When I was a kid growing up in what is now Zimbabwe, we were (by order of both parents) a tea-drinking family. Occasionally, we did venture to brew a cup of Frisco but, with its heavy chicory component, it was, to be kind, not real coffee.
The first time I encountered real coffee was the dark, strong, heavily sweetened variety, served steaming in a cup monogrammed with the Rhodesia Railways emblem. The arrival of that wondrous drink was announced by the rattle, in the train compartment’s outside lock, of the attendant’s key.
That sound has always been a harbinger of good times for me … for I knew that I was either heading away to the seaside or returning to a welcoming home after a holiday. And, no other mode of transport – even the cars I love so much – has been able to fill me with such a sense of joy and anticipation.
A train trip is always something special for me – but up until April this year, I had not been on a long-distance train in this country in more than 30 years. It was wonderful, of course, that the reintroduction of rail into my life was aboard the ultra-luxurious Blue Train. The train experience was everything, and more, that the brochures promised.
But it took on a decidedly sour note at times because of the long delays because of destroyed infrastructure and the sad sight of vandalised stations, as well as stolen tracks and overhead cables. There have been other trains, of course. In Europe, the trains in Switzerland and Germany are the epitome of fast and efficient rail travel … light years away from this country.
ALSO READ: Quad biking adventure: A different way to view game
I sat aboard an ICE (Intercity Express) train in Germany once, marvelling as the numbers on the digital “speedometer” in the passenger cabin edged 300km/h, which is almost twice as fast as our Gautrain.
Then there was the Glacier Express in Switzerland, which offered unparalleled views of the snow-capped Alps through its all-glass roof and sides. I still miss the old steam engines which were the stars of the southern African rail network for the best part of a century.
The great iron, clanking Garratt monsters, belching acrid coal smoke and steam, provided a muscular soundtrack to the gentle rocking of the carriage which would put you to sleep within seconds of your 10-year-old head hitting the fluffy white pillow, no matter how much you fought the Sandman…
The downside – which is easily forgotten looking through the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia – is that, if you left the compartment window open (which you had to in the Karoo heat in the non-air-conditioned Second Class carriages), everything would soon be covered in a fine film of soot.
Hands and faces required regular washing in the small basin in the compartment. (Second Class had no showers, but you could do without a shower for three days, given the savings…) I have taken to spending quite a bit of time on YouTube, looking at videos of trains around the world, deciding which ones have to go on to my “If I am rich one day” bucket list.
The Orient Express is one, and The Ghan – Australia’s cross-Outback legend – is another. Having done the Blue Train, I do think a trip on Rovos Rail to Victoria Falls one day would also be memorable.
I’d also love to wake up one morning, rolling slowly through the Rocky Mountains in the US or Canada. But, somehow, I have a feeling it won’t be the same as it was when I was a boy. Not worse, not better, just not the same. These days I drink instant Jacobs coffee because no one does the old railway moerkoffie any more.