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Maboneng Precinct

After 29 hours I am in Jo’burg when is dark. My destination is Maboneng Precinct, the coolest quote in in town. This inner-city district (also known as City and Suburban) has been converted from industrial warehouses and factories to a happening lifestyle playground. Street art is a big feature here, along with an eclectic selection of restaurants and stores. The pioneer development is Arts on Main, where one of South Africa’s most famous contemporary artists, William Kentridge, has his studios. It’s also home to the inner-city’s major Sunday Market on Main, the Museum of African Design, a cinema, theatre, trendy apartments, restaurants, coffee shops, a culinary institute, the 12 Decades Hotel, Curiocity Backpackers and even a spa. The list just keeps on growing. Maboneng is a Sotho word meaning ‘place of light’.

The night I stay in the Relay (Situations Space Program), a light house  forms part of Curiocity Backpackers located on top of The Main Change Building, a former industrial building converted into offices, retail and cultural spaces. It’s like sleep in an art installation and it’s not a problem the shower on the terrace outdoor  any protections from voyeurs. From there I can see the east side of Johannesburg CBD. Maboneng is home to several independent retail, restaurants and entertainment venues as well as loft apartments, offices, hotel, a museum and creative factory spaces in an urban landscape.

The day after I visit the the Sunday Market on Main and the numerous art gallery on the quarter. Just before to take the 24 hour trip to Dublin (including a 7 hours stop in Istanbul where I have my second breakfast).

Port Elizabeth – Jo’burg by train

The long-distance train from Port Elizabeth  arrives 8 hours late in Jo’burg. “It’s always late,” I was warned at the PE station. Fortunately this time i have my coupe in tourist class and the journey is safe and enjoyable.

Assuming there would be delays, breakdowns and shortages, I brought a box of food and enough bottles of water to last 2 days. The 20 hours trip to Jo’burg usually 30 hours…  In my wagon there a family of afrikaners, a black lady, 2 english girls  and 2 old white couples, one finnish aid worker.

Three hours after  we set off, speeding south, we came to a halt. “There is something wrong. We should not be stopping here”. Four hours later  we were still there. “see what I mean?” It seemed there was a problem with the track. “The heat of teh sun has caused the iron rail to expand and buckle. We must wait until it cools”. This was an unconvincing explanation.

In the 28 hours journey i kill the time listening  great African Music (Hugh Masekela, Vusi Mahlasela, Miriam Makeba, Simphiwe Dana, Phuzeklemisi, Thansiswa Mazwai) and viewing the panorama: part of the Karoo desert, many small villages, fields with eucalyptus and  small forests.

For dinner I sat a table at the wagon restaurant with Anika, an aid worker and an older English couple who seemed tetchy but perhaps were just nervous. They kept their names for themselves. But they did say that they had lived in southern Africa since 1960 and,  “We could never live in England now”. They were taking a holiday. The man said he was a train buff. “My dream is to take the Trans-Siberian. But I have health problems.”

They lived in a suburb about fifteen miles north of Johannesburg. Of course, there was crime there, the man said; there was crime everywhere, He gave an example.

I was coming home a few years ago and stopped in my driveway. I got out of my car to open the gate and was surrounded by three champs. They had guns. They were shouting at me – they wanted my car -. My wife heard the noise. She thought I was talking to the neighbors. She came out with our two dogs’.

“So you were safe?”.

“not a bit. The dogs were useless. They thought we were going for a ride. The wagged their tails. My wife was pistol-whipped and I was hit hard. We both needed stitches. We lost the car. But, you see, that could have happened anywhere”.

“Anywhere in South Africa”.

“Quite”.

The train arrives in Jo’burg the day after at 8:30PM instead 11:30AM. I have 24 hours to visit the coolest quarter in Jozi and sleep one night in an art installation.

Hoerikwaggo trail and the restaurant in Potchefstroom

“This is a First World country with a Third World mentality”, said  Mark our Afrikaner guide. It could be easily have been applied to so many countries in the world that I had seen. Italy included.

We don’t need really a guide for the three day hike From Cape of Good Hope to Cape Town, but I decided to join a group. Safer and less boring than a solo hike.

