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TAKE THE SA TRAIN: People all over the world, join the...

South Africa


People all over the world, join the Meyl Train

Dining car on the Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe. Photo:

The luxury of not having to rush somewhere by the fastest means of transportation possible means the opportunity to savour an earlier technology – the train. But a key part of the trip becomes the journey itself. All aboard for the Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe – and, yes, that’s just how they spell it.

Rather than rushing from Johannesburg to Cape Town by the usual means in a quick trip crammed inside a long metal tube with hundreds of others as it flies through the air and arrives in less time than it takes to read a long short story (although the trips to and from the airport can be torturous); this time around, I elected to travel by train on what is billed as a 24-hour journey, via Prasa’s (Passenger Rail Agency of SA’s) top-of-the-line passenger rail express train, aside from the internationally known, ultra-luxury Blue Train.

Well, okay, this particular trip ultimately took more like 28 hours, what with a nearly one hour late departure from Johannesburg’s Park Station, and then three hours of additional halts all along the route. But, hey, we weren’t in it for speed but the experience instead.

It is hard to explain, specifically, but I have always had a love of the idea of travel by train. Perhaps it is a holdover from childhood when I once lived in a small city near Philadelphia that had a rail line that ran just a couple of city blocks away from where I stayed. In the evening, especially, when it was easier to hear and the sound seemed to travel further, there would be the rumble of a goods train along that track. There was always a train whistle warning cars approaching a near-by level crossing to stay out of the way as the locomotive and its cars came closer. The whistle had that high-pitched sound, then a low moan, courtesy of the Doppler effect. The train seemed to symbolise the idea of adventure and travel, even if it was, in reality, just a long freight train bound for the vast industrial landscapes of northern New Jersey.

This was back in the years when the majority of travel across the country was still by the passenger trains that snaked across the landscape, and where many – perhaps most – commuters still rushed to board local trains (and buses) every working day, rather than go to work in personally driven automobiles. Yes, America was in love with its Fords and Chevys, but more often it made the trip by the Pennsylvania, New York Central, Union Pacific or Santa Fe Railroads – or the dense commuter rail networks leading out from the big cities.

But this love of trains stayed with me as I travelled around the world. The rail networks in Japan are justly famous for their speed and efficiency as typified by the Shinkansen, those “Bullet Trains”, that roar between the country’s major cities at astonishing speeds. But, it is the country’s large grid of local trains connecting small towns and rural areas with the larger metropoles that can be profoundly entertaining and enlightening.

Once, while travelling through the rural hinterland on the island of Shikoku, I was on a train winding its way between the regional cities of Takamatsu and Kochi. I was supposed to catch a smaller local train that met up with the bigger one on the larger line near Kochi and this train was now running late. In this emergency, the conductor on the train announced his apologies to the passengers via the intercom that he was deeply embarrassed our train was going to arrive around a minute and a half late. I clearly remember his apology: “Anyone whose onward travel has been inconvenienced by this should please report to the stationmaster for assistance.”

I actually was about to be inconvenienced, because I was planning a quick transfer to the “milk run” local that would take me to another more distant village that had some claim to fame as a good place to find old Noh theatre masks. But it really didn’t matter. I was travelling for the fun of the journey, not just the destination. As a result, this disaster-in-the-making actually gave me two hours to explore on foot the area around this small station, while I was waiting for this next possible train to my intended next destination.

And yes, lest readers doubt the veracity of this traveller’s tale, in those days my Japanese language skills were just sufficient to gain a sense of the conductor’s deep anguish. Without meaning to, I burst into giggles at the imagined prospect of the scene where I would angrily confront that stationmaster to complain about this intolerable 90-second disaster, traducing the much-vaunted Japanese rail network, as the stationmaster contemplated the imminent end of his, up-until-that-moment, so-far successful career in the Japanese railroad business. But for some, it really is not a joke. The Japanese public transportation schedules are so precisely timed and co-ordinated between the country’s trains, subways, buses, cable cars, monorails and ferries that people missing a connection might easily have their entire workday thrown into chaos.

One used to be able to buy a thick paperback book, published monthly, and available everywhere, that contained the precise schedules of every public conveyance in Japan in it, along with route maps and explanations of key points of interest. Every frequent traveller carried one in his briefcase or knapsack like a holy text. Nowadays, I bet this guidebook is on the internet, and connectivity on board most trains is guaranteed. Similar in utility to this guide, we still have a tabletop sized map of greater Tokyo, an area that contains about 60 million people living and working in it, on which surface is printed every – yes, every – bus, train, subway, cable car, monorail and ferry line, along with symbols denoting all of their stops, and with little blocks showing all of the interchange possibilities to help the user plan a trip properly.

In subsequent years, we travelled as a family across the US by train – even though it was a pale shadow of what might have been possible on the old Twentieth Century Limited or the Super Chief express. Then there were journeys down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore, via a train that seemed left over from the filming of the movie, or the reality of it, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, along with travel the length of Java on an antiquated but surprisingly comfortable sleeper train between Surabaya and Jakarta redolent of the ghosts of Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. Then there were the funicular railway rides up and down the mountain in Hong Kong along with many other trips.

