Things to do around Johannesburg: Ride a steam train

While transportation technology has come a long way since the inception of steam trains in the 1800s, there’s something romantic about stepping on board that transports you to another era. Reefsteamers and Friends of the Rail, host frequent train trips to various destinations, such as Magaliesburg, Cullinan, Heidelburg, and Irene. Check their websites for more information regarding routes, timetables, and prices. 

We opted to join Friends of the Rail on a daytrip to Cullinan, and using a discount voucher from Hyperli, it was a very affordable day out, so keep your eye out for online specials. You can also book directly on the above websites. The train departs from Hermanstad Station in Pretoria. On arrival, you park your car in a secure grass lot, and hope that people who arrive late don’t park you in as they rush to catch the train before it leaves! Make sure to be prompt, as the train waits for no one and you will be left behind if you don’t make it there on time. 

We got there about forty-five minutes before the train was due to leave, and already the place was packed. The atmosphere was festive, despite the early hour, with families and couples, groups of friends and railway aficionados all chatting merrily. We joined a queue to get our assigned seats on the train, picked up some warm coffee to ward off some of the morning chill, and proceeded to walk around and get a better look at the train. 

If you’re a photographer, there are some great photo-ops as the engine warms up and the smoke starts billowing out of the locomotive. Probably not the best for the environment, but the vintage trains are simply gorgeous. If you’re interested in checking out the locomotive, there is ample opportunity while the train is stationary at both the origin and destination, and the driver is usually happy to allow you to climb on and tell you more about the train.

As we hopped aboard and made friends with our neighbours for the trip, we could feel the train vibrate as it readied for departure. With a cheery ‘toot-toot’ we were off, slowly shunting out of the private station and on to the running tracks. As we made our way through the dry countryside, the rhythmic clickety-clack made for a relaxing soundtrack to the journey. The wooden benches that serve as seating for the trip aren’t the most comfy, and if you’re prone to motion-sickness, you might find yourself in some discomfort on the rickety tracks, but for everyone else the ride was pleasant. 

The carriages are beautiful and solid, remnants from a time when workmanship was celebrated, and journeys were a glamorous affair. They are equipped with ‘railway’ toilets (not sure what that means and I didn’t go and find out for myself!) and a refreshment cart in the centre, but you’re also welcome to bring your own picnic baskets, cooler bags etc. The team is also happy to accommodate your needs, just communicate ahead of time. Arrangements are also made for those with disabilities, so it really is a good day out for anyone. 

Don’t expect bullet train speeds, this experience is about enjoying the journey. While you could drive to Cullinan from Pretoria in about forty five minutes to an hour, the train ride takes about three hours each way. It also isn’t like an airplane, so you can’t comfortably sleep on board; rather use the time to chat to fellow passengers or bring a book or something with to keep yourself entertained. On our trip, the last few kilometres were traversed by busses due to a portion of the track being stolen, but this portion has since been re-built and the entire route is now functional. However, we have just learnt that Friends of the Rail is currently in the process of renewing their permit, so in the meantime perhaps give Reefsteamers a try. 


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