Infinitely preferable to bus or plane journeys, the Trans-Karoo Railway runs between Pretoria and Cape Town, passing through the Karoo, forming part of the 22 817km South African rail network. Stopping frequently throughout its 28hr journey, the journey will provide the traveller with a unique understanding of South Africa, and its people.
The South African Passenger lines carry the apocryphal “Shosholoza Meyl” branding, yet this particular line offers a chance to experience a railway journey largely unchanged since the “South African Railways” became “Spoornet”, a parastatal in apartheid-era South Africa.
It is still possible to buy a 1st (R450), 2nd (R350) or 3rd class (economy - R280) ticket. 1$ = R8. 1st Class is likely to be fairly empty, and you are guaranteed a berth in a compartment (4 persons) or coupe (2 persons). 2nd class is identical to first, excepting that the compartments are more cramped (6 persons, coupe - 3 persons). Economy class has only open plan plastic seats – quite uncomfortable.
I have travelled on all three classes of tickets. Cost aside, I would recommend economy class for short journeys, and 1st class for longer journeys. Many Transnet (parent company of Spoornet) employees appear to travel for free in 1st class, and travelling with them is a great opportunity to observe the calibre of individual working for what is still a largely state-run company. Economy class is where everybody who HAS to use the railway sits.
Boarding is a critical time for the traveller. At this point it is important to watch your luggage, as it is particularly vulnerable to criminals. The risk is low, thanks to stringent security measures at the major stations. Your seat/bed will be booked in 1st and 2nd class, but in 3rd class there is a scramble for the premium seats. As a novice traveller in 3rd class, it’s usually best to let the experts scurry on ahead, and then follow and find whatever is available.
My final piece of wisdom in this section is to TRAVEL ALONE. I can’t emphasise this enough. It’s quite safe, providing that you leave your diamonds at home, and you’re guaranteed to experience more humanity than 100 tours to Soweto or Khayalitsha.
Once comfortably ensconced in a compartment, take note the fold down beds and fold-up table. Beneath the table is a small basin. At this point it is a good idea to put a breathable material between yourself and the seat, as the South African Railways’ leatherette material tends to encourage am uncomfortable sweat on the traveller’s posterior as the journey progresses. Note the 2-socket plug on the wall. At this point, it is a good idea to whip out your portable stereo and get some tunes going. No tapes or CD’s please, local radio is the true rail aficionado’s choice.
Now unzip your cooler bag, and pull out the drinks. It is vital to tailor your beverage according to the company you are expecting. In first class, a nice ‘classy’ brandy and tonic will be required, I recommend “Flight of the Fish Eagle Brandy(R40)”, a spirit of rare qualities, most of which escape me at present. Plastic Cups, ice and more booze (wine only) are available from the well-priced dining car.
A packet of cigarettes, or an amount of marijuana is another useful accessory, to pass the time, and to better understand your fellow passengers. Be warned - Suss out your passengers before you whip out that ‘Spliff” (joint). Some self righteous “Tannie” (Grannie, usually in floral outfit) might bust you to the conductor, which may or may not lead to a troubled journey.
Incidently, the train will pass near “Rawsonville”, one of many interesting towns en-route(Stop at Worcester, catch a mini-bus, R10). A town well (dis)reputed for its brandy consumption per capita world record, you can visit the nearby vineyards (Slanghoek, Bergsig) for free tastings(mini-bus, R5). (Sleep at the local backpackers, or in a vineyard - summer only)
Take a seat and look around. It’s important to chat to the people around you. Hell, it’s a long ride to just about anywhere, so people are keen to tell you their view on the lotto. Economy class is where you will experience the gritty realism of South African life, yet you will sure to be buoyed by the personalities you will meet.
Note that the criminal element is a little more prevalent here, so making friends with the people around you will ensure that your goods will stay put.
Planning for economy class is impossible, as anything may happen, but I can recommend a good blanket, a 5 litre box of late harvest (R35), and cigarettes to distribute around the carriage. Anything else may be bought.
Take the Trans-Karoo train in South Africa, travel alone, and be nice to the conductor.