#GoodMoodTrain

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

1st Class “Trans-Karoo” Culture Lives on!

The neatly dressed gentleman greeted us friendly as we entered the foyer of the PremierClasse Lounge around 7am on a Tuesday morning. he soon relieved us of our luggage, which he tagged to our compartment and handed us our welcoming letter and boarding passes.

Guests’ Luggage Checked In

Some impressive “baggage” went into the Car Carrier as well. The cars in the background, plus a number of Mercedes-Benz’s travelled in the back.

Another “passenger” boarding!

PREMIER CLASSE LOUNGE

Soon, we were installed in the lounge area where we were served with tea or coffee, with muffins, scones and other niceties. In no time, we were chatting away with Frasier and Christine from the United Kingdom, who would be joining us for a memorable rail journey towards Johannesburg, South Africa. It was interesting to listen to Frasier’s account of a pleasant trip on the Algoa line of the ShosholozaMeyl, the tourist class sibling of the PremierClasse.

Scones, Tea & Coffee In the Premier Lounge

Among the guests congregated in the PremierClasse Lounge, were a number of people with restricted mobility. It is always good to see that people with special needs are being taken care of. I soon learned that meals and drinks could be served in their compartments, should these guests have preferred it that way. However, I did notice that some opted for joining us in the Dining Saloon for meals.

Special Needs Guests Accommodated

The almost legendary Food and Beverage Manager Millie addressed the guests, welcoming all to PremierClasse and gave a brief summary of house rules on the train. We soon left the lounge and strolled leisurely towards the light blue train waiting on Platform 24. (Frasier and I, however, had a brief meeting with a very Red Devil as well, but that is a story for another day.)

BOARDING THE PREMIER CLASSE

As my wife and I boarded the train, we soon found our compartment with our names on a neat card on the door. There were two bottles of distilled water, pillows and our luggage neatly installed by the efficient porters.

Our very comfortable, luxurious compartment.

We wasted no time to make our way to the Dining Saloon, where we were served with bubbly and snacks. Millie welcomed us on board and informed us of the credit card payment system after he had introduced us to the Dining Saloon Manager Faith. A similar party was underway on the other side of the kitchen car, as we had a full train and Train Manager Mr Groenewald was welcoming guests in the Lounge Car, I presume.

Millie welcoming his guests

After the initial complementary drinks, the cash bar was open – and we noticed that a huge rock was shifting past us. It was in the shape of Table Mountain. So imperceptible was the smooth departure by expert driver Okkie Pretorius that a few exclaimed their astonishment – guests did not immediately realise that our luxurious train was in motion.

This was when some noticed that the train was in motion, departure was very smooth and discreet!

Our train snaked its way along the Monte Vista line, then through Bellville, Brackenfell, Kraaifontein, then onto the Paarl and Wellington. We soon saw wild game on a ranch near Klapmuts, still on our way to Paarl. The lions disappointed by hiding in their den.

As we left Wellington, we saw the first of seven Anglo Boer War blockhouses on this route, used by the 450,000 British soldiers to defend the Cape Colony against some 16,000 Boers, between 1899-1902.

British blockhouse dating back to Anglo Boer War 1899 -1902

Will Britain partner in restoring and preserving these? They are going to waste.

These “monuments” did spark some interest and some guests were able to take nice photographs. Slipping ever so discreetly past the wheat fields of the Swartland, then snaking through Nieuwekloof Pass, PremierClasse made its graceful debut to the Witzenberg region of Tulbach. From there, leaving the Little Berg River behind, we crossed the Breede River and saluted another two blockhouses, while sipping at our drinks. Flanked on either side by the beautiful Boland mountains, we passed through the last bit of grapes harvesting from vineyards that would soon be changing into its autumn attire. The smell of fermentation hung in the air as we passed the various wine cellars. Waboomsrivier, Botha’s Halt, Sedgwick’s Distillery.

Slanghoek Mountains and vineyards near Worcester

LUNCH

Lunch was served as we approached our first stop at Worcester, a town rich in history. Its railway station has featured in many films and commercial advertisements – we soon departed and passed the KWV House of Brandy which houses the world’s largest pot still brandy distillery, which was soon followed by award-winning olive farms.

Smoked Salmon
Roast Chicken
Cheesecake with Grenadilla

Passing through Hex River Kloof, we were enthralled by the rock formations of the mountains and some lovely farm scenes. It was time to enter the Hex River Valley, home of some of the world’s finest table grape farming. The spectacular valley was still dressed in green vineyards, a month from now it will be a colourful display of patchwork with warm autumn colours.

As we enjoyed our cheesecake dessert, we passed through the four Hexton tunnels of 0.5km, 1.1km, 1.2km and 13.65km respectively.

One of the four Hexton tunnels in the Hex River Rail Pass

PremierClasse shone in the bright sunlight as it appeared on the other side at Kleinstraat, where a solar power plant welcomed us, its myriad of panels bowing ever so courteously. This is where we had seen sable antelope before, but luck wasn’t on our side. Slipping through Touws River, past Matjiesfontein through Laingsburg, we soon saw the fifth blockhouse at Dwyka. By now, we were invited to afternoon tea, celebrated with a choice of carrot- or chocolate cake served with either tea or coffee. While at it, the two blockhouses either side of the train at Leeu-Gamka stood to our attention, somewhat worn yet as alert as ever.

Guests were socializing in either of the two Lounge Cars (one is a club car for smokers, both with fully provisioned cash bars with credit card facilities) or just enjoying the comfort of their comfortable compartments. An array of night-, reading- or main lights complemented the lockable stowage space, amenities such as shower gels and shampoos, take-home slippers and leave-behind towels and gowns. Did I mention that the train was air conditioned right through? Luckily, windows can still be opened, as some of us still prefer that.

