Shosholoza Meyl operates an extensive system of passenger trains along eight routes that connect all major cities and many small towns in South Africa. Departures are usually limited to one per day, although trains covering minor routes leave less frequently. Distances are vast, so many journeys require overnight travel. The service is good and the trains are safe and well maintained, but this is far from a luxury option, except in Premier Classe, the luxury service that runs between Cape Town and Johannesburg or Port Elizabeth and between Jo'burg and Durban. In Premier Classe, sleeping compartments accommodate two to four travelers, and single compartments are also available. Compartments include a/c, bedding, and limited room service (drinks only). The Jo'burg–Cape Town and Jo’burg–Durban routes have a compartment for vehicles (including 4x4s).
Tourist Class (the old first class) has four-sleeper (bunks) and two-sleeper compartments. Don't expect a/c, heat, or a shower in either class. Bathrooms are shared, compartments have a sink, and bedding can be rented. The dining car serves pretty ordinary food, but it's inexpensive.
We do not recommend Third class or Economy Class (aka "sitter class") because that's what you do—up to 25 hours on a hard seat with up to 71 other people in the car, sharing two toilets and no shower.
You must reserve tickets in Premier Classe and Tourist Class, whereas sitter-class tickets require no advance booking. You can book up to three months in advance by telephone, with travel agents, at reservations offices in major cities, and at railway stations.
A fun way to see the country is on the Shongololo Express. The train is as basic as the Shosholoza Meyl trains, but while you sleep at night, it heads to a new destination. After breakfast, tour buses are loaded, and you explore the surroundings. In the evening, you reboard the train, have supper, and sleep while the train moves to the next stop. Trips include the Dune Adventure (the dunes of Namibia), the Good Hope Adventure (Cape attractions), and the Southern Cross Adventure (six African countries). Rates start at about R1,500 per person per night. By the way, a shongololo is a millipede.
Premier Classe. 011/733–9247; www.premierclasse.co.za.
Shongololo Express. 0861/777–014; 0027/11 486–4357; www.shongololo.com.
Shosholoza Meyl. 086/000–8888; www.shosholozameyl.co.za.
Luxury Train Trips
South Africa's leisurely and divine luxury trains come complete with gold-and-brass-plated fixtures, oak paneling, and full silver service for every meal. The elegant Blue Train travels several routes, but the main one is between Cape Town and Tshwane (Pretoria). It departs once a week in each direction, takes 28 hours, and starts from R17,030 per person sharing one way (peak season). The fare includes all meals (extravagant three-course affairs), drinks (a full bar and great selection of South African wines), and excursions (usually a two-hour stop in Kimberley). Only caviar and French Champagne are excluded. The Blue Train also goes to Durban from Tshwane for from R6,740 per person sharing.
Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa runs from Cape Town to Tshwane every Monday (and sometimes other days). Fares are R15,200 for the 72-hour trip in Pullman Class; fancier suites cost up to R30,500. Rovos also includes all excursions, sumptuous meals, all drinks (except French Champagne), and excellent butler service, but whereas the Blue Train excels in modern luxury, the Pride of Africa creates an atmosphere of Victorian colonial charm (no cell phones or laptops in public spaces), and is the only luxury train in the world in which you can open the windows. Rovos also has a nine-day Cape Town–Swakopmund round-trip in April and May, and a 14-day epic Cape Town–Dar es Salaam loop in January, July, and September. Prices per person can reach R32,800 for the Royal Suite on the three-night, four-day trip from Cape Town to Victoria Falls.
All prices are for double occupancy; the single-occupancy supplement is 50%.
Blue Train. 012/334–8459; 021/449–2672; 973/832–4384; www.bluetrain.co.za.
Rovos Rail. 012/315–8242; www.rovos.com.