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-   -   All Aboard! Southern Cross Journey on the Shongololo Express. (https://www.fodors.com/community/africa-and-the-middle-east/all-aboard-southern-cross-journey-on-the-shongololo-express-811783/)

Femi Nov 20th, 2009 03:38 PM

Throughout most of the trip we had fantastic weather; mid 70s with a breeze. I can imagine that a lot of the places we visited could become extremely uncomfortable in either summer or winter.

Day two
We were originally scheduled to visit Swaziland this day, but because the train engine arrived several hours late, we ended up visiting Blyde river canyon via the panorama route which had been scheduled for day 7.

We stopped for tea/coffee at Graskop on the way to the canyon, a small, picturesque town with a few shops lining the sides of the road. The guides told us there would be a silk shop we could visit, and most people (myself included) decided to skip it, bcause really, if you've seen one silk shop, you've seen them all, or so we thought. I decided to wander in afterall while waiting till it was time to reboard the bus. Turns out Africa Silks is a shop that makes fabric from the silk of mopane worms (as well as regular silkworms). It was far more interesting than I had expected, and if I had known more about it, I would have made it my first stop.

I enjoyed our stop at Blydes River Canyon. I suppose it is the South African equivalent of the Grand Canyon, with a course that had been carved out by the Blyde river. We also stopped to see Bourke’s potholes, which I found to be just as impressive. This was one of our fantastic weather days. Because we continued to run behind schedule, my group had to skip the stops at God’s window and Pilgrim’s rest which was a bit disappointing.

LEANNA Nov 20th, 2009 07:11 PM

Thank you for this additional info. I have booked this trip.....so now its REALLY interesting!!! :)

Beachnut11 Nov 22nd, 2009 11:53 AM

Femi -thanks for the additional feedback- hope you can continue to recall of daily itinerary. Agree with you on if you SEE IT - GET IT NOW -- we have learned over the years never to count on finding a particular item again.

We would be interested in purchasing some wine to take on the train - were there wine stores at the mall...Will the guides assist you with this request...

LEANNA -- when are you booked to go...

Femi Nov 22nd, 2009 01:09 PM

How exiting for you Leanna! This trip is definitely one of a kind.

Beachnut I didn't happen to notice if there was any wine for sale at either mall (East Rand and Rosebank), but you should have no trouble finding wine, even if it means taking a taxi, you would have time to do this. The train overnights at Boksburg Station while in Joburg.

Links to East Rand Mall info: http://www.eastrandmall.co.za/
Rosebank Mall: http://www.themallofrosebank.co.za/

Femi Nov 22nd, 2009 01:15 PM

I remember more than I thought I would at this point.

Day three
Maputo. I’ve been waiting for this part of the trip with eager anticipation for almost a year. Mozambique. I love the way it sounds. We are to spend two nights in Maputo’s grand dame of a train station. This is by far the most picturesque station of the entire trip. We are reminded that part of Leo DiCaprio’s movie Blood Diamond was shot on location here. There is a jazz club open in the evenings that looks very interesting but I don’t go in.

Although it is in the heart of the town, the train station is eerily quiet. When it is time to board one of the local trains, there seems to be an invisible barrier that locals will not cross. They wait behind the barrier until their train pulls in, then in an orderly but rapid fashion they surge forward for boarding. I look repeatedly for the reason they do not come closer to our train, but cannot find one. There is no loitering around the station.

Our first day in town is meant to be one of relaxation. I ask why we don’t do the city tour the first day so that we can get our bearings, but apparently this is what works best for the train’s schedule.

We are divided into our sub-groups, and as usual each group spends the time a little differently depending on the guide. Eventually we all end up on Marginal beach. In my van we are given boundaries, i.e. don’t walk past x point as we are driven up and down the coast to get an idea of the layout, and then we are dropped off. There doesn’t seem to be very much to do at all, and at first I am reluctant to get out and so are the others. Then one couple puts on a brave face and are the first ones out and the rest of us follow.

