Rovos Rail – Part Two – Da Aar to Cape Town

I’m in the afternoon of day two on this luxury train trip from Pretoria to Cape Town. The comfort and extra touches on offer are simply stunning, and are worth a quick description.

In our large private stateroom with it’s Queen Bed, Desk, two arm chairs, and full bathroom are complete amenity kits, including a free laundry service – and a free pressing service. I make use of both – the pressing service to ready my gowns for the formal dinners on Friday and Saturday night, and the laundry service because it’s been a few days, and laundry does mount up! On the desk is a gift box of various cookies to enjoy in case you run out of food – and a full bar menu. Just let your personal suite server know your needs – and she will stock the handy fridge to your requirements. No charge of course. Like a great wedding – it’s as much wine and alcohol (and food) as you want.

When we return from dinner on the first night, our bed has been made up, including warm cozy duvets (it gets really cold at night in the African plains), toffees to enjoy, and a note telling us about tomorrows weather – which is more of the same – warm and sunny.

When we return from dinner the 2nd night – we are stunned by how they have made the bed! We had told the booking agent that it is our 47th Wedding Anniversary (children please note – 3 years to 50… have you started planning?). And they have surprised us with a bottle of bubbly, two champagne glasses, a gift box of a honey/salt Carmel spread (sweet on sweet – so popular here), and a personalized note congratulating us. But it’s the heart of rose petals that is truly over the top.

Well – we shall just have to celebrate I guess!

The sky visible from our bed is filled with lovely stars – and we fall asleep watching the African flat lands and the glorious sky drift by.

This morning, our 3rd day on the train, the weather has decidedly changed. It’s cold. Really, really cold. I’m regretting my packing choices, would it have been so hard to pack at least one pair of warmer socks?

Having not figured out how to turn our AC from cool to heat, we bundle up and go into the lounge, where it is decidedly warmer. I’m offered a cup of hot water, and a latte with breakfast, both of which are very welcome.

Enjoying South Africa, at least from the train, is a question of where you look. From where I sit in the oh-so-comfy lounge car there is a view to the right and the left.

If I look left, I see young men sitting looking forlorn on the train tracks, and behind them a line of what can best be described as ‘better’ government housing. As we arrived in the station of Matjiesfontein, we passed groups of tiny corrugated shacks, then things improved to the left – going from corrugated metal to cement homes. Clearly not middle class – although given the reality of South Africa – these could easily be middle class for black Africans. Certainly there is smattering of Satelite dishes, and even the occasional car.

If I look to the right, there are three musicians serenading anyone who walks by, mostly Beatle songs – and then the most adorable Victorian village you’ve ever seen. It is quite lovely – and in stark contrast to the relatively depressing view to the left. How unNorth American. According to the guide book – the village is the work of just one man – Jimmy Logan. He and his wife arrived here in 1890 with little more than a vision, and from that built almost everything we see to the right.

In conversation with other guests on our train, we learn that one of the major issues in South Africa is the stark lack of social programs. There is no unemployment insurance, no social welfare, few government sponsored options for helping the poor out of their predicament. And this is clear to even the most casual tourist. If you are born on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks – your parents are likely lacking in education, your grand-parents likely had no better choices, and you have few if any options. And life is boring. We’ve seen flocks of kids who gather whenever the train slows down to come and check us out – we are easily the highlight of their day.

But enough of my muttering on these issues. Apparently if you are willing to work very hard – and have just a bit of good luck, you can break at least part of the endless cycle. The staff on the train is an interesting mixture of whites and black – although the blacks tend to be wait staff and housekeeping, the white members of the staff are the sommelier, train manager and his assistant and the gals running the sales shop and offering customer service. My husband observes that perhaps they don’t see the clear division of tasks that we do – and perhaps he’s right. On the other hand – the driver of our train was a very very nice Black woman. So some things must be looking up.

On the nature side – I spent a great part of yesterday on the Observation Deck, keeping my eyes peeled for animal sightings. I was rewarded with glimpses of an Ostrich, lots of Springbok and the like, plus two red deer that were as surprised as I was when the train roared past. I also spotted huge solar farms, and a series of massive wind generators on the ridge line of the hills. Better homes, when we pass them, often sport Solar Hot Water systems – which makes a great deal of sense in this environment.

Only one scary moment – we were stopped in De Aar, waiting for folks to check the train I would guess when a young man attempted to claim onto the Observation Deck. He had been asking my husband for food – and apparently took his attention to mean he had permission to climb aboard. The train security folks responded quickly – and he ran back into the housing near the train yard – but afterwards we were reminded that as hard as it seems, generosity here isn’t as clear cut as back home. You are better to support the NGO systems that work to keep the poor fed and housed, then to reward begging. Tough on our North American sensitivities.

We have met some very nice folks from Holland – and share lunch and travel adventures with them. They have been to more places then we have – which is saying a lot, although their visits were often shorter. That’s the advantage of travelling for pleasure rather than business – you can choose how long to stay! And then this afternoon we spent time again on the Observation Deck. Company was rather lively, with one younger retiree from South Africa holding court with his varied experiences around Africa. He did point out the differences between ‘townships’, which are places where Blacks choose to live and have government services – like electricity and running water, and squatter camps – where Blacks live without any government services – no toilets, no electricity, no garbage removal. Once identified the differences are actually quite visible, although we’re not talking small places in either case. I’m guessing at least a thousand homes, in each of the few squatter camps we passed. Curiously, the townships were walled in, the squatter camps had no walls, and could expand in all directions as needed. From both types of ‘homesteads’, dozens and dozens kids gaily waved as we rode past.

Our train has finally cleared the mountain tunnels and dropped at least 1000 vertical meters towards Cape Town, and the surroundings have gone from the African plain to the food basket. Green fields, vineyards, green houses, a private zoo, townships, squatter camps, and more upscale housing and factories provide visual distraction as we make our way towards Table Mountain and Cape Town.

Our plan for the next few days is to visit Cape Town and then continue our tour along South Africa’s Garden Route. Penguins, Whales and Wine Tasting – here we come!

Signing off – The Soup Lady

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