“Human being are made of relationships and memories. I have to stay”, said Mark when I asked if he was considering to move abroad. He is in his 60s and most of his friends left the country at the end of the Apartheid. “My mother is Irish, my father was German, but I never applied for a second passport and now it is too late” he said.

“Now the country is less tranquil than in the past. I am not racist”, Mark said. “But the black in this country think they are being passed over for jobs. In the squatter camps they have no jobs, no money. They thought that after the apartheid they would get jobs. When it didn’t happen they began to get wild”.

My company for the three day hike is  a couple from Iowa (but living in San Francisco) Kerry and Eric and a brother and sister from Sydney Matt and Lisa. Eric is a doctor and has just finished a 6 month project in Tanzania. The Australian are taking a gap year.

The Table mountain national park includes granite and sandstones mountains, giant-boulder-strewn beaches and shady forests. To reach the mountain’s 1088 summit from the Cape of Good Hope we took many hiking routes, but mainly the 80km Hoerikwaggo trail runs the full length of  the peninsula from Cape Point to the upper cableway station. The weather is great and along the trail we meet many flowers and plants and penguins, baboons , zebras and antelopes.

We slept in beautiful designed tended camps where we meet different people: Afrikaners, coloured, Americans, Swedish and we have BBQs together. On Friday 17 I share my bottle of Jameson and we celebrate Saint Patrick around the bonfire.

At the Orange tended camp I met Andile, a black man that is helping us to cook ostrich sausages and hoek  (merluzzo di mare in Italian). Andile has grown up in Polokwane and a gone to a black school there.”It was just a country school, he said. I was very young and didn’t know anything. But one day we took the train to Potchefstroom to play another school at football. After the game we were so hungry! We walked to a restaurant. We saw white people inside, but they wouldn’t let us in. They said, “Go to the  window.” Beside the restaurant was the window where we were served.”

Andile said, “Here it was take-away for black peoples during sit-down for white people. We didn’t get angry. That was the situation. We got used to it, but that was my first experience of “Go the window”. I never sat in a restaurant. Even now -true- I don’t know how to use a restaurant. You need money, yes, but you also have to know what to do when you get inside. I don’t feel comfortable.

The signs “Slebs blankes, white only”, persisted into the late 1980s.


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Cape Town and the train to Khayelitsha

The C of Cape Town seems meaning  contrast. Here I saw the most clear difference in the South African society . From the V&A waterfront, the historic working harbour with a spectacular setting and many tourist-oriented attractions, including masses of shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas and cruises to the squatter camps made with sheet metals around the city.

The town is dominated by magnificent Table mountain, its summit draped with cascating clouds, its flanks coated with unique flora and vineyards, its base fringed by golden beaches.

Because the delay of the train from Jo’burg I have no time to visit the Robben Island. The island is the local Alcatraz and it was used as a prison from the early days of the VOC right up until 1996. Nelson Mandela spent many years incarcerated here.

I decided to take train to Simonstown, the charming town close the penguin colony of Boulders. I went to the station but the train was not in service because “someone stole some cables yesterday”. Howewer another train, to Khayelitsha, was scheduled.  I was in the mood for train. Unable to find  Khayelitsha on my map, I went to the information counter and inquired as to its whereabouts. The clerk, a young affable man of mixed race, showed me the place on the map. Then he leaned across the counter and smiled and said, “Don’t go there”.

“Why not?”

“It’s too dangerous” he said . “Don’t go.”

“I’m just taking the train. How is that dangerous ?”

“The train was stoned yesterday”, he said.

“How good youbknow it will be stoned today?”

He had a beatiful smile. He knew he has dealing with an ignorant alien. He said, “The train is stoned every day.”

“Who does it? Young kids?”

He said, “Young, old, lots of people. From the town. They are not playing. They are angry. And they do a lot of damnage. How do I know? Because yesterday I was on the train to Khayelitsha. With my friend – he’s a driver. We were in the driver’s cab. When the stones come he was hit in the side of the face. He was all bloody. Listen, he’s in the hospital. He’s in rought shape. He was just doing his job.”

