You miss so much by flying. Our researches had found that travelling on the Shosholoza Meyl Tourist Class train was safe, comfortable and inexpensive. The scenery was supposed to be delightful. We also noted that the train had a bit of reputation for being late, but we did not have a tight connection in Johannesburg so that didn't matter. All our expectations were met.
Rather to our surprise we were instructed to check in an hour before departure. This seemed to be excessive for a train, but we nonetheless arrived at the appointed hour. Signage in Cape Town station was a bit vague, but we found a queue for the Johannesburg train. It was moving very slowly. A single window was open, where a lady unhurriedly performed her duties. Eve stood guard over the luggage while Bill joined in the queue. After a longish while someone called out for anybody who had made an online reservation. Maybe we should have formed a separate queue, because Bill was directed to a different office where our booking was checked and some mysteries were performed that allowed Bill to go back to the first window (without queueing again, thank goodness) and receive tickets. Hooray.
We traipsed along the platform, past wagons loaded with the cars of those who had chosen not to drive for 13 or 14 hours. The train was scheduled to take 26¼ hours. Beyond them was a lot of empty platform, where the passenger wagons were due to arrive. We sat on a bench with another couple, Brenda and Patrick, who turned out to be from Vancouver Island, Canada. During our conversation they asked which compartment we were in. We pulled out our tickets to see, but there was no indication. “Oh, that's on the board by the platform gate”, advised Patrick, so Bill marched back past the wagons with cars to where there was a list of berths pinned to a notice board.
After that the train arrived, we climbed aboard, found our compartment and the journey got under way more or less on time. We trust that the queue of hopefuls at the ticket window all got aboard.
We had a 4-berth compartment to ourselves. The weather was very fine; just right for a sightseeing jaunt through the Karoo. We relaxed and, as we passed through the built-up areas of Cape Town, considered the continuing gulf between the lives of white and black South Africans. It is illegal to set aside areas for one race or another, but wealth and income still severely limit the number of non-whites that can afford to live in the nice suburbs behind spiky fences and razor wire. The poorer areas varied enormously, from shanty towns built with wood and whatever other materials can be scrounged, through boring but apparently sound brick buildings 3 or 4 stories high to what look like quite new and nice bungalows, and quite a lot of variation in between.
Life at the bottom of the heap.
Possibly the worst we saw, with particularly bad littering.
Much more solid buildings.
We saw many buildings that had been started, but had no roof. Presumably the money ran out. We are sure the residents of those shacks would prefer to move on to a modern, brick bungalow.
Not a township!
We were surprised at the number of buildings in the townships with Sky dishes, even in the roughest shanty towns. We were told that Sky is very inexpensive, and presumably television sets are too. At least it argues that electricity is available.
In one collection of ramshackle one-room wooden dwelling places Bill saw a car parked behind padlocked gates set in a solid fence. Ownership of a car would be rare in that community and it was worth protecting.
We were well looked after on the train. A man came and, for R60 each, turned our compartment into a bedroom. We slept well.
The dining car was not far away. It wasn't an extensive menu, and not even all that was advertised was available at any particular time, but the food was well cooked and tasty. The train wasn't crowded, and we spent a good deal of time in the dining car talking with Brenda and Patrick.
There was little obvious wildlife. Birds generally shun trains, but we did see a group of 3 cranes in a farm paddock. Bill thought at the time they were crested cranes, and since the other species have no crest that is most likely what they were. Any crane is uncommon in S Africa, and the crowned crane is endangered.
We had been alerted to look out for a lake “about 10 minutes after you leave Kimberley on the left” where we were bound to see flamingoes. We were having breakfast with Brenda and Patrick when we stopped briefly in Kimberley. Possibly only 5 minutes later we saw the lake. It wasn't right up to the tracks; in fact it was a fair way away. Our companions were a little sceptical when they were told that the pale smudges in the distance were flocks of flamingoes. The train's course did take it a bit nearer the water, and it was admitted that we were observing flamingoes. There are only two species of flamingo in S Africa and they both frequent this lake, so we have probably seen the complete set. But all of them looked quite pale – almost white – which is typical of the greater flamingo. To be certain of identification you have to see how much of the bill is black, but the range was far too great for determining such detail.
In little New Zealand we are used to many hills and, particularly here in the South Island, mountains. South Africa is a large country and has some hills and mountains, but where it really scores over NZ is in large tracts of wide open and pretty flat land. The first few hours were spent rolling across such a plain, with large hills in the distance. They gradually got closer and the transition from plain to hills was so sudden we could almost time it to the second.
