I have to admit, as much as I was looking forward to our train adventure on the Shongololo Express which we were about to embark on, I was really sad to leave the wonderful palace that is the Orient. We managed to wake up early (6:00am) even after our decadent and leisurely dinner at the Mosaic. As we were getting dressed and our final packing done, we could hear Surprise setting our table on the balcony outside our bedroom. At precisely 7:00am our lavish “continental” breakfast, was waiting for us to enjoy. We lingered over coffee and tea as long as we could as we admired the rising sun over the backdrop of mountains before reluctantly leaving for our 7:30am pick-up that was taking us to Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria.
The 30-minute ride from the Orient to Pretoria took us from the foothills of the Conservation area into flatlands where the countryside is dotted with plantations and agricultural communities. As we approached Pretoria the landscape became more urban with mostly industrial and strip malls. What was of peculiar interest to me were the large number of used car part dealers and scrap yards, old BMW’s, Mercedes and Volkswagens, some dating more than 20 years, were lined up in lots next to the road. Dealers offering to buy and sell used suspensions, drive trains, bumpers and engines were all along the main road.
We eventually turned into the Rovos Rail entrance and drove up to a well maintained Colonial Railway Building with its adjoining rail yard. Our driver pulled up to the front of the grand building where a kiosk was set up just outside the main entrance and a concierge was checking people in. We gathered our luggage from the van and went through the brief check-in process, dropped off our bags and were led into the main room of the rail house where we were offered a glass of champagne. We had arrived just after 8:00am, and were scheduled to board a bus for an excursion to Soweto and Johannesburg at 9:00 am, so we milled about the rail house and the expansive patio on the rail side where we enjoyed tea and biscuits in the brilliant sunshine. We watched as an old steam engine idled on the tracks and occasionally blasted out its sharp whistle.
At precisely 9:00am, we were informed that our bus was ready to board and we shuffled out the front door and on to one of the 2 luxury coaches for our tour to Soweto. Each coach held approximately 40 people so there was plenty of room for the 60 or so passengers that were booked on this edition of the Shongololo Express. Our tour guide, PJ, introduced himself and informed us that over the next 12 days, as we trekked across Southern Africa en route to Victoria Falls aboard the Shogololo Express, the two coaches would follow along and be used to transport us from the train to the various destinations along the way. Each day we would board the same coach. PJ and the other tour guide for the trip, Wilhelm, would alternate buses every other day.
After the brief introductions, the buses pulled out of the station and started the 1 hour drive southwest towards Johannesburg. It was a short drive through the streets of Pretoria to the main highway to Johannesburg and then on to Soweto. As we were passing through Johannesburg, PJ informed us that the downtown area, once a vibrant business hub, was now nearly 90% unoccupied. Most of the office buildings and condos have no residents above the ground floor. A short distance from the highway we could see a thick cloud of black smoke enveloping an area around 2 tall office buildings. Orange flames shot out the broken windows near the top of the buildings. PJ told us that the fire had broken out in one of the buildings and spread to the other the day before. There was no attempt to douse the burning buildings - they would be left to burn themselves out. PJ explained that during the mid-1980s most of the wealthy whites who controlled the businesses in Johannesburg left South Africa as Apartheid was coming to an end. As a result many of the businesses collapsed and have not recovered.
Soon after passing through Johannesburg, we arrived at Soweto. Soweto is a township of the city of Johannesburg comprising of approximately 2.5 million people, making it the largest black urban settlement in Africa. The name itself is an acronym derived from (So)uth (We)st (To)wnship. It was initially settled in the 1930’s when Africans, who came to Johannesburg to work in the gold mines, were forced to live in the township to be kept separate from the whites living in Johannesburg. Today it is a sprawling, vibrant community made up of patchwork shacks and dwellings. Like much of South Africa, the economy in Soweto is suffering. The unemployment rate is said to be at 60%. During our visit, the township was in the middle of a garbage strike and rubbish was stacked everywhere along the streets. On one of our stops at a large street market there was a boulevard at a busy intersection that had a large mound of garbage which had been set aflame and was still smoldering. All around it street vendors had barbeque pits set up and were selling food to the passersby. The street market was several blocks in length and ran along a pedestrian street that was parallel to the main road we had driven in on the bus. The bus had dropped us at one end of the market and we walked to the other end where it picked us up. In between there were dozens and dozens of vendors selling every kind of ware and food item.
