Off The Grid: What I Learned Crossing South Africa By Train

Travel Lists South Africa

Africa has changed how I want to travel. After a 13-day adventure across the continent’s most industrialized country, I no longer want to be a predictable, if not “fly on the wall” visitor.

I want to embrace uncomfortable situations because they speed our learning. I want to experience lesser-known countries (i.e. usually more affordable) first and more popular ones (i.e. usually more expensive) later. I want to eat with my hands instead of utensils. I want to follow more guides to better discovery. And I want to learn the Zulu foot stomp.

When I booked passage on one of the world’s best trains, I was expecting a luxurious and relaxing chug-a-chug through the cradle of mankind. But in between excursions, extended stops in eight different cities and memorable conversations with really good company, I got all that and more. Considerably more than I bargained for. This is what I learned.

The “Most Luxurious Train” Lives Up To Its Billing

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Photo: Rovos Rail

If you’ve ever read Murder On The Orient-Express, like being waited on hand and foot, and don’t mind dressing to the nines for dinner, you’ll feel like a really big deal on Rovos Rail, “the most luxurious train in the world.” Better yet, the all-inclusive trips are half of what they were just two years ago. The three-day Durban Safari, for instance, starts at $1100 per person and includes seven multi-course gourmet meals, two safaris, two more sightseeing excursions, unlimited wine tastings, all the alcohol you can handle and more tea, snacks and desserts than you can shake a stick at. Admittedly, the clientele is mostly retirees. But if you can overcome gerontophobia, you might end up forging lasting friendships with four Scots, two South Africans, two Finns, one German and one Swiss. I did.

The Best Things To Do

Photo: Lindsey Snow

At the conclusion of our itinerary, my traveling companion, wife and trip catalyst turned to me and said, “About the only thing we didn’t do were winter sports.” That’s no exaggeration. In Durban, we saw the Indian Ocean for the first time and listened to a rolling African thunderstorm from our hotel balcony. In Midland, we memorialized the act that eventually unified the country. In Ladysmith, we saw the “king of the jungle” and three of his four biggest contemporaries not giving a damn at the Nambiti (5/5 stars) and Spioenkop (4/5 stars) safaris. P.S.: the warthogs were adorable.

In Soweto, friendly locals taught me how to eat traditional pap (corn-flour porridge) and savory meats with my hands. I taught them how to fist bump. In Johannesburg, we heard a first-hand account of what killed an American tourist at the controversial but extraordinary Lion Park and were wowed by the tribal dancers at Lesedi Village, especially the Zulus. Overlooking the city, I was overcome by the most diverse tree landscape I’ve ever laid eyes on, just as the Jacaranda began painting the town purple. In Cape Town, we summited Table Mountain, and I body surfed with a sea lion at Clifton Beach. In Bo-Kaap, we cooked curry and falooda with Faldela before concluding our journey at Cape Point, the end of the world.

Guides Are The Way To Go

Photo: South Africa Tourism

Before South Africa, I ignorantly regarded the use of local guides as unecessary hand-holding. Boy was I wrong. In South Africa, they’re more than worth their already affordable fees. Without them, panhandlers and harmless con men will pray on you at every turn. First-world problem, I know. But avoiding this will enhance your experience of the country, its culture, and even its people. Said guides also help in other ways. While I never felt at risk during my trip, I would have felt vulnerable at times without the considerate, flexible and five-star rated guides from Rovos, JMT Tours and Escape to the Cape. In truth, I discovered a lot more with them than the Internet could ever recommend. Use them to your advantage.

Faith in Humanity Restored

Photo: Lindsey Snow

With unemployment at 25 percent, you’ll encounter sobering amounts of extreme poverty in South Africa. At one point, I sheepishly asked myself, “Is it okay to vacation amid so much suffering?” After watching have-nots handwash clothes alongside ramshackle tin houses while my company drank sparkling wine from an outdoor observation car, I still don’t know the answer. But I witnessed a beautiful break in the divide. First, one passenger waved to curious onlookers. Then another. Then another. Soon, everyone was waving. Those good tidings were quickly and enthusiastically returned. All genuine. All smiles. No judgments. That humanity (or ubuntu as the Africans say) continued my entire trip. Granted, the less fortunate can’t live on privileged “hellos” alone. But I hope the haves left with a newfound willingness to give back, and the nots with added resolve to persevere until help arrives.

Double Your Money—The Time Is Now

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Photo: Four Seasons

Thanks to a strong dollar, there may never be a more affordable time to visit South Africa. And you might never be able to enjoy as many luxurious accommodations—of which there are a disproportionately high number here—as you can now. Flights, hotels, Ubers, safaris and especially the food are shockingly cheap for anyone living on Western currency—significantly less than you would pay elsewhere. My three favorites include St. James on Venice, The Blackheath Lodge, and the indulgent Four Seasons Westcliff, which is half of what the hotelier normally charges, not to mention better amenities and one of the best on-site restaurants (and views) in the country.

Make no mistake, South Africa is worth full price. Which is why I believe we encountered so many enthusiastic repeat visitors who’ve been increasingly coming here since the end of Apartheid. Similarly, it’s why I left the country with a full heart and a raging case of African Fever.

Special thanks to Brenda, Meleney, David, Charle, Pascal, Portia, Gareth, Marcelle, Joburg Joe, Tshepo, Cape Town Joe, Munier, and the many new friends I made. The pleasure was all mine.

Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him on Twitter.

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