Thursday, December 7, 2017

Choo Choo

Stanley - Thursday

I love trains.  And have done so ever since my family took a train – steam engine, of course – from Johannesburg to Durban sometime in the early 1950s.

Whenever I can, I take a train in preference to flying or driving.  When I fly, which is often, I have to put up with lines, security, and uncomfortable seats.  When I drive, I have to concentrate on what I am doing.

With a train, security is minimal, the seats are comfortable, there’s time to think, reflect, and read, and there are people to meet and talk to if one wants to.  The only occasional discomfort is a bed too short.

However . . .

Unless you live in Europe, punctuality is often variable.  I use the Empire Builder from Minneapolis to Chicago whenever I can.  The problem?  Freight (and oil) traffic has priority in North Dakota, so the poor train is sometimes 8 hours late arriving in Minneapolis (actually St. Paul).  And even though a European fast train would take no longer than three hours to reach Chicago, the Empire Builder takes eight.

So, it’s important not to have pressing engagements at the other end.

My latest trip was last week, when I took the Shosholoza Meyl train from Cape Town to Johannesburg to work with Michael on our new book.  

It’s an overnight trip of about 1400 kms.  It gets its name from a great African song – Shosholoza – which is often thought of as South Africa’s second anthem.  The song is about long-distance rail trips to work on the mines.

Click here for a terrific rendering of it by the Soweto Gospel Choir.

My train
The train potters along on relatively narrow-gauge tracks, starting in the scenic Western Cape with its spectacular mountains and vineyards, then ambles through the Great Karoo – a vast semi-arid area which is home to South Africa’s sheep farms.  After a stop in Kimberely with its famous hand-dug Big Hole – where diamonds were found 150 years ago – it heads for the Highveld (altitude 1500 to 1600 metres) and ends in Johannesburg.

Train starts in Cape Town 
My train set off at 0905 last Tuesday with an anticipated arrival in Johannesburg at 1100 the following morning.  Perfect!  A sleeping compartment to myself, meals included, and decent wines available at the bar.  A day of pleasure to look forward to.

I admit I was puzzled by the Train Manager’s welcoming speech in the lounge before embarking.  He said that we should regard the 1100 arrival time as a printing error.  One o’clock is the actual time.  Then he went on to describe the service and amenities, and ended with a comment about how the train is sometimes late and could arrive at four.

Little did I know.

The first twelve hours were spectacular, climbing through the first range of mountains to the Worcester area, then through the stunning Hex River Valley with its wall-to-wall vineyards and rugged mountains, then up through a long tunnel to Touws River at the beginning of the Karoo, which is one of my favorite parts of the country.  But then I prefer deserts to forests. 

Western Cape approaching Paarl

Paarl derives from the Dutch for pearl - a granite pearl

Western Cape winter wheat fields

Climbing up through the first mountain range

The Karoo is a vast area of about over 300,000 sq. kms - a third again the size of the UK; eight times the size of Denmark (sans Greenland); and half again the size of Illinois.  It lies about 1000 to 1300 metres above sea level.  At best, it enjoys 25 cms of rain per year, with many parts considerably less.

As in many places in the world, trains have fallen out of favour, so many of the small stations, once used to service the farms, have become derelict.  It was sad watching abandoned houses and station buildings, with difficult-to-read signs.  When I was young, this was a vibrant route.

In the middle of the Karoo


Station sign

Lamp post leaning in De Aar
Karoo scene

Karoo scene

Karoo scene

Karoo scene

Abandoned stone sheep pen


Karoo scene

Karoo scene

Karoo scene

Karoo scene

Karoo scene
We enjoyed a delicious five-course dinner at about 1900 and had just settled in the lounge for a medicinal brandy, when the train stopped – in the middle of the Karoo – no towns in sight.  Sheep on the rails, maybe?  Another train coming in the other direction, perhaps?  There was plenty of brandy, so I wasn’t worried.  And I particularly like KWV 10-year Old.

No shortage of liquid 
Good company from England and Germany
After about five hours in the same place, a dozen or so tourists had moved through their stress of going to miss their flights home, to slightly inebriated acceptance, having rebooked for the following day.

It was late when we all went to our cabins to sleep.

When we awoke, we were still in the same place, now twelve hours late.  I didn’t mind.  Good company, good food and wine.  And a good book.  A pleasure.

The view from where we stopped

Taking a break from the train
Eventually, after nineteen hours of being motionless, the train started up.  Apparently, the overhead power line for the electric engine had broken and was difficult to repair.  Nineteen hours difficult!

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we arrived in Johannesburg at eight o’clock on Thursday morning instead of eleven o’clock on Wednesday.  Twenty-one hours late.

Green grass approaching Johannesburg
This one never made it!

Typical Johannesburg mine dump - from mine tailings

Approaching Johannesburg station
I do have to compliment the train’s staff.  Somehow, they managed to add two extra meals, and maintain their humour in the face of some increasingly restless passengers.  Overall, the passengers were also fine once the uncertainty of knowing whether they would make their original flights disappeared.  Then everyone sat down to enjoy the experience.

I have been asked numerous times whether I would go on the Shosholoza Meyl again.  Absolutely, I would.  But I would ensure I had no pressing appointments at the other end.


  1. How delightful, Stan. You know that I share your enthusiasm for train travel. Like you, I would have no problem with the delays. If that train shudders and shakes like the Amtrack trains, I would have been grateful it was stopped long enough so I could type and get some work done.

    Oh how I wish there were more trains still running in Africa. Like the Lunatic Line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. I ‘d be on that one in a heartbeat.

    1. Interesting, but not surprising, sis, how you'd feel so at home on the Lunatic Line.

  2. On Sunday mornings, at an age where I should have been confined to a rear car seat (but there weren't even seat belts then), my father used to drive beside the railroad tracks passing through Pittsburgh's river valleys, until finding a train. Then we'd drive alongside the engine while the engineer would wave to me and blow his horn. I still remember those days, and even now, there is no more calming sound for me than that of a train clacking along the rails in the middle of the night. Thanks for the memory moment, Stan.

  3. Fascinating photos of the train and terrain and beautiful music.