This convinced me. Before go to bed I took a city sightseeing hop-on, hop-off tour  (blue and purple lines, the Italian audio with Spanish, Russian and English speakers is funny and almost completely wrong) with 3 stops: the beautiful Kirstenbish Botanic Garden, Groot Costantia for a shot of wine testing and Hut Bay, where helicopters collect waters to tame a fire on the mountains.

I slept at the St. Paul’s guest house in a very handy location. A quite alternative to the noise-plagued Long street St backpackers. Long street is a busy commercial and nighife thoroughfare, partly lined with Victorian-era buildings featuring lovely wrought-iron balconies, once formed the birder of the Muslim Bo-Kaap. In Long street I have a dinner at the very good  Ethiopian restaurant Madam Taitou.

What impressed me in Cape Town was is smallness, its sea glow, its fresh air; and every human face was different, everyone’s story was original, no one really ageeed on nothing, except that Cape Town, for all its heightened contadiction, was the best place to live in South Africa. 

Apparently Cape Town looks saver than Jo’burg. Maybe because the security guards in each corner of the city centre. No sooner had I decided the place was harmonious and tranquil that I discovered the crime statistics – car hijacking, rapes, murders, and farm invasions ending in the disembowelling of the farmers. Some of the most distressed and dangerous squatter.   A settlements of my entire trip I saw in South Africa. Costantia comes in mind, with its mansions and gardens, but I also saw miseries in this republic of splendors. 


Sardinia Bay

After the 3 days hike and a quick visit of Cape Town I flow to Port Elizabeth (PE for short) this morning and I am enjoying the African sun on the beach now.

The flight from Cape Town is interesting because you can see from the cloud the 4 milion town and the Cape peninsula. The small South African Express ATR flies along the coast. If you are enough cleaver to ask for a window seat on the left (seat A!) you can see hundreds of beatiful desert sandy beaches.  

PE fringes Algoa Bay at the western end of the Sunshine Coast, and offers many good bathing beaches and surf spots.

I have just a couple of hours before to take the train to Jozi and I have time to visit just one beach. I have chosen Sardinia Bay.

Sardinia beach is a big Buggerru (beach on west of Sardinia); 10 kilometres long of wide sandy beaches. A take a roobois cappuccino in a kiosk in the beach and the barman, an Austrian man moved in SA 12 years ago, said that the beach  is the best place for surf and swim because “the warm waters of the Indian Ocean”. He forgot to mention the many sharks living in this area.

I have a very fast bath on the ocean. Fast because the sharks and because the water is icy. 32 degrees on the beach, 0 degree in the “warm ocean”. Apparently in summertime the water is cooler because the cold water coming from Antartide (“iceberg defrost effect”). I am going to have a walk over the large sand dunes and then I will take a taxi to the railways station.

In the 20 hours (or more) long distance train PE -Jozi I think to have enough time to write a couple of posts and share some photos of Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope 3 days  hike. I have a lot of stories to share. 



A noisy, joyful and moveable feast 

I have survived. After 29 hours I am in Cape Town safe and sound. It was very tough but I am happy to have chosen to take the long distance train with just a seat ticket. I don’t recommend it to anyone and I don’t think to repeat the experience but now I am happy to have gone for it. 

At the very beginning I had some problems to go up to the economy class wagons because the train conductor was incredulous of my economy ticket; he spent most of the 29 hours checking if I was ok. 

The wagon was terrible warm, dirty and full of people. The seats are old and basically is impossible to use them to sleep. The toilets are small but clean.

The other passengers were very surprised to see me. One of them tried to protect me with some advice. One was to never show the smartphone specially if it is expensive. “Someone could cut your thumb to unlock it!” He said. I think he was joking. Anyway…. My original plan was to stay in my solitary coupe’ in complete relax most of the time making photos and videos and listening to South African Music. but… My iPhone 7 Plus was for 29 hours in my pocket, I took just three photos at the end of the journey. 

I was very cautious in the first 15 hours and I slept with my sunglasses, one eye closed and the other one open. In the morning of the second day I was feeling safe and more social. It helped to share some food for the breakfast and play music together. Fortunately, I had brought my harmonica in this trip. The wagon filled with music and loud chatter in the morning.

