Freshly out of high school, now entering the adult world, I stood on the platform of the neat railway station in my home town. The Brandwacht mountains, Audensberg blue in the distance, the evening heat thick in the air. By my side is a bed roll and my luggage.
Padkos. South Africans don’t travel without padkos. Travel food, that is.
The train arrives from Cape Town. Trans-Karoo. Anticipation grows as she comes to a halt. A few hugs and kisses to the loved ones staying behind.
I board and find my seat in a compartment where two others show me where I can choose my sleeping bunk and store my luggage. I travel the cheaper second class. The benches are clad in blue leather, walls neatly paneled and the wash basin is of durable stainless steel.
A hint of a slight jerk, hardly noticeable and we are on our way. The two electric units at the front raising their voices as they urge their burden along. My first “real” train journey has begun! A few years before, we went to Cape Town where we took the suburban train to Simon’s Town on a day’s adventurous outing. Once, I traveled to Goodwood to visit a cousin. But, this time, I will sleep on a journey taking two days almost, to faraway Pretoria!
Surprises await me. The conductor comes to check if I am settled in. He realises I am a first time traveler and looks at my ticket. He advises me to opt for the third sitting in the dining car.
Dining car? But I do have padkos, I tell him. “It is included in the price”, he advises me, discreetly enjoying my astonishment. I would later dine with fine porcelain and silver, enjoying freshly prepared cuisine fit for a Sunday lunch. Few five star hotels have served me better food, ever since that day, 37 years ago.
Back in the compartment, satisfied after a scrumptious meal, at least four courses at that, another surprise awaits me. Our beds are made! Someone brought fresh linen and blankets, prepared our room-on-rails for the night. My bunk is at the window.
Many hours later, I woke to new sounds. The train is stationary. The powerful puffing of steam engines can be heard. Hissing, blowing, they approach and connects with our now engine-less train. We are at Beaufort-West ad I wonder if my uncle will be our driver. The Class 25 NC connects with our train so softly that water won’t ripple in my glass. Amazing how these guys marry hundreds of tonnes without us feeling it.
The locomotives speak out in their thunderous voices, commanding the follower to obey. We move out in the darkness of night en route to De Aar and Kimberley. I lie awake, enthralled by the sounds and smells coming from the shiny black steam engines up front. I am deeply in love with fire and water, with Natal nuggets and steam. A fine mist of ash softly sifts down onto the train’s roof. I fall asleep, bewitched by the black monsters dragging us so effortlessly across the arid plains of the Karoo. Every now and then, blowing its whistles to warn traffic at level crossings, to give us a wide berth.
I wake up in Kimberly. Dang! The steam engines slowly crawl past us while we are being connected ever so gently to two electric engines. Consolation is that I will experience this in less than three weeks again upon my return and again two weeks after that, when reporting for my two year compulsory national service in the army. This trip is the first of many to come.
We are served a scrumptious breakfast, once again the waiters are dressed smartly, wearing bow ties. The food is excellent and the scenery a new experience. I have traveled by road before, many times, but this is different. The thorn trees, animals on farms and game ranches, little villages, eventually mine dumps increase in numbers and we finally arrive at Johannesburg Park Station, or maybe Germiston, where the train is split., I think. Some people travel to Durban while we go to Pretoria.
All too soon, we arrive at the beautiful old Pretoria station building where an uncle and a cousin come to collect me. There is much padkos left and my bed roll is still fresh.
The first of many pleasurable train travels had culminated where others were already waiting for their next adventure to begin.
It is your turn to venture out – here are a few suggestions. Rail travel is fashionable again. It is comfortable, there are no overturned trucks or potholes to deal with at night. Just a relaxed environment and time to take in the scenery as South Africa slowly rolls by.