Tag Archives: train

Dar and Durban

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Dar and Durban

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in Zambia for almost a year.  Tonight I fly back to NYC for 4 weeks of vacation…and then I’ll return at the end of July via Iceland and London!

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At the end of April, we took a small group of middle school students to Dar es Salaam for a choir festival.  They were very excited about the trip, as none of them had ever been on a plane without their parents before!

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This was the first real “East African Middle School Choir Fest” and they had imported a conductor and music educator from the University of Florida.  She was terrific and really knew how to work with the kids to build their confidence and get them sounding good.  Six different schools were represented. There were also workshops in drumming, dance and art.

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At the concert, each school performed separately before the large choir took the stage.  My 5 kids did a great job!  We sang a Russian folk song called “The Little Birch Tree” and the other teacher who came with us accompanied us on the flute.

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I found Dar es Salaam to be almost intolerably hot and humid.   However, on the last day, we went to Boyongo Island – a national park.  The water was crystal clear and it was beautiful.

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At the end of May, we had a long weekend and I took a short jaunt to Durban, a city of the coast in South Africa.  Unlike the hustle and bustle of Cape Town and Jo’burg, Durban is a bit more provincial and laid-back.  The airport reminded me of St. Pancreas Station in London and there was even a hotel with the London “Underground” symbol over the door.  The weather was absolutely perfect and I walked for several miles along the beach, where there are restaurants and shops and plenty of interesting people (and monkeys!) to watch!  Durban is also home to several huge sports arenas.

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I took an bus tour on the “Ricksha Bus.”  Unlike the larger bus tours, this one had a live tour guide who carefully explained all the sites and buildings we were passing.  More than once, she mentioned that such-and-such a building was “very, very old” which usually meant it was built in about 1910 or so.  It was funny that “very old” was only a hundred years.  Durban is still has specific areas divided by class, religion and race, although there does not seem to be a great deal of tension.

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Our bus guide!  She was lovely.

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We stopped at a beautiful viewpoint above the city.  There was a wedding party up there, taking pictures.

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I stayed in a lovely B & B in a room with its own private garden terrace and a huge soaking tub!  Then I took the sleeper train back to Jo’burg…enjoying the slow pace of the train and the scenery.  I booked two beds, so I had my own compartment.  It is an extremely cheap way to travel and you can see so much of the countryside and meet interesting people.  At about 6:00am, I was awakened by someone walking down the corridor calling “Coffee, coffee, coffee!  Morning coffee!”  I slid open my compartment door and there was a staff person with a tray of cups; I gave her 7 rand (about 65 cents) and was given a hot cup of coffee with milk and sugar already added.  I sipped it while I watched the sun come up through my window and the train rumbled along towards Jo’Burg.

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It was a very relaxing break…I may have to return!

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Jo’burg to Cape Town via the Premiere Classe Train

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Jo’burg to Cape Town via the Premiere Classe Train

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I love train travel.  It seems to me a much more civilised mode of transportation than a plane, where you are jammed into a seat with no legroom and no way to move around, stretch, chat, grab a bite to eat and maybe meet your fellow passengers.

There is a wonderful website called “The Man in Seat 61” which details how to travel all over the world without ever setting foot in an airplane.   It is a terrific resource for anyone who likes train travel…I used it when I traveled from Amsterdam to London.  (Passenger train ride, over-night ferry to another waiting train and right into St Pancreas Station!)  It also describes how to take “great train journeys world wide” including the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Orient Express and the “Blue Train” from Jo’burg to Cape Town, which is the journey I took.

Well, I didn’t take the actual “Blue Train” (it costs almost $1,000 one way!) but I took that same journey – same scenery, same size train cars, same full-meal service – but less than a quarter of the price.  There is also an even cheaper option, called the “Tourist Class” train.  However, I decided to treat myself a little and go with the “Premier Classe.”   I was not disappointed.

For overnight train travel, the important thing to remember is that the journey is the thing…as much as the “getting there.”  The Premier Classe train is like a little hotel on wheels, with all expenses paid.  No traffic, no hassles, plenty of room to stretch your legs, a fully-stocked bar car, delicious meals and big windows in the lounge to look at the scenery.