We never did the Trans-Siberian Express (although we had friends in Moscow who kept encouraging us to do it while we were still in Japan). But Chinese maglev trains and those French super-fast trains must still wait for future travels.

But, back to the present. With some work responsibilities looming in Cape Town, I scheduled a seat on the Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe from Johannesburg to Cape Town and return to get a real feel for the journey, the people, the landscape and the sense of how train travel still functions in today’s South Africa. No, it is not that luxury liner in the Alfred Hitchcock film, North by Northwest, the one where Cary Grant wears in that magical blue suit that never wrinkles and he gets the girl, played by Eva Marie Saint, or the sybaritic Venice-Simplon Orient Express along with Hercule Poirot and a gaggle of possible killers, but it was still something worth doing.

The first challenge for this trip was actually booking a ticket. Most travel agents don’t seem to be able to do it for you, so the online booking form seemed the only real option. To do so, you need to request a reservation, get a confirmation eventually, and then receive a link to a secure payment site that is less than accessible, as some electronic devices don’t seem to be able to conclude the process. We tried three of ours before we were finally able to complete the payment process. Then, eventually, a reservation confirmation – not exactly a ticket – arrives and with that document in hand you go to Park Station to board the train after you check in.

Leaving home, we took an Uber ride to the station. That may have been a mistake. All the way to the station, the driver kept trying to convince me to go to the Rosebank Gautrain station and take that commuter line to Park Station, instead of going directly to that latter station. The reason? In Johannesburg, the city’s metered taxi drivers have been on a rampage against the Uber drivers, and they have taken to smashing windshields or carrying out some serious bodily harm to anyone who is an Uber driver who dares roll up to the entrance to the station.

After an increasingly irritating debate about this, the driver compromises just enough to leave me off in the middle of Rissik Street with my two bags. My task now is to take my chances with the heavy morning rush hour traffic barrelling down this road, so I can cross over to the entrance to the station. Eventually.

Despite everyone’s fears that I will be mugged inside the station, we roll on inside with some real attitude in place (this is my space too, folks), and we are ushered into the special Premier Classe waiting room, outfitted with the kind of furniture you would expect in a spiffy small town dentist’s office of the 1980s, complete with a small bunch of flowers on a side table.

Prasa staff are busy being extra cheerful, relieving us of our bags so they can put them in our respective cabins, setting out plates of food heaped with little tea sandwiches, bowls of biltong, chips, and nuts, and platters of cheeses, crackers, two types of cake, sweet biscuits and some fresh fruit. And drinks – pretty much whatever you want in the morning, except for the hard stuff. There are about two-dozen passengers waiting here and everything seems a curious echo of old-style South African Railways hospitality, circa 1980.

The only real difference between then and now seems to be that the staff are now largely black South Africans bustling around, and the complexion of the passengers is mostly, but not completely, white. A bit of quiet surveying among the departing guests shows that most of them are foreign tourists – Canadians, Germans, Dutch citizens, two Frenchmen, and even a few Americans. No one seems to be in an urgent hurry, a good thing since the train only departs an hour after the schedule says it will.

But it turns out we’re not taking the usual route for this train, either. The train master announces that due to signals maintenance (South African residents immediately think: “Ah, cable theft again”), we will not follow the usual route on through Krugersdorp. Instead, we will be travelling through Kliptown and Orlando in Soweto, until we rejoin the main line some kilometres further on.

This unplanned diversion gives the tourists, now assembled in the lounge car, a chance to gawk a bit at row after row of RDP housing, the sprawling, spreading informal settlements, and the general sense of broken civil services now too often self-evident in such places – although satellite television dishes sprout everywhere, even from some of the meanest of the shacks. As we slowly wind through these neighbourhoods, the train passengers can see people picking through rubbish piles, doing their laundry and other household chores, or idling on front stoeps – but of real work, not so much. No construction; no restoration; no upgrading seems under way on this day.

Once we have settled into our individual compartments (there are cabins for single travellers and doubles), we find the amenities pack (bathrobe, slippers, soap, shampoo, body wash, towels and so forth), and examine the comfortable padded bench that will convert into a sleeping berth later. In the lounge we have been told about the dining car arrangements and we discover that a “programme” has been placed in our cabins listing all the meals we will be fed, and the hopeful departure and arrival times.

Lunch is, naturally, a three-course meal. There is a small portion of grilled fish, then a big piece of roast chicken and vegetables served the old-fashioned way from a three-part dish, followed by frozen parfait and coffee. One of our travelling companions, a train enthusiast who knows pretty much everything there is to know about these matters, waxes eloquent on the taste of old-style railroad coffee. We speculate about the secret ingredients: Was it a bit of eggshell? Or was it a dash of salt along with some other unknown potion? Alas, nowadays, on the train is instant coffee. But the rest of the meal is quite good, especially considering it has been fresh cooked right on the train, rather than the kind of ersatz food handed out on air flights.

By now it is time to go back to the lounge car for conversations and window gazing, watching the Highveld landscape slide past, mile after mile of those winter browns, yellows and grays, with those typical mine dumps and tailings off in the distance as those Witwatersrand towns strung out along the west slip past.

