Thursday, June 28, 2012

Shosholoza, kulezontaba stimela siphume South Africa

"The train is speeding up towards South Africa." Apparently that's the meaning of this old Ndebele workers' song which has been popularized by the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, more recently several movie soundtracks (for instance to Invictus), and the SA football team during the 2010 world cup.


South Africa's oldest train line also takes its name from the same song: the Shosholoza-Meyl. A bit like the trans-Siberian of Africa, it runs all the way from Johannesburg to Cape town, in just over 24 hours. Much slower, much cheaper, much more comfortable and much more exciting than the overnight bus. Finally, I got to take a train on my big African trip!

First Shosholoza managed to confuse me sufficiently with their out-of-date website that I got stuck in Jo-burg for an extra 2 days - there are no more Sunday sleeper trains, and no way was I going to sit on a train for twenty hours. On Tuesday I tried again, showed up at the station early in the morning and purchased a ticket to Laingsburg. 2 hours later I returned to find a long queue at the gate to the platform, which opens only one hour prior to departure. The passengers were a mixed crowd, whites, blacks and coloreds, mostly South Africans on their way to visit friends and family by the looks of it. We slowly filtered through the gates to the notice board with the compartment assignments. I found my name listed together with that of a Ms. Hendricks, and figured it would be a relaxing day with another single lady traveller.

When the train arrived at the platform and I found compartment 8B, things didn't appear so relaxing: Ms. Hendricks was travelling with a 6-year-old daughter and what looked like a 12-year-old son. She was, however, friendly and chatty and showed me the bathroom, the drinking water tap and the hot shower.

(Savor this one please. Here I am, not having seen an operational hot water tap in about 6 weeks... and Shosholoza-Meyl, for the price of just about 45EUR all the way across the country, comes with a hot shower in each carriage.)

Leaving the city I never actually went to see

By the time we were rolling out of the city, I was playing my guitar for the little girl and being filled in by my companion that the other child was not, as I thought, the elder brother, but with 26 years at the mental stage of a 4-year-old and suffering from severe autism. Eish. At least the compartment was quite spacious, two thre-seater couches which could be converted into beds, and another two beds which fold out from the walls above. And it had a sink, too!

I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation, and flu-ish from 4 days in a poorly insulated farmhouse, so I crawled into one of the overhead beds - surprisingly comfortable - and spent the first hours of my trip dozing. In the afternoon, I headed to the dining car. Upholstered seats, table cloths, friendly attendants, and tasty food at very reasonable prices! I had some tea and some salad and watched the arid countryside go by. It didn't quite fly by, but good enough, and the sunset over the desert was stunning as always. 

A dining car with a view.

Meanwhile the staff was taking their afternoon break, and I managed to chat up the chief conductor of the train, a yound Zulu woman from the North. And she promised she would find me a place to sleep, just after Kimberley, without small children or autistic tantrums. By 8 o'clock, I was reshuffled to a different compartment, just me and a teenage girl from Kimberley who - in broken English, but better than my Afrikaans - told me she was the junior table tennis champion of SA. Kinda cool.

All I had to do now was take a hot shower (temperature good, water pressure delightful), bundle up against the Karoo cold and sleep until 6 in the morning, when me and my bags would tumble out of the train onto the platform of the old Laingsburg train station. A station so cold and deserted that when all the passengers had left, I had to beg the station workers for some of their instant coffee and hot water. But friendly as they are in the desert, my wish was granted, and I ended my journey learning some Eastern Cape Xhosa while waiting for my pickup.

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