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Getting on the right track



Two for the overnight sleeper

My earliest memory of travel is of a train leaving East London en route to Johannesburg one lunchtime in mid-1966.

Dad wasn’t there to see mom and I off (though he must have driven us to the station) but I was too excited to notice and my mother wasn’t bothered.

I remember the train departed “Slummies” at noon and arrived in Jo’burg exactly 24 hours later.

What an adventure it was for a six-year-old boy who had no idea that three days later he would be aboard a South African Airways Boeing 707 bound for Paris!

For many people of my generation, an overnight journey on a train run by the old SAR&H (South African Railways and Harbours) was a never-to-be-forgotten experience, with a two-sleeper coupé being the acme of gracious living for us blue-collar travellers.

Even today, trains hold an attraction for me that only motorcycles and the smallest aircraft can match as form of transportation.

Specifically, they are (relatively) cheap, convenient and encourage spontaneity. This verbal meander is not a paean to silverservice or starched-sheet journeys across the Karoo to the Highveld via De Aar but a joyous recollection of criss-crossing Europe by train during that first and subsequent visits to what my mother called “the Continent”.

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Travellers or tourists? Crossing Europe

My story is prompted, in the first place, by reading a foreign correspondent’s comment that the difference between travellers and tourists is that the latter prefer being showed around by guides and, in the second, re-watching In Bruges with Colin Farrel and Brendan Gleeson.

My mother never learned to drive. There was no need, she said, with a rail network as extensive and reliable as that in Britain and Europe at the time. (It needs also to be pointed out that the South African currency was one of the strongest in the world during the ’60s and ’70s, and a couple of rand could literally get you a long way.)

We didn’t do much inter-city commuting on the 1966 trip with the exception of the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Edinburgh (disappointing because almost the whole journey was in the dark) but, on the other hand, I got to know the Metro and the Tube pretty well.

Six years later, mum (who’d spent the intervening years at Alliance Francaise learning French) and I returned to Europe and, after nearly two months, I swore I never wanted to see another train or station again.

That was the trip where we became both travellers and tourists: we’d take the train to some pre-selected destination before meeting up with a guided tour… most of which departed from the railway station.

In this way we visited the Chateaux of the Loire Valley; Epidaurus and Delphi in Greece; and Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and Capri in Italy.

Highlights of the trip

The best moments of that trip, though, were the unscheduled stops. We were heading from Brussels to God-knows-where when the train stopped briefly in Bruges.

Mom said “let’s go!” and we did. It was an absolutely wonderful little town. Something similar happened in Switzerland where we unexpectedly found ourselves in Zermatt.

We stayed a week in the Bahnhof (“Station Hotel”) with its down mattresses and duvets. Each day we would go hiking in the forests around the foot of the Matterhorn, eating ham and cheese rolls and washing them down with water from Alpine springs.

Rarified air and the clunking of cowbells made for an afternoon nap on the grass before gathering dusk signalled time to go “home”.

You also meet another class of person on a train. We were travelling from (I think) Innsbruck to Lake Como when the train stopped – just before dark – at the Austro-Italian border.

Customs officials boarded and checked everyone’s passports. We didn’t know South Africans needed visas to enter Italy, so got chucked off the train.

Imagine, a woman who couldn’t speak German or Italian with an 11-year-old laaitie in tow confronted by noisy bureaucrats.

Fortunately, a stern-looking German who’d been sitting opposite us came to our rescue.

He spoke some Italian and accompanied us to the customs office, where he soothed the ruffled feathers of officialdom. The train driver waited patiently.

Back on board, he explained that he’d been injured in Italy during World War II and taken prisoner of war by South African soldiers.

He’d recovered and seen out the rest of the war in the Transvaal. How he missed the Lowveld, he said.

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