31 Hours Trans-Karoo: Joburg to Cape Town on the Shosholoza Meyl Train
As you may or may not know, I recently fed my little (enormous) obsession with trains and train travel by getting on the Shosholoza Meyl for a 31-hour ride from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Just for kicks.
Although the intended time is 26 hours, by all accounts it would be a shock if that's actually how long it took. A 5-hour delay is pretty great though, considering I only remember stopping for a long period of time at one or two stations in the middle of the night and there were no break downs to speak of.
As you can probably tell, my expectations were not extremely high RE: time and luxury.
SO. Why the Shosholoza Meyl? Apart from above-mentioned obsession, I had some extra time, some airline miles and a friend in Johannesburg about to move to Hong Kong, so I made a spontaneous plan to head north and tick something off my bucket list on the way back down to Cape Town.
How to Book the Shosholoza Meyl
Don't even try and negotiate with the website. Check it for the Shosholoza Meyl routes, timetable and prices then go to your nearest station a few days before your departure to book your seat in person. You can likely book at any station, not necessarily the one you'll be departing from. (Mind you this was in the middle of low tourist season, you probably need to book more in advance in the summer).
At the time of writing, tourist class (you get a bed) costs R690 (US$ 51) and seater tickets (you gotta sit upright the whole way) cost R450 (US$ 34) for adults. As it was a broke time and a freelancer never knows if she'll be paid on time or not, I went for the latter to be safe.
What went down…
We actually left on time which was a huge relief after hearing stories of how the 26-hour journey could sometimes turn into well into 2-day territory. Slow and steady and squeaky, all I had to do now was watch the classic transition from metropolis to informal settlements to bare nothingness.
Honestly there's not much to see in Gauteng province scenery-wise, it's all very flat and a little dry. Into North-West province. "Sunset at Klerksdorp", my first and last little photo/message postcard sent to a friend before the light faded along with my phone and power bank battery.
My neighbours are a pair of raucous kids and their mum (or sister/cousin/kidnapper) but thank goodness the train isn't full so I can just sit with my back against the window and my feet on the aisle seat so they stop looking over my shoulder at my (very violent) Chinese movie on my laptop. They're just kids but that's my pet peeve and it needed to stop. *shrug emoji*
The mum-sister-cousin asks me something in (probably) Xhosa which I explain I don't understand, to which she responds with the customary judgemental "Oh, so you speak English" smirk-comment that I've been met with from people of colour across this whole nation when I explain to them I'm from a different country and don't speak their language(s). What else is new. I let it go with an eyeroll and try and get some sleep. Impossible. She seems to have made friends with a bunch of dudes who won't stop yapping and sitting on my feet which are clearly resting on the armrest of MY seat. *eyeroll emoji* I get up. Cries of "Ooh mlungu is awake!"
(mlungu is the Xhosa and Zulu word for a white person. Sometimes used to refer to a black person who doesn't speak a local language or is otherwise seen to be "acting white". Note they are all fully aware that I speak another African language, just not theirs. Doesn't matter.)
That's my limit. My strategy for the last couple of years when a South African fixes their mouth to call me mlungu for not speaking their language is to go on a rant in Kiswahili - throw some mild insults and clearly ask them questions which they obviously don't know how to answer. I don't get any less attention but it shuts them right up and they get out of my face before I smack them. Works for me. They look at each other chuckling and trying to figure out what on earth is going on then leave me alone. Next stop, Kimberley. Off the lady gets with her two mini companions. Good riddance and good night, babes.
Bed time did come in the end and I woke up in time to catch a beautiful sunrise over the Karoo fields which is almost the entire reason I took this train. It's cold as balls outside which is proven by the thin layer of ice on the inside of the windows which re-forms seconds after I wipe it clean so I get my photos and stop trying.
I start to jot down the places we pass, my thoughts and the time. 7:30- Merriman. 8:20- Hutchinson. 10:15- Beaufort West. First time off the train.
Gazing out the window at the scenery is swapped with intermittent napping and reading all interrupted by the periodical ticket checks by railway staff. One such occasion comes when I have headphones on to continue the Chinese movie.
"I'm sorry, what?' I respond to Esther. "Tickets please, what part of that don't you understand?", she jests in a head-shaking attitude that is wholly unecessary.
"Why are you yelling?", I challenge lazily.
"That's just my voice, don't get scared", "That's just her voice", the other attendant repeated. "Why, you thought I was yelling at you?".
"Look, here's my ticket", I say, ready to put this interaction to bed.
"Woooow, nice attitude. I like your attitude".
"Yeah you too, Esther."
20 hours into this train ride patience with humans is not a priority in life. Gurl, bye.
Back to my peace. 14:00- Matjiesfontein. Lush. Train stops right in front of Lord Milner Hotel. WTF is that Union Jack flag doing flying at its entrance. 15:40- Worcester. Pretty. Green. Mountains. Goddam Rovos Rail parked near our train, to add insult to injury. 17:25- Wellington.
Honestly the rest went by pretty peacefully and uneventful as the sun set once again and we finally pulled in to Cape Town station at around 19:30hrs - 5 hours late, 31 hours in, half a bag of apples down, one pack of fries through and tons of photos taken. I loved it.