There is something so special about a long-distance train journey. You travel through so much more than geography. It feels like you can see time, the seasons, emotions, history, your life … unfolding … slowly.
As you rock and roll gently through the countryside you see the scenery and the light change. You can feel yourself shifting gears as you marvel at the yellow glow of sunrise burning off the mistiness of morning.
Then the glaring daylight might make you pull down the blinds for a few hours R&R before you lift them again to stare with rested eyes and refreshed soul at the lilacs and greens of the late afternoon, the oranges and browns of sunset, and then the sudden complete dark and mysterious night.
In the night, I want to stay awake and look out into the darkness, see far-off lights and try to make sense of the nightscape, but I cannot resist the magnetic pull of sleep. I am rocked deeper than normal into a dreamland filled with pictures and ideas that are foreign to the stationary me.
A train ride is a noisy business, but somehow the racket made by the steel monster scraping and banging along metal rails as it ploughs through the night is less disturbing than the sounds of suburban nights – the intermittent and faraway sounds of car and house alarms, loud motorcycles, even the beloved’s breathing.
I know these journeys, their griminess, and their delightful, addictive rhythm, from a lifetime’s love affair with trains. Returning to boarding school after the school holidays on the 500-odd kilometre overnight train from Johannesburg to Pietermaritzburg started it.
Those trips, with no adult supervision that I can recall, turned a fairly miserable journey to a school (that always felt a little foreign to us girls from Joburg) from holidays (in a place that soon started to feel foreign too) into an adventure.
We could all easily have got into trouble with our fellow passengers, boys a few years older than us; I guess some of the girls did.
These fellow travellers, confused boys, mostly around 18 or 19 years old, had been conscripted to fight and an unspeakable and unwinnable war against their countrymen. They bought the schoolgirls drinks and wanted something in return. Innocence lost all round.
Thinking of it now, I am glad that I was a late bloomer. I wasn’t interested in the booze or the boys, and probably dodged a bullet or two when I lay on my bed in my cabin being thrilled and chilled by the train instead of sneaking around with boys without names in SADF uniforms.