Words: Sam Bradley | Photos: Shongololo Express
I’ve often imagined being a famous adventurer, someone like David Livingstone or Christopher Columbus, and discovering new lands and experiencing amazing and wonderful adventures. It must all have been hugely exciting. Even better, most of these explorers were wise enough to do their exploring with a large and dedicated team of porters, so they probably managed it without even breaking a sweat.
These ponderings are not mere idle fantasy. In fact, I can now claim a certain amount of authority on the matter. I was given the opportunity to experience a similar sort of adventure myself, as a guest on the Shongololo Express. True, we didn’t have teams of porters at our beck and call, but we did have an extremely dedicated team of staff and guides, who made sure our every need was taken care of. And although we may not have been the first people to set eyes on these places, it was the first time I was personally seeing these sights, so I figured it must count as a discovery nonetheless.
That is exactly what the Shongololo tours are all about: discovering new places and seeing new sights. A tour on the Shongololo feels like a journey back to the days when rail travel was a leisurely, genteel and unhurried experience. The train meanders slowly along its course, travelling at night and then stopping during the day for guests to disembark and explore the area.
My wife and I boarded the train in Durban on a Saturday evening and were ushered straight into the dining carriage for a scrumptious four-course dinner. The restaurant carriage, decorated with classical olden-day maps and scenes from days gone by made guests feel as if we were living the life of someone rich and famous - a modern-day Mr Gatsby perhaps?
Everything made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to an almost-Victorian era, and we loved every minute of it. As the countryside slid past our carriage and the sun set over the mountains, we agreed this was a lifestyle we could get used to. Nestled into our cabin later that evening, we fell asleep to the soothing clickety-clackety train noises and slight bumps and jolts as we began our journey north, dreaming of exciting happenings that lay ahead.
Sunday morning found us on the North Coast, where we spent the next two days exploring St Lucia and the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, formerly Hluhluwe–Umfolozi Game Reserve. Due to time constraints, we had missed the Cape Town to Durban leg of the trip and were joining the second-half of the tour. Chatting to all the other guests, we realised that each day on board was an adventure in itself. As the tour wore on, we soon learnt this to be true, with the days blurring together into a happy mirage of memories. Leaving KwaZulu-Natal, we crossed the border into Swaziland to explore traditional markets and quaint countryside landmarks. The next day we were in Mpumalanga, with God’s Window and Blyde River Canyon providing the ‘wow’ moments of the day and ensuring our cameras remained busily in action. Thereafter, we were in Kruger Park, where the awe and amazement of our foreign guests provided as much entertainment as the animals themselves.
While the atmosphere on board really is second to none and the locations the train travels past are spectacular, what really made our Shongololo tour so memorable was the staff. According to Leon Plutsick, CEO of Shongololo Express, this is no accident. Every employee on the train is carefully selected and has been on the train for at least six years, with quite a few members having joined the company on its inception 17years ago. All in all, it takes 22 full-time employees to keep the train running smoothly, from the chefs, to the cleaning staff, to the tour guides.
That, interestingly, has something to do with how Shongololo first got its name. Legend has it that a shongololo worm, the African name for centipede, appears to be gliding along serenely, calmly, surveying everything around it. It’s only when you look at the hundreds of legs all rapidly running along that you realise how much effort is put in to keep everything running so smoothly. In the same way, as guests on the train, we lived a calm and blissful existence, seemingly without a care in the world. Meanwhile, behind the scenes staff worked hard to make each guest’s holiday a memorable one.
A few South Africans would be tempted to dismiss the whole concept of the Shongololo Express as too expensive for our flimsy little rands, and it’s true that most of the guests on these tours are from abroad. However, it was when I was chatting to Leon that the concept of the train tour really made sense to me. Because the train runs through the night, you wake up refreshed and ready to explore somewhere new each day. Shongololo is essentially a travelling hotel, taking you from place to place without the hassle of packing and unpacking every day or wasting many hours in a car getting there. When you add in the fact that all the day trips in the minibuses are led by qualified guides, with a wealth of knowledge about the area you are visiting, it becomes even easier to appreciate the true value of a Shongololo tour.
Those looking to travel further afield will be glad to know Shongololo doesn’t only operate in South Africa. The train alternates between three other routes, all of them exploring untamed landscapes, unique cultures, and areas of great natural beauty. The Southern Cross Tour is a whopping 16-day trip running through six countries (South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana), stopping off at beaches, game parks, cultural tours, and just about every other attraction imaginable. The Dune Express Tour is a 12-day discovery of Namibia, with highlights being Etosha National Park and the Fish River Canyon. The Dr Livingstone Tour retraces the great explorer’s footsteps, running from Victoria Falls to Dar es Salaam or vice versa, with plenty of game parks along the way.
Many people these days can claim to have seen far away and exotic locations, but surprisingly few South Africans have seen some of the sights our amazing country has to offer. As a local, I was blown away by how many amazing hidden little gems we found tucked away in some of the more remote parts our country. So next time you hear the explorer within you beckoning for new adventures, look no further than the Shongololo Tours.
What you need to know
Food options: Guests are well looked after on board, with meal options that cater to every guest’s needs.
Prices: Prices vary depending on the length of the trip. Breakfasts and dinners are eaten on the train, and all the day activities are included in the price of the trip, so the only additional expenses are lunches, bar tabs, and tips. Occasionally, extra options are available at a price. South African travellers should keep an eye on Groupon for last-minute specials.
Trip options: The Shongololo Express alternates between four different routes.The website shows a detailed schedule of dates and trips, with comprehensive information on each trip.
Contact details: Visit www.shongololo.com