I am recapping, excruciatingly slowly, the two-week trip we took to South Africa last year.Here is part one, about our layover in Paris; here is part two, about Cape Town; here is part three, about Cape Point and the penguins of Boulders Beach; here is part four, about wine tasting and stroking a baby cheetah in Stellenbosch; and here is part five about shark-diving in Gansbaai. Expect me to be finished with this sometime in 2014.
Yeah, I know, this is getting silly. Part of me didn't even want to finish the recapping of this trip, because the ridiculous amount of time it's taking me to tell the story of something that happened almost six months ago is making it seem more and more irrelevant, but then I remembered that if I didn't finish telling you about our two weeks in South Africa, you'd never be privy to the amazing piece of information that is this: the conductor on our train from Cape Town to Johannesburg was named William Winkleworth.
Oh, he was a perfect William Winkleworth, too. Dressed in full train conductor's livery—I seem to remember that it involved a lot of brass buttons and some sort of peaked cap—he sported, as his piece de resistance, an impressive walrus mustache. It was like he'd been on his way to a casting for a Thomas the Tank Engine movie, all dressed up as a 1950s train conductor, and had suddenly thought to himself screw this, I'm going to conduct trains for REAL.
Sadly, I don't have any pictures of William Winkleworth. What I do have, however, is an entire album of pictures of the train journey itself, mostly because it took about twenty-six hours and there was nothing else to do. Sure, we could have flown from Cape Town to Johannesburg—there are flights pretty much hourly between the two major cities—but something about the train appealed to us. It seemed romantic, I think, to travel by railway in a country known for its staggering scenery.
It became apparent in the first five minutes of planning that the famous Blue Train wasn't going to be in our budget, so we opted instead for the poor man's Blue Train, which turned out to be the rather cringingly-named Premier Classe. We bought the tickets a few months in advance—it involved several complex and vaguely worrying manuevers like scanning the front of our credit cards and emailing them overseas, which, I don't know, kind of just seems like something you shouldn't do—and after five glorious days in Cape Town, headed to the station on a sunny Saturday to catch our ride.
Now, for not being a fancy train, it was still a pretty fancy train. For a start, we had our name on our carriage door, which made us feel like we were minor characters in an Agatha Christie novel.
Once we located our carriage, we were given a few minutes to get settled before convening in the dining car for a formal welcome from William Winkleworth, a few little snacks to keep us going, and a toast to our impending journey with a glass of champagne. I should point out that it was half past nine in the morning.
I should also point out that I drank the champagne anyway. What, I didn't need to point that part out? Oh, we know each other so well.
Here is what we did on the train: we ate. We ate roughly every thirty-seven minutes, filing into the dining car for meal after meal after meal. We looked out of the window. We lay on the beds in our carriage and read a lot. We spied—well, I spied—on the trio of English people we kept getting seated next to at meals, trying to speculate why two middle-aged women and one middle-aged man would be traveling together and ordering three G&Ts apiece at twelve o'clock in the afternoon. We took pictures, chatted a little with the other passengers, and got out somewhere at the halfway point to stretch our legs in a dusty town in the middle of South Africa, whose name I have long forgotten but whose impressive wall of heat and dusky evening light I never will.
We ate dinner as the sun was setting across a vast plain, whizzing along beside us, growing ever darker until we could see our reflections in the glass. When we returned to our carriage, the bench seats had been converted into crisply made-up twin beds and there were fluffy white robes lying on each one. I will tell you this: there is a whole lot of novelty to be had from wearing a robe on a train. Wearing a robe! On a train! Isn't that a surreal pairing of situation and clothing? It's like wearing a bikini in your office breakroom. A trench coat on a beach!
Robe on a train! It feels so weird!
If there's one thing weirder than wearing a robe on a train, however, it's taking a shower on a train—weirder than taking a shower in a train station? Yes, I think so—which we did the next morning after coffee in our carriage and breakfast in the dining car. It was a remarkably good shower, as these things go, and we both felt surprisingly refreshed as we pulled into Johannesburg just after 11am, or at least as refreshed as two people who've just spent twenty six hours on a train can feel.
We didn't have a whole lot of time in Johannesburg, unfortunately—we were picking up our rental car the following morning and driving to Kruger National Park to start our safari—but we made the most of it with a full day's tour of the city's most prominent landmarks, including several heartrending hours at the Apartheid Museum and a visit to the township of Soweto.
That's Winnie Mandela's house on the right.
Our guide was Henry, an affable Joburg native who'd been a fireman in the 70s during the worst of the Soweto riots and had some incredible stories to tell. We spent the night at the President Lodge Guest House—highly recommended if you're looking for a comfortable, safe, friendly spot near the airport; the owner, Jannette, even cooked us dinner, which was one of the best meals we had in South Africa—and packed up early the next morning to start the safari portion of our trip. Hey, let's meet back here in another four million years so I can tell you all about that.