The people in my wagon were simple, easygoing and fun. They were trying to make fun of me in an innocent way and they were nice people. It was a great experience meet them in such A long trip. Just at the end nobody really understood why if I was so rich to pay the 1000 Rand (70euro) for the flight jo’burg – Cape Town I was there…  

I was too busy to survive in the first part of the journey and to socialise in the second part that I did not pay much attention to the view. The scenario was very interesting anyway. I noticed mainly three things:

The slams and the bidonvilles full of rubbish along the way. South Africa is not just the exsclusive Cape Town’ waterfront.

The Karoo desert. By taking the train, you can see it at the sunrise and it is an impressive endless red land. We stopped there for an hour. Rumors said that the reason was a crash with few zebras.

The approach to Cape Town with Table mountain and the vineyards.

Tomorrow I will start the 3 days hike.

Third class rail journey in Africa

Shit happens. Specially if you are a solo backpacker traveler in Africa. My coupe ticket in tourist class that I booked one month ago, because a of a mistake of my online travel agency, is not reserved. And the tourist class is fully booked.
At the Super modern Park Station in Jo’burg a lady at the sales ticket office suggests to buy a seat ticket. I ask if it safe and she said: “I don’t know, I never take it. It should be fine”.

There are two classes in normal South African trains (I am not talking about the luxury trains for tourists like the Blue Train): the tourist class (previously the first class for European white people) with beds, restaurant, security, showers, etc. and the economy class (originally the third class for no white people) with just seats. 

My South Africa lonely planet guide does not recommend the economy class because IT is unsafe and uncomfortable. I went on many Inter Rail journeys in my twenties and have no showers, no bed and no restaurants for one day is not a huge problem. I would like just to have no troubles in my journey.

I spenT 90 minutes thinking what to do and I decideD to take the risk. The dilemma is either to return safe and sound at home as I promised to my partner and/or prove to myself that I am not becoming an old lazy tourist.

I decided to take the risk. I placed my money and my credit cards in three different places. There was a Kwik Spar nearby. I bought four litres of water (it’s sunny and very hot today), some bread, chicken ham, nuts, fruits and a couple of beers. Candidly I asked if I could buy a knife. I can’t. I took my scissors from my ruscksack. My only weapon in case of attack are scissors with rounded tips.

I went back to the sales ticket office but another clerk at the desk said that IT is better not to buy the ticket because the seat ticket are not for tourists (she means not for white people I suppose). So I wait for the “It should be fine” lady. She has no problem to sell me ticket. I think that she hates me.

There are hundreds of passengers, in the tourist class all black people plus two old German couples, one guy with a French accent and a young couple, both very blond, I think that they are Afrikaners. In the economy class I am the only white. I don’t think to be the first white European taking the 27 hours long-distance train in economy class, but apparently it is very rare. I will see why in the next hours.

Jo’burg

After 15 hours of flights via Istanbul I’m in Johannesburg. An ugly city far to seas, rivers, harbours located in a 1700 metres plateau where there was a gold miner. Ugly, but interesting with a huge  development of new buildings and positive vibes. I visited Soweto, I saw a show at the Matket theatre and I spent 2 hours at the apartheid museum.

I have a bed in the progressive street of Malville. I choose the lucky bean guesthouse, a peaceful and welcoming b&b with stylish, large and cosy rooms. The property is 20 minutes walk to the lucky bean restaurant where you can eat for few euro superb ostrich fillet, springbok pie, boerowors and umnsqususho (sugar bean and Samp) and Portuguese steaks.  

Tomorrow will be a long day.



Accommodations in South Africa

South Africa offers a range of good value and interesting accommodation. Below my beds for the weekly trip.

