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A long love affair with trains

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.

A PFP anti-conscription poster

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.

A survivor’s guide to train travel in SA

When the journey is the destination

9 Comments

  1. Great piece of writing, I read your initial social media post while I was on the train to NYC on Christmas morning admiring the coastal villages of New England. Your review makes the 4 hour Amtrak ride that I take to NYC from Boston seem like the Orient Express. My companions are usually chardonnay and the cheese platter or hummus platter. There would be a riot here if the ice machine didn’t work. Their hot dishes are greasy American fast food – to be avoided at all costs. The train on door-to-door time is similar to the BOS-NYC flight, and one is spared the humiliation that is airport security (taking off shoes, belts, etc and fighting for overhead luggage space) plus you arrive downtown instead of some outrageous Uber fare to get to the city.

  2. A grear read, very funny at times, and rings very true. Interesting contrast with my recent trips on the Caledonian sleeper in the UK, for use in updating books such as Britain from the Rails

  3. Readers who love trains should try the Prasa Premier Class Train Service, if it still indeed exists. It’s like SAR’s old fashioned first class service in the bad old days. If it’s still operating. It’s not so cheap anymore but still affordable and it does capture the nostalgia and romance of the old fashioned, dare I say it Colonial South African Railways Service. Trying to book on Premier Class is also like Churchill’s opinion on Russia; “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” So, good luck with that! I used to go to boarding school in Grahamstown on the train with the old South African Railways equivalent of what is now called Shosholoza Meyl. It was a lot of fun and the service was still pretty good then. Starched White Linen, Pullows and Blankets were delivered to the compartment assuming you could afford and did pay for linen service. The trains were however on time, and the infrastructure intact. You can imagine all the shit that went down with a large bunch rambunctious high school boys on board. One of the “traditions” in the Joburg holiday bound service was to throw the green cylindrical arm cushions out of the windows as we crossed the Vaal River! Perhaps that’s where the rot started to set in.

  4. I’ve been told this not a good trip these days

    I took it from Cape Town to Joburg in 2010 and loved the spa massage on the train. Enjoyed the entire trip but a big but) that was 20 years ago

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