We knew that we would be carried across “the Karoo”, but there was go guide on the train to tell us which part was the Karoo and what was special about its vegetation. Karoo lamb is a prized meat because the shrubs the sheep eat make them 'ready-herbed'.
The following photographs were taken from the train, but we don't know exactly where any picture was taken, and we can't tell you anything about the geology or ecology of the region. But it's still nice scenery.
A farm and track.
More farmland. The other end of the field is over the horizon!
We cannot remember now when the first announcement was made that the train would arrive late in Johannesburg. At that time the estimate was 3 hours late. This was quickly amended to 3 hours and 40 minutes. Our friends looked uneasy. They had a plane to catch in Johannesburg at 5:50 to make an important appointment in Windhoek. If the train arrived at the revised time of 4pm they would not have much time to get to the airport in time for check in.
The train stopped. This was the second time it had rested and the passengers had been told that there was no power in the overhead line to take us forward. The sunshine of the first day had been replaced by ever darker cloud. The first spots of rain fell.
Motion returned, and the train continued its unhurried way. No, there was no chance of catching up time. There were speed limits on the track. Playing with Google Maps on the tablet I found that we were little more than 4 hours driving time from Johannesburg. Brenda and Patrick went to have an urgent conversation with the train manager. We gather that it took several conversations before a plan was devised for them to leave the train two stops early and continue by road. Presumably the train company would arrange a taxi.
We haven't been in touch with them since the left the train, so we can only hope they caught their flight.
The delays were not catered for. The dining car stopped serving after lunch. Maybe they had run out of food?
Further delays were not announced. The scheduled quarter past 12 arrival at Park Station in Johannesburg became a reality of 8pm. It was well after dark when we hopefully followed the crowds along the platform that indeed led us to the exit. Our accommodation for that night had recommended the gautrain, Johannesburg's modern, fast rapid transit system. But we would have had to haul our luggage and change trains, so we thought we'd do it the simple but expensive way and get a taxi. A porter helped to get us and our bags to the pick-up point. Well, his English wasn't terribly fluent. Had he understood?
Out with the trusty tablet and summon an Uber car. The app guided us to a pick up point, which agreed with the porter. A driver picked up our request, and was only 10 minutes away. So far, so good. We want this to go quickly and smoothly because Park Station is in a bad part of a very dangerous city according to Wikitravel. We were pestered by a (white) beggar.
The Uber app allows you to watch your driver approach. We knew his name, the model and colour of his car and its registration number. The little car image got close and we started looking for silver cars in the station forecourt. Not that one. No, that's a Honda. The little car on the map stopped in the street. As soon as the traffic lights change. But no, it stayed where it was. After what seemed an age the ride was suddenly cancelled.
If there had been a regular taxi in the forecourt we would have taken it, but there was no sign of a taxi – and no sign to direct us to a taxi rank. We tried Uber again. It was picked up by the same driver and the same frustrating sequence was followed. We could even see what may have the car, about 150 metres away. What do you do in a bad part of town after dark? We decided to stay together with the luggage. Many private vehicles had come and picked up or dropped off passengers so we must be in the right place. Another car drew up beside us and dropped off a young couple. “We're waiting to be picked up by Uber. Is this the right place?” we asked. It was, but by great good fortune the car was operated by Taxify. The driver wasn't working. He was doing a favour for his neighbours, but he took pity on us. “Where are you going?”
On the way to the guest house the driver told us about friction between the regular taxis and Uber/Taxify. Some Uber drivers have been beaten up and their cars burned. Maybe the Uber driver was scared that there was a trap in the station forecourt? We will never know.
The driver told us that he was on the waiting list to become an Uber driver. When that happened he hoped to earn enough money to buy another car and employ someone to drive it. A budding entrepreneur.
The guest house was a house in a suburban street with no signage. There was no answer to the buzzer, and once again we had to telephone to get in to our accommodation in Johannesburg. At least this time the manager was on the premises.
The room was large, particularly the bathroom, and the bed was huge. The room scored only 5 out of 10 for cleanliness, but the bedding was freshly laundered and the plumbing worked.
It was now approaching 10pm. We had had no dinner and the safari would be picking us up between 5 and 6 a.m. on the morrow. We brewed ourselves a cup of indifferent tea in our room, had a bath, and turned in.