We end up taking a leisurely stroll along the beach and take a few pictures, but there really isn’t much activity. We hear the weather has been bad for fishing, so most of the fisherman have taken the day off. The few we see in the distance are hauling up empty nets. It is overcast, which is a plus for us as there is very little shade on the beach.

We do walk past a few locals, and attempts to communicate don’t get us very far because of the language barrier. Our guide has spent the time cruising up and down the road beside the beach, so when we are ready after a couple of hours all we have to do is flag him down. Our group was one of the lucky ones. One group was left on the beach for the entire day. We drove past them once or twice, but unfortunately our mini van had no room for extras. Had I been on my own, I would not have felt safe walking on the beach. There were too many long stretches where there was no one else around.

We were then driven back to town for lunch, which was at a restaurant called Mundos, home of ‘The Best Pizza You Ever Had’. I had the coconut crumble fish which was just ok. Several members of the group did have pizza, and they raved about it the rest of the trip. Apparently the restaurant lived up to its promise. It was the best pizza they had ever had.

Dinner that evening was one of two that were off the train. We went to a buffet dinner at a restaurant near the water called Sangres. It was very busy, several of the diners were locals. The selection and quality was quite good and included a lot of seafood, and the desserts were wonderful.

The streets were strangely deserted during the drive home, and we passed a few groups of men occasionally. It did not look like a safe place to be wandering around alone.

Beachnut11 Nov 22nd, 2009 04:14 PM

Thanks Femi - did you feel safe when the train was stationary overnight? Since it is a rail yard - does anyone venture out after dinner or do guests just patronize the train bar car and get to know each other?

On days when the train travels during the day - are there onboard lectures? Did you find them informative/helpful.

Finally I have read that some cars are "air conditioned" which may be very advantageous depending on the time of year one travels. Did anyone in your group have an Emerald Room and did they give you and feedback as to whether it was worth the additional $$$.

Femi Nov 22nd, 2009 05:20 PM

I always felt safe on the train. In some places we had armed guards on patrol (can't remember where that was now), and in other places it was regular security guards (with dogs in Joburg). We were warned not to leave windows open because of the risk of theft, not just by people but by baboons as well. The baboons are very savvy, and know exactly what to look for to increase the success of a raid. You only have to watch them for a few minutes to realize how calculating and persistent and strong they are.

As you noticed most of the time, the train was on the move in the evening. Some of the guests wandered around before dinner in some locations, but it seemed to me that the guides did not think it wise, and I would not have felt safe doing so myself. Turns out there wasn't much to see, the guest who did wander around ended up purchasing socks at a shopping center. When the train was stationary the staff would set up tables and chairs outside the main entrance and that's where people hung out. They also spent a lot of time in the lounge areas around the bar.

There was a little anxiety amongst us passengrs about the day on the rails, because we weren't yet used to the cramped quarters but it turned out to be ok. We read and chatted, and rearranged the cabins for the zillionth time. The guides did give a talk on what to expect, but it was very informal, and truthfully it wasn't all that stimulating.

Definitely go with airconditiong, those that didn't were very stoic, but spoke of being uncomfortable about half the time. I only heard of one couple that might have had an emerald suite, but never got to discuss the merits with them. The commodore and gold cabins are also air conditioned.

Beachnut11 Nov 22nd, 2009 07:37 PM

Thanks Fermi - how were the meals handled? On a cruise you have a set time and I assume the dining car can only handle 1/2 of the guests at any given time. Was there any sort of schedule or just luck of the draw?

Guess same question applies to breakfast - you indicatedin one posting you only had to wait once - but I'm assuming that the "early birds" have the most flexibility - but there must be the usual 7:45 rush????

LEANNA Nov 22nd, 2009 08:11 PM

We are booked for next Oct...2010. Deposit has been paid!

Beachnut...you are asking super questions....please just continue...I seem to want to know everything you want to know!! :)

Femi thank you for all of this....and here is a glass of wine...so just keep talking!!!! :)

Beachnut11 Nov 22nd, 2009 10:01 PM

Well Leanna you are ahead of me - we are looking at 2011.

