Full Steam Ahead For An African Odyssey

Long-time presenter of TV’s Wish You Were Here and BBC Holiday programmes, John Carter, boards the Shongololo for a fantastic rail and walk journey through some of South Africa’s most idyllic destinations

Whenever a group of experienced travellers (or, indeed, travel writers) get together, the conversation leads, invariably, to a discussion of former eras and former glories. Of long-gone luxury liners, perhaps, or of a time when airports were not crowded, and aircraft with propellers had beds in them to ease the trans-Atlantic journey. 

(The fact that the flight between London and New York took more than a dozen hours, in comparison with today’s far swifter journeys is, of course, overlooked in the mood of nostalgia. As are all the other disadvantages of those “pioneer” days.) 

The thought has come to my mind because I have recently been in such company and had such a conversation. Not about luxury liners or old aircraft, but of trains. Trains hauled by steam engines.    Trains with cosy compartments and plush restaurant cars. Trains which had polished brass and mahogany in abundance and which took you, mile after mile, in armchair comfort while sure-footed attendants plied you with food and drink and generally pampered the stress out of you. 

All gone, of course. If, indeed, they ever existed in so perfect a state, because we do tend to romanticise what used to be. Though, to be fair, I have travelled in such splendid style, and admire the way it is recaptured in some present-day trains. Though “Al Andalus” has gone from Spain, the Orient Express still takes us to Venice the old-fashioned way. 

One country which knows how important luxury train travel is to the welfare of its tourist trade is South Africa. A modern version of the fabled Blue Train still runs between Cape Town and Pretoria, and the country also boasts a crop of excellent long distance “rail safari” services which have retained the comfort – indeed, the luxury – of former times. 

“Shongololo” is their generic name. I don’t know the tribal language from which the word comes, but it translates as “millipede”, because that is what the indigenous people thought of when they saw their first trains passing across the landscape. 

They operate on five branded routes – The Southern Cross, The Dune Express, The “Dr. Livingstone”, The Garden Route and the one I am featuring today – The Good Hope. 

It is a 16-day journey between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and the folk at Ramblers Worldwide Holidays have come up with the idea of featuring the journey in one of their “combination” holiday offers, the thinking behind which is to provide an enjoyable experience in addition to the core activity of walking itself. 

I must confess the thought of walking around a Game Reserve struck me, initially, as a tricky sort of pursuit.   I fancied that a discussion with a lion or a buffalo concerning who had right of way might prove to be on the short and messy side, but I am assured that no such scenario is likely. 

Much of the walking will be on city tours – Johannesburg, Mbabane (the capital of Swaziland), Durban, Bloemfontein and Cape Town.    There is, though, an opportunity to walk through the Mcheche forest in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site, and a visit to the wine villages of Franschhoek, Stellenbosch and Paarl should be absolutely no hardship! 

The holiday does provide some fairly energetic days, but as daily walking time averages only two to three hours, it should not be too demanding.   And, as an addition to the walking, there are escorted game drives within the National Parks and Game Reserves. 

The advantage of a train-based holiday is, of course, that once you have unpacked and settled into your sleeping compartment you have no need to touch the suitcase again until the end of the journey. You travel by night, with breakfasts and dinners served on board.   Lunch is taken at various locations during the excursions.   The air-conditioned vehicles used for some of those excursions are carried on the train, as are multi-lingual guides – though the Ramblers group will have its own leader in addition. 

There are four grades of sleeping accommodation on the train.   The simplest – single or twin-bedded – have washbasins with hot and cold water.   Others come with lavatory and shower, too.   The top categories even have an extra “sitting room”. 

At the time of writing two holidays are on offer in 2013.  One – from February 4th-19th – costs from £3,629, which includes return flights between the U.K. and South Africa, transfers, onboard accommodation on a half board basis, plus the services of a local guide and tour leader with daily excursions. 

This is the latest and most imaginative “combination” holiday to be offered by RWH and I hope it proves to be as successful as the operators’ Cruise & Walk programme. 

For more information visit www.ramblersholidays.co.uk   or call 01707 386774

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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