A survivor’s guide to train travel in SA

A 10-point guide to resisting the South African railway service’s best efforts to ruin what should be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.

Forget images of train travel from a bygone era. Banish those pictures of elegant couples sipping Earl Grey or G and Ts as they rock and roll gently through dreamy landscapes.

You will need a determined and practical grip on gritty reality to survive a trip between Cape Town and Johannesburg on the Shosholoza Meyl. A bullet-proof sense of humour will help too.

Hurdles will be placed in your path from the start of the booking process to the moment you are deposited, sweaty and exhausted, quite possibly days late, on a station platform downtown in one of South Africa’s famous capitals of crime.

Still, with a little planning and lot of alcohol you might even have a lovely time. We did.

1 Adjust your expectations.

It is important to know from the start that the whole system is designed to spoil your fun.

In spite of this, it is possible to have a good time. The best revenge is happiness, as they say.


2 Expect the worst right from the start.

Booking tickets is made just difficult enough to test your patience to the limit, but not quite put you off.

It became obvious to me only much later that a skill that is very developed among railways staff is the ability to lead customers to the edge but not quite let them tip over it. What seems like terrible inefficiency is, in fact, incredible cunning.

The staff generally give the impression that they haven’t got a clue what is going on, and couldn’t care less, but I have come to believe that they are part of a finely tuned, carefully designed system to discourage people from using the railways. Why bother with those pesky customer-things when you can get by perfectly well on government bailouts?

Leading customers to the edge (but not losing them over it) is very likely a key performance target against which railways staff are judged. (Pay rises all round for December/January 2019-2020 then.) The sooner you realise that the staff are in step with a system designed to toy with you (ie they are just doing their jobs) the easier it will be to resist the temptation to lose it.

As for the booking process, planning well ahead of the time is discouraged. Bookings open three months ahead of travel dates, which is not really ideal if you are planning for school holiday travel. Worse still, if you are crazy enough to be travelling on Shosholoza Meyl during the festive season.

This is perhaps a good thing. People travelling with children will be stretched to the limits of reason. Only the hardiest will be able to resist the temptation to throw either their children or the railways staff from the train. (Jail will not necessarily be worse, but you might be trapped there for longer.)

Still, there are enough suckers fighting to buy seats for the booking process to be a bun fight. (That is why we ended up travelling on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, the only seats left.).

Booking is done the old-fashioned way, with a person, which some might find reassuring until the office closes for the holidays and your relationship with your agent is reduced to the occasional out-of-office message.

The departure time for our return was listed on our booking (and printed on our tickets) as 12pm. We found out by chance that the train was actually leaving at 10am and got to the station on time, half thinking we had beaten a really cunning trick.

It was not at all reassuring that the railways staff seemed to think it quite funny that our tickets had the wrong departure time printed on them. We were quite pleased with ourselves as we sat on the train in good time for the secret 10am departure, but realised that the joke was on us when the train was “delayed” for two hours.

3 Do not believe what you are told.

The salespeople will tell you that a two-berth cabin, which they call or coupé (you know, like a chicken coupé) is comfortable for two people. Not these two people, that’s for sure.

The 2-berth cabin is the width of a double bed, the beds are army-issue bunks. The top bunk is accessible only by clambering on the basin and scrambling up. Expect bruises all over from the various metal hooks and ledges (that have no obvious use) protruding from the walls.

There are step-ladders on the train, we discovered later, but you must beg to get one (we got our hands on one only after much clambering and bruising).

The only corner of “space” on ground level at the window side (where, one imagines, a traveller might sit and admire the view) is taken up by a metal basin with knobs that were pretending to be taps. These “taps” even had blue and red tabs on them to suggest a flow of water at varying temperatures. The reality is that you depress a button and a slit opens allowing a leak of tepid water to run slowly down the side of the basin. It is impossible to capture any in a cup, not that you would want to since there is a sign saying ‘Do not drink!’

Room with a view: the 4-berth cabin

My advice is pay the extra money and book a four-berth cabin for two. We got a taste of that on the return when the train manager moved us to a 4-berth cabin a few hours into the trip.

Our newfound comfort seemed at risk, though, when we were woken by a knock at the door at a little past midnight. We had stopped to pick up passengers at Kimberley. Imagine our shock when someone whispered hoarsely (digging for diamonds is dusty work, you know) that we should open up because “We are sharing your cabinet”.

We managed to dodge that bullet by suggesting they take the two-berth ‘cabinet’ we had recently vacated.

The 4-berth gives you space to breathe, two beds on the ground level, space to admire the scenery. A million times better!