Femi - you indicated this trip was not for "everyone" -- can you cateogize who you feel this trip would be best for???

You can tell from Leanna's reply that we are looking for any "observation" you can share on your trip...the more you share - the more we will ask specific questions. Look forward to more reports on your daily itineraries.

I think the optional activity Balloon ride in in my bucket list -- did you try it?

LEANNA Nov 23rd, 2009 06:54 PM

Along the way somewhere you need to do a balloon ride!

I should think over Africa would be very special indeed. I did mine in Turkey and it was fabulous.....so do add it to your bucketlist and spring for it while you are in Africa.

Our days only grow shorter.....so fill em up!!!!

Femi Nov 23rd, 2009 07:29 PM

The questions make it a lot easier to know what to write about. First of all, how cool that you're booked Leanna! Especially for October because I thought we had fantastic weather, well except for one day, and even that wasn't too bad. You've got a wonderful trip ahead of you, even more so now that you know what to expect!

Space on the balloon ride was very limited, so you would need to sign up as soon as the sheet is posted. Unfortunately it was cancelled this trip, but I can't remember why now. I wasn't one of those who had booked, but you can imagine how disappointed they were. If you haven't been on a balloon ride before, I don't think you can beat Africa for the first time!

Beachnut11 Nov 23rd, 2009 07:32 PM

I have done a balloon ride - but alas it was just in Ottawa - I imagine that a non-urban environment would be much better.
So yes - it is on my list. Crossed off the camel ride at the Pyrmids in Egypt this Fall - one less thing to do!

Leanne - since you have paid your deposit - has the operator provided you with any additional info? Are you boarding in Johannesburg or Victoria Falls? Any reason for the choice you made?

Femi Nov 23rd, 2009 08:14 PM

One of the best things about this trip was that all the visas were purchased as we went along. It was much easier and more cost effective than getting them at home.

Day 4 (Part I)
In comparing notes with other passengers on the previous day, most did not like Maputo at all, mostly because they thought it looked poor and dirty. Before we left the train we had been warned repeatedly to be careful of where we took pictures. Apparently the locals really do not like their pictures being taken because they fear being represented as poor and backward to the rest of the world (probably not too far from the truth).I thought the city looked very promising with lots of new construction and new business visible. There were also housing estates being built along the beach front, and we caught glimpses of what I am sure were multi-million dollar houses and condos along the coast.

So this was the day for our city tour. It started out with a drizzle that occasionally turned into light rain, and it stayed wet for just about the whole day. In looking at other members of the group, I was surprised at how wet they were when the precipitation didn’t seem all that heavy. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, and I looked just as drowned as everyone else if not worse!

Maputo didn’t seem to be that big once we got our bearings. We tried to start the day with a visit to the fort, but apparently the opening times vary frequently and it was still closed. We returned later in the day and it was small but interesting. There were sculptures in the garden, along with beautiful pink frangipani trees. There was a free showing of art and photography (with a more Western theme than African) going on in several areas of the fort, and this made for a very satisfying visit. Outside the fort was a square with several vendors who had their goods laid out unprotected from the rain, but no one seemed worried.

We then stopped by the catholic cathedral where we were able to crash a wedding (very accommodating of them). The kaleidoscope of faces in this group of people was amazing, with every hue and a surprising range of cultures represented. Some were in Western dress, some in African, and this was the first time I’ve seen people who appeared to be of sub-Saharan descent wearing saris! I would have loved to find out more, but once again the language barrier was very difficult to cross.

Femi Nov 23rd, 2009 08:21 PM

Sorry, I missed the question about the meals. I was always up pretty early for breakfast and so had no problems with seating. It was always packed about 30 minutes before we were scheduled to leave for the day.

Dinner occured over 2 seatings(6:30 and 8:00PM), and it got pretty competetive for the first seating. The guides were not shy about asking you to move out once you got the last forkful in. Definitely no time for lingering.

