Southern Africa by rail

My husband, Jim, and I took a trip from Cape Town, South Africa, to Chobe National Park in Botswana by way of Victoria Falls, Feb. 19-March 5, 2007.

The trip was set up by Deborah at Wild African Ventures (10505 Wheatland Ave., Shadow Hills, CA 91040; 800/358-8530, and included a 16-day train trip with Shongololo Express. Including the $700 cost for all excursions (a light package is available), the train trip cost $4,284 per person in a Commodore suite with private bathroom and air-conditioning. We used frequent-flyer miles for the air.

Other charges were $352 each for three nights in a Cape Town hotel and $1,188 each for two nights in Zimbabwe and two in Botswana, plus transportation and some tours and meals.

We flew into Cape Town and spent two days becoming acclimated to the time change, taking a few excursions. We then joined the train Good Hope for a meander up the east coast of South Africa. The train was a bit shopworn, and an air-conditioned car for which we had contracted was not available.

The company tried very hard to make our trip comfortable under the circumstances, placing us in a “heritage” car! There were approximately 60 people on the tour, most from Holland, England, Scandinavia and Canada. We were the only Americans.

After staying in the Cape Town area for two days, the train traveled a bit on most days. Stops included wine lands near Overberg, Klein Karoo, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein and the Drakensberg Mountains, Zululand, Swaziland, Kruger National Park and, finally, Johannesburg.

A flatbed car carried seven minivans, which were offloaded at each location. We passengers had a variety of tours available to us at each stop. My husband loved the battlefields and history tours and I loved the wildlife and scenery. While traveling in the train, we actually saw an elephant raiding a garden!

Among positives were the beautiful, smog-free scenery and the availability of wildlife up close and personal in a variety of parks. Both the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic were close at some point in the tour. We loved the tour options and sleeping while the train was traveling. The full-time guides and hostess were spectacularly helpful, although the fill-in guides had some issues.

The food was adequate and well prepared. Breakfast and dinner were included; we each were responsible for our own lunch.

A sense of community was fostered on the train and we met many lovely people. We were well treated by the South African people.

Negatives were few. Crime was an issue that the staff took seriously. Even so, there were a few incidents of theft. One couple, not trusting the safe in their compartment, took their cash, passports and tickets with them to the beach, where they were stolen while one slept and the other was away.

Several times our route needed to be varied, as we were traveling on rail lines used for the transport of goods. One time a derailment caused a very long day of travel into Swaziland.

Of course, rooms on the train were very small, but bunks were adequate and comfortable. We had plenty of hot water for showers.

Drinks, even water, cost extra.

We continued from Johannesburg into Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls. This is a very troubled country, although all our travel arrangements worked very well. The official exchange rate was 250 Zimbabwe dollars to one U.S. dollar, but the actual exchange rate was 10 times that. A stamp for a postcard to my grandchildren in the States would have cost $10!

There were other tourists around at that time, although the hotels were not full. The Zambezi River was in flood, and touring the falls was like walking in a driving rain! We opted for a helicopter ride, which was a better way to see the scope of the falls. The cruise on the Zambezi with wildlife and the sunset was spectacular.

Our trip concluded with a visit to Chobe National Park and Chobe Game Lodge. This lodge is full service, with game drives in the mornings and evenings. The food and facilities are up to those of any world-class resort, and we were in the middle of a wild animal park.

I am ready to return to South Africa and take another train!


Concord Township, OH