Choo choose to go: 5 of SA's most charming train rides
From a wine tour in the Cape to a toy train in the hills of KwaZulu-Natal, Paul Ash finds South Africa’s best train trips
1. THE NARROW IRON ROAD
In Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton writes of a "small toy train" climbing up from the Umzimkulu Valley. "It is interesting to wait for the train at Carisbrooke while it climbs up out of the great valley. Those who know can tell with each whistle where it is, at what road, what farm, what river."
The train has survived thanks to the efforts of local entrepreneur Julian Pereira and the Paton Express still rides its narrow rails from Allwoodburn station, near Ixopo, up to Carisbrooke.
These days the train is usually hauled by a diesel engine but the journey is as it was in Paton's day - through the gum trees and stretches of natural forest, with glimpses of red hot pokers and arum lilies in the dells. In winter, when the mist cloaks the hills, the train clanks through the wattles like a ghost among ghosts.
2. OUTENIQUA ADVENTURE
The Montagu Pass is one of Africa's most dramatic feats of railway engineering, clambering thousands of feet from the coastal plain at George and over the Outeniqua mountains to the Little Karoo. Passenger trains are a distant memory but you can still travel the pass on a day trip from George in the Power Van, a repurposed track-inspection trolley.
The trolley ambles through the cuttings and tight curves that once gave engine drivers sleepless nights, stopping at various places for the passengers to alight, see the view and learn something about the hard-bitten railwaymen who endured mist and rain and choking coal smoke as they worked their trains through the nine tunnels to the summit.
• R160 fare (children R140) includes entrance to the Outeniqua Railway Museum, from where the Power Van departs. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. FRANSCHHOEK FOLLY
The Wine Tram may be one of the shortest train rides in the world - just eight minutes on a stub of track on the long-closed branch line from Paarl.
The tram itself - a double-decker beauty, modelled on the electric trams that clanked around the streets of Joburg until the late 1950s - is the star of the show, which otherwise relies on a vintage-looking bus and tractor-hauled trailers to take guests on tours of nearly two-dozen wineries in the valley.
There are six routes, three of which include a ride on the tram. It's an excellent way to go wine-tasting without driving - but it's difficult to shake the feeling that the operators have missed an opportunity to create what would have been one of the world's finest train rides.
• R220 for adults, R90 for children aged 3-17. See winetram.co.za
4. VALLEY OF 1,000 HILLS
The Umgeni Steam Railway is a big train on a short track, running on a steep part of the old Natal Main Line between Inchanga and Kloof in KwaZulu-Natal. On the 25km journey from Kloof, the train eases through the Drummond Tunnel, skirting the edge of the Valley of 1,000 Hills.
There is ample time to browse the crafts market at Inchanga and maybe neck a cheeky ale in the refreshment car while the crew prepare the loco for the stiff climb back to Kloof.
• Adults R240, children R170. See umgenisteamrailway.co.za
5. MOUNTAIN OF SAILORS
The Hexpass Express is a rail trolley trip up the Hex River Pass, overlooking the Hex River Valley in the Western Cape, using a converted Fordson tractor and a rake of cute coaches.
In 27km, the railway climbs 900m from De Doorns to the summit at Matroosberg - although the trains usually go only as far as Tunnel, some kilometres short of the top.
On the way, the driver offers a colourful account of its history and will show you the graffiti carved into walls of a cutting by lonely British soldiers sent to guard the railway during the Anglo-Boer War. It's a beautiful place, with mountains ranked around and the breeze moaning through the grass.
• R120 for adults, R60 for kids under 18. See impangelemountainlodge.co.za.