February 23, 2013

Traveling Premier Classe

The following is a guest post by Natalie Irwin about traveling from Johannesburg to Cape Town on the Premier Classe Train. One of the few regrets I have about our time in South Africa is that we never managed to do just that, and I was very happy to get at small glimpse of it through her story.


Even though we've lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, for two and a half years, we had never managed to visit Cape Town. I guess we were waiting for the right time but finally realized that if we didn't want to miss out on Cape Town altogether, we had to just go.

So, this Christmas break, we were boarding a train.

Yes, a train. Friends of ours had recommended taking the Premier Classe Train to Cape Town and then flying back. I have only slept on a train once in my life and I thought this would be a great opportunity for my children to have that experience.

The slogan of Premier Classe is "A journey that will live in your memory long after the trip has ended." Interesting slogan, because it can go either way. Bad memory or great experience.

We had a bit of both.

I had made our reservations in October last year, and since then the website has been greatly improved. It appears you are now able to make your reservations online where previously it was all handled through a series of emails. If you read the comments on Tripadvisor, most people complained about this process, so well done on the improvement, Premier Classe!

At R2,500 one way per person, the cost of the trip is expensive, but we felt like the experience of sleeping on a train and seeing the countryside of South Africa was well worth the price.

We had arranged a driver from our house in Johannesburg to Park Station with Avis Point to Point. Once we arrived at Park Station, the driver walked us to the Premier Classe Train Lounge which was very nice of her. The Lounge is not difficult to find but not obvious either if you are not familiar with the train station.  We all settled onto some cushy sofas and took advantage of the complimentary refreshments: Iced tea (or what an American would call iced tea, because in typical South African fashion it lacked the ice), water, cakes, sandwiches, and chips.

arriving at Park Station
on board

A little before 3:00 pm there was an announcement that we could board the train. After boarding and dropping our hand luggage in cabins 9A and 9B, we were to head to the dining cars for a complimentary send off drink.

The cabins are a throw back to old time train travel, in a good way. There were two "couches" facing each other that obviously would later get reconfigured as beds. Our children LOVED having their own compartment. There was a shared toilet for your car and a shower. There were also bathrobes, slippers, and towels in the room.

Shortly after 3:00 pm the train started to slowly pull out of Park Station. We made our way to the dining car, where my husband and I had champagne while the boys had some sort of juice along with biltong, nuts and Pringles. The conductor came by and explained that the train was completely full and therefore there were going to be two seatings for dinner that night, as well as breakfast and lunch the next day. We picked the later dinner at 8:30 pm so that we could really enjoy the ride.

The train was very long. There were sleeper compartments in the front, then a dining car, bar car, kitchen, another dining car, more sleeper compartments, a smoking car, and then the car carriers. You can bring your car on the train for an extra fee, which works well if you are driving instead of flying back to Johannesburg.

I'd be lying if I told you now that the view was terrific. From Park Station to the outskirts of Joburg, the view is not exactly scenic. As a matter of fact, it is really gross with tons and tons of trash - a familiar sight in Joburg, unfortunately. But, as soon as you get out of the city, the scenery changes and is simply beautiful. We sat there in our cabin sipping a glass of wine - we had purchased a bottle from the dining car - watching the South African countryside flying by through the open window, while the boys played games in their cabin and occasionally popped over for a game of Yahtzee. It was a great moment of relaxing family time, and some of us were already disappointed we weren't going to take the train both ways. We weren't even bothered by the fact that our air conditioning wasn't working well, as the night air was lovely.

By the time we arrived for dinner, the dining car had been magically transformed with the addition of table cloths and cutlery, and we enjoyed a nice leisurely meal. Even though there was no menu choice, both our kids cleaned their plates, always a litmus test when it comes to family travel. By the time we got back to our cabins, it was 10:30 pm, and time to sleep.


The boys absolutely loved that their rooms had been turned down. I am sure they felt like they were on the Hogwarts Express. My husband would want me to add here that the beds are not designed for tall people. He is 5'11'' and his feet were at the end of the bed with no room to spare. If you are over 6 feet tall, this might be uncomfortable.

