A worried note on my desk from Dagmar, expressing her hope that I'd still be alive. Roll into bed for 3 hours sleep. Wake up at 7:45 with my cell phone in my hand (suppressing the snooze) and Dagmar knocking on my door. Sun filling the room. Dagmar and Nina were worried because of my severe isolationism of last night and I repent. A little. It's nice to be surrounded with people who care for me in a city like Joburg, but I can't help thinking how ridiculously fucked up a situation like this actually is. I've learned when to play safe in this city, I do know my way around now. Mutter.
Chaos rules supreme, as usual. Dagmar and I do some quick shopping at the nearby Spar for our lunch sandwiches and provisions. Tom stumbles around the kitchen, groaning and attempting to prepare fish-fingers in the oven for breakfast, the cab has forgotten us until Dagmar phones, the very moment the cab arrives Nina calls to my phone to urgently talk to the boyfriend who's still inside, Tom spontaneously squeezes into the cab to steal a ride. It doesn't really feel as if I'm travelling yet; this is a textbook exercise in communal life.
Through the window the vintage characteristics of Johannesburg: a street vendor selling apples and other fruit, a green blanket swung around her legs. Newspaper boys selling the latest editions at the robots (= traffic lights). The dreary concrete fly-over in Newtown and broken windowed buildings. And then the boom in front of Park Station and travelling commences.
On platform 15 waits the Shosholoza Meyl, readying to take me, housemate Dagmar and her brother Leon to Cape Town where'll be for some 48 hours. When Dagmar pitched the idea, I jumped at it: it was the perfect way to set a writing deadline, reward myself and delouse from science stress. That over 50 hours of this trip would be spent inside a sleeper cabin was an additional bonus, and so it seemed especially after another sleep-broken week.
Leon notices how the station is the antithesis of any European train hub: it's deserted. No announcements, the occasional chirp of sparrows and a rare solitary train engine that thunders past, roaring furiously. I can't wait to see the train: the people who've dismissed train travel as an adequate way of travel in South Africa have been consistently the people who know shit about living in South Africa outside their western cocoon. The people who have previously travelled with the train tell us to enjoy it and, in the words of Birthwell, to "bring a bottle". [That means beer, the 1 litre variant they sell here.]
I get an SMS from my prof to read my email concerning my chapter. Stress leaps. If my writing style is again philosophically unsound, I'll be at Wits end (pun!) how to proceed next. I'm at version 3 already and I should've been in the field a month ago. I let it go: brains are overloading. Cape Town comes before email.
Dagmar finds our cabin with the colourful purple sleeper benches. Equipped with a tiny sink, enough room for all our luggage and not a fourth person to share the cabin with, the available space is close to ideal - although I've never slept before on an actual sleeper train to make a proper comparison. My first goal: a snapshot of the engine. Get invited inside, have the standard talk with the operator who's from Klerksdorp and who instantly goes on about the safety and crime in Johannesburg. Christ, not again. This Afrikaans dribble is really starting to annoy me. I respond with what seems to upset a lot of white Afrikaners from the old days: tell them that I find Johannesburg perfectly liveable, that I love using taxi's and working in the townships. Just to antagonise. It frequently works, conversation just dries up.
The moment I've snapped the engine, a whistle calls: departure! Hastily hop inside. Dagmar, Leon and me stick our heads out of the windows as the train rolls out of Park Station. Jozi, basking in winter sun, slides by: Mandela Bridge, Braamfontein Metro Station, a passing rail worker sticks up his thumb when we wave at him.
It takes over an hour to leave the sphere of urban influence of Johannesburg. Brixton Tower rolls away into the horizon while the mine dumps of the West Rand grow at the other side. Shacks on the edge of the city, a bustling taxi rank. Then the final contractions: a walled, luxurious suburb under construction in the middle of nowhere sensible. The umber buildings within the arid environment jar me somewhat. I can't imagine that people would want to live so far from Johannesburg in the near future, except the elites.
A little further, an enormous agricultural project under construction: a catenation of giant silos rising from the plains. That also keeps me captivated: it is testimony of the enormous potentials South Africa harbour, what kind of money is available when the willpower is at the right place. Johannesburg is developing in every possible direction, although I suspect it will contract again if the energy crisis will hit the African shores full force. I still feel more at ease at the more abandoned places - but I get my fill of that today.
