Magazine article Geographical

All aboard the Shongololo

Magazine article Geographical

All aboard the Shongololo

Article excerpt

With vast distances to cover, and only limited public transport, than can be few better ways of exploring South Africa than by rail. Claire Hutchings embarked on a unique journey

South Africa is famous for its trains. Rail enthusiasts the world over know about the Blue Train, which has taken passengers in pampered luxury non-stop between Pretoria and Cape Town for more than 50 years, and Rovos Rail, which has revived the golden age of steam trains with its beautifully restored vintage locomotives and coaches.

The Shongololo Express, South Africa's first travelling safari hotel, may not be as famous, nor as luxurious, but it offers an unrivalled way of exploring the country.

"The Shongololo is a medium for seeing South Africa, not the reason for seeing it," explains Des Lubbe, the train's head guide. "Our rail journey is unique because we only travel through the night, which means we don't spend precious time getting from A to B."

I have joined the Shongololo in the Indian Ocean port of Durban, South Africa's third largest city and the halfway point on the train's southbound journey to Cape Town.

Inside the train's busy lounge car passengers chat enthusiastically about their journey so far. From Johannesburg they have travelled eastwards through the mountains, forests and waterfalls of Eastern Transvaal, visited the Kruger National Park and then headed southwards through the kingdom of Swaziland to Zululand on the eastern coastal belt. "We've seen plenty of big game," says one 50-year old German tourist. "The only one of the `Big Five' [rhino, leopard, lion, buffalo, and cheetah] to have eluded us so far is the lion."

For the majority of the train's passengers, the promise of spectacular wildlife has been South Africa's major draw. Others have made the trip out of curiosity, eager to see a country that has been sealed off from the rest of the world for nearly half a century.

After a day in Durban the Shongololo heads westwards into the interior of Kwazulu-Natal province, where the mighty Zulu empire, British and Boers have all left their indelible mark. The battlefields where the Boer and then the British fought the Zulus last century make a fascinating historical tourist route.

For nature lovers, the Drakensberg Mountains are the province's big attraction. South Africa's highest and most extensive mountain range, they form part of the chain of mountains that divides the country's vast central plateau from its narrow coastal belt along the Indian and Atlantic oceans.

The Royal Natal National Park is situated in the Drakensberg. It is a spectacular wilderness of rivers, ravines, waterfalls and 3,000-metre peaks. Dominating the park is the five-kilometre long, sheerfaced granite cliff, known as the "Amphitheatre", which gives hikers and mountaineers the best views on the 350kilometre long range. Here, the Tugela River makes a breathtaking 600 metre drop over its rim. Paintings in the caves and shelters around the park are a reminder that this was the last great stronghold of the San people (Bushmen), who were all but exterminated in the 19th century by Europeans and Bantu-speaking pastoralists.

The Shongololo Express is the brainchild of George Milaras, a former restaurateur who spotted a gap in the market after his cousin suggested that there must be a better way of exploring the country than by bus. Three years ago the state-owned railways, Spoomet, agreed to lease him some of their unused stock.

Milaras has refurbished the sleeping carriages, lounge and dining cars to provide "basic but comfortable accommodation". Each of the small single and twin cabins has its own washbasin and foldaway table, and each carriage has a shower and two WCs shared between 12 passengers. The fully licensed lounge and dining cars are air-conditioned, and an excellent selection of traditional African cuisine is served. Like any good hotel there is 24-hour security, a laundry service, and complimentary tea and coffee. …

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