A Guide to Traveling Around South Africa by Train

From South Africa's Karoo desert to the foothills of the Cape Wineland region, Ant celebrates the unsung hero of South African travel.


Running on a sandy road in the Cederberg Mountains Photo © iStock/nattrass

Is South Africa still being persecuted for its torrid past? The Cape Wineland region features some of the best vineyards you've never heard of. The Kruger National Park homes the Big 5 and the Small 400 (bird species), yet the safari of the Serengeti are the first to tip most tongues.

The penal colony Robben Island held Nelson Mandela for 18 years, yet Alcatraz bends its bars, and it appears the Supertube wave of Jeffreys Bay lies flat in the water compared to the more popular swells of Bali, Hawai'i and Australia. It's little wonder Table Mountain looks a little flat up top.

For me, the greatest unsung hero of South African tourism is its railway. One exhilarating route stretches 869 miles from Cape Town to Johannesburg. A historic journey, filling 26 hours with the arid plains of the eponymous Karoo desert, and the lush foothills of the winelands.

Historic track record

South Africa’s railway network is a residue of crusty colonial times, when the British Empire seeped inland in search of commercial gain; first battling the indigenous Zulu tribe, and then the feisty Boer settlers. The British hoped to secure the mineral rich heart of South Africa, a goal they eventually — and brutally — achieved.

Aside from war, the South African railway provided the rigid backdrop of significant events in the lives of two of the world’s most prominent icons: in 1893 a young Indian lawyer by the name of Mahatma Gandhi was ejected from a train at Pietermaritzburg for refusing to vacate a whites-only carriage; and sixty-nine years later, the activist Nelson Mandela was arrested beside the railway tracks of the same city, and to face the charge of sabotage which would eventually condem him to a 27-year jail term.

Choose your rails

Tourists and travelers who have the foresight to explore South Africa are gifted a plethora of budget-savvy travel options. The luxury private operators Rovos Rail and the curiously titled, Blue Train offer visitors a "window into the soul of Africa", but it’s the national railway operator, Shosholoza Meyl who earn the backpacker bucks, as they operate two great value options for the exact same journey.

The Blue Train costs from R10,120 (£886) all-inclusive, and now terminates in Pretoria due to the apparent lack of demand for Johannesburg as a destination (Johannesburg's Park Station is considered safe, and is constantly patrolled by security guards. However you should exercise caution in the surrounding streets, and consider arranging transport to pick you up from the station entrance.)

Meanwhile Rovos Rail carry all-inclusive tourists from R11,000 (£963); while the friendly Premier Classe offer all-inclusive from R1,500 (£131). The real steals for backpackers, remain Shosholoza Meyl's, 'Trans-Karoo' options which cost from as little as R350 (£31) for a sleeper, or — for the really hardcore — from R170 (£15) for an economy class seat.

As an ardent fan of budget rail travel, I can tell you that the comfortable Trans-Karoo option will be filled with curious characters, rather than the plump pockets and paunches of the more luxurious iron snakes. This is exactly where you'll find the right opportunity to interact with regular South Africans, on their chosen turf.

A night aboard the Shosholoza Meyl's, 'Trans-Karoo' is best spent in a simple sleeper cabin, consisting of a fold-down bed, with a small hand basin and hatch window. With a bit of luck, couples can secure a 2-berth cabin by booking in advance (which is good practise for all train travel in South Africa).

Journey across the Karoo

Few journeys of this price in the world afford backpackers such an amount of adventure and distance. The quaint air-conditioned dining cars are the perfect place to escape the midday heat, or to watch the sun set the horizon ablaze while gorging on the European-style menu. Through the large windows, observe the townships of urban Africa flake to dust as the mighty Karoo takes charge of your gaze.

Covering a third of the country, this vast and ancient plateau was a former feeding ground for some of the planet’s largest plant-eating dinosaurs, and it remains one of the world’s foremost hunting grounds for fossil hunters. Today the plateau is dappled and draped in less-menacing scrubland, and a variety of fleeting animals such as the warthog, zebra and impala filter through the vast sheep stations of outback South Africa.

One of the natural stops along the Trans-Karoo route, is the fabled diamond-mining town of Kimberley, home to the largest man made hole in the world: the imaginatively named Big Hole glistens from the sweat of the 50,000 people who had extracted a yield of 2.7 metric tons of diamonds by the time the mine closed in 1914.

The real diamond of South Africa’s beauty however, falls to the Cape Wineland region north of Cape Town. This intimate wine region produces some of the world’s best wines, and offers passengers travelling Trans-Karoo a refreshing gulp of greenery, furnished by large expanses of glistening water which serve some of the country’s most idyllic getaways. Known as the gourmet capital of South Africa, the local vineyards of Paarl, Wellington, Tulbagh, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek provide the perfect reason to return from whence you came.

Lest we forget the bright lights of Cape Town, which swirls between the foothills of Table Mountain and a shoreline that splices the Indian and Atlantic oceans. The city is an easy and exciting base from which to explore the local countryside, and there’s the opportunity to learn the mandala of stories that tighten the famed townships.

Winding roads through Paarl, South Africa. Photo credit: Pixabay

A solid platform

The opportunity to travel by rail for such distances in Africa is a rarity these days. 

I've highlighted the Trans-Karoo — and the wild adventure playground that it spears — as one of the major lures for backpackers over the coming years. Asia is more frequently descending into spontaneous unrest, while the prices in Europe and the Antipodes continue to skyrocket. So perhaps my question shifts: when will South Africa still be celebrated for its stirring future?

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