Yes, Leanna do tell. Who did you book with? Were they at all familiar with the train?

Beachnut11 Nov 24th, 2009 08:27 AM

Femi - in terms of your visas did you purchase them or were they purchased by your tour operator?

Also what are the two or three BEST tips - you could give to someone considering this trip....something to bring; something to do; don't forget this.

Femi Nov 24th, 2009 06:45 PM

The train staff purchased our visas as we went along.

Wow, three BEST tips is hard!

1) Take your ATM card with you and withdraw enough South African Rand if you start the trip in SA. You have the option to pay the final bill on the train in Rand, with a credit card, or in USD. Credit card is the best option, Rand next best. USD would be the last choice because the conversion rate on the train was not very good.

2) On any trip the right attitude goes a long way, don't sweat the small stuff.

3) If there are any toiletries you feel you must have, bring it with you. You only get a small bar of soap on the train.

Hope that helps.

Femi Nov 24th, 2009 06:46 PM

Day 4 (Part II)
It was fascinating to see that wherever we went along the tour, the black guides were able to communicate with the locals with little difficulty. Apparently most black people in South-East Africa are able to communicate in some form of Shona. I loved hearing the locals in Maputo converse in sing-song Portuguese.

The stop at the natural history museum was worthwhile for the stuffed animals on display. The elephants, lions and zebras seemed far larger than anything I’ve seen in real life. Have animals become smaller in the last few generations. The guides swore that there were still animals that size roaming around (elephants in Addo for instance), but I am yet to see anything that even comes close. Also interesting was the display of an elephant embryo through the different phases of pregnancy. The development of the embryo seems to be complete relatively early in the process with an explosive increase in size in the latter months. Across from the museum is the newly remodeled Hotel Cardoso which looks very inviting, and is somewhere I wouldn’t mind staying during a return visit.

I had some fabulous grilled shrimp for lunch at a restaurant called Waterfront. The French fries were also very good. A ½ kilo shrimp platter and a soda cost $20, and I was able to pay with a credit card. Service was fast and efficient, even though the restaurant was quite busy. The manager was Swiss.

Our final stop was at the central market, which I did not find very interesting. The produce was very attractive, but the setting really wasn’t geared toward tourists. The merchants were annoyed that we were in the way and obstructing the flow of traffic around their goods. We had done a couple loops around the city and I could see that we weren’t that far from the train station. So rather than continue to annoy the merchants while waiting for the vans to come and pick us up, a few of us decided to walk back to the train. We had told the guide ahead of time that we were considering this option, and he was ok with it. It took probably 20 minutes to get back to the station, but only because this was our first time (crossing the busy street, looking around, etc), it could easily be done in 10. I tried to buy some yummy looking roasted cashews along the way, but the lady selling them would only accept Metical and I had none.

One couple had started the walk back with us, but then decided to go a different route. When they got back to the train they were unnerved but ok. Apparently they had wandered into the wrong neighborhood (they received strange looks and were uncomfortable) and eventually they were stopped by the police who demanded to see their passports. The couple carried photocopies of their passports with them for this reason, but the police refused to accept this. As the police became more insistent and it looked like things were beginning to escalate, the couple produced their real passports which luckily they had on their persons but had hidden them for fear of theft. The police were satisfied and sent them on their way. This definitely drove home what the guides had been telling us; it was essential to carry our passports on us. More so in some locations than others, but it was just easier to take it all the time. Less chance of forgetting then.

There were police officers on patrol riding with rifles on the back of trucks. They did stop and give a ticket to one of the guides who performed a minor traffic violation. As we departed Maputo on the train I could almost hear the guides let out a collective sigh of relief.

Femi Nov 24th, 2009 07:29 PM

Pictures: http://tinyurl.com/Shongololo

Femi Nov 24th, 2009 07:35 PM

I did a search and found lots more pictures. Wish I'd done this before I left!


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