Africa slides by the window

JOHN COOMBER
Last updated 09:02 04/04/2014
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TIPPLE YOUR FANCY: A Wine Estate sits proudly at the foot of the Mountains near Stellenboschin in Cape Town.

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I have an uneasy relationship with trains.

For large chunks of the 1970s and '80s I travelled daily from home deep in the Sussex countryside to London on what was then British Rail.

It was only when I stopped doing it that I realised how dreadful it was - queueing to get into the carpark, queueing to buy a ticket, queueing to get onto the train, and, as often as not, standing all the way to London.

It was the era of militant unionism, the Winter of Discontent, and, it has to be said, an era of great British inefficiency, especially on the trains.

They almost never ran on time. Delays were endemic - excuses bordering on the comical.

"Leaves on the line" was a favourite, and despite earnest explanations of how a build-up of autumn leaves could indeed force train wheels to slip, burn and lose their shape, I can't believe it was beyond a solution.

It was also the era that inspired David Nobbs to write the wonderfully funny and touching novel The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin - a tale of a British businessman driven out of his mind by his job and the daily rail commute.

It became a hit TV series, starring Leonard Rossiter, and was remade in 2009 with Martin Clunes in the title role.

All of this is by way of explaining my trepidation in parting with the hard-earned to take a 28-hour train trip across South Africa.

I loved it!

The journey began in Cape Town and ended 1530km later in Johannesburg.

It was, as the brochures had promised, a brilliant way to get the feel of the African landscape - from the astonishing vineyards surrounding Cape Town, through dramatic and glowering mountain passes and up onto the Karoo, the semi-desert plain of central South Africa.

And then, tunnelling through the night past De Aar, Kimberley and into Klerksdorp at dawn. From there, it was an easy run into Jo'burg.

I looked at taking the famed Blue Train, which runs along the same route, but it was way beyond my budget. In any case, I didn't want that much luxury.

The compromise was Premier Classe, which at about $323 was less than a sixth the price I was quoted on the Blue Train.

It was not luxurious, but certainly very comfortable.

For my money I got a roomy sleeping compartment to myself, with a table that folded away to reveal a little basin and tap. Showers and toilets were at the end of the carriage.

I also got more food than I could eat in a week. It began with breakfast in the lounge before we boarded, followed by morning tea, a three-course lunch, afternoon tea, pre-dinner nibbles, a four-course dinner, a cooked breakfast, morning tea... It was dizzying.

The food was not gourmet, but it was good quality. For about $13 I bought a bottle of excellent South African sauvignon blanc from the bar, had a glass with lunch, a glass or two with dinner, and shared the rest with a fellow traveller. The bar staff kept it cold for me between meals.

The train did not exactly zip along and there were long, unexplained pauses throughout the day and night. But, hey, it was Africa and I was on holiday.

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And despite my misgivings, I found the trip wonderfully relaxing.

Apart from the scenery, what made the journey was the camaraderie with fellow travellers, including a group of six Aussie retirees who fell on every meal with impressive dedication, drank plenty of wine and enjoyed themselves hugely.

The train wasn't only for tourists. In a neighbouring compartment were an Afrikaaner couple who regularly took the train home to Johannesburg from visiting their children in the Cape. Their stories of growing up in apartheid South Africa were compelling.

There was a downside to the journey. On the first afternoon it was fiercely hot as we crossed (and paused without explanation on) the Karoo. The temperature outside was above 40 degrees (early November) and the air-conditioning didn't cope.

Some passengers found it distressing. I did too until, in search of a cooler part of the train, I happened to walk past the compartment where the cooks were working.

It was at least 10 degrees hotter in there, yet there they were, clad in their white (ish) jackets, labouring away with smiles on their faces and seemingly without a care in the world.

It cooled down soon enough.

Sleeping on a train has a inescapable romance - especially when someone else makes up your bed while you're at dinner.

The next day, as we approached Johannesburg I found myself not wanting the journey to end.

We were two hours late, and I couldn't have cared less.

The author travelled at his own expense.       

Travelling round South Africa is cheap and easy, with roughly 9 rand to the NZ dollar. Premier Classe train bookings can be done here.

- AAP

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