As for sleeping on the train?

The brochure that I had picked up in the lounge at Park Station described sleeping on the train in this fashion: "The lights of sleepy towns twinkle upon the horizon and then retreat softly into the night as your journey passes them by, peaceful and sedate, waiting for the first rays of dawn".

Well. That is not exactly how it played out for us.

At about 3:00 am I woke up because I felt like the train was going incredibly fast. My husband was awake too and said he felt the same way. We didn't know if this was normal. You do, after all, have to go downhill from Johannesburg to Cape Town at some point. But at a clip like this? The train finally stopped and we dozed back off. A little while later the train was trying to start again, jolting us with the most incredible jerks accompanied with the sound of nails going down a chalkboard. Pretty much the opposite of peaceful and sedate, if you ask me. This jerking went on throughout the early morning and it was impossible to sleep. There we go, we thought, this is Africa. It would have been dangerous to have tried to walk down the corridor as you would have been sent flying. There was no announcement that anything was wrong, so when things had calmed down we decided to make our way to breakfast at 8:30 am. Just as we sat down to eat we arrived in the town of Beaufort West. (Beaufort West happens to be the hometown of Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world's first human heart transplant). It was then that the conductor made an announcement that the locomotive was broken and that we needed to get a new one and that we would be 80 minutes late arriving into Cape Town.

I was a little disappointed and worried that we might be late for our dinner plans in Camps Bay that night. Amazingly, not one person on the train was upset. People all picked up their cell phones and called loved ones or work colleagues and just said we were delayed, and then carried on calmly as before. This is Africa, too.

Beautiful views of the Karoo...
...and the wine country.

Once we got the new locomotive, the ride was totally different and a lot closer to what the brochure promised. Absolutely smooth. We enjoyed the view of the Karoo and a delicious lunch of hake while the wine country passed by our window, and arrived in Cape Town just a little over an hour behind schedule.

We had arranged for Avis to meet us with a rental car at the train station, which I would highly recommend to future travelers. It made for a smooth transition to the exploration of Cape Town and surroundings, where, funnily, we kept bumping into parties we had seen on the train - a family on Table Mountain and a couple on the same ferry as us to Robben Island.

Overall, I wish our night had been a bit smoother and less scary, but after we got the new locomotive we had an amazing trip into Cape Town. Our family played cards, read, played on iPads, and talked. There were a few people travelling alone, and several travelers were always in the bar car, if you had wanted to meet new people. We totally enjoyed the experience of unhurried luxury of a bygone era. I would take the train to Cape Town again if I had the time and did not have any pressing engagements.

Traveling Premier Classe was an experience in every way for our family. And, of course, we finally made it to Cape Town!

According to Natalie, a Joburg Expat blog post wouldn't be
complete without mention of a toilet (ahem!) so here it is.

Travel Tips

The Premier Classe train leaves Johannesburg Park Station every Thursday and Sunday at 3:00 pm and arrives at the Cape Town Train Station at 4:15 pm the next day.

Make your reservations online at www.premierclasse.co.za.

The cost for the train is currently R2500 per person one way. Children ages 0-2 travel for free, 3-9 years old travel for half price and children over the age of 10 pay the full fare.

Arrange for private transport to Park Station, or alternatively take the Gautrain.

Check in more than an hour before departure at the Premier Classe Lounge for good seating in the waiting area as it fills up quickly. The lounge is located downstairs and to the left.

Cabin doors lock from the inside. In addition, there are two security guards on the train. You do not get the sense that locking the doors is necessary.

The wine selection in the dining car is limited but fairly priced. I suppose you could have brought beer, wine, soft drinks and snacks on the train with you if you had wanted to.

You are not given a choice for dinner but are able to specify ahead of time if you need a vegetarian option.

If you are renting a car in Cape Town, make sure you have it waiting for you at the train station.

The comments on Tripadvisor at the moment are not the most flattering, but fairly accurate.


Natalie Irwin is an American expat living in Johannesburg with her family of four and enjoys all that South African life has to offer.