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Femi Oct 25th, 2009 06:15 PM

All Aboard! Southern Cross Journey on the Shongololo Express.
After going on a river cruise in Asia (the Irrawaddy), I enjoyed it so much that I decided to look for more tours that met the requirements of fewer than 100 passengers and involved unpacking only once. Several train journeys were on my list, including those in Africa and across central Asia/Russia. When the US Dollar reached a high against the South African Rand that I had not seen in years, I decided to go with the Shongololo Express train journey.

I sent a couple of emails to Shongololo but received no response. Then I emailed Tanya of Go2Africa, my travel agent from an earlier South African safari. She said that although her company had no relationship with Shongololo, she would look into it, and eventually I was able to complete the booking through her.

There used to be three different train journeys offered by Shongololo, all lasting 16 nights. The Namibian journey was eliminated this year, leaving the ‘Good Hope’ which travels through South Africa, and the ‘Southern Cross’ which travels through six countries in southern Africa; South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Both the Good Hope and Southern Cross use the same train.

I chose the Southern Cross journey that starts in the south (Johannesburg) and travels north, ending in Victoria Falls. My main reason for choosing this direction was to end the trip with the most impressive sights rather than vice-versa, and this worked out quite well.

I booked 2 additional nights in Joburg prior to the start of the trip and one night at the end as well as a pre-trip night on the train. Experience has taught me to leave room for changes/cancellations at both ends of a trip, and I was able to accommodate changes to my schedule with minimal stress.

I booked a roundtrip ticket using miles on Singapore Airlines LAX-SIN-JNB. The refueling stop in Narita took longer than anticipated, and because of this I missed my connection to JNB from Singapore. The Singapore Airlines staff were very efficient, and were waiting for me at the gate. I was told that I had missed the flight and arrangements had been made for me on the next flight, which was not available until the next day. I was given vouchers for The Gallery Hotel, taxi transfers, all meals and a telephone call to anywhere in the world. Considering the circumstances, service could not have been better.

LEANNA Oct 25th, 2009 08:39 PM

Wow...I would say this was terrific of Singapore Airlines!!!

Ok this is at your leisure...just keep typing!! :) I'm anxious to hear all the details I can get!! But it sounds like it was a good trip and worth doing.....but still more details will be nice!

Thank you!!

Femi Oct 26th, 2009 07:19 AM

I should mention that a few of the other passengers first heard about the train journey through an article published in ITN magazine a couple of years ago. Deborah Urquhart of Wild African Travels was mentioned in the article, and these pasengers had booked through her. It seems to me they had a few additional benefits of booking through an agent who is familiar with Shongololo, including upgrades and discounts.

Femi Oct 26th, 2009 07:23 AM

Thanks for the encouragement Leanna!

I got to the hotel in Singapore at about 3 am, and as I wasn’t really able to sleep I decided to book a day tour. From the options available at the front desk, I chose a day tour to Johor Baru, Malaysia. The tour cost $39 (Singapore Dollars), and was really just a way to kill time while waiting for my late night flight to Joburg. The tour a few hours longer than expected because several of the participants had problems during the border crossing and in fact were not allowed to leave Singapore because their documentation was not complete.

The tour of Johur Baru was really a series of shopping stops disguised as a tour. We stopped at a batik print shop, a mosque built in Victorian style architecture and a ‘Spice Garden’ which was the biggest disappointment of all.

Back in Singapore, I could see how I missed my connection to JNB the previous day, because the flight left 30 minutes early! Upon arrival at JNB it was very chaotic. There was a huge crush of people at the meeting area and it was impossible for me to find the person who was to transfer me to my hotel. Turns out it was impossible because he wasn’t there. It took a while for me to come to this conclusion. I then had to figure out (from the lady at the information desk) how to buy a phone card, and also had to ask another helpful airport employee to help me figure out how to use the public phone. Eventually I got in contact with the hotel who informed me the driver was running behind, but would soon be there, and sure enough he showed up about 15 minutes later.

As I was unwilling to stay in the city, my travel agent suggested a stay at Tintswalo at Waterfall hotel and this was a good choice. The staff were very welcoming and I quickly got over my annoyance at the hassle of the airport.

The next morning I was transfered back to the airport, where I had to make another phone call to determine the exact meeting point for my pick up by the Shongololo staff. Thus far I was not very pleased with how the transfers were going. Things were soon sorted, and I was on my way to the Boksburg train station which is about a 20 minute drive from the airport. Unfortunately I arrived too late (1100am) to be able to join the tour I wanted which had left at 0900.

