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Past Travels: South Africa by train

I can't believe it's fifteen years since I was in South Africa to research this particular story that appeared in The Guardian, travelling from Cape Town to Johannesburg by rail.

While there are some very luxurious, and pricey, ways to make the journey - namely the Blue Train and Rovos Rail - there is an alternative called Shosholoza Meyl (Premier Classe) that's much easier on the pocket, although that doesn't mean you're slumming it by any means.

At the moment this service seems to be a victim of Coronavirus, but fingers crossed that it's up and running again sometime in 2021, once international travellers are allowed back into South Africa.

A glass of chilled champagne served in a gently swaying lounge-car with Table mountain fading from view helps soften the blow of leaving Cape Town. You can fly from the "Mother City" to Johannesburg in two hours for less than £40* but if you've got time, I'd recommend the train.

Never mind that it takes 26 hours to cover 1,000 miles travelling mostly at a stately 60mph. It offers a fantastic window on the beautiful countryside that ranges from vineyards and soaring mountains to semi-desert and veldt as far as the eye can see.

But the price? Well, yes, the Blue Train is undoubtedly expensive, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime treat for most people and one of the great railway journeys of the world to boot. Count on around £900* for a one-way ticket. Thing is, though, I'm not on the Blue Train, and I'm getting change from £200*.

The Trans Karoo (or Shosholoza Meyl, from the Zulu ", move forward", as the country's intercity trains are now branded) leaves Cape Town for Jo'burg every day. But once a week on Tuesdays northbound, and Thursdays southbound, two deluxe Premier Classe sleeping coaches and a lounge/dining car are hooked on the back for a cut-price luxury experience.

The champagne may be South African sparkling wine and the Blue Train's baths and staterooms are replaced by more egalitarian showers and cabins, but for a £700* saving, who's complaining? Certainly not the other passengers in the lounge car nibbling on biltong (dried meat) and crisps as Cape Town's suburbs melted away to be replaced by fields of fat, green grapes.

Among them, Sue Harder and Keith Fender from London were on the first leg of a seven-month round-the-world sabbatical. "We wanted to go on the Blue Train" said Keith, "but we were totally put off by the price. This is a great alternative. If we had flown, there'd have been the airport taxis at either end, food and a night in a hotel. Because meals are included here and we're sleeping on the train tonight, a low-cost flight wouldn't really have saved us money in the end."

As we set off mid-morning, we'd only just had time to settle into our cabins (all are twins or singles with decent sized windows and plenty of storage space, but none are en-suite) before lunch was served: grilled vegetables, lamb and bean casserole and pecan pie. Drinks aren't included but bottles of very decent local whites or reds cost around £5* onboard. By the time coffee was being cleared away, the vineyards and mountains of Paarl were giving way to the Karoo, the arid hinterland that covers much of western South Africa.

As we passed through tiny "dorps" (villages), the sun dazzled from the zinc roofs of small bungalows, all painted white or cream, with verandas and neat, manicured gardens contrasting with the barren earth in which they are planted. Small towns such as Worcester, Touwsrivier, Matjiesfontein (where Cecil Rhodes came to recuperate from TB in the dry Karoo air) and Laingsburg, where we passed an old blockhouse built by the British to protect the railway against Boer commanders at the turn of last century, came and went.

Occasionally, the train would stop at one of the dorps, passengers descending to be greeted by loved ones, jabbering away in Afrikaans or Xhosa, a reminder that this is a "regular" service, not just the preserve of overseas tourists.

As night descended, the disappearing sun bathed the land in a rich, orange glow, softening the harshness temporarily, and casting shadows over hills which had thick clouds ladled on top like meringues. A small herd of springbok and a few hardy sheep grazed in the distance. Onboard, we grazed on soup made from waterblommetjies (an aquatic plant), then fish pancakes, beef, and carrot cake while the chief steward turned our cabins into bedrooms complete with crisp sheets and firm pillows.

Morning revealed an altogether different landscape. This was the western Transvaal, where the Free State meets North-West province. Cattle were now grazing on poor pastureland punctuated by hundreds of small, brown termite mounds, while yesterday's clouds had given way to a low slung haze. Every so often there was a windmill, used for irrigation.

Slightly further on towards Klerksdorp, I spotted a gold mine, its tower and sandy slag heap silhouetted against the sky. Little groups of people in the fields walked from nowhere to nowhere, or so it appeared. When we came across towns, they'd lost the neatness of the Karoo and just seemed functional rather than pretty. The landscape didn't possess the picture-postcard draw of that outside Cape Town but I sat transfixed by the vastness of it all.

By mid-morning we were passing the urban sprawl that heralded our approach to Johannesburg - towns such as Randfontein, Krugersdorp and Roodepoort at the centre of Gauteng province - a mix of neat suburbia that could be Surrey in June and some of the poorest shanty towns you will find anywhere in the world.

At midday, a quarter of an hour early, we pulled in to the frenzy of Jo'burg station. I could have shaved 24 hours off the journey, but for me travelling is as much about getting there as it about the experience, and the Shosholoza Meyl is a journey and an experience I can thoroughly recommend.

Photo credits: Cape Town = Dan Grinwis; Karoo = Juanita Swart; Johannesburg = Clodagh da Paixao. All

*2005 prices!

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