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”.


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.

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. 

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.

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/.