Louise Oct 26th, 2009 10:01 AM

Femi - thank you so much for taking all the time describing your trip. You are posting a great, thorough report - can't wait for what is to come. I remember reading the article in ITN and thinking the trip would be wonderful. I am on pins and needles - are we going to get a good report? My deposit is on hold. Thanks so much again. Louise

atravelynn Oct 26th, 2009 03:06 PM

Very wise to have some extra time up front and it appears to have come in handy. Trains and Africa, a winning combo! Looking forward to the rest.

Femi Oct 26th, 2009 04:01 PM

Louise one of the questions on the Shongololo survey at the end of the journey was would I recommend the trip to others. I'd love to hear your thoughts as a potential customer as I continue this report.

Femi Oct 26th, 2009 04:02 PM

About the train itself; I had read from various sources not to expect luxury, but the condition of the cabin was still a bit of a shock. It was clean, but showed several signs of deterioration like cracked and peeling linoleum in the bathroom, cracks in the shower compartment, and misaligned shower doors that could not be completely shut. I had chosen a commodore level cabin, and in comparison to the other levels, I think it was well worth the cost of the upgrade. Judging from the response of other passengers and one of the guides, my reaction was normal. The guide foretold that we would come to appreciate the cabins, and by the second day, this turned out to be true. Most of us found the cabins to be quite small those first few days, barely able to accommodate one person much less two, but by the end of the trip, we were able to have three people in a cabin with no problem. As a single occupant, I enjoyed having a double bed, rather than two singles. Storage is very limited. I was able to place items under the bed or over the door, but not all cabins had the advantage of this layout. If there had been two of us in the room, it would have been quite challenging, but most people seemed to manage. There is no additional storage area outside of the cabin. Air-conditioning is included in the gold and commodore cabins but not the ivory cabins. Gold and commodore levels have ensuite bathrooms but the ivory level includes shared bathrooms/showers.

I would rate the food to be a notch above the quality of the cabins. Breakfast and dinner are included in the price. Lunch is not included, but were usually buffet style and cost US$ 10-15, not including drinks and the quality ranged from fair to very good. We had some outstanding desserts at a few of the lunch buffets. Drinking water cost extra on the train, ZAR 7 (or about $1) for a small 500ml bottle and ZAR 13 for a liter. The exchange rate currently varies from ZAR 7.2-7.4 per USD.

Passengers were mostly Australian, with next most numerous nationality being German. There were also a few Dutch, American, Canadian and various French speaking nationalities.

Femi Oct 26th, 2009 04:52 PM

For lunch the first day I signed up for a transfer to the local mall (R40). There typically is not much to do around the train stations, so activities on your own are limited. There are clipboards hung in the lounge with upcoming activities, including the cost if applicable. You sign up in advance on the clipboard, and on the morning of the activity, you look on the whiteboard to see which bus/guide you have been assigned. Passengers eventually rotate through all the guides which has the advantage of exposing you to the specialist training of each guide, but the disadvantage is that if you find guides you particularly enjoy, you cannot stick with them. There were about five guides altogether.

Femi Oct 26th, 2009 06:07 PM

Hi lynn! :)

LEANNA Oct 26th, 2009 07:45 PM

Femi, this is truly wonderful and much appreciated by both Louise and I. Thank you so much!!!!

LAleslie Oct 27th, 2009 06:05 PM

I was considering the Shongololo on our first trip to Southern Africa and our travel agent warned us away, but mostly because he had very little information and was wary. We ended up paying through the nose for a Blue Train trip. Fun, luxurious, no complaints, but not worth the obscene price.
So I'm anxious to here all the details of your trip. We're also considering the Irrawady trip. Did you do a trip report?

Femi Oct 27th, 2009 07:12 PM

My travel agent had the same response when I told her I wanted to go, LOL. Totally understandable. And this trip was not inexpensive either.

Here's a link to my report on the Irrawaddy cruise:

Femi Oct 27th, 2009 07:16 PM

I considered the possibility of making arrangements for a private driver and guide to meet me for a day tour, but this would not have worked because of frequent changes in the train’s schedule. For instance the delivery of a train engine was several hours late in arriving, and so the train staff switched the next day’s touring activity with one scheduled a few days later.

