Train to Jozi

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa recently announced the the passenger train between Johannesburg and Cape Town is back in service after many years of unreliable and discontinued operations. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town I often took this train between semesters. I later published a brief photographic essay reflecting on the experience. Unfortunately the original version with photographs no longer exists (the archived version is here: so I decided to recreate it here.

The Shosholoza Meyl, once known as the Trans-Karoo Express, runs daily between Cape Town and Johannesburg (affectionately known as Jozi). The 26-hour journey begins at the bottom of the city bowl, departing from Platform 1.

Person in a sunbeam on the station platform
© Seán Muller

A pair of feet in black shoes with yellow laces on a yellow-lined station platform
© Seán Muller

Winding out of the station under the characteristic backdrop of Table Mountain to the east, the train meanders through peri-urban industria, graffitied walls, container yards and small factories.

Figures on a platform
© Seán Muller

Peri-urban industria: blue warehouses and graffitied walls
© Seán Muller

Exiting the outskirts of the city, it slips into the lush valleys that yield the fruit exports and vineyards for which the Cape is famous. Little children begging by the tracks suggest that the luxuriant scenery does not translate into prosperity for many. As with most of South Africa, the ever-present poverty is only blurred by familiarity.

By late afternoon the train is well into the vast scrublands of the Karoo. It is a meditative landscape; dotted hillocks and straggly sheep interspersed with the occasional farmhouse or windmill-powered dam.

Boy studying barefoot outside a house next to the train tracks
© Seán Muller

It can be too much for some passengers, who incline toward a palliative of alcohol-induced sleep. By late afternoon a blood red aspirin falls through the sky, leaving streaks of colour in its pale blue wake; eventually dissolving into the horizon. The sky bruises dark blue, purple and black, until the train is rushing brazenly into the darkness.

Dawn brings a rattle on the door offering tea in polystyrene cups—steaming hydraulics adding to the slightly magical light—and a gradual drift into the economic heartland of South Africa.

Steam from the hydraulics at dawn
© Seán Muller

In winter temperatures drop below freezing overnight; the days are clear; the veld and air sandpaper dry, bursting into flames with the slightest spark. The train tracks slither below the Nelson Mandela bridge, into the Jozi metro. As a gold mining boom town it was once dotted with mine dumps, but the best vantage points remain the koppies; the largest outcrops of the many granite ridges curling around various parts of the city.

People waiting at a station on the route into the city
© Seán Muller

Nelson Mandela Bridge
© Seán Muller

This is my home.

A view over Johannesburg towards Sandton City
© Seán Muller

And I feel the weight of Ivan Vladislavic’s words: “Are you still with me? In this dog-eared field, collapsing from one attitude to another, dragging your ghosts through the dirty air, your train of cast-off selves, constantly rediscovering yourself at the centre, in the present.”

An old shoe in the veld
© Seán Muller

A view across a koppie with a stone across towards the Jozi CBD
© Seán Muller

[Edited to add some additional photographs that were not published in the original essay]

Author: peripheral economist

Academic, extra-mural public servant

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