Afrikaans dominates as language in Klerksdorp. Although we had the idea the train would be dominantly used by the less endowed, white Afrikaans speaking people dominate the clientele. Dagmar doesn't like it at all; as always she hungers to experience the most African journey available. Well, she did travel by combi-taxi to Lesotho; I haven't. I guess that for a slightly more African experience we should've taken the even less expensive sitter train - but I'd have refused that after years of coach travelling. If I can avoid it, no more nights spend slumped in a chair that refuses to bend back, my back growing sore and my neck stiff. In the end, there's no denying it: Shosholoza is a luxurious experience. A copious amount of fresh sheets, blankets and pillows are brought for R70 per person (although I brought my trusty sleeping bag and pillow), spotlessly dressed people cater with tea and coffee at an extremely decent R5 per cup.
With the landscape flattening, I fall blissfully asleep on the top bunk while reading the first chapter of Hemingway's "Blue Hills of Africa". Dagmar and Leon follow suit below me. When I wake up, I find that the emptiness of Northwest province mirrors my stomach. Cheap pasta lunch in the service wagon, sharing chocolate mousse between the three of us. I had fully expected to collapse back into sleep but it never happens, playing word games with Dagmar and Leon which I generally lose, or gazing out across the arid grasslands that trundle by. A solitary car on a parallel road, then the rare biker, peddling slowly.
7 hours passed. Sun is setting when the train halts at Christiana, a hamlet with a station as an afterthought. A plume of smoke curls into the southern horizon, lingering horizontally in a darkening sky and catching the fading damask light on its belly.
More word games which I lose; Dagmar and Leon have been playing these since their childhood travels. A glass of Amarula Cream as a nightcap in the service wagon but we stick around too long and get thrown out. It's already ten o'clock. The movement of the train is pleasant, hypnotic, cutting us off from the entire world. All three of us feel inspired to put words on paper - train travel rips away the daily distraction, leaving us to contemplate the deeper meaning behind our modern lives. Leon ponders on the dominance of music in our lives, the ubiquity and normality of earplugs, the never ending availability or the desire to listen to music; Dagmar systematically, as is her wont, lists the things that struck her that day while looking outside. I make my first journal entry but it spontaneously bursts into an emotional overview of the rollercoaster year so far. Serves me no good but it eases my mind as I dig into my sleeping bag.
I wake a few hours later, sweating. I had forgotten how well my sleeping bag insulates. I rip off my T-shirt and admire the nightscape outside the train: a clump of moon pours onto the developing flat-topped mesas of the Karoo. Leaning back into my pillow I realise it has almost been four years since I last visited Spain. A star twinkles high and cold, finding me through the window. Even in South Africa I hear Aragon's call, the promise to Tabernas, the broken dream still at the back of my throat.
I wake again when the train decelerates. My gut feeling is right: the long platform marks the stop in Beaufort West, the rundown town that I cherish as the symbol of the fading cowboy spirit of the Little Karoo. The atmosphere of Beaufort West is captivating in its osmotic sadness, even at the station: the white paint peeling from the single wooden bench on the platform, the dilapidated signs with letters missing. I've no idea how late (or early) it is. For a brief moment I consider to patter outside in my underwear, to snap pictures but I withdraw the thought when I spot the silhouettes of porters moving outside the train. Settle for a picture through the glass which fails horribly and miraculously the flash doesn't wake Leon or Dagmar.
Headache as fresh light pours in. We accidentally left the heater on and everyone has been breathing in soot. (For the next two days we all create black tissues when we blow our noses.) Hills shimmer on the horizon; I suspect we near the end of the desert. The cabin is still doused with silence, I roll over for one more snooze.
I wake as Dagmar, fully clothed, is balancing with one foot on my bunk, busy retrieving her backpack. Enough with the sleeping is her opinion. Apparently we've been requested to return the blankets at half past seven. Not that it mattered to me, but I completely slept through the request and so did Leon and Dagmar. I turn around for the landscape and am struck speechless for a moment. The abandonment of the desert is gone, replaced by verdant dales filled with grapes, the sun brittle on the robust mountains of the Swartberg, their summits sparkling with ice crystals. It's wonderland. South Africa is wonderland.
Take my breakfast in the cabin, yoghurt, grapes, my last muffin and I can already feel the backpacker spirit coalesce: that unshaven feel of not showering, still moving forward, destinations waiting, making your life spell A-D-V-E-N-T-U-R-E. A new station at nine: Worcester. I'm surprised, that's a 2 hours drive from Cape Town. We're not supposed to arrive before half past twelve. But well. This is a South African train after all. The train people come to collect the blankets for real now. Leon, still asleep prior to the knock on the door, tumbles into his clothes and hops to the service wagon for breakfast.
