“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ernest Hemingway (thanks to Oliver’s teacher, Mrs Taylor, 3/4T at Boronia Park Public School, Sydney, for the quote).
You said that you like me writing to you, so here’s a letter from the heart of South Africa …
I am sitting in the dark on a train travelling from Pretoria to Cape Town. We started our journey this morning in Gauteng Province and headed south to Johannesburg and then to Soweto.
Turning south west, we skirted the edges of three provinces as we travelled diagonally across country: North West Province, Free State Province, and Northern Cape Province. Almost right in the middle of South Africa we stopped in the town of Kimberley, home to the De Beers Diamond Company and their vast open pit diamond mine, “The Big Hole” (read Oliver’s separate post on his excursion into Kimberley here). Tonight, in the dark, we are racing towards Western Cape Province and Cape Town, at the southern tip of the African continent.
The train is making those rackety and whistle sounds that remind me of trains in movies. Perhaps the sounds of the train that carried Lara across Russia in Dr Zhivago? Or perhaps the sounds of the train at the start of a Phryne Fisher mystery?
Our cabin has been turned into a bedroom and Louisa is fast asleep in the fold down bed. I am sitting looking out of the big picture window in our cabin at the landscape rushing by. There’s a full moon high above us but I can’t make out any familiar constellations in the Southern Sky. There are few towns and only a smattering of lights from isolated farm houses. Mostly it is just moon lit black with vague shapes suggesting geology, vegetation, and the occasional man made object: road or railway siding.
The Blue Train certainly is a luxurious experience. Riding in beautifully appointed sleeper cabins with Italian marble bathrooms; calling the ever patient and gracious butlers to cater to Louisa’s whims; lounging in the elegant surroundings of the Cafe car; and dressing in formal wear for four course meals in the Dining Car.
But I must admit that it is a somewhat incongruous experience to be looking out from all this luxe and privilege to a country full of day to day hardships. We passed many shanty towns with tiny dwellings made of tin or wood, sitting in harsh, polluted environments. I am not sure what I was expecting: wild animals running photogenically alongside the train? Huge viaducts spanning deep gorges (of the kind I travelled on at the end of the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand last year)? Maybe these are to come? But so far The Blue Train has lived up to its reputation as the “window to the soul of South Africa”.
Out of this window we can see the real South Africa, in all its beauty, vastness, contrasts and inequalities.
Overnight, lying beside Louisa, I thought I heard animals howling outside. Perhaps howling at the full moon?
Louisa and I have been awake since just after 5am looking out of our picture window, waiting for sunrise. I think I can see the Southern Cross low in the early morning sky.
As the sun rose, and we moved to the Cafe Car to wait for breakfast, the scenery outside changed entirely. The flat dry plains of yesterday have given way to mountain ranges and fertile green pastures. Early this morning the landscape was empty of settlements; just a few trucks tooling along nearby roads. Now we are passing scattered farm houses and a few small towns. Certainly no large towns or cities and fewer Township settlements. So perhaps less confronting in its majesty today?
And I guess that is the value of this journey. When we booked and boarded The Blue Train we probably thought that the journey worth having, to paraphrase Hemingway, was a journey to spoil ourselves a little as we traversed the country. But because the train windows reveal everything and hide nothing, the journey we’ve ended up with hopefully also is one of reflection. A chance to reflect on how fortunate we are in our lives. And fortunate to live in Australia. Australia and South Africa seem somewhat similar in their vast, sometimes inhospitable, landscapes. Are we similar also in entrenched or deepening inequalities? I would like to think not but then we haven’t been on a 28 hour train ride right across Australia! What would we see out the window then?
Soon we will arrive in Cape Town where another face of South Africa no doubt awaits us.
See you soon.