Firmly on the rails

The spelling is weird but the Shosholoza ride sho’ is fun

I seriously hope I am not becoming a train nerd – where does one buy an anorak these days? This was my second train trip in two months. I haven’t resorted to writing down loco numbers and I can’t get excited about steerable bogies, although I admit to holding my breath in tunnels, counting the wagons on long goods trains and singing diddly-dum-diddly-dee to myself over the points. But that’s normal, isn’t it?

We were to board the Shosholoza Meyl – spelled inexplicably thus – for an overnight trip through the Karoo. Nine of us, including five volcano-extended Poms, turned up the requisite two hours before the scheduled departure at Port Elizabeth’s central railway station, only to find its magnificent facade scarred by roadworks and the hideous concrete pillars that support Settlers Way above the mayhem, just before it dissects the campanile.

With our tickets booked and paid for over the Internet, it took seconds to pick them up and whisk ourselves through the tight security onto the platform. There the train stood, sporting its doubly inexplicable purple, yellow and turquoise livery. Inside and out.

It’s a heady colour scheme, unrecognisable to those Shosholoza-singing miners of yesteryear and liable to upset small children and artists. We had four of the former – children not miners – and a spattering of adults ranging in age from 30 to 70 spread over three adjacent compartments.

We were all excited, I confess. There’s something unmistakably glamorous about a train journey, even if the seats are in Mr Blue Sky plastic and the walls are the colour of Barney the dinosaur. The state of a nation’s railways somehow seems to reflect the state of the nation itself. The volcano-affected Poms, for example, complained of dirty, broken trains with no food service in their homeland. It does sound vaguely like England, doesn’t it?

And, they added, some irresponsible passengers even speak loudly on cellphones in the Quiet Carriage. And you can hear the tish-tishing of iPods in there sometimes too. Heaven forbid! Can you imagine it? But then nobody would be daft enough to suggest a Quiet Carriage on a South African train.

We don’t do quiet.

The Meyl train from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg was filled with a bustling, polyglot crowd, folk of all ages and backgrounds, all well aware that the train was not only cheap but also a lot of fun.

As the whistle blew, a cheer went up and we began the slow climb up to Alicedale, passing the Addo National Park on the way. As night fell, we crawled at a sneyl-pace along the canal-fed valleys around Cradock, tucking into piles of brought-in chicken, Woolworths sushi and Zandvliet shiraz.

Both the meyls and femeyls on the train’s staff were in white shirts and black ties – not purple Barney outfits and yellow ties, thank heavens – and all were armed with undiminishable flashing smiles. There was a respectable restaurant car and a full delivery service of coffee and tea, steak and chips, fish and chips and chops and chips.

The corridors were swept and washed regularly and the beds made up on time. The lavatories were clean and the showers were hot. Even in the morning. The volcano victims were impressed, even by Park Station, which was cleaner (but a bit noisier), they said, than Waterloo.

I’m very happy living in a Shosholoza Meyl State even if we can’t spell. If our treyns are a mirror of our neytion, maybe our country is not going off the reyls, after all. Maybe it is heyl and hearty.

Sure, we chugged in through Germiston two hours late because of a shunting problem in Bloemfontein but we were asleep when we were shunted and didn’t feel a thing. And who needs to be on time?

This is Africa, after all, and we don’t do timetables any more than we do quiet. Or anoraks