From Johannesburg to Cape Town. What a Crazy Train Ride Taught Me About South African Culture.

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

A microcosm of a culture on board a train ride

To travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town, South Africa, I’ve decided to take the train. I could have taken the bus, but found a train ticket for 100 Rand less than the bus, and I will have a bed for the 27 hour ride! (There are three train classes, the Blue Train which is over $1,000 and full luxury, the Premier Class train which is a few hundred dollars, and my train – the Shosholoza – which is less than $100.) Even though it will be in a shared compartment, it still sounds luxurious, and a lovely way to see the country. 

I buy my ticket online and dream about the lovely experience to come. My bubble is somewhat popped when I’m warned about the Johannesburg train station. I have my Uber driver come inside with me. He takes me to the track entrance, but we’re a little early, so I can’t board yet. My driver walks me over to a policeman and asks him to keep me safe. He actually has to tell the policeman to keep an eye on me. Hmmm. I’m soon allowed to go to the train track but learn I have only a reservation, not an actual ticket. I have to go to another area to get it, and the policeman says he’ll watch my bags. It’s a nice offer, but I just don’t believe my bags will actually still be there, so I take them to the scary, empty corridor, then to the ticket counter (all of which are fine!) and finally, proceed through the boarding gate to my track.

The train waiting area in Johannesburg.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

The waiting area is desolate. There’s not much light. The passengers are all kinds of people. I smile and try not to look scared. A man in a long white robe walks towards me. He stops and says, “Things were so much better under apartheid, know what I mean?” and walks away. I cannot believe he has actually said these words, and I try to figure out what he actually said, and simply stare at him walking away, in shock. Another man walks over to me with a clipboard. He checks my ticket and says I have a big compartment, with 4 beds, all to myself. He wonders if I’d be willing to trade it for a smaller compartment so that a couple can ride more comfortably. I accept.

“Adventure, views of Africa, my own compartment, and great neighbors. How can it get any better?”

We’re at last allowed to board and I’m delighted with my compartment which I have to myself. I take the bottom bed. There’s even a sink which converts to a table. Next door is a lovely young woman moving to Cape Town to start her university studies. She wants to document travel experiences so we talk at length. She has no cash, only credit cards, and hasn’t had any breakfast. I offer to lend her money, but she refuses. Instead, she asks the train manager to let her know what stop she can deboard, runs to an ATM and sorts it out. A few doors down is a couple, Ronel and Charles. I  believe they were guardian angels, no other way to explain them. They are instantly kind to me and protective, wanting to make sure I’m safe.

A train compartment all to myself!

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

Shortly after the train departs, we’re told that we’ll probably be put on buses about six hours later because someone has stolen the cable off the track at one of the train stations. So much for sleeping in a bed! I learn most of this from talking to my university-bound neighbor and Ronel and Charles since all the announcements are in Afrikaans. It’s a wee bit like German, but not close enough for me to make out without their help. A South African man I met in Argentina a few months earlier had told me that theft of metal items is common because scrap metal can be sold for decent money in Africa. But I never imagined someone would have the gall or ability to steal the cable from a functioning train track!

Ronel and Charles, my guardian angels!

A woman comes to my compartment and asks what I’d like to eat for lunch. I had no idea they would bring food to my compartment! Though it’s not gourmet, it seems luxurious to have this service for less than the price of a bus ticket. Sometime later I find out that rail workers were able to restore the cable! Just when I thought we’d for sure continue by rail, I am then informed that track work is happening later on in the journey (separate from the cable issue) and it won’t be completed in time for us to continue. So, rather than keep us waiting for hours, we’ll take buses from that point, to Cape Town. They book two buses for us, which travel from Cape Town, about 12 hours away from the transfer point. This is where things get fun.

Ronel and Charles help me translate the Afrikaans and I learn that the two buses meant to pick us all up are, in fact, picking up other passengers along the way. This means there won’t be room for everyone. I have to decide whether to take a bus, or whether to stay on the train. Ronel and Charles tell me they are staying on the train, and if I do as well, if we end up having to sleep at the train station, they will keep me company. I decide to stay. It works out a good decision, or so I think, because one of the two buses breaks down along the drive. This means there will be only one, partially empty, bus to pick up passengers from our train. My university-bound neighbor makes the transfer.