They're an interesting lot, brother and sister. Extremely independent and wayward in their own unique way. Both are direct and pragmatic in conversation and in life; both rattle their words when they grow enthused about a subject. They appear to have been on holiday everywhere; Dagmar climbed the Kilimanjaro last year. That they're practically attuned travel-wise is showing: both had copiously prepared with provisions and both carry a planned stack of cash with them - while the only cash I carried was by sheer fortune. Generally, they always come across slightly chaotic. Trash consistently ends on the floor. Dagmar is the more principled one: she sets up disposal bags and sticks to them. She also gave me "klap" (discipline) when one day I decoratively put banana peels on the washing line inside our house. As I have observed again and again in other roving spirits, both she and Leon are the travel enthused products of a nomadic family.
In several ways, Dagmar is reminding me of my first real relationship - same directness, similar boundless randomness and adventurous keenness, although in character she's more introvert and closeted. The other day she vocally complained about the relative immaturity of her fellow students. This is definitely true: the freshers at Wits are tremendously pampered and immature and Dagmar shines positively above them, strengthened with her years committed to volunteering work. If I were younger I might have attempted dating her, attracted as I was in those days to women with international orientation and an appetite for the travelesque. But that was seven years ago. In seven years I've crossed boundaries in life which cannot be reversed, and I'm the older for it.
But hanging out with Dagmar is awesome and channels the youth back in me. We run through the lurching train from head to tail as fast as we can, discover we can actually open the doors while the train is moving at full rumble and discover, too late, that the sleeper wagons come with communal showers. Oh well. The backpacker feel is starting to suit me too well to bother now.
I attempt to pick up writing again, but Dagmar and Leon boo me and we discuss politics instead. We now hit the urban sphere of Cape Town. A camel and two giraffes randomly standing in a garden. A giant sewage plant framed by an informal settlement of shacks. We pass Paarl with its phallic monument for the Afrikaans language. Dagmar snorts at it. As ever, she has very little sympathy left for Afrikaans people or their hallowed but remarkably creative and evocative language.
During the final kilometres we retake our positions at the windows, sticking our heads out. I recognise Table Mountain as a good friend, attempt pictures. And then, at 12:15, the familiar high-pitched squeaks of a braking train and nearly 26 hours of training have brought us to Cape Town. I also recognise this station, from 7 years ago, a lifetime ago, during my first stint in Cape Town. It still has that very seventies, brownish atmosphere, a bit like Hoog Catharijne shopping mall in Utrecht. We exit at Strand Street and immediately a combi-taxi stops, and offers us a ride. Unfortunately, I misremember the name of the hostel we wanted to check out, we end up at Long Street where we don't want to be and are R40 lighter for it, which is a ridiculous price for dropping us two blocks. Eish! Leon, always in financial straits, longs for a cheap hostel at the throbbing heart of backpacker mania in Long Street (and selects one hostel that offers dorm beds for R80 and a girls' night with two male strippers that evening). Eish again! The age gap is showing once more because I was really hoping for a quieter surrounding to get my breath back. I drag the two up the hill to New Church street and find almost unerringly the hostel that made my stay in Cape Town in 2001 one of the best affairs: Zebra Crossing. They're rarely listed in South Africa, but clearly word of mouth advertising has done its job: there are only 3 dorm beds left to take (also R80). The place looks a little less glamorous than my memory had made it, but it still feels a lot like coming home. With Leon slightly grouching at the relative quietude of the place, Dagmar settles the compromise: one night here, the second at Long. I've peace with that.
Half an hour later we're back on the street: although overcast, the sky above Table Mountain is clear and there is no guarantee it will be the same tomorrow. In 2001 I climbed Table Mountain underneath a spotless blue firmament and in a T-shirt; this time our hike will give a contrasting experience. I actually enjoy that: if one should ever visit a place twice, I enjoy variation to the theme, as extra spice.
Platteklip Gorge trail is about ten minutes walking from the lower cable cart station that sits 600 meters below the plateau. A handful of dried fruit and a chocolate bar and we start climbing at two. Ultimately, Platteklip Gorge trail is nothing more than a blocky stairway that brings us up to the gorge leading to the summit. It's a demanding pace that Dagmar sets, although she can't keep up with it in the end. Lots of families are descending; I remember that it's Saturday and Capetonians enjoy a ride up the cable cart and a stroll down the mountain in the weekend. Everyone who comes from the top is well wrapped up, and as we climb higher, the wind becomes blustery and fierce.
