Helen Grange

The problem is that in the decades since I boarded a train amid a giggling gaggle of university students, a cobweb of disingenuous recollections, underscored by a faint clickety-clack soundtrack, has thrown up a rather romanticized picture in my mind of the long-distance train journey.

My friend Les has booked us on the Shosholoza Meyl to Durban, so off we venture to Park station, Johannesburg. To chaos, straight up. And we’re running late. With a minute to spare, we tumble down the steps to the platform in red-faced panic. We shove baggage in one heaving heap onto the carriage and lumber on board. But our bulging veins and attendant expletives are all for nothing, it turns out.

Apparently, the scheduled departure time is of no pressing concern. A whisky is needed to re-stitch our nerves but also to dull the bad acid-trip purple and yellow décor. I volunteer to go in search of said restorative. On my return, I find Les trying to wrench open the window. He needs air, and lots of it, but the heater under the table has a belligerent life of its own and continues to emit a heatwave fit for winter.

I shove a whisky into his hand – he needs it more than I do – and set off once again in search of help, though I’ve not seen anyone in charge of anything, including the time of departure, so if Les spontaneously combusts … well, at least we haven’t left the station.

But eventually, we do start chugging, and – Bonus! – a train guard has been found to pull the window down about 10 cm and reduced the heat to a simmer. We’re clickety-clacking through night-time Hillbrow. At last in our psychedelic cocoon, we relax. Briefly.

With the screeching of brakes, we’re at the next station and Les has just remembered about the infamous platform pickpockets with elastic arms who prey on sleeping passengers in stationary trains, which is this one’s default position. Now we’re trying to get the window back up. Hissed profanities fill the cabin, fast fumigating the Johnny Cash audio I had going in my head.

If only the train had been fumigated, I think, eyeing a small cockroach traversing its turquoise backdrop. Oh well, when in doubt, laugh and go for dinner. So we head off down to the dining cart, me wielding a small flame of hope that there we’ll find an oasis of crisp white linen tablecloths and silver cutlery, the stuff of Travels with my Aunt.

The reality is more psychedelia. The menu is printed on a garish yellow laminate sheet, but the fare doesn’t look bad – cream of tomato soup, tender steak, fresh fruit and the “best of South African cheese”.  Alas it’s a cruel tease.

The soup is the canned variety, the meat, a strip of boot leather and the fruit suspiciously cubed. As for the cheese, no one ever ordered a stranger dish judging by the quizzical look of the waiter. We dab our surly lips on paper serviettes and follow someone trailing a mop along leaving a single strip of wetness, past some loudly lost and lardy dames swigging gin.

Hatches battened, window shoved up, we bunker down. Briefly. “Tea!” a voice shouts. Les, tangled in sheets, flops leglessly onto the floor and reaches for the latch. It is 4 am. Pre-dawn tea, it turns out, is the only leftover of South Africa’s train journeys of old.

But what I need right now is off this locomotive.