You will need a determined and practical grip on gritty reality to survive a trip between Cape Town and Johannesburg on the Shosholoza Meyl. Hurdles will be placed in your path from the start of the booking process to the moment you are deposited, sweaty, exhausted, possibly days late, on a station platform downtown in one of South Africa’s famous capitals of crime. Here’s my 10-point plan to help you cope
1. Adjust your expectations
The whole system is designed to spoil your fun.
2. Expect the worst from the start
Bookings open only three months ahead of travel dates. Still, there are enough suckers fighting to buy seats for the booking process to be a bun fight. The departure time for our return was listed (and printed on our tickets) as 12 pm. By chance, we found out the train was actually leaving at 10 am and got to the station early, quite pleased with ourselves. (But) we realised the joke was on us when the train was “delayed” for two hours.
3 Do not believe what you are told
The salespeople will tell you a two-berth cabin, which they call a coupé (you know, like a chicken coupé) is comfortable for two. (It isn’t) The top army-issue bunk is accessible only by clambering on the basin and scrambling up. Expect bruises all over from the metal hooks and ledges (that have no obvious use) protruding from the walls.
The window side is taken up by a metal basin with knobs. You depress a button and a slit allows a leak of tepid water to trickle down the side of the basin.
My advice is pay the extra money and book a four-berth cabin for two, which gives you two beds on the ground level and space to breathe.
4 Focus on the scenery.
This really should be one of the best rail trips in the world. Pretend it is. You’ll find you can’t hate it all.
5. Take your own cooling equipment
The ice machine doesn’t work on hot days. When we asked for ice to cool the warm cold-drinks in the dining car, we were told: “We don’t like to run the ice machine when it is this hot.” The “air-conditioning” switches in the cabins make a hollow click when you switch them on (the more paranoid will hear far-off laughter). They were the worst kind of tease.
It was so hot on the train when we were stationary – waiting for a signal to change or an engineer to arrive from De Aar or Timbuktu or wherever – it felt like we were waiting at the gates of hell.
6 Develop a sense of mystery
There is no public announcement system at all and very little communication from train staff, even when the shit hits the fan. Actually, there is no fan. When the train is stationary, the heat is unbearable. Those “air conditioning” switches were the worst kind of tease.
7. Take good reading material
There is no wifi, free, or otherwise. So you’ll need to come with any movies pre-loaded.
I sank my teeth into Charles van Onselen’s The Night Trains, which made for shocking but illuminating reading – an excellent companion for the journey.
8. Take lots of basic supplies.
Alcohol, ice, toilet paper, wet wipes and water for drinking and washing. Water supplies ran out on both legs of our trip. (This) means no flushing of loos, gruesome after hours standing still in the heat. A cooler box of ice will be a godsend too. You could probably sell some to the other passengers for a fortune if you ran out of cash.
It is kinda fun to have a meal in the dining car … once. Dish of the day, a beef stew, was perfectly nice the first evening, but appealed less when we saw it on the menu at the next sitting … and the next.
9. Get used to feeling abandoned.
The linen (R70 a set) was delivered in small consignments. It took at least 7 visits from the linen guy to (deliver) a few items at a time: ‘Psst, here’s another blanket’ … and so on (it felt like he was smuggling them to us)..
We were 11 hours late in the end.
Keep a spare bottle of whiskey
Save the last sips to celebrate as you finally pull into the station and wonder how to find a cab to collect you from such a dodgy place.