We reach the gorge with an hour. The grey weather makes the cleft through the mountain appear daunting and portentous, with trickles of water dripping from both cliff sides and impressive boulders scattered in between. It takes us another half hour to reach the top, appearing rather blowzy and not getting a rebate: strong gales whip across the plateau. The vista, combined with the strong winds, make for more spectacular sights. Wispy clouds driven across Signal Hill, the turquoise of the Atlantic and the white surf frothing in Camps Bay deeply below us, to the south the dark mountains that form the promontory leading to Cape Point. What would we do to live here, interchanging Jozi for Cape Town? Then again, it's perhaps better to live at an ordinary place and visit special places, because living at a special place can turn it ordinary. Not that Jozi is ever ordinary...
We fill our bottles at the cable cart station and discover that they're closing the place down - as usual during strong winds. We devour a bag of crisps in the lee of two boulders, peer out across the city bowl of Cape Town and wait until we see the final cable gondola slide down. Now we really start feeling pleasantly abandoned. Dagmar and Leon scamper around the rocks a bit, I look unsuccessfully for glacier striations and it is decided that I will be eaten first if we get stuck on the top. We head back. As much as I wanted to explore Table Mountain further, time is starting to press, and we start our return route, also via the Gorge.
Descending the clumpy stairway is even more strenuous than going up. Although we test our bodily limits in racing down, we cannot seem to overtake the elderly man some 50 meters below us!! Our feet are on fire, Leon's legs are involuntarily shaking as we brake halfway and give up on the chase. The last half hour we descend a bit more leisurely, Leon harmoniously singing choir songs from his youth. What I had hoped would happen, happens: the setting sun, now hovering above the horizon, relinquishes from the clouds and sets the sky alight in this day's final blaze of glory. The Lion's Head silhouettes against an incandescent horizon, the flanks of Table Mountain glow fiery.
Back at our starting point by quarter to six at dusk. We walk back to the cable cart station, hoping on the slim chance that there are cabs lingering. People are jogging by or walking their dogs. I breathe in deeply, fill my lungs with the smell of pine, fresh shrubs, the ocean's breath - all the smells I so miss in Johannesburg. Cape Town is already easing me down, loosening me up, exactly as it has done the previous times.
No cabs for us, and none of us is looking forward to another 45 minutes trot into the city bowl. Luck strikes again: at the parking space a change-over in auto-campers is taking place. After a brief chat, the company's owner offers us a ride into town if we'd crouch in the back of the camper - which we gladly do. Hurray! Mission complete: his route brings us at 100 meters from our hostel. Blessed showers. I skip shaving again.
In the lounge, the typical hostel crowd is assembling with a stack of movies and an X-box. There is Jean, a South African from Moroccan descent who can't stand the French, and who's your undesirably loud-mouthed dorm companion yet friendly. There's also a Londoner, Lee, who's working constantly behind a laptop: ragtag blond haircut, tattoos, with a lilting (Cockney?) accent I can only understand because of my experiences in London. Further a smattering of archetypically clueless British girls who only seem to have jetted to Cape Town to visit the city. They strike me as the type that'd boast to friends that they've been to Africa - while they really, really haven't. Not that I can boast much, but honestly now. Get your butt in gear and out of Cape Town.
We're off for supper, and strolling down Long Street find respite in The Dubliner, the Irish pub that is broadcasting football games on large screens. Bafana Bafana is losing in the qualification rounds for the Africa cup to the quiet dismay of the spectators. Dagmar pointedly sits down underneath a television screen and queries the waiter to near death on portion sizes - Dagmar eats for two after all. Because we never had one before, Leon and I have a Guinness. A strangely flat affair, but it may still beat South African beers. It comes with a Dubliner burger that ranks as one of the best I've had in my life. Unexpectedly, the young whippersnappers are more tired than I am - and resort back to the hostel, more than happy to watch a set of abominable Hollywood movies which I wish to never hear of again (The Invasion, Constantine). My brains are off, done, fried and kaput by midnight, so that I and the charismatic woman (Megan) next to me join forces in piling silly commentary on the Constantine movie. Collapse into dorm bed. Unfortunately I sleep underneath the bulky Jean who's as loud and inconsiderate in real life as in sleep and who tosses restlessly. I cocoon myself with ear plugs and sleeping mask and tumble into deep dreams.