4 Stay focused on the good parts.

There is surely no better way to see a magnificent country like South Africa than from a train as it meanders slowly through the countryside. The views seem to stretch to forever with barely an obstruction and fewer of the usual dangers with which residents and visitors must usually contend.

Every twist and turn seems to produce a change of light and perspective, almost creating a new landscape, from bright, dry, scorched and barren browns to the gentlest blues, greens and lavenders.

This really should be one of the best rail trips in the world. Pretend it is. You will soon find that you can’t hate it all.

5 Take your own cooling equipment.

The ice machine doesn’t work on hot days, I kid you not. When we asked for ice to cool the warm cold-drinks and beer in the dining car, we were told: “We don’t like to run the ice machine when it is this hot.”

There are “air-conditioning” switches in the cabins, but they are not connected to “air-conditioning” units. They make a hollow click when you switch them on (and the more paranoid will hear far-off laughter).

My God it is hot on the train, especially when you are stationary. Sometimes, when we were standing still – waiting for a signal to change or an engineer to arrive from De Aar or Timbuktu or something – it felt like we were waiting at the gates of hell. Oh well, we thought, at least we are getting somewhere.

6 Develop a sense of mystery. 

There is no public announcement system at all and very little communication from train staff, even when the shit really hits the fan. Actually, come to think of it, there is no fan.

In our case, on the Up trip, we were woken by what sounded like a big collision (and felt like an only slightly smaller one).

It was in the very early hours of the morning and we were already hours behind schedule. (We had crawled along most of the day. It had taken four hours to get from Cape Town Station to Kraaifontein, from where people are known to commute to Cape Town to work every day.)

The train had come to its grinding, smashing halt in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t a light to be seen in any direction. Lying in the dark whispering to each other, as one does in these situations, we thought the train might have been attacked by bandits.

Having a sense of the dramatic (which is not always helpful) we wondered if we were all going to die.

At some point later, maybe 45 minutes, maybe an hour, the train manger walked down the carriages shouting that the locomotive was broken and we were waiting for a technician from some town we remembered passing ages before.

God help us, we thought, mostly because of the heat. When the train is stationary (because it is under attack or broken down or just resting) and the passengers are possibly staring death in the eye, it is the heat that is most unbearable. At times like these, those “air conditioning” switches were the worst kind of tease.

7 Take (a) good reading material or (b) lots of pre-downloaded movies.

With my favourite bookmark from Dragonfire Beads https://www.dragonfirebeads.co.za/

Books

I can’t help but congratulate myself for my choices. After putting down a detailed and interesting biography of Virginia Woolf by her nephew Quentin Bell, I sank my teeth into Charles van Onselen’s The Night Trains. Such a dramatic change of genre that it just about caused a personal derailment.

The Night Trains makes for shocking but illuminating reading. It is pretty gruesome at times. Not fun unless you are thrilled by knowing what the hell is really going on (which makes you ill-suited for this train journey, by the way).

The Night Trains was an excellent companion for the journey. Reading about the horrendous rail journey made by so many thousands of Mozambican men, travelling essentially as freight, to work in the mines on the Witwatersrand, put my complaints about ice into a little bit of perspective.

I highly recommend The Night Trains to anyone who wants to know how we got into the mess we are in, which is probably a necessary precursor to finding our way out of it.

It is also a reminder of how comprehensive the deceit of the apartheid education system was. I wonder how many South Africans know anything at all about the real history of the building of the mines (and essentially the wealth of this country). It just doesn’t seem a good enough defence any more to say: “I didn’t know.”

Movies

There is no wifi, free or otherwise. So you will need to come with all your movies pre-loaded. Suggestions from my movie buff other-half include Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Murder on the Orient Express and The Two Popes.

As for the lack of wifi, I guess it might encourage people to post pictures and updates about their journey and possibly drum up interest in the service … and why would anyone want that …

8 Take lots of basic supplies.

Alcohol, ice, toilet paper, wet wipes and water for drinking and washing. Water supplies ran out on both legs of our trip. Unfortunately, the water running out also means no flushing of loos, which is pretty gruesome after hours of standing still in the heat. Nothing you can do about that, but at least you can have a dash of water in your whiskey and a little wipe-down in your cabin in lieu of a shower.

A cooler box of ice will be a godsend too. You could probably sell some to the other passengers for a fortune if you ran out of cash.

There is food and it is kinda fun to have a meal in the dining car … once. The dish of the day, a beef stew, was perfectly nice the first evening, but appealed less when we saw it on the menu at the next sitting and the next.

Breakfast is absolutely fine with reaps and reaps of bacon, or so the menu said.

For the rest of it you want your own food in a cooler box so that you can picnic in your cabin, which hopefully will be a 4-berth unit so you can spread out a bit and watch the world go by.