Fri 10/03/2017 – Aeroplane

sleeping aeroplane
Sleeping aboard aeroplane

Sat 11/03/2017 – Johannesburg

Lucky Bean Guesthouse
Lucky Bean Guesthouse

Sun 12/03/2017 – Johannesburg – Cape Town

Shosholoza Meyl Train 2-berth
Shosholoza Meyl Train 2-berth

Mon 13/03/2017 – Cape Town

St. Paul's Guest House
St. Paul’s Guest House

Tue 14/03/2017 – Cape of Good Hope

Smitswinkel Bay Tented Camp
Smitswinkel Bay Tented Camp

Wed 15/03/2017 – Smitswinkel Bay

Orange Kloof Tented Camp
Orange Kloof Tented Camp

Thu 16/03/2017 – Table Mountain National Park– Cape Town

St. Paul's Guest House
St. Paul’s Guest House

Fri 17/03/2017 – Port Elizabeth – Train

Shosholoza Meyl Train 2-berth
Shosholoza Meyl Train 2-berth

Sat 18/03/2017 – Johannesburg

Relay (Situations Space Program)
Relay (Situations Space Program)

Sun 19/03/2017 – Johannesburg – Aeroplane

Sleeping aboard aeroplane
Sleeping aboard aeroplane

 

Rail Journeys in South Africa

If you say to middle-class South Africans that you want travel by train in South Africa they think that you a completely crazy. Trains are not always safe, the delay could be of hours or days, and very few Europeans try the standard trains in South Africa. Sometimes western people takes the luxuriant trains. I am going to take the normal train in tourist class: the Shosholoza Meyl long-distance passenger train.

There are several completely different train services:

Shosholoza Meyl long-distance passenger trains

Comfortable & amazingly cheap. Shosholoza Meyl long-distance passenger trains link Johannesburg with Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth & East London.  The Cape Town to Johannesburg train passes the same wonderful scenery as the megabucks Blue Train, but costs only 690 Rand ( I paid for the Johannesburg – Cape Town in 36 hours, €60  including a  2-berth just for me).  Durban to Johannesburg is even cheaper.  Shosholoza Meyl’s Tourist Class trains have sleeping-cars and a restaurant car, a great alternative to flying and missing everything, or being stuck in a bus seat for whole days & nights.

Premier Classe trains

Premier Classe trains link Cape Town & Johannesburg weekly for R3,120 (€200) including use of a cosy private sleeper and all meals & afternoon tea in the elegant restaurant car as you pass the South African scenery.  There’s a spacious lounge-bar car too.   There’s no also a Jo’burg to Durban Premier Classe train.  See train times, fares, photos & how to buy tickets.

The Blue Train, Cape Town to Pretoria

A world-famous luxury train from Cape Town to Pretoria once or twice a week.  It costs from 10,120 Rand (€1100) one-way including meals, wine and even cigars.  Worth it if if you are a bore billionaire.

Gautrain linking Jo’burg, Pretoria & Jo’burg airport

Gautrain is the brand-new safe and modern electric suburban train service around Johannesburg.  The Airport Line links Jo’burg’s O.R. Tambo international airport with Sandton.  The North-South Line links Park Station in central Johannesburg (used by Shosholoza Meyl and Premier Classe long distance trains) with Sandton and Pretoria.

Metro suburban trains

Suburban (Metro) trains around Johannesburg & Pretoria are not safe, but those around Cape Town maybe  can be used if you’re reasonably careful to travel from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, Paarl & Simon’s Town.

Cruise trains (Rovos Rail, Shongololo)

There are several luxury cruise trains in South Africa, run by companies like Rovos Rail or Shongololo, aimed a tourists with western-style prices.

JB Train Tours

Train tours, mostly from jo’burg to locations including Cape Town, Kruger national park, the garden route, Namakwa and Mozambique.

Umgeni Steam Railway

Steam-train trips in KwaZulu-Natal.

Atlantic Rail

Steam-train excursions from Cape Town to Simon’s Town and the Winelands

International travel to & from South Africa by train, bus & sea

Unfortunately, there are now no international trains (other than occasional tourist cruise trains) from South Africa to Namibia, Botswana or Zimbabwe.

Freight ships with limited passenger places plus an occasional cruise liner link the UK with Cape Town.  Start with your search with www.strandtravelltd.co.uk and www.cruisepeople.co.uk, two UK agencies which book both cruise liners and freighters.  Cunard have occasional sailings from Southampton to Cape Town, see www.cunard.com.  The St Helena steamship also have very occasional sailings from the UK to Cape Town, see http://rms-st-helena.com/.

sa-south-africa-train-map