The Shosholoza Meyl leaves Park Station just after sunset, heading east. From the window of the tourist-class cabin, Johannesburg looks subtly different. It’s the same city but the angles are all wrong, like the reflection in the mirror of someone you love. Ponte’s red halo hovers higher than usual; Ellis Park, although floodlit inside, is shrouded in darkness, its security guards shivering in shallow puddles of orange streetlight.
Train tracks rarely show off a city’s best side and Johannesburg is no exception. Our route is lined with rubbish and runs through a grim parade of long-abandoned warehouses, struggling factories and overflowing scrapyards. Nearly every road that intersects with the tracks is a dead end.
Don’t worry: it gets better. As we leave the lights of the Gauteng megalopolis, the world shrinks to the dimensions of the train itself, a long chain of iron carriages rattling through the as-yet-unexpropriated farmlands of the Free State.
The passengers in the sleeper carriage begin to settle in for the long haul. Families break out the board games, friends the bottle of wine. Someone plays kwaito from their phone. A gentle whiff of ganja escapes from one cabin. It’s a convivial, comfortable atmosphere.
“I wish more people would take the train, it’s so much nicer,” said Busisiwe Mnyakeni, a planner for the Passenger Rail Authority of South Africa, who just happens to be celebrating her birthday in the cabin next door with her family and a bottle of champagne. Maybe it’s her job to say that,but she isn’t wrong.
A waiter comes round to take food orders: R45 gets you pap and stew, or quarter chicken and chips, delivered to the cabin or served in the dining car with white tablecloths and crisp linen napkins. The age of rail travel is not completely dead.
While you eat, a cabin attendant will make up your beds, transforming the twin booths in each cabin into four narrow bunks, each with their own reading lights. The cabins are spotless; so are the toilets, at least at first.
This is a gentle, relaxing way to travel. It’s not quick — it takes 15 hours from Johannesburg to Durban. No matter: that’s just enough time to have a proper night’s rest, soothed into sleep by the sound of metal wheels rolling over the joins in the track.
The wake-up call comes courtesy of sunrise over the rolling hills of the Midlands, as if the train has carefully positioned itself to show off its most spectacular scenery. This is followed by a stop at the historic Pietermaritzburg station where, in 1893, Mahatma Gandhi was thrown off the train because he dared to sit in a whites-only compartment. It was his first act of civil disobedience.
Finally, a slow chug to the coast, fighting a headwind that bends back the plantations of Sappi pines nearly in half. Down the corridor, the kwaito has been replaced by gospel. Most of the carriage joins in the singing, off-key but enthusiastic.
Only a few hours late, the train pulls into Durban station. Its passengers haven’t just been transported from one place to another; they have travelled, and emerge richer for the experience — not to mention well rested. And at just R360 a person, it is an experience that most can afford to repeat.
The Shosholoza Meyl departs from Johannesburg’s Park Station on Friday and Sunday evenings