MXOLISI Hoboyi might be poor but he can afford to take a train trip just for the fun of it. The unemployed 27-year-old Hoboyi from Viedgesville near Mthatha was so excited about catching the newly relaunched Kei Rail train from Mthatha to East London on Saturday that he got up at 5am in the morning so that he wouldn’t miss it.
“I have always wanted to experience this and, today finally, I will,” said Hoboyi, who was on his way to visit his older brother, Zibulele, in Mdantsane.
This was the first time that Hoboyi had travelled by train – something he had always wanted to do because of the tales of train trips he had heard from family members.
“I have always wanted to have a first-hand experience of this. The long hours are not even a problem to me,” said Hoboyi.
He was one of the handful of passengers taking the cheapest – and the one of the most beautiful – train rides in South Africa. For just R30, you can ride 281 kilometres from Mthatha to East London.
The Kei Rail was relaunched earlier this month by the provincial department of roads and transport after it was shut down in 1988 due to dwindling passenger numbers.
The line was built in the 1900s and was used for both passenger and freight services for 80 years.
The sense of anticipation at Mthatha station was infectious. Despite the autumn chill in the air, there were already onlookers on the upstairs balcony at the station when we arrived at 7am.
As train attendants and security personnel were issuing tickets, 64-year-old Zukile Mdandani of Mbuqe Extension in Mthatha was chatting animatedly about trains with his six-year-old grandson, Ntembeko Lubanzi Mdandani.
They had come down to the station so that the little boy could see the train off.
“He usually sees trains on television,” said Mdandani, “and I had promised to bring him here to see the train in person.
“One day I want him to travel with it so that he can feel the experience of being on board a train, like I have.”
Ntembeko wanted to know where the petrol was stored and his grandpa explained that the train used diesel instead.
Inside the three green and gold carriages, about 20 people were settling down while others stared out the windows. Some were maintenance workers who got on and off at various stops to work on the line but they were confined to the communal carriage.
The other two carriages were divided into cabins. Each cabin had two seats that could be turned into double-bunk beds.
Just before the train left, a security guard came around announcing: “No guns and knives are allowed here, please”.
I must confess that I was feeling as excited as young Ntembeko. I’ve travelled by taxi, bakkie and bus all over my beloved Transkei – but never by train. I was keen to see what the countryside was like off the main and secondary roads – and I wasn’t the only one. This is truly tourism for the masses.
Thanduxolo Dlulane, a retired police officer who was getting off at Butterworth, said: “I love the scenery on this route. But also, I wanted to support this initiative … For me this is just a jolly ride.”
The last time Dlulane was on a train – on this very same route – was in 1976.
He said travelling by train gave him a unique view of the landscape away from the the national road that cuts through the former homeland. “Just look at that,” he said, pointing at what looked like a monument near Mbashe. “I have never seen that before in my life.”
Dlulane had already told his son and daughter, who are students at Walter Sisulu University in East London, that they must take this train when they come home for the Easter weekend. “They have to try it – just for experience. It’s here for that,” he said.
Mluleki Mbeki, a former lecturer at a Durban college who is now based in Mthatha, was heading home to Dutywa.
He said he had been on many trains but this one was different.
“As people we are so used in travelling by cars. It’s good for a change, to use something different so that you can explore … When I go back to Mthatha tomorrow, I am going to take this train again.”
The Pukwana family had opted for the train for practical reasons. They were moving to Butterworth after 65-year-old Fezile Pukwana had retired from the department of agriculture.
The family of four – including mom Zokuthini, daughter Sinazo and her son, 21-month-old Asonge – had lived in Mthatha since 1996.
“We wanted something that was going to accommodate us with our luggage at an affordable price and that is why we chose the train,” said Fezile. “As you can see we are sitting nicely as a family enjoying our journey.”
Mbeki said that he was not stressed at all by the long hours sitting on the train – and it was very long. It took 12 hours to get from Mthatha to East London – or almost East London.
In fact, the train stopped at Mabhele station, which is about 65 kilometres inland from East London, and then buses were used for the last leg of the journey.
Running on Saturdays and Sundays only, the Kei Rail stops at Viedgesville, Dutywa, Kulele village between Dutywa and Butterworth for interchange between the Mthatha and East London train, and then it’s on to Butterworth, Komgha and Mabhele .
By road, the trip between Mthatha and East London takes two-and-a-half to three hours.
On the 11-hour train journey the only place to buy food was from Nokuqala Mabulu, who runs a tuckshop on board – as the train only stops at stations for five minutes.
Mabulu, who sold meat, vetkoek, fruit, cold drinks among other things, had a captive market on the train but she said it was hard work.
“I have to wake up at 3am to prepare for the trip,” said Mabulu, pointing out that business was not always good. “At least there are people today.”
Mabulu said that this was her first experience on the train – let alone running a business on one. “Being here is quite a pleasurable experience as I get to see the beauty of the area,” she said.
Though the journey was long, it was indeed a pleasure to take in the view of the magnificent rolling hills from Qunu to the Great Kei River. There were many deserted dams and rivers along the way – the Buwa in Qunu, the Mbashe and Toleni.
Pink and blue homes and grazing cattle winked out of the lush vegetation and adults and children alike waved as we passed through the villages.
Then there were the five-minute rides through two tunnels in the Kei Cuttings. It was an exhilarating experience for all.
As the train approached the Kei Cuttings in the late afternoon, most passengers were tired and retreated from the train’s corridors to take naps in the cabins.
“Niyavuya nina itikiti lenu seliphelile” – “Thank God you have reached your destination” – the passengers getting off at Dutywa were told by those remaining behind.
It’s a beautiful – and unusual – journey but only do it if you are not in a hurry.