Accidental Tourist: Grassroots travel

12 May 2013 - 02:01 By © Paul Morris

Sure, it takes time and there are delays, but a train ride to Jozi has its perks

I'm alone in the four-berth compartment as we pull out of Cape Town station, but this doesn't last long.

"Hello! So where are you going? Jo'burg?"

My companion sits down uninvited, but that's okay - his smile alone makes him welcome. His name is Zab, he's just finished matric and he's off to initiation school near Klerksdorp.

"In the bush with just a blanket for a whole month," he tells me. Yes, he's nervous, he says, but when he comes home he'll be a man.

I'm on the Shosholoza Meyl, the re-named, re-branded Trans-Karoo Express, for my return journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

"I wanted to be a musician when I left school but I'm not sure now. I'll probably go and study," Zab is saying.

He plays the guitar. I point under my seat to where my guitar case is stowed. Zab's eyes light up and soon he has pulled the instrument out and is strumming away. He's good and he sings well too.

"I used to write a lot of songs," he says, "mainly for girls." He makes it sound as if this happened decades ago but he's all of 18 and his beaming face has not a line on it.

He plays for an hour and we're joined by a couple of engineering students, at which point I stop my poor attempt at singing along to Marley's Redemption Song.

It's a hot, still day as we head northwards out of Cape Town, one of those days in early summer when the coolness of the recent cold front has given way to Karoo-like heat and the whole place is waiting for the relief of the blasting Southeaster. Table Mountain, the only thing that seems not to wilt, it is magnificently framed by the bright blue sky. Not a leaf stirs in the vineyards.

The engineering student from Phalaborwa with the funky dreads is debating with the Ugandan 30-something man who's joined us. He's making a concerted attempt to convince the student that upgrading the rail system is the answer to South Africa's transport problems.

"We need a system like the Gautrain!" he says earnestly.

The student has his doubts. I try to contribute but the older man is on a roll, so I wander towards the front of the train in search of the dining car.

As I sip my drink, an eagle wings low over the khaki scrub. It's so big even a springbok glances up and watches it warily. I track its progress until the springbok has gone back to grazing and the bird has become a speck.

Meyl passengers are late risers, it seems. There are only a handful of people in the dining car when I arrive for breakfast at 7.30am the next day. They've run out of chilled juice so I can have an extra cup of tea or coffee instead. Filter coffee? No, my waitress tells me, it's a cheap, chicory blend. I choose the tea.

We've stopped again, now somewhere in the veld near Gauteng. One of the guys asks a crew member for a reason and is told we're about to be diverted via Vereeniging. We'll be late - four hours late, as it turns out.

We crawl our way around the south of Johannesburg, stopping to wait for commuter trains to pass. On the horizon, the evening storm-clouds are towering above the Highveld; below, in an informal settlement, a group of women have gathered around someone's corrugated-iron home and are singing a sad song. Giggling children chase each other in circles in front of a spaza.

This isn't luxury travel. The Shosholoza Meyl is like a backpackers' on wheels, but it puts the traveller closer to the diversity of South Africa. It's more interesting than haring down the N1 in an air-conditioned car or cruising at 30000 feet in an airliner. It's more fun too.