Category Archives: trains and train stations

A castle and a train

Monday did not start well. I was rudely dragged from lazy dozing by a phone-call moving my late-afternoon meeting. Bang went a morning spent with my mother and sister and a visit to my grandmother. The miserable mood stayed with me as I dragged myself out of bed and got ready. It stayed until that magical moment when the train started moving and the station fell slowly away behind me. What is it about the clackety-clack of a train that makes a small part of my soul thrill with anticipation? I take a deep breath and settle back and feel a calm, gentle happiness settle over me. Just like that moment on a plane when the wheels leave the runway.

It’s raining when I arrive. It’s a chilly (for November), overcast day, with raindrops streaming across the windows as we pull into the busy transportation hub that is Cape Town station. Avoiding rushing commuters, hawkers and a strange man trying to talk to me as I crossed the road, I head for St George’s Mall.

The pedestrian mall is bustling with different people. The vegetable seller offers “Weigh-less Avos! Weigh-less…” It’s one of my favourite places in the Cape. The cosmopolitan heart of cosmopolitan Cape Town. People of every country, colour and creed wander and saunter and rush along. I stop for a moment outside the Wimpy and breathe in the cool, damp air.

After a quick breakfast, I head off to the Castle of Good Hope. The city feels like a city today. Some days, Cape Town feels like a tourist attraction or a living post card. Today, on this grey Monday morning, it feels gritty and busy and tired. And then I turn, at the bus stop and across the busy square is Cape Town’s beautiful city hall, Table Mountain rising, a perfect backdrop, against the cloudy sky.

The bulk of the Castle stands to the left. I have less than an hour before I need to be back at the station to navigate the somewhat unpredictable (and unfamiliar) train schedule. Not nearly enough time to see all of the “oldest building in South Africa“. I don’t care. I’ve decided not to be put off doing things because of limited time any longer – better half an hour immersed in fascinating history than time wasted wandering restlessly from shop to shop.

I wish I’d had more time. I’ve visited the Castle before – many years ago as a child – but all I really remember is the dark dungeon. I didn’t even make it as far as the dungeon this time. I did spend a delightful half an hour wandering up twisting stone stairs and past the bell tower and enjoying the sense of the past and incredible views from the bastions. The rain had stopped and the clouds drifting over the edge of the mountain were backlit by sunlight. Walking along a passage, the white-washed walls thick and uneven, I came upon a glass window onto an ancient armoury – did you know they made bricks in the early Cape because they couldn’t risk the sparks from a stone floor?

On the way back to the station, I looked up into the huge glass windows along the side of the station. Reflected there was the cable-car slowly descending from the top cable-station. I had a moment of mad desire to throw it all in and go up the mountain for the day. With a sigh, I let the moment pass and rushed to catch my train, leaving the other for another day, hoping, through  “knowing how way leads on to way”, that some day soon I shall be back.

Out to lunch

Cavendish Square is a strange place. A place of clichés. At a table near me sit two young women – obviously varsity friends from the snatches of conversation drifting across to me – discussing Stellenbosch and reminiscing over their wine. They get so caught up in their catch-up that they completely forget to look at the menu and send the waiter away to give them more time to decide. I find myself wondering if they’re wives. The place is full of women in designer outfits, some with small children. Ladies who lunch. Sometimes several generations all at once. In between them, the occasional guy dressed for work: a geek here, a business suit there.

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Cape Town fake day

On Tuesday I got up early and headed to the station. I had planned to take the Premium Express train – a “business-class” train that runs between Strand and Cape Town each week-day, complete with complimentary coffee, tea, newspapers and SAPS-on-board. Sadly, it appears to be impossible to buy a single-journey/one-day ticket for this train.

So I found myself buying a perfectly ordinary Metro-plus return ticket on a perfectly ordinary (beautiful) Tuesday morning. I found a comfortable bench on the platform and waited. Other passengers drifted in and found their own benches. Some read books. Some stared into the distance. A community-safety volunteer in reflective vest wandered along the platform. A cleaning-lady was sweeping. The place was close to spotlessly clean already. She picked up a stray sweet paper. A delivery-man arrived with some pies and they chatted about her recent trip to the Transkei. It was so peaceful.

The train arrived and I climbed (well, stepped) aboard. I had a whole carriage to myself for a while, but then one or two others joined me. The trip was quiet and beautiful. I sat at the window and looked out at a beautiful world. Mountains rose in the distance. A dam sparkled in the morning sun. Arum lilies grew beside of the railway line, white on green.

We passed settlements – suburbs? townships? – where houses were being built and extensions done and walls painted. Everywhere building, growing, developing. But pretty rather than commercial. Attractive. Each house with a garden, some just lawn, some with beautiful flowers. Hibiscus flowered next to jasmine. It was so good to see built-up areas with space and light and gardens.

As we came into Cape Town, the mountain rose huge and magnificent above the city bowl. My sister has this concept of ‘fake days’ – days that are so beautiful if they were pictures they’d be rejected because they’d be unrealistic. This was a ‘fake day’ in Cape Town. Seriously, no one city should be allowed to be that pretty. It was exquisite.

I met a friend at the station. They’ve just redone Cape Town station. It’s huge and open with shiny tiles and brand new, easy-to-read signage. It looks good. Most South Africans – or at least those born into or who have now reached the ‘class’ where they can mortgage their lives to buy a car – never use public transport. It makes me a little sad because they miss out on so much. When you’re in a car, even if you’re not driving, you miss out simply because roads tend to have more houses beside them than railway tracks. I had a moment of wondering what would get South Africans back onto public transport. The whole experience from beginning to end was great for me.

Friend and I wandered off into Cape Town. We started at a super sandwich place and then took a wonderful, gentle stroll. We went down to the Artscape to look at the Zebras. The Zebras are part of an exhibition around the theme “not all is black and white”. They’re fascinating and add yet another reason to visit Cape Town city centre.

Later, after various stops around the city, we made our way to Company Gardens. The day was still ridiculously beautiful. The sun streamed into the lush, green gardens as we wandered along the shady paths and squirrels scuttled up trees and flocks of pigeons took off in a flutter of wings. Some seagulls have moved into the gardens and as we watched, muscled their way in on the crumbs people were throwing to the pigeons. I felt a little sorry for the pigeons. The seagulls, in turn, were displaced by a set of amorous Egyptian geese. I was lovely to sit in these quiet, beautiful gardens with the lunchtime crowds settled on the grass enjoying the beautiful weather.

Later, after that friend headed off back to work, I caught a cab to the Waterfront. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy the Waterfront. Ultimately, a mall is a mall but after a long stint in a country that doesn’t really have malls in the sense that we do, it’s pleasant and relaxing and just a little luxurious to wander around an upmarket mall full of brand-name stores, the gorgeously rich scents of chocolate and coffee, the glimmer of artificial light off perfectly polished tiles and freshly painted signs and walls. If feels safe, secure and familiar. I had coffee with a friend at a little chocolatier and coffee shop that served the most delicious chocolate eclairs. It was a delightful place. The whole mall was fairly empty on a random Tuesday afternoon. Here I think it was just us and perhaps one other table. We drank coffee with sugar lumps. Luxury comes in many forms; good coffee, delicious sweets and delightful conversation is one of my favourites.

Back at the station, I found my platform, thanks to the friendly and efficient info desk, and hopped onto my train. I travelled through the growing dusk towards Strand Station. There were far more people on the train this time – my carriage was full. It was still beautiful. I got back before dark and headed home to change before going off to have dinner with two more friends.

A beautiful day of sunshine in stupidly pretty city and lots of wonderful time with friends.