A train runs through it

Trip Start Nov 14, 2009
Trip End Dec 11, 2009

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Where I stayed
Premier Classe Train

Flag of South Africa  , Western Cape,
Friday, December 4, 2009

Last day at CSIR was strange--feeling particularly relieved to be leaving to be honest, especially since we've run every experiment I can imagine and have got a big goose egg.  So, I really would've liked to flee the scene of the crime, as they say.  But we went out for dinner with the group and I started to feel I might actually miss the place.  Who knows, maybe I'll be back?

Spent the night in Musa's place, as it's in Jo'burg.  He's got a really nice flat, open and comfortable, and more wires and cords for computers and Wii and Playstation and stereos, etc, that I can imagine.  Untangling those must be a nightmare.  His girlfriend, Marta, was nice enough to shuttle me over to Val's lab the next morning.

At Val's lab, I hashed out the case for dormancy with Bavesh for about 2 hours.  Not necessarily sure we came to a full consensus, but I think the story is taking shape.  Now to get it down the right way...not likely the next week in Cape Town, considering I've not got computer access and will be dead in the middle of party central.

Bavesh took me into Park station to the rail office, as he was worried I'd be mugged there--apparently, he had been accosted with a guy wielding a rusty knife (and everyone around him either watched like it was street theater or walked on).  But I guess it's part of the FIFA cleanup because the facility was open, clean and police were wandering about.  I had no issues getting to the departure lounge and settling in. 

So, it's a strange scenario in that departure lounge.  Most of the travelers are South African and Afrikaaners, while all the staff are black Africans.  And the median age must be 50 or 60 in the group.  Which I expected, frankly, because of the cost.  But it's strange nonetheless, because you get this whole uncomfortable white/black dichotomy on the train.  But you can't change that, I suppose.  I wonder if I was the odd one out.  

I'm taking the Premier Classe train, which is billed as a luxury alternative to the ultra high end Blue Train.  The Premier Classe for December is around $350 (2500 ZAR), so it's actually about 3x more expensive than the plane, but I was willing to splurge to enjoy some luxury and see more of the country, as it traverses the lowveld, the karoo and the winelands on the way to Cape Town.  The actual train is intensely purple and has about 8 cars, 3 of which are for passenger berths, 1 is for employee berths and a spa, two dining cars, 1 lounge/bar car, 1 kitchen.  My single sleeper's not that big, but it comes with a couch that becomes a bed, a sink and storage.  They give you a bathrobe and slippers and toiletries--so essentially a moving hotel.  

We started in grandiose fashion with a welcome and glass of champagne, which seemed at odds to the passing scenery of poorer Jo'burg suburbs, but I won't say it wasn't a nice start, and much appreciated.

Meals are a multi course affair--they're good, not great, but you certainly get quantity and being able to look out window over amazing scenery is really the main draw.  We left in the afternoon and traveled through the lowveld, a grassy, meadowland with rolling hills and farms that are spaced miles apart.  They made my bed while I ate and I slept as we entered the middle karoo region of the country.  Sleep was OK, especially given the occasional tossing of the train and the brakes.  The A/C was on and I curled up under two blankets--my favorite way to sleep.  We stopped twice (only 1 of which I was aware of) and I made myself get up for sunrise over the karoo, which was highly recommended to me.

Luckily, I was facing East and had a great view of the sun, though it took an hour to really see the sun come up over the horizon.  The karoo is a bit like prairie, with lots of clumps of shrubs, but mixed in with the mesas and mountains of the southwest.  Basically, in the short span of the country, we'd gone over the landscapes across the US.  I wouldn't say the sunrise was the best one I've seen, but it was pretty, with the far away mountains black and the sky lightening--still, though, I think the best sunrise/sunsets are in poorer air quality areas with nice refraction from smog particulates.  Then I fell back asleep for a couple of hours so I could have breakfast feeling vaguely alert.

As we rode through the Karoo, you pass by lots of these one street ghost towns, where the only thing remaining intact is the not so rusted town signpost.  Instead, the four buildings of so that made up these old towns are nothing but heaps of rubble in the middle of parched and inhospitable terrain.  It boggles the mind that some people might willing live there for some period of time just to tend to the trains/prospect?

We passed by a tourist town of Maijtesfontein (pronounced MIkeys-fon-tane), which was the home of a Scottish entrepreneur who set up a really ornate and old fashioned hotel that has changed little over the past century.  Of course, aside from the hotel, there's nothing else in the town as far as I could see.  But it's definitely this unexpected oddity of an olde tyme hotel passing by the windows, surrounded by open unsettled shrub land.

But the Karoo changed into cultivated valleys as we headed into the Hex River valley, which apparently is responsible for almost all of the grapes grown in South Africa.  The landscape is amazing--lakes and reservoirs, fields and fields of vineyards all surrounded by mountain ranges on both sides.  We actually plunge into 10 minutes of total darkness through a mountain before the Cape Town region.

So over the trip, we've basically traversed an entire continent's worth of different ecological biomes and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  Of course when we got to the outskirts of Cape Town, where the townships of the Cape Flats lie, you start seeing the shacks and poverty again, just reminding you that as you travel the luxury train, most can only dream of seeing inside the train.

Cape Town, at first glance, is busy, with people all around the station and streets.  But the streets are open, there's a Grand Parade lined with palms, that reminds me of pictures of Rio or somewhere tropical and South American.  And then quite a few skyscrapers, with the huge Table Mountain erupting from the back of city.  Looking back, it was a great day, but I was paranoid in the new place and walked with my eyes fixed on the street signs, as I searched for my hostel.

My hostel is on Long street, the nightlife capital of Cape Town and it shows.  Lots of bars and shops line this crowded street, plus hawkers for craft stores, restaurants and sometimes marijuana.

I decided to dump all my crap at the hostel and wander the street a bit to see what was going on.  And then I stumbled upon the mob.  Today was the FIFA draw--the soccer world cup next year in South Africa for those of you not in the know.  And the celebration 'fan fest' was held in Cape Town, on Long street today.  Thousands packed the end of the street to hear music, watching promotional montages and basically drink and cheer.  People from all over--lots of Europeans, Australians, Africans, South Africans, Brazilians, etc.

I was trapped in the crowd for about 3 hours, as we watched the draw--which had the pomp and circumstance of the Oscars, including having Charlize Theron as co-host and David Beckham (with an atrocious hair style) appearing.  Despite lots and lots of self-promotion and touchy-feely 'soccer is the world' speeches, you really do get sucked up into fervor of the people around you and I started to maybe feel a little South African, at least in the sense that you were proud the country was holding such a huge event and maybe they'd emerge from FIFA in an even better place than they are now.  Still, that will remain to be seen, as it could go either way.
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