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. 


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.

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/.

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