Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Long Journey by Train

Welcome new readers (hi Gwendolyn)! Just one quick reminder before we get started here. I write all these posts on my tiny, tiny Blackberry. There is no editing and no revision and hence, uncorrected errors abound. I'm sorry, but such is the life of a Blackberry blogger.

And now, our featured presentation...

The last day my mom and I spent in Cape Town (leg one) was spent at the V&A Waterfront and Robben Island. On my first trip to Robben Island, last year, the journey was made on an old boat that had orginally transported prisoners to the island. It was small, cold and windy but historic and atmospheric. It has now been replaced by quite a fancy boat with a much larger capacity. I was disappointed with the change until we encountered rough seas on the way back to the city. It was hardly fun on the big boat, it would have quite unfun on the old, tiny boat.

Anyway, the tour of Robben Island itself is always interesting. It's not just a tour of the prison for which it is famous, but also the World War I-era town, the old buildings from the former leper colony and a few other sights dating from the earliest settlers through the World Wars and apartheid. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Also, there were more penguins, lots of birds and a few seals. Fun fact: Robben is Afrikaans for seal. There, my blog is entertaining AND educational.

Anyway, the next day we said a sad goodbye to Cape Town and dragged ourselves to the train station. We hopped on our train and were soon ensconced in the dining car, drinking champagne and watching the Castle pass by and Table Mountain fade in the distance.

Off we went!

The suburbs went on for a long time, but then we hit wine country and were shocked by how it seemed to stretch on and on forever. Neither of us had any idea of the scale of South African wine production. Trust me, it's not just Paarl, Franshoek and Stellenbosch, it appeared to be most of the Cape.

So there we were, on a train, alternating between our car and the lovely lounge car, passing through mountains and valleys and fields and all kinds of South African scenery that most people would never associate with Africa. There were no lions, no elephants, and just one lousy springbok in the Karoo. Apparently trains aren't great for game viewing, but the scenery was spectacular.

One conversation that kept replaying itself was, "Hey, look!"

"What? Where?"

"Oh, it was ... but we've past it now."


My favorite region was the Hex Valley which we reached around lunchtime. There's a short tunnel before you enter it and then the train follows a small river through it. The tracks are elevated on one side of the valley, so you can look down on the farms and flowers and whathaveyou. It was a far cry from the Northern Cape.

Straight after the valley was an enormous tunnel that seemed to take forever to get through and it looked like a whole other planet once we did. It was the Karoo. An endless plain of dry, desert, nothing. Well, almost nothing, every once in a while the train would whoosh past some cute little town in the middle of nowhere, like Matjiesfontein. Matjiesfontein was some kind of Victorian spa getaway and, from the windows of a train, it looks very much the same today as it probably did then. I'd love to wander back there at some point.

At Beaufort West, the train stopped. We hopped off to wander a bit and take a series of photos that could only exist in South Africa. Every 10 or 20 feet along the station platform was a sign that said "Beaufort West" except that not one single sign actually said that. Every single one of them was grossly mispelled or missing important letters. We caught most on camera before we re-boarded . As the train pulled away we spotted one sign that had the town name spelled properly. One out of a few dozen isn't too bad, right?

Later in the evening the train stopped again. The engine needed to be replaced. The whole operation came to a dead halt in the Karoo while we waited for a new engine to arrive. Ahh, Africa...

The sun went down and we settled into bed, but not before I did something I hadd never considered before. I took a shower. On a moving train. It was a surprisingly nice set-up, not cramped at all. There was also a nifty window. You know, in case you wanted your cleansing with a side of star-gazing.

The next morning we crossed into Gauteng. The scenery was much greener and more agricultural than the Karoo, but it quickly turned to towns and townships as we got closer to South Africa's major cities. Traveling by train was interesting in urban areas because the tracks essentially crossed through people's backyards, where ordinary tourists fear to tread.

After all the time we spent on the train, our legs were a bit shaky back on solid ground and glad as I was to be able to walk about freely, I was sad to say goodbye to the train. It was a great way to see so much of South Africa's scenery and out-of-the-way places in a short period of time. The food was fabulous too, though Mom balked at the biltong. I'd love to travel more via train in Africa. I love the views and the faintly colonial vibe, but I'll probably have to shelve future trips until I'm practically swimming in gold. Shame.

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