Lounge Car – The Club Car for Smokers Is Similar

Beaufort West! As in Worcester, it was time for staff to replenish Diesel fuel and water. The former is used to power the facilities on the PremierClasse, from air-conditioning to lighting. Only the engines in front use the overhead power lines but, talking of which, our two trusty SAR 6E1 units were replaced by one with a higher voltage rating.

DINNER

Dining on the #GoodFoodTrain is a lovely affair. As in the days of old in the “Trans Trains” such as Trans-Karoo or Trans-Oranje, we have repeatedly found that cuisine is well-prepared and expertly served. Their way of dishing up, for instance, is their legendary party trick, perhaps a signature. On a moving train, the waitron will hold the serving dish in one hand and then use the other to dish up, using two spoons held between the fingers, or a spoon and fork. I have tried it at home and found it to be fairly challenging, say no more! Service is swift, food is really tasty and of good quality. Anyone complaining about food on this train is either very spoilt, or perhaps not used to anything this good.

As I am not paid to write this, I can speak my mind: so many people have doubts about our main line passenger services and some do live in the past. I can assure you that it only improved upon an established tradition. South African railways are known for its excellent catering on trains and PremierClasse is no exception.

Cream of Sweetcorn Soup
Delicious Fried Hake
Braised Beef Sirloin
Malva Pudding
Cheese n Biscuits – a long-standing tradition!

Darkness fell and we departed on our way to Kimberley via Three Sisters, Biesiespoort, Merriman, Hutchinson, De Aar. That is where we could smell the fresh Karoo air. Then, Poupan, Kraankuil, Hopetown, Belmont…..until we reached Ronald’s Vlei where we once again received electric locomotives with a different voltage rating.

Then it was Kimberley itself where we had another logistics stop, from where we departed towards Warrentown. Fog was fairly thick, even past Fourteen Streams up to Bloemhof, where it lifted to reveal African savannah mixed with typical Highveld grass. And a fair herd of red hartebeest, oryx, eland, kudu and giraffe while we were enjoying a scrumptious breakfast. We were glad that our foreign guests could also get so see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat.

Soon, breakfast was over and so was our trip, as the first mine shafts and -dumps appeared near Orkney.

Complementary Fruit
Fresh Juice
Muesli with Yoghurt – There is a choice of cereals
A delicious English Breakfast. The eggs in the picture were the best I ever had, anywhere, on the morning of April 12, 2017. I did inform the chef.

As we slipped past Lava, my wife and I readied ourselves to disembark when we arrived at Klerksdorp, a gold mining city, while other guests would continue to Johannesburg. At Klerksdorp, Frasier stepped off the train and first took photo’s of the ancient plinthed SAR Class 7 locomotive. We said farewell to Frasier and also to Mr Groenewald, our friendly and very helpful Train Manager. Of course, we took a few photos of the lovely sandstone station building.

Train Manager Mr Groenewald at Premier Classe, Klerksdorp

12 April 2017

Premier Classe saluting the SAR Class 7 plinthed at Klerksdorp
Lovely sandstone station building at Klerksdorp

Thus ended a memorable trip on a lovely PremierClasse train, one that even had a bit of a “wild side” to it! As an afterthought: so many folks ask if South African long distance trans are clean, safe or as good as they were three decades ago? YES! YES! YES!

Footnote

PremierClasse has a ConferenceCar with a full bar and this can also be converted to a venue to celebrate events. Furthermore, an intercom system is being installed into the new train set, that would allow guests to order food and drinks from Room Service. USB charging points, wireless internet and an electronic map are all being planned and should be installed soon.

We also thank Quinten Pendle and PerronFM for having us and for broadcasting our four radio talks on air.

Practical Travel Tips – ShosholozaMeyl

Here are a few really practical tips for travel on South Africa’s tourist class Shosholoza Meyl trains. We are seasoned travelers and share our experiences with you.
Prasa operates two long distance trains:

  • Premier Classe, a luxurious travel experience
  • ShosholozaMeyl, a tourist class train

These travel on rails owned by another company, power comes from yet another. Sometimes, there are delays caused by power failures or speed restrictions. Also, freight services are given preference and this is not the fault of Prasa who operate passenger trains only.  It is no different from aircraft delayed for hours because of operational variables. Please be considerate, take this into account.  Also see the media statement from the Minister of Transport.

An Italian friend, Giulia Raciti, is a seasoned traveler and tour guide who hasn’t seen home for seven years. She has experienced public transport – buses, aeroplanes, ships and trains – in numerous countries. She views a train delay of three hours as international average. 

Go with the flow. Don’t pack the go. Sit back, relax, you will get there. 

Read more here

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ShosholozaMeyl

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ShosholozaMeyl in Nieuwekloof Pass

#GoodFoodTrain 4 #RailLove

As requested in the Facebook Trans-Karoo Group, here is a list of some of my first wobbly steps in rail travel blogging. During 2017, this will be revisited and improved and I will also take better pictures next time.

This friendly couple consented to having their picture taken

Hors D’oeuvre on Premier Classe

Nieuwekloof Pass between Gouda and Tulbach, Western Cape, South Africa

The famous Three Sisters just north of Beaufort West

For more, please link to these pages:

Excellent service from Prasa

ShosholozaMeyl

A Premier Classe Journey

Premier Classe Makes Business Sense


Romance on Rails

German Invasion of Simon’s Town! (via Metrorail)

Rail Travel South Africa Photo Albums