2017-10-25 16:15:03
Frugal Traveler: A Meditative Train Ride Through South Africa

I awoke sometime before dawn to the soft, rhythmic clacking of the train, pacing steadily through the heart of South Africa. Poking my face out of the window to take in a breath of cool, dry spring air, I could see stars behind the blue-black shadows of the passing trees. We were somewhere past Kimberley, the Northern Cape Province city where Cecil Rhodes had famously — or, rather, infamously — made a fortune mining diamonds more than a century ago. I remembered a conversation I had earlier that day with Hendrick Stander, an employee of the Shosholoza Meyl train I was riding from Johannesburg to Cape Town, who told me why he fell in love with train travel as a child: “I loved the click-clack, click-clack.”

My train journey between the two South African cities would take 26 hours and cover nearly 1,000 miles before reaching its terminus in Cape Town railway station on the coast. Besides tapping into a new found love of train travel, my trip on the Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe provided the ultimate in affordable luxury: For 3,120 rand (plus a 75-rand booking fee, for a total of about $235), I had my own air-conditioned sleeper compartment, a shower and a proper dining car serving multicourse meals. And, of course, there were a multitude of vistas, from the grassy, steppe-like plateau in the heart of the country to the craggy Hex River Mountains in the southwest.

I had a couple of days in Johannesburg leading up to my train trip, and I was going to make the most of them. Johannesburg (sometimes called Jozie or Joburg) does not feel like a traditional tourist destination — there’s a kind of raw electricity about it that is incredibly appealing. This can work both for and against you, the tourist. The arts are thriving, museums are world-class and night life is popping. It also has a notoriously high crime rate. My take: Be sensibly optimistic. Avoid walking alone at night in unfamiliar areas, especially if you’ve been drinking. Don’t flash money or electronics, and use Uber to get around at night.

You can also do what I did, and stay in Maboneng, a secure and calculatedly hip arts district near downtown Johannesburg — and the brainchild of a property management group called Propertuity (a word with vaguely Orwellian overtones). The comparisons with Brooklyn are inevitable — galleries and multiuse spaces abound, the coffee is good, and work/live spaces are everywhere (I even stayed in one for $40 per night, booked through Airbnb). The neighborhood, with a fairly robust security presence on the streets, feels safe.

Maboneng is Instagrammable (the letters “M-A-B-O-N-E-N-G” hang attractively between two buildings on Kruger Street) and quite manageable — you can walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes. Arts on Main, originally a liquor store warehouse, is now a multiuse space with galleries, stores, and restaurants attached to an attractive courtyard. The David Krut Projects gallery is also worth visiting, if only for its fine displays of prints from local artists; I enjoyed the dreamy, abstract landscapes from South African-native Robyn Penn. It also has a good bookstore attached, with volumes on Johannesburg history that would be difficult to find stateside (300 to 400 rand, about $22 to $30).

I headed to Kruger Street for a meal at Sharp Braai, an unassuming street-side spot with a couple of tables. Sharp Braai is actively bucking the trend of high-priced neighborhood restaurants by serving inexpensive, hearty plates of local food. For just 50 rand I had a plate of tender, dark-meat grilled chicken, stewed greens and dumplings that resembled thick slices of dense bread.

Johannesburg carries the heavy weight of over 130 years of history, since its founding during a gold boom in the late 19th century. Much of the income inequality in the county, which is still acutely felt, is due to the aftereffects of the systematic racism of apartheid, which ended in 1994. Decades of work to abolish that system culminated in the swearing-in of Nelson Mandela as the nation’s first black head of state.

If you’re looking to experience the essentials of that history, a visit to Soweto is a must. Just a 25-minute drive from downtown, Soweto (which stands for South Western Township) was a major center of apartheid resistance in the ’70s and ’80s. I went along on a half-day Soweto tour booked through the Curiocity Backpackers hostel (350 rand) with about a dozen other people and found the experience more than worth the effort.

Our guide, Semphiwe, was sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, giving us all names in Zulu or Xhosa and ribbing us if we couldn’t pronounce them properly. He was from Soweto, and extremely proud of it, noting that it has over a million residents. And it was the only place, he said, where you could, at one point, find two Nobel Peace Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu) living on one street. “And they say it’s not safe!” he said, feigning exasperation.

We first stopped by Kliptown, one of Soweto’s poorest areas, and the Little Rose Center, a school and youth center. The overwhelming poverty of the shanties and tin-roof shacks of Kliptown was sobering — we spent roughly 30 minutes winding through the mazelike, dirt roads, distinguished only by the odd spray-painted wooden board or the rusted-out iron coils of a mattress.

We also saw the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in the Orlando West neighborhood (admission, 30 rand), which documents the killing of 12-year-old Pieterson by police, a key moment during the 1976 Soweto Uprising; and we saw the Apartheid Museum (85 rand), about 10 miles east of Orlando West, which captures the nuances and the horrors of that system. A significant portion of the museum is dedicated to Mandela, including old letters and personal effects as well as a replica of his tiny cell on Robben Island.

AFTER AN EMOTIONAL TOUR of Johannesburg and Soweto, a meditative train ride was just what I needed. In planes, you’re typically traveling too quickly and high up to notice anything, and cars are inherently confining. On a train, though, you can do almost anything you would do at home: Eat, nap, read, play cards.

Another benefit of riding the Shosholoza Meyl was having a sharpened sense of movement and travel. Harry Emanuel, a fellow passenger, noted that border crossings are more meaningful when done by land. “On a plane you just stamp your passport,” he said. “Physically crossing you actually get a sense that, oh, this is a big deal.”

Meals, generally an attempt at something upscale, were good overall. A dinner might start with soup followed by a hake filet, leg of lamb, then tiramisù, and finally a plate of cheese and biscuits. It was not quite gourmet, but on par with, say, first-class airline food. Service was friendly and helpful.

Trains force your brain to slow down. With no internet access and the knowledge you’ll be on a train for an entire day, you have to mine your creative resources. I played a game of Scrabble — in Afrikaans, no less — with a friendly woman named Lueen and her two friends. My traveling companion and I sat for hours after dinner quizzing each other on world capitals. I finished an actual book for the first time in longer than I care to admit. It was wonderful and sad — wonderful to recapture this organic way of having fun, and sad to realize I’d likely soon be back to my old ways.

I also spent a decent amount of time just looking out the window, as the scenery gradually morphed from flat grassland to sharp mountain peaks. I usually travel by plane, an environment where people are usually slightly harried and irritated. Here, it was the opposite: We chatted, drank coffee, relaxed and counted ourselves lucky to take part in such a special journey.

I caught Mr. Stander, the train’s employee, gazing out the window several times. A 40-year veteran of the industry, from a small township four hours east of Cape Town, he seemed to be showing no signs of tiring of his job. “Like I say,” he said, “Here you do not need a TV.”