Adelaide Travel Photographer
My first childhood memory of big family Christmas holidays are synonymous with an overnight train trip on the Trans Karoo, a train that runs between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Mum always made meatballs and boiled eggs for the trip, we would get filthy dirty from playing on the train and at night the gentle rocking would put us to sleep, then in the morning we’d lean out the window around every corner just to get a glimpse of the steam locomotive that use to pull the train. Fun memories!
On our recent trip back to the Republic of South Africa my husband and I planned a few “adventures” for the kids, one which included an overnight train ride from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth. We chose to travel Premier Class on the purple Shosholoza Meyl train (you can visit the South African Railways Facebook page or visit their website for more information).
We were scheduled to departed form Johannesburg rail station situated in the CBD at 13h15. Earlier that week we had hire car, which we collected at OR Tambo International Airport when we arrived in South Africa, and arranged to return it at the Rail Station (what a mission!). I would not advise nor could I imagine any international tourist finding their own way through the maze of one way streets and poor signage, it was hard enough for us, who had the benefit of previously working in the CBD. Once we found the Premier Class Lounge (and after dodging all the “fake porters”), we were greeted by professional staff, a spread of biltong, cheese and biscuits, as well as hot and cold drinks all in the comfort of a clean waiting area with its own toilets (an important note for families with little kids, who need the toilet at the most inconvenient times!).
Prior to departure we were greeted by our hostess and an official porter who took us and our luggage to the train, loaded it and escorted us to our private compartment. We were invited for complimentary welcome drinks in the lounge car with a quick run through of the services schedule for our journey. Now all we needed to do was sit back, relax and enjoy the trip.
At 15h00 we were invited back to the lounge for High Tea where we enjoyed a beautiful slice of carrot cake and filtered coffee. The kids loved the freedom of walking around on the moving train, a stark contrast to what they are used to in their world of ALWAYS being strapped into a car seat when they are in transit. They were full of questions about the sights we passed, the poverty we saw and the obvious neglect of such a beautiful country. On the up side this sparked plenty of conversations about what we can be grateful for in our lives, why education is a necessity AND a privilege, and how without it the spiral downwards is inevitable. Although the following conversation only happened later during our visit in Cape Town, I’m sure with all he question and answer sessions of why’s and why nots? and the but, but buts from the kids created many thoughts milling around our 6yr olds head and eventually led to this profound statement after passing yet another informal settlement of tin shacks and make-shift housing: “Mummy, I’ve been thinking…that is VERY good recycling, don’t you!?”
At 19h00 we were invited to the Dining car for our 5 course dinner. Our kids have never seen so many utensils on a table, and with only one other couple in the dining car, this was a very good opportunity for mum and dad to teach our 3 and 6yr old about dining etiquette. First up was broccoli soup, loved it and surprisingly a winner with our son, but total fail for the other one! Second up was a starter portion of grilled fish and mash, and for mains we got roast beef and veg. At this stage I have to add that I don’t eat meat (I will still occasionally have fish) but I have a mostly vegetarian diet. Sadly there was no choice given so I still felt a little bit hungry by the time dessert arrived. The fridge cheesecake which I reluctantly ate (only saying reluctantly because I’m sure they used animal derived gelatine) was a bit of a let down and not as “lemony” as the description had suggested. Lastly was a small plate of cheese for the table, but after getting cheese at the arrivals lounge and cheese with our welcome drinks, I was well and truly all “cheesed out”, and the kids were tired and the grown ups were due for some R&R (aka rest and relaxation).
By the time we arrived back to our private compartments our beds were already prepared for the evenings sleep. We were also given TWO private compartments which made sense seeing that each compartment sleeps a max of 3 guests. Towels and gowns were provided for the use while on the train, we could also enjoy a hot shower situated a few doors down which I’m also happy to report was HOT and CLEAN (I would rather go without then shower in a dirty communal shower!).
Security on the train: I can not comment on the other classes on the train, but the doors in Premier class were locked by the staff from the inside, and stayed locked for the entire trip. Once during high tea, we were the moving target of some rural mischievous kids throwing stones at the train , and then a rather rude awakening 3am in the morning with loud banging and shouting coming from outside the train while I assume we were waiting at a scheduled stop at a train station. On questioning the hostess about the incident the next morning she said it often happens that some of the locals approach the train on the blind-side (from the tracks, not the station side) to torment the passengers, but also reassured me that the train doors always remain locked from the inside.
The next morning (06h00) we got our filtered coffee served to us in the comfort of our bed whilst looking at the sun rise over the rolling hills and African vistas. Breakfast was served in the dining car at 06h30, as spread of muesli and yogurt, followed by a hot full English breakfast and fruit juice.
Arrived in Port Elizabeth at 09h14. This lounge lacked considerably compared to the one in Johannesburg as far as facility was concerned, but the staff was very helpful and friendly and let the kids and I wait in the lounge while my husband arranged for someone from the rental car company (situated at the airport) to drive through to the train station to collect us, and us to drop him back at the airport and fill in all the paperwork. Whilst waiting for this I quickly dashed out to take a few photographs of the train for this blog and for the kids memory book. Only managed to snap these two before being pulled away by security saying that I will get in trouble for taking photographs! I did ask why this was a problem, but after the third time I got the same response I decided that this was one explanation that might have to stay a mystery…security reasons perhaps…then again I’ve taken plenty of photographs in International Airports and have yet to get in “trouble” for it – and airports are anal about security!