beautiful bucks, with long straight horns and sharp colours. Seeing one in the wild out the window of a train was very exciting, and we had to restrain our enthusiasm lest the other passengers think we were odd. Although we were the only foreigners on the train, so the other passengers probably just assumed we were odd anyway. I noticed the lack of tourists when I caught the Overlander in New Zealand too: do people not catch trains when they visit other countries?
I don’t want to spend forever harping on about the Premier Classe, although it was very nice and I do recommend it. South Africa in general does service very well, and the people on the train were excellent even by that standard. Overnight, the train goes back down to the coast: previously it used to follow the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth, but since a major washout along that way it now turns back inland to Oudtshoorn (pronounced something like “Oudstroon”, with the Afrikaans rolled “r”), so you wouldn’t see the sea unless you stayed up pretty late. When you wake up in the morning you’re back in the fynbos, and after breakfast you pass through a spectacular red-rocked gorge, with cliffs that reach out over the train track in places. The only real deficiency of the Premier Classe service is that they don’t tell you much about the countryside you’re passing through. I have no idea what that gorge is called. There was still plenty of wildlife to be seen, I’m not sure that the ostrich farms count, but birds of prey and stotting springboks certainly do. The prickly pear farms were interesting, also. Eucalyptus trees are everywhere in the arid parts of South Africa: seeing a farmhouse with a few tall eucs in the yard is a positively disorienting experience if you’ve spent much time in Australia. They are a weed, in case you were entertaining any doubt. South Africa, southern Australia and New Zealand form an unholy trinity of weed-species-swapping.
As the day wore on we began to descend back towards the coast, with many a whiff of hot train brakes (I’m not complaining, I quite like that smell: funny how it’s so distinctive, though). The track began to run alongside the road, and people in cars were waving as they went past, just as people had waved from back yards as we passed through the small villages inland. Port Elizabeth is another one of those towns that presents its least attractive side to incoming trains, and to add insult to injury the station in Port Elizabeth is situated underneath a snarl of motorway overpasses, where distinctly under-employed looking groups of guys hang out. You get the private-lounge Premier Classe treatment at your destination, too, but we weren’t there for long. Someone came to pick us up and take us to magical Kasouga…