I had thought that sleeping on the train would be a piece of cake, with the rocking motion to lull me to sleep. Wrong. Turns out I found the motion to be frequently jarring and the inconsistency of the movements was difficult to get used to. There were a few stops after which the train would lurch back to life, sending items flying across the table. The first few times released a collective shriek from the passengers. When we finally learned to anticipate the jerking, it stopped. Perhaps because we had switched to a different engine?

Over the weeks I observed new bruises appear everyday on a fair number of passengers, myself included. The corridor along the cabins is very narrow, and it took some time to learn how to walk without being suddenly thrown against the wall by the motion. I resorted to taking a sleeping pill most nights which I found to be very helpful.

LEANNA Oct 28th, 2009 07:46 AM

Sounds like a real adventure!!! One where you have to roll with things as they happen.

I'm at at age where a bit of adventure is fun for me still.....and Africa is Africa and that is part of the charm of what draws us back so many times!

Femi Oct 28th, 2009 06:04 PM

I guess it dosen't count as an adventure if you have everything stay the same as it is at home!

People in the older gold and ivory level cabins had frequent problems with the locking and unlocking cabin doors. More than a few required a special jimmy, wriggle, stroke or wrench to open. One of the passengers told me he had just stepped out of the shower, when all of a sudden his door was forcibly wrenched open and he didn’t know who was more surprised; him at the surprise visitor, or the other guy who found someone standing stark naked in what he had erroneously thought was his cabin! I observed people entering the wrong cabin more than once, so consider yourself warned! A few people also managed to get locked in by accident and had to shout for help. As there were always crew passing through, it wasn’t a problem to find someone to unlock the door, just nerve wracking for the unwitting prisoner.

The water pressure in the cabins was impressive, and hot water appeared almost instantly. There were some complaints of insufficient hot water, but I only experienced this once.

Let me know if you have more questions about the train itself, as I think from here I will describe the day-to-day acivities that were scheduled...

SumitKumar Oct 30th, 2009 03:19 AM

Thanks for your reply

Beachnut11 Nov 18th, 2009 08:52 PM

Hi Femi - great write up - would be really interested in your assessment of day-to-day activities offered.

atravelynn Nov 19th, 2009 02:24 PM

New daily bruises on both yourself and your train traveling partners is pretty adventurous!

Femi Nov 19th, 2009 05:59 PM

Hopefully I haven't forgotten too many details...Please ask if there's anything more specific you would like to know.

Preday on board the train - I missed the 0900 departure for the day's tours as I didn't arrive till 1100. Wish I'd known they left that early because it would have been no problem to arrange for an earlier arrival. Went to the mall for lunch via the train’s scheduled shuttle service. There really wasn't any other option near the station. The mall was pretty large and offered several choices of restaurants/cafes/snack bars/pizza parlors/etc. When I got back there were chairs and tables set up on the platform, so we passengers got to know each other, watched new people arrive, and got in the way of the crew who were frantic with last minute preparations.

Day one.
I signed up for the Joburg and Soweto tour (other option was Pretoria and Soweto). We visited Constitution hill and the African museum. I found neither stop to be very interesting, but then I have little interest in visiting museums to begin with. I did enjoy riding around and being able to see the different neighborhoods of Joburg.

A few words about shopping: If you see something you really like get it then. There was a guy selling large bead & wire sculptures near the African museum. The guide thought the prices the artist was asking were a bit steep, but then later admitted to never having seen that type of work anywhere else. Several staff members told us to wait for Vic Falls to do our shopping because of the variety there, but even the hardened/seasoned sales guys at Vic Falls were wowed by the sculpture. The beaded animals that I bought on the first day of the trip are some of my favorite purchases. And by the end of the trip I thought I probably should have paid more for them.

There are handicrafts for sale outside of just about every site we visited on the tour. In some less populated areas the locals know the train schedule, and go out of their way to set up shop accordingly. The guides did ask that we not bargain too hard with the vendors, one reason being that with the AIDS epidemic 1 vendor might be resonsible for several more family members than usual.

Lunch stop was at the Rosebank mall which is in a nice neighborhood and was a good place to stock up (pharmacy, etc) for last minute items before the train left town. We then continued on to Soweto which I found to be surprisingly modern, and entrance to the Hector Pieterson museum was included. We ran into the people who had done the Pretoria tour in the morning, and most reported that they had enjoyed it.

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