Chugging out of Johannesburg’s razor wire-wrapped suburbs on the Trans-Karoo Express, and looking forward to an overnight journey to Cape Town, is an exhilarating experience. Much of the 26-hour trip is spent in the semi-arid Karoo, the great inland plateau that covers most of western South Africa. This epic area of rocky mountains and blazing sunsets certainly lives up to its name - a Khoe-San word meaning 'land of thirst'.
Before entering the Northern Cape, the least-populated province and home to the Kalahari as well as the Karoo, the train crosses the North-West Province’s grasslands. If you’re on the 'tourist class' service, you can put your feet up in your cabin or retire to the dining car for a bite or a beer.
Tourist class is the best option if you don’t want to rough it on the economy-class service, or splurge on the luxurious Premier Classe or Blue Train. The dining car serves surprisingly good food, including a chicken curry that would pass muster in a stationary restaurant, and couples can lounge in their private, two-berth coupé. If you’re travelling alone, you will likely be placed in a four-person compartment, but given that the single fare is just R350 (US$45), you could secure a coupé by buying an extra ticket.
Staying in Kimberley
The train reaches Kimberley, capital of the Northern Cape and formerly a diamond mining centre, in time for dinner. You can eat in one of the atmospheric old pubs, then stay in a reconstructed 19th-century mining camp at the Australian Arms Guesthouse. Kimberley’s heritage is alive and exploding on the diamonds-and-dynamite tour of the Big Hole, the world’s largest hand-dug hole.
If you decide to stay on the train and take in the Karoo’s legendary starscape, the first stop after sunrise is Matjiesfontein (pronounced 'mikeys-fontein'). The beautifully preserved village was established in 1889 by a Scottish railway magnate who built the Lord Milner Hotel to accommodate wealthy guests drawn by the Karoo’s crisp air. Today, the village is a cross between a ghostly museum piece and an eccentric outpost. Every evening, a vintage London bus embarks on a 'tour' of Matjiesfontein’s single street, finishing at the piano in the Laird’s Arms bar.
Pinotage in the Winelands
Back in the 21st century, you can tuck into bacon and eggs as the Trans-Karoo Express enters the Cape Winelands and swishes through vineyards. South Africa’s wine industry is the oldest outside Europe, with a bold signature grape, pinotage. Between refined towns and mountain passes, more than 200 wineries are found here, creating one of the world’s longest wine routes. Stellenbosch is the most popular base, but the train’s stops - Worcester, which specialises in fortified wines, and Wellington - would make good alternatives.
The flanks of Table Mountain come into view long before the train arrives in Cape Town, building excitement about arriving at the southern tip of Africa. By now, the passengers have all become old friends, and everyone chats about their plans for the coming days. It’s a fitting way to arrive in the colourful, charismatic Mother City, where there’s plenty of time to check into a hotel before heading up Table Mountain for sunset.
Shosholoza Meyl runs the tourist- and economy-class trains, as well as the Premier Classe. The most luxurious option is the famous Blue Train. A useful source of information on all the services is train website The Man in Seat Sixty-One.