I’m still not clear how they figured even two of these buses, if empty, would have transported all the train passengers…

Eventually, our train continues which is great because I’m looking forward to having dinner with my friend in Cape Town. But, then the train stops. Apparently an engine broke down. We wait about an hour, and that gets fixed. We’re off! But then a few stations later, we stop again, in the middle of nowhere. This time the brakes have failed. Another long wait, and those are fixed, too. By the time we pull in to the next station, we are so behind schedule that instead of arriving to Cape Town at 3pm it will be more like 9pm. There are no more announcements. We sit at the station for what seems like forever. I notice that, despite all of these hardships and delays, nobody gets angry or complains. I imagine this happening in America on an Amtrak train. There would be anger and shouting and threats of lawsuits by now. People would demand a full refund, and Amtrak would offer apologies and travel vouchers for future trips. Not in Africa. Seems like everyone just laughs and takes it in stride because this happens all the time.
After some chatter, Ronel and Charles tell me the reason for the delay is that the bus that took some of our passengers earlier that day broke down…we’re awaiting their arrival, by another bus, to get back on our train! Then, that proves wrong information. It turns out that because we’re so delayed, we’re waiting for yet another bus to come pick up only the passengers seated in third class. Ronel explains to me that they’ll all be going to the same place and the train can go faster if we skip that stop. It’s clear that we’re now so delayed that another meal, dinner, will need to be served to the remaining passengers. While I watch them outside, Charles explains to me that the conductor is telling his chef to prepare the food for everyone, and the chef is refusing! Apparently the crew would normally take the food home to their families. The conductor tells the chef this is an order from headquarters. He reluctantly obliges. Though dinner portions are tiny, it’s delicious.
The conductor eventually comes to our car and gives a full update, but, again in Afrikaans. This time, I raise my hand, and I say, “um, no Afrikaans?” He responds with, “Are you friends with Donald Trump?” Then he quacks like Donald Duck and we all laugh hysterically. He then explains everything to me in English. We’ll be arriving so late into Cape Town that we can sleep on the train. If we do, he encourages us to lock the doors to our compartments and stay inside until they wake us up at 6am.
As evening approaches, the couple with whom I had swapped compartments begins to get rowdy. They’ve been drinking. A lot. I hear the man screaming to his wife what sounds like, “You vet vecking p…” I was sitting with Ronel and Charles. They both gasped, horrified. I asked them to translate, and learned some VERY bad Afrikaans. So bad, they told me never to repeat the word, so I can’t. I’m secretly very amused that Ronel and Charles actually translate for me because it’s really, really bad language. This cursing couple becomes our free entertainment for the ride, until things get out of hand, and we have to ask the conductor to please keep an eye on them.
We arrive at Cape Town at 2am, 11 hours late.  Though Ronel and Charles live a short distance away, they stay on the train to be sure I’m safe, and give me their cell phone number so that if I have any problem in the middle of the night, I can call them in their compartment instead of opening mine. Guardian angels, like I said. I lock my compartment door and sleep with one eye open because there are people walking outside. At 6am, the conductor comes through and makes us all get off the train. Charles helps me get my bags off the train, then he and Ronel walk with me to the corner where my Uber will pick me up. We hug goodbye, and they see me safely into the taxi. 
I end up feeling blessed to have experienced not just the beautiful landscape the ride offered, and the company of two beautiful people, but a unique view into the culture and a bit of Afrikaans. (Even if some of it was really dirty!) One of my biggest lessons is that, in South Africa, people deal with hardships every day that, to an American, seem at times unacceptable and impossible. But, they often respond by laughing instead of complaining. They expect the road to be bumpy and they ride it anyway. They reach out a helping hand to those that need it. And so my 27-hour turned 38-hour train ride wasn’t just an adventure, it was an experience of Africa that I shall cherish.

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