“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Never has that quote rung more true than when we took an overnight train from Johannesburg to Cape Town. It was certainly not the quickest, nor most convenient way to travel; a flight would have arrived in just two hours instead of 26 by train. I loved it anyway, because it was one of the few times in life when the travel was as much of an experience as the destination.
There are three options for overnight train travel from Joburg to Cape Town. The Shosholoza Meyl Tourist Class is the cheapest, with no amenities besides a basic cabin. It is probably just fine, but seems to have some issues with reliability. We decided not to take our chances after reading reviews of 20+ hour delays. At the other end of the spectrum is the super luxurious Blue Train. With a price tag of over $1,000 per person for a one way journey, it was way out of our price range. Instead, we rode the Premier Classe train, and it was just perfect for us.
We began by waiting in a lounge at the train station. Our train was a bit delayed, because Premier Classe has some reliability problems of its own. This is Africa, after all. We didn’t mind much, because coffees and cakes were provided. We boarded and found our neat little cabin, two beds already made up. After departure, we made our way to the dining car, where we were served champagne and more cake. Only 2 hours later it was time for our dinner, a five course affair. We followed that with some wine in the lounge area.
The next day, we were served a two course breakfast and three course lunch, and were treated to high tea just before arriving in Cape Town. So, we ate well. We were served cake a total of 5 times, which is a lot more than I usually eat in a 24 hour period.
When we weren’t eating, we lounged in our cabin and watched the country go by. For most the journey, we were crossing a vast expanse of land called the Karoo.
This is South Africa’s heartland, a semi-desert expanse shrub covered planes, punctuated by ancient rock formations. The only sign of habitation was the occasional wind mill or sheep ranch. It looks similar to what I imagine the Australian outback to look like, and was beautiful in its vastness. As we got closer to Cape Town, the desert grew into stark, rocky mountains that filled the whole skyline.
It wasn’t completely glamorous. Sleeping on the train was difficult, as there were frequent stops and starts and the grinding mechanics on the tracks were very loud. The train was a little tired and could use some updates. For example, the latch to our compartment did not close completely. This was a bit worrying for safety reasons, as well as privacy. A member of staff managed to pull it open just as I was getting dressed in the morning, so that was unpleasant.
It is easy to forgive those small gripes, because overall the journey felt like a special treat. There is not much glamour left in plane travel, and certainly none in driving. Riding the train was like taking a step back to a time when travel was a luxury, and was treated as such. To be able to travel still is a luxury, but too often the act of moving between one place and the next feels more like a burden. It was a pleasure to sit back and relax en-route, rather than simply endure the trip. The train journey brought back the romance of travel, as we rolled down the tracks and watched the African wilderness unfold out the window.