Sunday 2 August 2009

Train from Johannesburg to Cape Town

The point of taking the Schoscholoza-Meyl train to Cape Town was to see the great wide-open spaces of the Karoo. A 26-hour journey, it would take us through its heart so, even though we didn’t have time to stop, at least we’d get to see it. As it turned out, I was asleep within 30 minutes of the train pulling out of the station. Which is Jackie’s fault.

Trains have to be the best way to travel. Comfortable, traffic free, environmentally friendly, and the only form of vehicular transport that lets you go for a walk. I do love roads, with their pure lines and perfect curves, but roads seem to accumulate the clutter of life – shops, more roads, people, cars – that train tracks don’t. A train scythes through naked country and makes you feel like you’re right in it, even if only for a moment.

When the train porter came round to all the cabins bringing our bedclothes for the night – two pillows, two sheets and three blankets, including a lovely big furry one - we thought they were overdoing it a bit. They were not. Winter in South Africa is bloody cold, and we were right in it, travelling through one of the coldest regions. Three blankets were nowhere near enough. It was only the next day, whilst twiddling absent-mindedly with a mysterious knob that said “ON / OFF” that we discovered our cabin’s heater.

As we thawed out, the rising sun was casting long shadows behind imposing mountains over a beautifully bleak landscape. Clear, blue sky. We were cross-country. And it was time for breakfast. I don’t really remember when the landscape changed. There’s a chance I was asleep. But quite suddenly, it seemed, we were clearly in wine country. You never seem to be far from a mountain range in South Africa. But now, instead of seeing them in the distance, they were all around us, interspersed, in a show of agricultural landscape gardening, by vineyards and fields alight with greens, reds and golds glowing under the setting sun.

It was night by the time the train pulled into Cape Town station. We knew Table Mountain was there, but we couldn’t see it. We would have to wait.

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