As the light begins to dim, it is time to retreat to the dining car for yet another meal – even though tea/coffee/cake have been served in the meantime, just in case. For the evening meal, there is a fresh pureed vegetable soup (broccoli?), then a bit of grilled fish, followed by roast lamb and various vegetables covered in sauces. These are rich, mega-caloric and tasty, but they are devastating to anyone’s aims of dieting. Once again, there is a frozen desert and coffee (although beer, wine and soft drinks are extra). And then there are the inevitable trays of six types of cheeses, relishes and biscuits.

Anyone who has ever had a Sunday hotel lunch in South Africa knows this menu intimately – especially if you had that dining habit a generation earlier. There are absolutely no concessions to the new cuisines on offer in hipster restaurants.

Replete, one stumbles back to one’s compartment to discover that the porters have slipped in and rearranged things. The seat is now a bed, the sheets are spread, a warm blanket is there, the pillows are plumped and the bathrobe is across the half-opened bed. Soon enough Morpheus (and far too much rich food) encourages sleep.

Around now, the fun begins in earnest outside. We stop. We wait. And then the train starts again. In what appears to have been the switching yards in De Aar, at around 2am, we stop for an engine equipment change (I think, since I was in the final stages of food intoxication). Or maybe it has been a train drivers’ crew switch. Whatever. By now, in the silence of the Karoo, the full moon shines through the cabin window and sleep comes again. The track bed has been rougher than it really should be, apparently due to uneven maintenance, but even that uneven syncopation has a lulling effect on a body laden with food.

Awakening at around seven, before breakfast, I lurch down the car to the shower cabin and take a luxurious, even scalding hot shower. The controls – hot/cold – call for micrometre-style precision adjustment, but really, how can one complain about it? It is bracing. Then it is off to breakfast and here is our first moment of disappointment from the groaning board. While they will cook eggs to order, the only cereals available are stuff that comes in cardboard boxes. There is no porridge or oats. But the coffee is stronger than it was the previous evening and the scenery is starting to shift.

Soon enough, after a tunnel or two, we have left the Karoo with its sheep and landscapes of Spartan vegetation, and we are suddenly looking at vineyards, wheat stubble, other fruit and vegetable crop fields (just harvested) as the rolling landscape presages the iconic visages of the Western Cape. Then there are small towns and cities, and, coming closer to Cape Town, wineries and fruit processing plants. Soon enough, we are scanning the horizon for the first sighting of Table Mountain. Much more than on an airplane, a sense of anticipation of arrival is very much a part of the train experience.

The train finally glides into Cape Town, but at a grandly leisurely pace, a serene three hours late. As a result, the chefs have had to prepare yet a second lunch for the not-so-hungry passengers – but only three courses this time. Somewhere they have found sufficient food in the galley to whip up this final meal for us.

At Cape Town station, we stumble out onto the street, looking for taxis or rides, and then it is off to our respective destinations. My daughter meets me, and says she is amazed how relaxed I look (in comparison to my usual anguished look after a plane trip). She is right. Despite the delays, it has been a pleasant, rewarding trip.

Thinking back over the journey, I realise that even largely out of reach of email, instant messaging, and the rest of the social media cloud, we have not been severed from the real world entirely. Watching the landscape slide by, even through the driest parts of the Karoo, there are almost always wire fences running parallel to the railroad lines. This puts a whole new spin on the idea of an open, empty expanse of that vast land. Someone owns nearly all of it, and it has been measured, delineated, and fenced off from the possibility of any others, “outsiders”, being there. From that observation it is just a short jump to some hard thinking about South Africa’s current national argument about who really owns the land now – and who should hold it instead – going into the future.

This, in turn, triggers thoughts of all the people who have come before the rails, the roads, the old telephone lines, and those ubiquitous fences. The San hunters were there first – until they and the Khoi herders were swept aside or turned into a kind of permanent serfdom by the hands of newcomers moving northwards. Those were the trekboers fighting against subsequent African tribal opponents as they moved northeast towards the lands that became the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Thereafter there were waves of yet newer migrants, traders, adventurers, crooks, miners, and carters, all drawn to diamond fields in Kimberley and then the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. They were followed by British imperial troops subduing those two Boer republics at the turn of the 20th century. It is a tangled, often-bloody history of victors and the oppressed.

But the strangest moment of the trip comes two nights after I have arrived and settled into my daughter’s apartment in Cape Town. One of the music enterprises she works with is a tourism venture – the jazz safari hosted by Coffeebeans Routes. Through this project, visitors to Cape Town enjoy a home-cooked meal in a Cape Town home – usually Cape Malay-style or traditional African foods, for example. Then, after dinner, they have an option for evening entertainment as they go on to another home for some live music by a local professional performer.

On that night, three guests – one American and two from Canada – have been escorted to my daughter’s flat for her music. Amazingly, the Canadians turn out to be some of the same people I have just travelled to Cape Town with, and the American with them is scheduled to return to Johannesburg with me on the same train next week. Now what are the odds of that and how often would that have happened by plane? DM


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