Crossing South Africa

Slowly crossing the serene South African landscape, watching the sunset with a glass of wine in the lounge bar, taking in the vast plains stretching to the horizon… The Premier Classe train from Johannesburg to Cape Town is an overland adventure that will transform your visit to South Africa into an unforgettable experience.

The blue carriages of the Premier Classe winding slowly through inspiring scenery

If you’re travelling between Johannesburg and Cape Town, forget flying – make a real adventure of it and travel the 1400 km by train. Here’s why:

  • Enjoy breath-taking scenery and sunsets
  • Dine on-board or relax in the lounge bar with a world-class South African wine while meeting locals and other travellers 
  • Watch a gorgeous sunrise from your train window  
  • Unwind before arriving in the heart of Cape Town or Johannesburg 
  • Reduce your carbon footprint and see more of South Africa
Sunrise from train South Africa
Great sunrise views straight from your compartment window

The overland journey from Johannesburg to Cape Town takes around 26 hours in total – and that’s if everything runs on time. Blackouts are not uncommon in South Africa and trains are often delayed. “Not to worry,” says the lady at check-in with a smile. “If there are any delays, we have a replacement bus service.” My companions glance at me apprehensively. I reassure them with confidence: this was going to be an epic journey either way. The ultimate form of slow travel.

After checking in at Johannesburg Park Station, we chatted to some other passengers – a mix of tourists from Europe, the US, Australia and South Africa. “Someone just tried to rob us,” says a local woman without batting an eyelid. “We’ve lived here for 40 years and usually don’t experience any problems. Always keep an eye out, though.” She changes the subject, explaining that it’s her first time heading to the Cape. “I want to see more of my country”, she says. “That’s why we’re taking the train”.

The first few hours out of Johannesburg are suburbs and townships, empty countryside and grazing cattle, with the occasional windpump straight out of the American West dotting the landscape. Passing through charming little stations with names like Klerksdorp and Eersteling, I’m reminded of the similarities between Afrikaans and my native Dutch. We see local people on platforms waiting for trains, waving at us as our distinctive blue train rattles by. When at one station I hop off to take a photo, a conductor warns me to watch out for snakes and chuckles as I hurriedly jump back on board.

The land is vast, with endless horizons and empty plains that impress upon you a sense of feeling small. It fills you with wonder. As sunset nears, the landscape is bathed in a warm, soft light which transforms your view.

Time on-board passes quickly. Meals are included and a table is reserved for us in the dining car, the food simple but plenty. For us, a highlight was the wine menu with great South African wines starting at around €5 a bottle. Another advantage is that, while the train is almost fully booked, it never feels crowded and there is plenty of space in the lounge car to while away an hour or two. The sleepers meanwhile are cosy and the beds comfy, with more than enough space to stow your luggage.

The most spectacular part of the journey takes place on the second day when we pass through the great Karoo Desert and Hex River Pass before heading past Wellington and Paarl in the Cape wine country. The famous Table Mountain then comes into sight before we finally arrive into Cape Town. 

Waking up for the sunrise, I was treated to distant horizons and a landscape veiled in a gentle morning light. Once the sun had risen from behind a rocky hilltop, its soft light enveloped the land in a deep red colour. I felt like I was dreaming.

Our time in South Africa was full of surprises and great experiences, but this train journey – with its incredible views – will forever stay in my mind.

Johannesburg ↔ Cape Town

Travel time: 26 hours, direct connection
Frequency: Once a week

The Premier Classe train is an affordable mode of semi-luxury transport and the perfect alternative to flying. With Premier Classe, you can travel safely and comfortably in a spacious, private sleeper with shared toilets and showers, a coffee bar, a restaurant car, incredible scenery and unforgettable sunsets and sunrises.

The Premier Classe train runs once a week in both directions, leaving on Thursday from Johannesburg and on Tuesday from Cape Town. The journey takes around 26 hours, but delays are common, so be prepared to factor in some extra travel time. A one-way fare is about €200 p.p. in a private 2-bed sleeper.

Bart Giepmans
Bart practically grew up on a train and has been discovering Europe by rail since his childhood. Stints at the Dutch and German Railways and at Interrail have turned him into an ardent ambassador for train travel. Bart has a passion for history and Alpine trails and is commuting regularly between Utrecht and Berlin.

Edited by: William Simpson. Photos by: Bart Giepmans.