Leaving the market, we boarded the bus and travelled a short distance to Vilakazi Street - the only street in the world that was the home to 2 different Nobel Peace Prize winners - Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Their houses are only a few blocks apart and while Nelson Mandela spent a few nights at his house (now a museum) after his release from prison in 1990, Archbishop Tutu still resides here. The area around the Nelson Mandela museum is a thriving tourist spot with restaurants and shops, a sharp contrast to much of the rest of Soweto.
Not far from Vilakazi Street we arrived at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum which commemorates the boy who was shot and killed at the age of 13 by police during the student uprising on June 16, 1976. I remember vividly, as a University student in Canada watching the news clips of heavily armed police shooting into crowds of high school students who were staging a peaceful protest against the mandatory use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in black secondary schools. PJ, our guide, who was 7 years old at the time, was present during the protests. The museum is a modern building consisting mostly of black and white photographs, news reels and artillery that provides a stark journal of the horrific events that occurred that day.
Every Thursday throughout 2018, the 100th birthday of Nelson Mandela, there is free admission for kids to all museums in South Africa. As our visit to the Hector Pieterson Memorial was on a Thursday, the venue was packed with students all proudly wearing their school uniforms and colours. Despite the large number of students who were laughing and rambunctious on the grounds outside the museum, once they entered, their behaviour became sombre and respectful. After leaving the museum to board our bus and head back to Pretoria, we too succumbed to silence and retrospection that lasted for some time into our trip.
It was approaching mid-afternoon by the time we reached the outskirts of Pretoria, the Administrative Capital of South Africa with a population of approximately 2 million people.
Our first stop was the Voortrekker Monument which commemorates the Pioneer history of Southern Africa along with the history of the Afrikaner and is situated on a hilltop just south of Pretoria proper in a nature reserve. We had a quick lunch at the cafeteria style restaurant at the monument and then explored the inside of the massive monument.
Our final stop was onward to downtown Pretoria for a stop at the Union Buildings and the giant statue of Nelson Mandela that watches over the city. Following our stop we boarded the bus for the final time that day and headed back to Rovos Rail Station for the start of our train journey.
Once at the station, we were served champagne and escorted to seats that had been set up in rows facing a podium at one end of the great room. After everyone was seated, each passenger was called by name and Mr. Vos, the owner of Rovos Rail, welcomed each person individually. Once all of the introductions were done, we were invited aboard the Shongololo Express which was waiting for us on the platform. We were taken to the car where we found our cabin and then given some time to unpack and freshen up. A short time later, our hostess, Merica, knocked on our door to introduce herself and let us know that she would be taking care of us until the end of our trip. After settling into our cabin, we proceeded to the end of the train and found the lounge car where we each had a drink as we waited for our call to dinner. I was surprised at how reasonably priced the cocktails were. I had a vodka martini and Kim had a gin and tonic each for R60 (less than $1 CDN).
At 7:20pm, we heard the distinct sounds of a xylophone echoing down the train corridor announcing dinner being served. We made our way from the back of the train where the lounge was, to the front of the train, where the dining cars were. This was our first meal on the Shongololo and we were intrigued as to what would be served. The Shongololo dining cars are vintage cars from the early 1900’s and the decor is elegant. Tables for 2 and 4 are set up on each side of the centre aisle, and while the seating is tight, it is still quite comfortable. There is a different menu offered every night and our first meal consisted of three courses. The appetizer was a broccoli tart followed by an entree of sea bass. There was a dessert offering but we selected the cheese plate which consisted of several artisan cheeses and fruit. We also ordered a bottle of South African Sauvignon Blanc (R155/$16 CDN) to accompany our meal. We lingered over dinner until about 9:00pm then went back to our room and prepared for bed.
The train had expected to leave the station at 6:00pm, but because Rovos uses the national rail system, they are subject to delays based on congestion. We left just after 9:00pm and travelled until 1:00am. Our first night was a little unrestful because of the many starts and stops which resulted in rattling and jolting from time. Once the train stopped for the night we were able to finally get some sleep and prepare ourselves for our next excursion.
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.