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CAPE ROUTE 62 IN THE PRESS

Train temptation

2008-07-28

From the Sunday Times, 27 July 2008, www.thetimes.co.za

The Eastern Cape is hoping the Apple Express will lure tourists into its wilderness, writes Bobby Jordan

There is something poetic about catching a plane to catch a train. Even better in my case: catching a 4am wake-up in frigid Cape Town, to catch a 6am flight to PE, to catch an 8am taxi rip-off to the Transnet Diesel depot in Humewood … to catch a train.

What train could possibly make up for that kind of start to the day?

It’s called the Apple Express, a 10-carriage, steam-powered, 120km track slide through one hundred different shades of Eastern-Cape green, from cement factories, oil refineries and shantytowns, to prickly pears, white horses cantering next to the track, and that sleepy, elbow-out-the-window feeling that the planet is okay, despite all the horror stories playing at the movies these days.

Even 10 minutes aboard this baby will make cars and planes seem like the real drag.

Actually, despite its narrow-gauge line and dinky fairground-style carriages, the Apple Express is more like the grande dame of SA rail than a wannabe ride. The railway dates back to 1902 and now spans 283km, linking Port Elizabeth to Avontuur in the Langkloof, with a branch line from Gamtoos to Patensie, making it the longest narrow-gauge line in the world with the highest narrow-gauge bridge, across the Van Stadens River.

It was both a passenger and a freight route, ferrying farmers’ goods and workers up and down the scenic Langkloof, which these days is better known for its road, the R62.

Now after a long hiatus, it is back in business, thanks mainly to the combined efforts of Transnet — who want to resuscitate their crumbling “heritage” rolling stock — and stakeholders in the burgeoning Eastern Cape tourism sector, who are looking towards the expected visitor influx for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

The idea is to get as many tourists as possible out of the city and into the wilderness, with the Apple Express an umbilical chord back to Mother Nature.

It’s here where tourists get a true taste of what the Eastern Cape has in store, where the hills are alive not only with music but also with hooting eagle owls, sizzling braais at luxury lodges, and the screams of thrill-seekers bungee jumping and white-water rafting.

The Apple Express starts slow, fast enough to pull away from a primary school outing, but only just. One hour post departure, we are still trundling through PE’s sprawling western ’burbs, which offer one of the world’s greatest uninterrupted views of vibracrete wall.

For travel connoisseurs, there’s also a unique five-minute passage through apartheid geography: right of the track there are swimming pools, hedges, revolving washing lines, shining faces waving from the backs of Jeep Cherokees and plastic tricycles; left, Walmer Township: miles of corrugated-iron shanties, wood fires and scatterings of broken and unbreakable people.

A collage of smiles, straight, slight and skew, on both sides of the track, as the train slides carefully in between.

Leaving the city, the Apple speeds up, cruising through lush farmland. Passengers lean out of windows and doze against the refurbished leather seats.

The carriage interiors are a throwback to the days of quality craftsmanship: wood-panelled partitions and overhead wrought-iron baggage racks.

There’s also a restaurant carriage staffed by ruddy-faced train-spotters selling coffee, sweeties and train souvenirs.

At around lunch time, the route snakes downhill, past a billion prickly-pear bushes, into Loerie — one of several rural dorpies wilting into obscurity along the once-busy route. At the station, we stop for lunch and sit overlooking the tracks like picnickers on the trail of yesterday: façades of redbrick railway houses match the near-perfect neglect of graffiti-splattered sidings and hollowed-out freight cars next to the tracks.

There’s an air of gentle archaeology, as in a museum of arrow heads and shattered pottery: how strange that a technology I almost understand is almost obsolete. How weird that as much as we charge into the future, so do we reach back into the past.

The gradient changes after lunch: the train begins to climb, the passengers slump, the windows tell a wilder tale of remote pastures and farming lives on the outskirts of society.

Then the track dips down again towards Jeffrey’s Bay, skirting the town close enough for a view of the legendary Supertubes point break; then it’s up towards the clouds, higher and higher, away from the coast and into the foothills of the Kouga Mountains.

Carriage banter falters as the late afternoon billows all around in phantasmal cloudscapes which swell and swallow each other as they track west to east in endless symmetry.

At around 5pm, we pull into Assegaaibos station, where a small group of locals greets us with balloons, bunches of proteas, and home-made fudge.

The light is fading and we pile into taxis that take us to guest lodges — mine the Assegaaibosch Country Lodge, which predates the adjacent town of Kareedouw.

My room is a soft-centred oasis and launching pad for tomorrow’s bakkie mission into the Baviaanskloof — to find a kerk bazaar 30km northwest of nowhere, on the wild side of the Kouga River.

I fall asleep dreaming of giant melkterts and koeksuster tannies, who speak in mountain idioms so strange I can only smile sweetly at them and eat their desserts.

It is a strangely prophetic dream, as it turns out.

A day later it’s back onto the Apple Express for the return trip to PE. It’s with a huge sense of relief that I realise, sitting there with my elbow out the window again, that there is also something poetic about catching a slow train to catch a plane. To rush back to work and earn enough money to come back again.

The next 3-day Apple Express adventures are on 25-27 July to Patensie and August 22 to 24 to Assegaaibos. For information , phone 041-368-4649; e-mail info@skuys.co.za or visit www.appleexpresstrain.co.za.

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