A little because I hate air travel, a little because I love trains, and mostly because it just seemed like a very cool way to see the middle of the country, Mr. M & I took a 2-night rail trip from Pretoria to Cape Town on our honeymoon in South Africa.
It was agonizingly expensive (just to warn you, this was years ago, and the trip is now ABSURDLY costly to the point where I’d snort in disgust & skip it). But taking a vintage steam train through Africa? It sounded so romantic that I justified it as a honeymoon splurge and tried not to stress over calculating out the price per day, hour, and minute.
Days #9,470- 9,472: Mr. M & I flew into the Johannesburg airport early and drove 35 miles to Pretoria where, tucked in behind an electric gate decked in barbed wire, sat the Capital Park Station. We’d no sooner come to a dusty stop outside its colonial doors before three staff members had plucked our suitcases out of our hands and replaced them with glasses of sparkling wine. The Station, like Hogwart’s School, seemed to run on magic; or at least magic in the form of a huge staff quietly and efficiently anticipating every thought that flitted through our heads.
Honestly, it was all acutely embarrassing. But when I got off my pampered butt to do things myself, I found that I was only getting in their way- that the staff then had to work harder to do their job. If you’ve never tried, it’s preposterously hard trying to preempt someone very skilled at preempting you.
So I stopped trying and settled for a profuse stream of thank you’s, spewing forth like verbal diarrhea and directed at anyone who came near me. For the whole trip.
Our steam train pulled into the station, and I was EXCITED!
We settled into our cabin as the train pulled away from Pretoria and then headed back to the observation car to watch South Africa roll by.
Rovos Rail journeys are all-inclusive, and a few parties seemed to treat it as a booze cruise on tracks. I will admit that I ‘discovered’ Amarula- a creamy liqueur made from the fruits of the African marula tree- that first afternoon (BevMo sells it! Go out this instant, buy some, pour it over vanilla ice cream, and call it Dinner. Thank me later.)
We passed through the suburbs and then started traveling alongside some of Johannesburg’s townships- the poor, underdeveloped urban areas that surround the country’s major cities. The National Party government instituted legal racial segregation (known as apartheid) in 1948, and the townships served as resettlement areas designed to move Blacks from “White” areas of the country. Since the fall of apartheid, some of these townships have seen a surging middle-class and an influx of wealth. But not all. Although Mr. M & I were well aware of the history of apartheid (which ended in the early 1990s), we naively had no concept of the depth of poverty still present in the country and centered in some of the townships.
The townships seemed to go on and on and on. I couldn’t stop taking photos of the townships, if only because they were unlike anything I’d ever seen before (this was my very first international trip and the start of a long lesson in global awareness).
It was possibly the most ashamed I’d ever felt. Partly for not thinking that poverty like that existed. Partly for not doing something to help. And partly for witnessing it all while being catered to on a luxury train. The upside to shame is that it necessitates consciousness… I have travel to thank for forcing me to be more conscious of the world I live in.
The townships may have been the most surprising sight, but witnessing daily life in the nearby villages was just as enlightening.
Almost all of the people we passed seemed genuinely happy to see us, waving, and calling hello.
The following morning, our train made its first stop in Kimberley, where South Africa’s first diamond was supposedly found. The Old Kimberley Diamond Mine (also known as The Big Hole) was closed in 1914 and is now open to the public. The Mine is the deepest hand-dug hole in the world (it was dug with shovel & pick… crazy!!). It’s visible from space, and it is MASSIVE in person.
The associated Mine Museum was funded by De Beers (the mega-diamond company that got its start in Kimberley) with the idea of turning the old mine and the city itself into a tourist destination. The Museum was interesting save for a bunch of propaganda (although what else would I expect from the marketing genius that came up with the “A Diamond is Forever” slogan?).
We learned about the dangerous business of diamond mining- understatement of the century- and ended in the Diamond Hall, a locked vault with a display of a whole bunch of gigantor diamonds uncovered in South Africa.
That afternoon, we rode through more of the country’s gorgeous countryside.
Our train stopped to change tracks at the edge of a small village, and the local kids- accustomed to the sound of the train- came running out to say hi. Mr. M & I tossed all the contents of our cabin’s mini-fridge and our extra pens down to them.
We saw both sides of the tracks from onboard Rovos Rail- from diamonds and champagne to sprawling urban areas lacking sewage and running water- but we detrained without a sense of the heart of the country. (And yes, I was as surprised as perhaps you are that ‘detrained’ is a real word. Who snuck that one into Webster’s?)
I loved Rovos Rail for the glimpses of central South Africa that we would never have otherwise seen.
But it was exceedingly awkward (at least for Mr. M & me) to be pampered and escorted and coddled for two days straight… even on our honeymoon, it’s just not the way we like to travel. The very nature of the journey separated us from the country we came to get to know.
Life is made infinitely better when it’s not viewed from the inside out.
To explore my next day’s adventures meeting an ex-political prisoner on Robben Island and dining silverware-free in Cape Town, click here!
Details of the Day:
Rovos Rail: The luxury rail operator offers a whole host of tours in South Africa (Pretoria to Cape Town, to Victoria Falls, the Garden Route) and a few slightly more epic journeys (a 14-day trip to Tanzania and a 28-day… yes, 28 days… trip from Cape Town to Cairo).
Are Diamonds Forever?: Although I’m not at allll judging others’ decisions (promise!), I don’t believe in diamonds for myself. If anyone’s planning on spending thousands on me, please take me to see the world. I can sparkle on my own. To be honest, I resent those commercials suggesting I’m ‘owed’ a diamond (I hiss at the tv like a feral cat whenever they come on). Honey, I’m worth a lot more than that. By the same token, our commitment is worth a lot more than any piece of jewelry… marriage is represented by the love & respect you show each other every day, no?
For all these reasons- and the fact that I’m terrible at wearing a wedding ring & have misplaced mine for months at a time- Mr. M knew better than to get me a big diamond engagement ring… and all our subsequent world travel has likely been paid for with the savings. NOT an exaggeration.
In case you’re of the same persuasion but still want something sparkly, consider moissanite!