travel > Travel Inspiration > Planes And Trains > Highveld unveiled

Highveld unveiled

TIME : 2016/2/26 17:43:43

Greg Baum passes desert and vineyards, wilderness and shanty towns on a train from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

Banana-yellow suburban trains deposit droves of stony-faced commuters at Cape Town station. But as a long, purple train clanks and squeals out in the other direction bound for Johannesburg, champagne is served with breakfast.

This is Premier Classe, South Africa's luxury train for the budget conscious. It takes the traveller on the same journey as the fabled Blue Train, but for about 15 per cent of the fare.

Luxury trains are second only to ocean liners as the most lavish form of travel but have advantages that even six-star cruise ships cannot boast. Roads go past people's front doors and show them as they present themselves to the world. Railway lines, however, go past back doors, showing life as it is. In South Africa, this means shanty towns at regular intervals: cramped encampments of hovels made of tin and plastic sheeting, roofs ballasted by rocks and tyres, tethers as flimsy as the future is slight for most who live in them. Almost every township features that worldwide totem of the dirt poor: a rusting car hulk.

South African authorities freely admit they cannot house everyone adequately. Soweto and Alexandra have captured a little of the world's attention, but there are so many other shanty towns, unnamed and unseen, like the one that spills almost onto the railway tracks at Paarl.

Framed by the train window, it is hard to look at, but even harder to look away. My pathetic gesture is to pick from the wine list at lunch a sauvignon blanc from Paarl, hoping to augment the local economy by perhaps a rand.

There are many other views. The Premier Classe's ensemble of carriages features recessed doorways and overhanging eaves, like porches; this is a train for going long distances. Its journey is really a series of steps, from picturesque Cape Town and the Cape flats to the highveld. At first there are the featureless suburbs, then the bucolic splendour of the wine region. The countryside quivers in its autumnal colours and, behind the vineyards rocky mountains rise, their peaks garlanded by cloud and some even showing slicks of early snow. Intermittent shanty towns, all dun and grey, involuntarily make a counterpoint.

A long tunnel empties onto a high, wide and empty plain, though always in the distance on each side is the bulwark of a mountain range. This is the Karoo, a huge semi-desert covering most of inland South Africa.

The emptiness of this landscape contrasts starkly with the compacted communities back down the track. And yet it is not empty. On sprawling reserves, wildlife abounds - ostriches and gemsbock, for two - furthering the contradiction: in this country, animals roam free and people live in cages.

Human settlements become smaller, more widespread, camouflaging themselves against the shapes and contours of the plain. On the train, we are in the heart of this wilderness, yet not there at all; the traveller's privilege. We're away from the walls and fences of South Africa's cities, and it feels like a form of freedom, though two guards patrol the corridors.

As night falls, the Premier Classe arrives in Beaufort West, a few minutes early but, in the best tradition of long-distance trains, it eventually leaves an hour late. I don't mind; I'm having a massage at the time. Dinner is line-caught fish, roast beef and chocolate mousse, second only in quality to lunch (chicken Kiev and chocolate parfait) on my list of relished South African meals. If I am to make a criticism, it would be that there is too much emphasis in the train's literature on the sensual pleasures and not enough on where we are at a given time, and what epic of human perseverance preceded us here. Later, I learn that this railway line blazed a trail in the history of southern Africa. For economy's sake, and to thread it through the mountain passes, a comparatively narrow gauge of three feet six inches (1067 millimetres) was chosen, and remains standard throughout South Africa. It makes for an agreeable chugging pace.

Nature synchronises its show out here. The sun sets red, orange and purple over a black horizon on one side of the train and immediately the moon rises on the other: same size, same colour, seemingly the same orb, but without the radiance. Darkness takes away the moving landscape but not the moving.

Into this total African blackness we plunge, swaying, clicketting and clacking, but blessedly with no engine howl as on a highway bus. Out here, the silence is total.

Other trains pass in the night, blurs of light and lowing loco, always full. Sometimes the train stops in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, one dim station light reflecting weakly from the rails, the darkness otherwise thick and palpable. It is instructive to think that the whole of this 27-hour experience was eclipsed in two blank hours on a plane the previous day.

When next morning the sun infuses the same horizon abandoned by the moon with a spectroscope's worth of pastel colours, the landscape has changed again. Now it is flat, a prairie-like grassland, no mountains in sight, no colour at first, then yellow and white as the day begins to colour itself in.

Here are cornfields and Brahman cattle and beside the track, the silhouette of eucalypts. The African morning is stirring.

Two locos were needed to drag us up the long gradients of yesterday and last night, but one is enough now as we skate across the highveld. Isolated huts slowly coalesce into settlements, then towns. Eventually, they will form themselves into Johannesburg. In Johannesburg, says a friend, everyone lives in gated enclaves and has affairs.

My sleeping berth is comfortable but overheated and the effect is compounded when it becomes impossible to coax more than a trickle of hot water out of the shower. It is bloody cold outside. At breakfast, another gourmet affair, I lean against the metal window frame and the cold zaps through me like an electric shock.

The first slag heaps appear — grey, man-made mountains — a reminder that Joburg is an overgrown mining town. Where the grass is not straw-yellow, it is fire-blackened; something is always burning in South Africa. Shanty towns reappear, at first almost invisible in the grass stalks, but later squeezed inside concrete walls, not to stop anyone getting in, but to stop them bursting out. The dwellers offer passersby on the train cheerful waves.

The Premier Classe's voyage ends anti-climactically at subterranean platform 14. Passengers are invited to farewell formalities in a Premier Classe lounge but none ensue and we drift off into the fitful sunshine. Memories of the trip serve as their own intoxication.


Getting there

Qantas has a fare to Cape Town from Sydney for about $2200 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Johannesburg (14hr non-stop), then on South African Airways to Cape Town (about 2hr); Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney to connect; see

By train

The Premier Classe runs twice a week in each direction, leaving Cape Town on Tuesdays and Saturdays; Johannesburg on Thursdays and Sundays. The trip takes about 26hr.

A one-way ticket costs 2210 rand ($226), including a sleeping berth, all meals, complimentary massage and champagne on departure. Don't expect on-time arrivals. See