9 Get used to a feeling of abandonment.

The first few hours of the first leg of our hellish trip were characterised by contact with many pleasant and helpful staff, including a train manager who told us we would be told what was going on if ever the train stopped for more than hour. (BS)

Super attentive, it seemed. Possibly over-staffed even, we thought. 😂😂😂

The linen (R70 a set) was delivered in small consignments. It took at least 7 visits from the linen guy to complete the transaction and for us to take delivery of goods. First, he took our order. Then he delivered a few items at a time: a pillow … a blanket … 2 sheets … ‘Psst, here’s another blanket’ … and so on (it felt like he was smuggling them to us). Then there was a final visit to take the money.

Most of the staff must have disembarked soon after the linen had been dispatched (at Kraaifontein perhaps), though, because we saw hardly a person in uniform after that. In the last 30 hours of the journey to Johannesburg, when we were very interested to know if we could hope to arrive in Joburg before the end of the year, if at all, communication dried up altogether.

We were 11 hours late in the end, the train arriving at Park Station in Joburg at 5am on December 27 instead of 6pm on Boxing Day, as we had hoped and planned. This lady’s guesstimate turned out to be very precise by Shosholoza Meyl standards.

One of the two waitresses we encountered in the dining car was happy to help with a guess (although she made sure we understood that was all it was). She thought we would arrive in Jo’burg not much more than 10 hours late.

10. Keep a spare bottle of whiskey (TBH, tho, when is this not good advice)

You might need whiskey long after you think it is the last chance to drink it has passed. I suggest something Irish (Jameson or Tullamore Dew) since they are just as good served icey in the family crystal as sipped warm out of an old water bottle. 

Save the last sips to celebrate as you pull into the station and start thinking how to negotiate getting a cab to collect you from such a dodgy place … which is a story for another time.

The trip cost R1,400 each for a return CT-Jhb-CT in a two-person cabin. (But we now have a 25% discount voucher for our “next” 🤣😂🤣 trip after writing a letter of complaint)
Bookings at http://www.shosholozameyl.co.za/


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Siobhan Cassidy

28 thoughts on “A survivor’s guide to train travel in SA”

  1. A fun read. Brings back all the smells and sounds of my experience on the overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Surat Thani. Tullamore Dew for the win.

  2. Synaptic reconnection! 1967/68/69 Dec youth camps in PE. A 3day+2night trip from Cape Town!
    June 68 school tour: Worcester – Pretoria – Johannesburg – Lourenco Marques (Maputo)
    – Johannesburg – Durban – Bloemfontein – Worcester!

    1. I think probably quite good as there were lots of cops in uniform on the train. I am thinking they travel for free as it is state-owned. We felt safe enough and we are two frail old ladies

    1. I doubt veganism has got to SA Railways yet. I don’t recall seeing anything that would pass even for vegetarian food

  3. Mabetha Cedrick Pila

    Hilarious and ineresting read, thanks Capo. I won’t be taking the Shosholoza Meyl anytime soon though hahahaha

  4. Shosholoza Meyl promises that each of our passengers will be treated to “A Pleasant Experience” from the moment they book and buy their ticket throughout their journey by train until they disembark at their end destination. Read more…..
    You cannot read more, sorry. as they don’t want you to know that only the brave will survive and still have a sense of humour. Well done! I once stood on Matjiesfontein station and this train came through and I thought, “Hell NO!!! And, I do love to test my tolerance but I know defeat when I see it. I salute you.

  5. Love it! Thanks for this, we were also thinking about getting the train sometime. Will have to do it now, and will be prepared.

  6. We took the Shosholoza Meyl to Matjiesfontein but only got on in Worcester. We had a really pleasant trip actually, but we also had a tour group book our ticket and our trip was only a few hours so we didn’t have to face many of the issues you did. I would definitely recommend it for short trips. And suggest grabbing a seat in the dining cart for the best views.

  7. Loved your story as I have always wanted to take the train to Johannesburg. You should try the 6 hour train journey from Kandy to Ella in Sri Lanka with your luggage. All seats are taken and you get to meet your fellow passengers up close and personal :).

    All part of the experience.
    Elizabeth

  8. My daughter drew my attention to your story after sharing it with her. It was our plan to travel to the Cape by train, to retrace my travels to Robben Island in the eighties, sometimes before winter. I always narrated to them the scenic views I enjoyed by train but had no idea the train service has deteriorated to Congolese standards. It’s a pity I cannot use the train but will try Intercape or simply drive.
    But I must congratulate you Siobhan on a good narrative of the flow of events, like I was there on the train too. Kimley (Kimberly) and De Aar were always drawcard stops then. So pity the service has become a shadow of its former self!

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