The fateful day must come at some time and now the grim reaper stands before us, we’re leaving the bubble for the first time in Africa. The cosy little corner of lightly roasted coffee, balanced wine, natural beauty and working internet is soon to be a thing of the past. In our near future is the clatter of a regional train, sticky seats, wild game and exciting scenery as we finally get to see ‘real Africa’ as Charlie puts it, as opposed to the bubble of the Western Cape. After a stint in our apartment in Buenos Aires and poncing it up through the perfect gardens of of Stellenbosch we’re just about ready for a bit of rough living; we’re piercing the bubble and ready to see Africa; real Africa apparently, whatever that means.
Lugging our bags through a familiar din of metallic clamour and oily smelling air we arrive at our train already on the platform embodying all the anticipation of a new journey. Counting the cars of gaudy colour we finally arrive at car eleven, 11A is our nome for the next 28 or so hours. Forcing a backpack that is a little too wide through the tight hallway and tighter door we’re finally in our sleeper carriage; we’ve waited for this moment, the first train ride in this journey and our first plunge into proper Africa. Proper Africa; I know what I infer of this comment, the Western Cape is developed and modern; not real Africa. Why must Africa be undeveloped to be considered Africa? Why cannot a people, a nation and indeed a continent have wealth and comfort and still retain identity? Do we retain stereotypes so firmly or is it that our modern world is so corrosive that any culture cannot possibly survive its bleaching with colour intact?
Clang, clang clang, the cars before us emit an ever noisier metallic thud as each car shunts into tension upon the departing engine, we’re off. Surprisingly 11A is quite comfortable, I can stand up straight under a high ceiling, the seats aren’t sticky and we have plenty of room. It’s an old train with all the rickety romance of a proper train ride from our childhood, next stop Africa. For now we’re happy to pass up the smooth silence of a bullet train, this is all about a romantic train ride that really belongs to a time gone by but we are happy to have it right now. People pile into the hallway to stare out the window, there’s a bustle of people taking food orders to the regular beat of the rattling train movement keeping perfect time, it seems we’re not the only ones enjoying this trip.
Soon into the trip though it seems that 11A isn’t just our cabin, we need to share it with an old fellow that Charlie so aptly describes as the Rowan Atkinson character, Mr Bean. There goes our hope of 11A being our little home in which to view my first glimpses of real Africa, whatever that is. Mr Bean seems quite nice but his Afrikaans is much better than his English, by that I mean we can’t understand a word he’s saying. Just about 24 more hours of awkward silence, this should be fun. In no time we’re also joined by another elderly Afrikaner man who looks a little like Mr Magoo, our little abode of excitement that was 11A is now a squeezy little pocket of awkward attempted conversation.
And this was going to be so much fun. As if the space invasion isn’t disappointing enough that distasteful cliche of South Africa comes to the fore, Mr Bean seems quite nice but Mr Magoo takes a very different tone to the train staff than to us, to us he’s quite the model caring grandfatherly figure. We attempt to factor in other possibilities but it’s unavoidable, Mr Magoo’s tone is determined by the shade of ones skin. 11A was full of excitement, then it was a little awkward and just as I’m plunging into ‘real’ Africa for the first time, inside 11A is now a new environment I’ve never been introduced to just like outside. It’s quite amazing how a tone and muttered grumble can carry such weight: I’m angry, offended and altogether disarmed about what or how to do anything about it. The train employees have none of the blazing indignation in their eyes that I’m all too willing to support, it seems so natural to them. I think this pisses me off the most.
Over 20 hours of veiled tone disconcerts our lives, we’re personally greeted with nothing short of what is otherwise cute grandfatherly type warmth, Mr Magoo the model of sweet sincerity. But like the pristine waters of Gansbaai there’s a menace hiding in the blue, that it is so deftly hidden makes the threat seem so much more intense. Only towards the end of the trip does a more overt attack come on the pretext of the train arriving late, ‘This is what they do, this is black Africa’. Can you hear that pin drop? I seriously don’t know what to do, immediately Charlie and I pick up our iPads to start reading to a swirl of conflicted feeling; we should say something but we don’t know where to start. For now a silent protest of avoidance is our only option in this state of angry shock.
Finally the train pulls into Johannesburg, what started out with such hopes now slowly degraded to a journey we can’t put behind us quickly enough. We’ve just busted the bubble and can’t help wondering, is this real Africa? In no time we are roused from our furrowed brows by a massive smile, our transfer driver has waited nearly two hours for us and exudes nothing but patient welcome and happiness to see us. This exuberant greeting washes away the grumblings of a twisted old relic that shall remain contained in 11A, from the time of the train itself. I hope this new face is real Africa?
In this first little bursting of the Western Cape bubble we’re thrown into a washing machine of conflicting views, a storming churn of confusing messages, maybe this sense of conflict defines real Africa? To our eyes we don’t notice the shade of peoples skin however the paleness of Mr Magoo is now so starkly offset by the deeper skin tone of the guy who greets us in Johannesburg. I’m now for the first time noticing a skin colour, maybe this is unavoidable in real Africa? The beautiful mountains, my first game spotting and this exciting journey are now buried under a sand dune of bitterness. I so wanted to see Africa but it seems there’s some grit on the windscreen that I’ll need to get used to seeing through; and I’d heard so much about the colours of Africa. We pick up our car for an epic three week road trip through southern Africa and even though we’re out of the bubble I’m further than ever away from understanding; what is real Africa?