Tag Archives: Shosholoza Meyl

Party Train to Pasture

Larry the Landy’s last dance was a festive affair with trompoppies and hooch

Larry and I had co-travelled many tens of thousands of kilometres but we now had to finalise our impending divorce before Death itself should us part. It was heart-rending. My Land Rover was slowly giving up the ghost. I could no longer afford the medical bills.

Travel had become much tamer in recent times. We couldn’t risk breaking down in Deepest Darkest; there was no bundu-bashing at Mana Pools, no hurricane-dodging in Niassa. Instead, our most recent foray had seen us topping up his water in the car park outside Shoprite in Graaff-Reinet, again outside Spar in Jeffrey’s Bay, followed by Woolworths in Plett and finally Checkers in Bredasdorp.

It had been a glorious winter trip of sunshine and whales, white surf crashing onto white sandy beaches, cliff-top walks and empty roads, until we reached Cape Town, where the doof-doof from the Waterfront was muted. The city was in lockdown pending the arrival, not of me and Larry, but of the most powerful man on earth. Obama was heading for Robben Island.

We went instead to a mechanic near the Castle who insisted that he wouldn’t be able to look at my car for two weeks. It was the straw that broke the Landy’s back. I went straight to the railway station to book the last berth to Johannesburg for me and the last spot in the vehicle carriage for the Land Rover. I wasn’t going to risk a breakdown and two weeks in Leeu-Gamka.

In his outlandish turquoise and purple outfit, Spoornet Man could not have been more helpful. He even promised me that the food on the train had improved. Spoornet’s infamous coffee was back, he said, and I must try the Pap en Tik.

This, I had decided, would be Larry’s last ride.

We arrived the required three hours prior to departure, allowing time to fill both fuel tanks and thus to weigh down and manoeuvre Larry successfully under the roll-up door and onto the train.

The riotous din of the boarding hordes was a magnificent manifestation of rainbow polyglot joy, wherein a preponderance of gap-toothed women yelled “waars my f@#*%n sakkie?” and “wie het my f@#*%n kind gesteel?” as they kept noisy tabs on their belongings and their offspring.

A mother from Rondebosch gently placed her hands over her daughter’s ears.

A couple of hundred passengers have loaded onto a train here every other day for I don’t know long but still it was as chaotic as the first day of a massive department store sale. Then into the pandemonium strode a snake of paired-off touring trompoppies from Bellville, in yellow track-suits and green beanies. The noise cranked up another couple of hundred decibels as they boarded the train with a gaggle of mothers in pursuit in DRUMMIE MOMMIE jackets.

It was not a peaceful journey but it was a happy one, the shouting, the stomp of running drummies and the strong smell of hooch only subsiding at about 2am somewhere near Kimberley. The by-now more subdued crowd finally disembarked in Johannesburg at dusk the next day, a respectable seven hours late.

I waited for Larry to appear. “Nice vehicle!” said one onlooker.

“If it had been a nice vehicle, I’d have driven it here, and not paid R4000 for it to come by train!” I muttered and then realised she wasn’t looking at Larry.

A shiny black Jeep appeared from the vehicle wagon, a mid-20s Naomi Campbell lookalike at the wheel. The number-plate read PRENUPT WP. As I was finalising the end of my time with my Land Rover, this Jeep symbolised the beginning of a marriage. An intriguing lobola.

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