Words: Nancy Richards Pictures: John-Clive
The vintage steam train from Cape Town to Stellenbosch is a blissfully nostalgic way to travel to the heart of the Winelands – fun for the whole family and beats traffic stress too.
Katie the steam engine chugs into Cape Town station – bless her heart. Built in the late 1930’s before the war, she looks pretty good for her age. Katie is named after the young daughter of Sarah Nielsen, co-owner with her dad Ian Pretorius of Atlantic Rail – those wonderful people who run steam train trips from Cape Town to Stellenbosch.
It takes a lot of people to run a train
The only private vintage steam train operator in the Cape Town area, Atlantic Rail, rely on their team of passionate green-bibbed volunteers, the Friends of Atlantic Rail – like Rina de Waal (left) whose whole family is involved. At the Train Lodge near the Civic Centre where the journey starts, she and daughter Marlet man the table where passengers can buy postcards, books, and other steam train souvenirs.
There are six individual carriages attached to Katie – each of them with their own charm and character – some of them coupes with top bunks (a great hit with the kids), others with little tables (perfect for playing cards if you’re not completely distracted by the view that swooshes by), or you can settle into the lounge car – where there’s a bar selling coffee, home-made cupcakes or something stronger.
Controller Adelbert Stigling, like a character straight out of Thomas the Tank engine, is as authentic as it gets and hugely knowledgeable. Back in the day, he used to travel by train every holiday to visit his gran – later he became a station master himself. ‘Trains are in my blood,’ he grins.
The best bit for serious train spotters is the engine itself – driven here by retired steam train boff Frikkie Gerber with the help of Jan Fourie. The company arranges ‘training’ for those who are serious about wanting to learn the ropes. Something else to know is that a return trip from Cape Town to Stellenbosch takes 7 tons of high-quality coal and 20,000 litres of water.
Half the fun is rattling through little-known stations – and catching a wave from the people on the platform.
FOAR member Zelda Schroeder walks around selling raffle tickets to anyone who would like to win a copy of the late Boon Boonzaier’s Tracks Across the Veld: A Southern African Rail Safari. Zelda’s dad used to work on the railways, ‘If we youngsters don’t keep this going, steam train travel will die out,’ she says.
At Stellenbosch station, Katie uncouples from her collection of carriages to turn around for the return journey.
When disembarking at Stellenbosch station – you have choices: Take a brisk walk into town, or take the bus which will get you there quicker. You can even take visit one of the nearby wine farms for lunch and a wine tasting.
Books and boutiques
You have approximately three hours to spend in Stellenbosch – and considering it’s filled with shops, bars, galleries and museums, you won’t be short of things to do. If you fancy a more literary lunchtime, take a turn past Verbatim the niche bookshop in Dorp Street – where you might just find a title or two on train travel.
Choosing where to eat in Stellenbosch is an art in itself – there are as many options as leaves on an oak tree – from haute cuisine to burger joints and coffee shops. The best part is you can safely have a glass of wine with your meal because you won’t be driving home.
A quick bus ride from a central meeting place in Stellenbosch takes you back to the station…and ready for the home stretch back to Cape Town.
For more terrific train rides, click here.
For more info www.atlanticrail.co.za