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Travel Guide: Seeing South Africa by train

2nd Nov 2011 1:54am | By Editor

Rolling winelands, majestic coastline and dramatic mountains - watch South Africa slip by from the comfort of your train carriage window. WORDS: Robin McKelvie.

One perception first-timers have is that travelling by train in South Africa is dangerous. It can be, but mainly on the local single-class services. Rail services aimed at tourists tend to be a safer option.

The Shosholoza Meyl trains, run by state operator Spoornet, are a great way of getting to and from the nation's cities. You can travel between Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban on their Trans-Karoo, Trans-Oranje and Trans-Natal services with beds available in both tourist and economy classes. They also offer seats that can be cheaper than those on equivalent bus services. Passengers can eat in the dining car or use the trolley service.

Staking a claim to being the most famous train on the whole continent is the legendary Blue Train. This grande dame eases around the nation on a variety of rail safaris, including the Garden Route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, as well as nipping across the border into a flurry of neighbouring countries and going as far north as Tanzania.

A ride on the Blue Train is not cheap, but if you just go on it for one night and work it into a longer trip as a way of getting from city to city without paying for a hotel, you can make it worth the splurge. The most popular option is the Pretoria-Cape Town service, which takes 27 hours. Heading south from Pretoria, you get more time off the train during the single excursion en route, and the last part of the trip is spent cruising through the Cape Winelands, snatching tantalising views of Table Mountain on the run into Cape Town.

If you can't afford a ride on the Blue Train, then Premier Classe luxury trains, run by the same company, is a cheaper service that travels weekly in both directions between Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

It takes in a swathe of scenery, crossing the barren Karoo and the semi-desert expanse of Kimberley. You get the same epic scenery of the Blue Train at a fraction of the cost but with a lot more comfort than the local trains.

The other big name for travelling in style and comfort is Rovos Rail, and rather than being a direct rival to the Blue Train it's a completely different luxury experience. The train - or rather the three trains - are the brainchild of Rohan Vos, a man who loves his railways so much he has built his own station and marshalling yard outside Pretoria, where journeys begin in a whoosh of steam.

In contrast to the Blue Train, Rovos is a vintage train where the ride is bumpier and slower, but much more atmospheric. On the plus side it has a greater sense of nostalgia and romance. The pace is far more leisurely with Rovos taking almost two days on the Cape Town to Pretoria route, with excursions at both Kimberley and Matjiesfontein in the Klein Karoo.

The Shongololo Express is a few notches down in terms of luxury and markets itself as a 'train safari with a difference'. The Shongololo carries its own fleet of Mercedes Benz Sprinter vans to enable passengers to have guided excursions en route. There are three journeys available: the Southern Cross, Good Hope and Dune Express, all 16-day trips that make forays into neighbouring countries as well as in South Africa. They carry quad bikes on board, too, so you can shoot off into the wild, travelling beside the train on your own wheels. If you are an adrenaline junkie, you can also opt for hot-air ballooning, scuba-diving or even elephant riding at many locations.

You don't need to make an epic cross-country ride to enjoy South Africa's trains, though. The star attraction in Cape Town is Biggsy's, a restaurant coach that tags on to morning commuter trains and offers a hearty breakfast en route to Simon's Town. Once here you can take a boat tour around the harbour or check out the penguin colony. Biggsy's returns in the afternoon with a bar service, so you can toast your day on the tracks in style on the way back into the city.

If you love your South African wines then a trip organised by Wineland Wanderer is for you. A vintage train heads out from Cape Town to the famous wine hub of Stellenbosch for a weekend washed in wine and food, returning to the city the next day. They also do day trips that work out much cheaper. The train is a bit of a stop/start service, so check with the tourist office in Cape Town for running times.

Whether you want to splurge out a bit and try a night or two on the Blue Train or Rovos, or embark on a multi-day safari on a train that boasts quad bikes and guides, or use Spoornet as an enjoyable way of exploring, South Africa has something for you.

It may not have the extensive high-speed networks of France or Japan, but letting the train take the strain in South Africa opens up a world of travel experiences other visitors crammed in buses and planes won't get to enjoy.

HOW TO TRAIN SAFELY

1 In general, the more you pay for a train ticket the better you'll be looked after. Catching
a ride on one of the cheaper train services not often used by tourists can be dangerous, so check locally before hopping on one of these. All of the luxury services have their own security so safety is not really an issue.

2 Be very wary of local train services or metro trains in the major cities. Some are fine, but others are notorious for crime, often violent, so are best avoided. The worst affected services tend to be in and around Johannesburg and Cape Town.

3 If you plan on leaving your baggage behind
in your train compartment to visit the restaurant car, then make sure you have some way of locking it. The overnight trains will often have a guard on hand to lock your door while you go to dinner. If in doubt, take your own food and drink and stay put.

4 Never leave your carriage window open
at a station, no matter how remote and deserted it appears to be. There's a problem with people stealing belongings through windows and don't underestimate how ingenious thieves can be.

5 Due to the volatile political situation in Zimbabwe, travellers heading to Victoria Falls are advised to stay on the Zambian side. If you do travel up here and plan to continue on, then check the current situation locally. Train travel within Zimbabwe is not advised by many governments.

SAFARI STOPS


Kruger National Park
The granddaddy of all South African national parks. It's easy to knock the Kruger for being too populated with tourists, but it pulls in the crowds for good reason. Getting there is fairly straightforward, you can drive around it yourself on good roads and there is a massive choice of where to stay. You can also see all of the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino) here. The downside is it can get very busy and can feel like you are part of a tourist factory, but this is a massive reserve and there is always somewhere to escape to.
Nearest station: Nelspruit.

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve
This reserve in KwaZulu-Natal is a compelling escape north-east of Durban. It's largely free from crowds and you can enjoy spotting big game untroubled by tour buses. It's famous for its white rhino conservation. There's not a large number of luxury lodges in the park, but an option is to hire out a lodge with your own ranger, which can work out much cheaper than you might imagine. They also have budget accommodation options at a number of the camps.
Nearest station: Durban.

Pilanesberg National Park
Pilanesberg boasts the highest density and greatest variety of animals per square kilometre. It's particularly good for spotting both black and white rhino and seeing wildlife is easier due to the network of tarred roads. Pilanesberg is also the closest game reserve to Johannesburg, so it's no secret - but head out early and you can still have large swathes of it to yourself. Most of the accommodation here is outside the reserve, which works well as you don't have to spend lots of time steering clear of the private sections of lodges.
Nearest station: Johannesburg.


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