We started out in the Premiere Classe Lounge, with complementary coffee and tea and a light lunch.  I got there early and was welcomed warmly, my bag tagged and my boarding pass issued.  It was fun talking with the other passengers as they arrived.  There were people from all over the world and some locals who had lived in Jo’burg or Cape Town all their lives and simply decided to take a train ride.

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The porters took our bags and delivered them to our private “rooms” on the train and then we were allowed to board.  The train was bright purple on the outside…which pleased me.

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All Premier Classe passengers get a private sleeper. Solo travellers get a “coupé” with one lower berth and couples get a compartment with two lower berths. Each compartment has a washbasin, towels, soap, shampoo, shower gel, mineral water and slippers!  There was a toilet at the end of each car and a shower just along the corridor.  The windows opened for plenty of fresh air.  I found my compartment, with my bag placed neatly inside.

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We were all invited to the dining car for complimentary champagne and an assortment of snacks.

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As we were all chatting, we suddenly realised that the train had started to move.  We were pulling out of Jo’burg, passing some of the other (less classy) trains and leaving the city behind.

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There was a full kitchen in between the dining car and my car, and the chefs were already working to prepare dinner.  After about an hour, formal “tea” was served, with delicious chocolate cake.

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The city scenes gave way to shanty-towns, fields and farms.

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I was asked if I would mind having dinner at the “second seating” and of course that was fine.  I made my way to the lounge for a glass of wine and discovered that I had to purchase it by the bottle.  Somehow, I made do.  (There was an excellent wine list – South Africa is known for its fine wine!)

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I chatted with the other passengers who were also “second seating” and watched the sun set.

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Finally we were called to dinner – a five-course gourmet meal.

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There was some kind of butternut soup, a fish course, a salad, roasted vegetables, steak and tira misu for dessert…which I usually don’t like, but this was delicious.  And then they came around with a cheese tray.  By the time I was finished, it was close to 10:00pm and I was ready for bed. When I got back to my compartment, it had all been made up into a lovely bed, with a comfy duvet and fluffy pillows.  You can see the little sink in the corner, with the night-table folded up.

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I washed up and hit the hay, the train rumbling through the night.  I had no trouble falling asleep, but I did have a funny moment when I woke in the middle of the night.  I wanted to go use the toilet and went to open the door; but it wouldn’t open!  It seemed like it was locked!  I jiggled the handle and pushed harder, but it was stuck tight!  Maybe they locked us in our compartments at night?  Maybe there was a call button or something!  How could I get out of this room?

Of course, when I woke up all the way, I realised that the door was meant to SLIDE open…as I had slid it closed to go to bed.

In the morning, the sun streamed through the window and the scenery had changed.  Now there were mountains in the distance.

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I went to get coffee in the dining car and here experienced my only disappointment with the trip.

Instant coffee.  

Alas.  I made do with tea, and resolved to write the owner of the train and suggest that he serve bona-fide brew.  (I did write him and got a very nice response back!)

Breakfast was eggs, bacon, sausage, beans toast, juice and grilled tomatoes.  A proper “English breakfast” in other words.

Now we began to see some of the vineyards of the area and smaller towns on the outskirts.

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At lunch, I was seated with another solo passenger, and we split a bottle of very nice white wine.  He was an older gentleman who had lived in South Africa all his life and it was very interesting to talk to him about the changes over the past 30 years.

Finally, we began to see the outskirts of Cape Town.  We passed several little buildings that looked like tiny forts – I was told that they had been built by the British, to protect their lands.

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And then we could see Table Mountain and Lion’s Head – Cape Town’s famous mountains…all covered in clouds.

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It was wonderful hearing the train slow down and finally stop…after 27 hours.  The porters came and got our bags and brought them into the lounge area at the station.  One of the staff at the station called me a taxi and I was whisked to my B & B up on the side of “Signal Hill” t0 start my adventure in Cape Town.

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