October 15, 2011

In Which the Train Never Arrives to Cape Town

Everything, it said, was against the travellers, every obstacle imposed alike by man and by nature. A miraculous agreement of the times of departure and arrival, which was impossible, was absolutely necessary to his success. 
Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days

Every since this trip started to take shape my dad took on calling me Mr. Fogg, in reference to the classic 50’s movie based on the Verne book1.

In the original book, a big part of the traveling happens by train, so when my sister suggested we return to Cape Town this way, I was sold.

As I mentioned in the last post, the sitting class boarding on the Shosholoza Meyl proved a little too authentic for our taste. Thankfully, after politely asking, we got upgraded to the sleeper train by a conductor that was sure we had the wrong tickets from the beginning.

This turned out to be second best decision we took that weekend.

Room with a moving viewRoom with a moving view

The first 12 hours where marvelous: the views of the African savannah, the children waving at the train every time we went through a township —kids here love to have their picture taken btw—, the food was surprisingly good, and the beds comfortable enough.

Then morning came and we stopped at one of the stations and … did not move for a few hours. Not cool.

The conductor said that we where going to be 3 hours late. Nothing major really, we left Johannesburg on a Friday at 12:30pm, and where  supposed to arrive at Cape Town on Saturday at 2pm.

Half an hour later the whistle sounded and we where on our way! And here is where it started to get interesting, the train stopped about 50 meters later. Another train came and pushed us back to the station, and an hour later we where on our way again … only to stop at the same spot.

At this point I started to doubt the logistics of this whole operation. Little did I know.

We eventually did get on our way, and where told by the conductor that on the next station buses would be waiting to take us the rest of the way and shave a few hours off the trip.

While disappointed that we wouldn’t get to see the mountains from the train as we entered the cape region, we where now ready to get home.

It wasn’t to be … remember the sprint I mentioned to get on the train? Well, now imagine about 350 people running to get on 12 buses. Wait, did I say 12 buses? Sorry, I meant 6, the rest didn’t arrive.

I exchanged a glance with my sister, we both agreed wirelessly that the shit is about to hit the fan. And as we where ready to join the boarding olympics, we saw a tourist guide get back on the train saying this aaaain’t gonna work, not enough seats”.

Call me unadventurous, but after 30 hours on a train, the prospect of being stranded (and in South Africa this is quite literal) in the middle of nowhere at night, did not compute.

Back on the train we settled in for the remaining 6 hours and started to make plans for our 2am arrival on Sunday. It wasn’t to be, again.

On the last station before Cape Town, the train stopped and after the normal 5 minutes, didn’t move again. One conductor told us that we had to wait until 3am to depart. Another casually mentioned that we should just go to bed since we wouldn’t arrive until probably 6am, when the Cape Town station opened again.

And here my quick witted sister took the best weekend decision: she took out the lonely planet guide (the same that promised this train trip to be an unforgettable experience) and started calling cab companies.

The taxi arrived and we quickly got on. As we where leaving the station, she made a gesture with her mouth and said if you hadn’t been outside, I wouldn’t have waited there for you”.

My sister and I slouched deeper into our seats and sighed at the same time.

  1. The day before I left, Federico and Dariela did the same when they stopped by. ↩︎


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Cape Town As often is the case in Africa, the confrontation turned into a joyous celebration. ~Helen Lieberman, on A Rainbow in the Night, by Dominique