“Sir, you must board this train. The mood here is good”
She said this after stepping off the train to stretch her legs, accompanied by a relative, who was equally enthusiastic. Of course, we were eager to board, as the train was already more than three hours late. As it was a public holiday and almost every shop was closed, we had nothing to eat or drink since we left the home of our hosts around 14:15 that day. It was around 18:25 when the train arrived.
I am diabetic and need regular meals and water to drink. One cannot blame the train service, though, as they were as much victim to external factors as ourselves. The RSR – short for Rail Safety Regulator – had recently imposed a new rule that had brought train speeds down from 90km/h to 30 in some sectors. At short notice, this had affected train schedules badly. Of course, it would be really unfair to hold our Train Manager or even the drivers accountable, as this was not their fault. They have to comply, just like airlines have to comply with FAA rules, even when it appears to be unnecessary. Furthermore, our train ran on rails it didn’t own and powered by electricity from yet another company.
Our slight discomfort was soon forgotten. Train Manager Patrick welcomed us on board and we were placed in a very neat compartment, 4B. Beds were neatly made with crisp linen, there were complementary bottles of distilled water for each of my wife and myself, while fresh shower towels and amenities were placed in the convenient storage rack.
Our carriage was next to the Lounge Car, followed by the Dining Car. A few minutes later, we were on our way! As soon as the train was moving, I started making my way towards the Dining Car but was met almost immediately by Faith, the efficient Dining Car Manager. She invited my wife and I along to dinner right away and we were served a most delectable dinner.
Our meal started with soup made with fresh sweet corn and cream with a fresh bun, followed by lovely freshly fried hake. The main course consisted of fresh vegetables, potato bake and a slice of succulent oven-roasted leg of lamb. This was followed by a chocolate peppermint desert and then the traditional highlight of a South African railways dinner, delicious cheese and biscuits. Anyone who had traveled on the Trans Karoo, Trans Oranje or Trans Natal trains a few decades ago, will recognize this tradition with fond memories. Of course, tea or coffee was served.
As I am diabetic and my meal plan was disrupted, the chef gladly obliged to send some very nice sandwiches to my compartment later that evening. Instead of just a slice of buttered bread, as requested, he prepared a midnight feast of toasted cheese & tomato instead!
We went to bed quite content, my wife only waking up the next morning, just in time for breakfast. I did wake up as we arrived at Kimberley, after we crossed the Vaal River. This was where a different set of locomotives were coupled. Locomotives are voltage specific and we were now entering a sector with much higher voltage. Also, water and Diesel for the power generators were replenished ever so discreetly.
Our night train continued and we crossed the Gariep River but I was blissfully unaware and only remotely became aware of our stop at De Aar a few hours later. However, by 6:30AM I was fully awake, in time to experience a most beautiful sunrise. The Karoo had seen the most excruciating drought over the past few years, yet this was broken some two months prior, with follow-up rains turning the arid wasteland into vast grass fields, with bodies of shallow water visible – and antelope, sheep and even some cattle visible.
At the breakfast table, we were served fruit juice, coffee and cereal with yoghurt. This was followed by a lovely hot breakfast consisting of eggs to order, generous slices of thick bacon, toast, butter, strawberry jam, a sausage and a little bit of fresh salad. While breakfast was happening, we saw even more springbuck, impala, reebok, two steenbok, ostriches and then we were treated to the sight of two eagles separately.
We passed Merriman where we saw the first of a number of blockhouses dating back to the Anglo Boer War and we were bemused by the fact that few South Africans seemed to know about this terrible and bitter war, but foreign tourists could tell some of the history with fair accuracy. From Merriman, we would also pass through the cuttings at Biesiespoort and see so many wind turbines, generating renewable energy.
The Three Sisters – round hills with typical Karoo table tops – came into view, we unexpectedly passed another blockhouse and, soon, we were at Beaufort West. On our way there, we encountered the beautiful “carnival colours, partipants” tourist class ShosholozaMeyl train; that one was the Amatola heading towards the Eastern Cape. Friendly, enthusiastic passengers struck up conversation with us while parked alongside in a loop, at Ysterrante. A name meaning “iron hillsides,” referring to the iron rich rocks burnt black by the sun. The Amatola’s passengers were a jovial outfit, in a great mood just like our train and we enjoyed this encounter very much. One even offered us apples through his compartment window! This was now a train supposedly involved in “quite a serious accident” the previous afternoon, as erroneously reported by Network24. Accident, my foot – it was just a locomotive that was coupled a bit too hard, really uncommon in South Africa, as our train drivers generally can do this without spilling anyone’s tea. The Amatola’s whistle blew and our own train also soon continued its journey.
It was time to replenish and also to get our final two locomotives of the day. This was done at Beaufort West, birthplace of the heart transplant pioneer Dr Chris Barnard. Passengers stretched their legs, yet we were under way soon again, passing even more of the blockhouses. A Karoo with pockets of water, some greenery and fat livestock is a sight to behold. Our train made excellent progress yet we still encountered speed restrictions and we were now far behind schedule.
A group of tourists in the Lounge Car then dubbed it the #GreatValueTrain, stating that they scored a few hours’ travel at no extra charge! If anything, the mood improved even more as we went, yet that can be ascribed to goodwill and not any kind of inebriation. Our fellow travelers were too well behaved for that kind of thing.
Lunch happened as we approached Laingsburg and this was once again a lavish affair. There was delicious fried fish for starters, followed by roast chicken served with freshly peeled and roasted baby carrots with young green beans. This was followed by dessert and coffee.
We passed historical Matjiesfontein and proceeded towards Touws River – and were treated to sightings of even more wild game. I also took some guests to view the Conference Car, which is an ideal venue for corporate or social events, celebrations or even church conferences. It has a fully fitted bar with a large display fridge, microwave ovens, coffee machines, ice machine, etc. There also is a draw-down screen for overhead projectors and a sound desk at the rear.
Afternoon tea was served, with a choice of carrot- or chocolate cake. We entered the first of four tunnels, passing through in thirteen minutes, then the second, third and final ones followed, revealing the picturesque Hex River Valley at De Doorns. Vineyards getting dressed in colourful displays of rich autumn colours, patchwork of the gods. Passing the largest pot still distillery in the world at Worcester, we soon drew into its beautiful railway station, one that has featured in so many international movies and commercials over the years.
At Worcester, a shuttle service was generously provided, at no extra cost, to the few guests who had other commitments and who preferred to complete their journey by road. The majority of us won’t let buses or airlines interfere with our #RailLove, so we stayed on board!
Once again, we were on our way towards Cape Town, the smell of fermenting grape skins letting out a little secret: we were now in the world’s prime co-operative wine making region, even though this is lesser known to the public. The evening sun painted the mountains called Brandwacht, Waaihoek, Mostertshoek and the Witzenberge in soft pastels, the sun setting as we passed through Nieuwekloof Pass. We were invited to yet another meal – the second one on the house, not part of the travel plan. Our Train Manager is a friendly guy and ensured that all get treated ever so nicely. Braised beef in a brown sauce with veggies, served on savoury rice. Yum! And dessert, never think you won’t get served dessert!
We now traveled in darkness until we finally rolled into Cape Town, where our marathon trip sadly came to an end. Many of us would board right away if given the option, I did not hear anyone complain about the train being late. The staff had worked many more hours than planned, it really added more than a work day to their itinerary. Throughout, they were friendly, helpful – others can learn from them. They really were great, even down to the cleaners. Always polite, always willing to assist, always a smile. Our showers and toilets were always clean, nothing ever lacked.
Yes, how shall we best describe this Premier Classe journey?
“….you must board this train. The mood here is good”