THE station in Cape Town looks withered, but there are signs of life as some trains are running again. People walk quickly, look at their watches, and a voice announces which platforms the trains leave from.
The station is smaller because a large building to house students is under construction at the front. There is a dentist where you can even have a few gold teeth inserted.
They also sell samosas the size of a handbag. Shiny aluminium pots and various houseware products are on display to one side.
I first walk to the place where you can buy tickets for the long-distance routes. The glass door is closed; I open it. A security guard is sleeping, hunched over her desk on folded arms.
At a ticket office I see a woman sitting alone and staring out in front of her. It feels like I'm in Koekenaap, not a city with almost five million people. She stretches herself like a cat waking up after a nice nap in the winter sun.
Except that she's sitting in the dark. “When does the next train leave for Johannesburg?" I ask.
“The trains have not been running since 2019," she replies. I know, but I wanted to hear it with my own ears. Have a good laugh, I think, because after laughing comes loud and long crying.
I think of Creedence Clearwater Revival's song The Midnight Special, which is about a train among other things. “Let the Midnight Special shine an ever lovin' light on me". No, no loving train light shines across our landscape. The Midnight Special is gone.
But wait, there is hope. I want to take the Fish Hoek train; my plan is to go to Kalk Bay. Metrorail is working hard to get all the trains running again. During the lockdown period, everything came to a standstill; cable thieves celebrated.
Because we live in a poor country, squatter camps have sprung up on the Langa and Philippi stations. Then there were devastating fires started by arsonists who caused dozens of trains to go up flames. Hooligans also damaged some of the stations.
Not all the railway lines are functioning yet, but they are working hard on them. One of Cape Town's busiest routes, the northern line, has resumed services to Eerste River and Bellville.
The southern line runs to Fish Hoek and work is still being done on the line between Fish Hoek and Simon's Town. That's a difficult one.
When I was in Simon's Town recently, the wind was howling and I saw a small lorry being overturned. Well, it's not like that every day, but when it blows, it does so with a vengeance. This is also one of the reasons why the train cannot go there; sand dunes blow over the tracks.
At the ticket office I thought the woman was joking when she asked me for only R18 for a return ticket. R18! For a return ticket to Langa it is even cheaper: R16.
I walk to my platform and board the new blue train. Everything is clean and the seats are comfortable. Exactly at noon, as announced, the locomotive blows its whistle and we leave gently and smoothly.
Inside there is room for wheelchairs, and there is a red handle you can pull if you want to sound the alarm. The train is like a long worm: you can easily walk from one carriage to another; there are no barriers. Security personnel walk up and down and greet passengers.
The ride from Cape Town to just before Woodstock is somewhat dystopian: you can see soot on walls where people have made fires; there are poor people living in plastic tents; stray dogs bark alone in the winter sun and children clamber over walls.
The industrial red-brick buildings are dilapidated, but at least artistic graffiti gives a bit of colour to the walls. Driving past the burned-out trains is shocking: rusted skeletons that look like something from a war zone.
From Woodstock onwards it becomes greener, with trees and apartment buildings with bright tiles. At Rosebank and Rondebosch you see houses in the Victorian style, plants, and with spring around the corner many arum lilies are blooming.
At Lakeside you see marshes full of water, and from False Bay onwards you are next to the sea. As you roll into Muizenberg station, you see hordes of surfers, the white waves, and people swimming in tidal pools. These must be some of the most beautiful views from a train in the world.
Before each station a voice tells you where you are arriving and that you must be careful when you disembark. There is also a sign flashing the destination.
Not like in the old days when one day I got on a train in Cape Town — also on the way to Kalk Bay — and eventually came to my senses as we were entering Stellenbosch. The announcement says Kalk Bay is the next station.
It took one hour and 15 minutes. Time flies so fast you don't even feel it. My plan is to go to the harbour wall where I went fishing as a teenager. I walk past the shops full of trinkets, some prettier than others.
There are also the archetypal inhabitants of this area whom I rave about: elderly dagga smokers and surfers who now look like Keith Richards. The (remaining) teeth yellow; the faces like raisins from years of sun and sea salt.
They cough because their lungs are stuffed. The love for dogs is still there and many of these woolly animals have already started to resemble their owners. But you can see the surf veterans love their unkempt pavement specials.
A white woman of a certain age still has the Rasta locks she wore as a teenager; they have now reached her bottom. She has the defenceless yet hardened face of someone whose heart has been broken a few times over the years.
Then there are the beautiful people, muscle men, little flirts, and a mix of everything and anything else. The first people I stop to talk to are the so-called sackcloth people who live in the mountains and sell wild herbs.
There is an object the size of a cucumber full of herbs and wrapped in gauze with which you can chase ghosts from your house. You light it and the smoke blows them away.
I smell the wild garlic and the aroma is so strong I almost pass out. Looking for my young self, I walk to the harbour.
There is no one in sight, not even the women who process the fish that is caught every day. The sea is rough. I take a few photos of fishing boats with names like Little Pearl, Vicky Rose and Boy Johan. Oh, Vicky Rose, who are you and where are you today? Could you have been Boy Johan's Little Pearl?
As I walk to the quay where I went fishing, I hear something barking. There are three seals; one hanging halfway out of the water, two large ones lying at the entrance.
I'm not going in; the seal that attacked bathers in Clifton earlier this year still haunts me. I can already imagine one biting my butt and the other one, which is pretending to be asleep, dragging me into the sea. I will have to die, but not like this.
With the seals behind me, I start talking to Joelene Roberts. The 45-year-old has been a security guard at the port for almost 20 years.
Her contract is renewed every year. Joelene tells me it is quiet because none of the boats could go out that morning.
“Look at the sea," she says. “It will kill you. When a boat goes missing, it's a sad affair. The people cry from their stomachs, here along the quay. If the sea has taken you, it's over.
“But if the weather is good, the first boats leave around two o'clock in the morning, some at three o'clock, and then they come back again at three o'clock in the afternoon. Then the fish are cleaned and the people come to buy."
She stares across the waters and says: “Today the blue dam will rob you of your life."
I say goodbye and head back to the station to catch the 3.30pm train back to town.
It was a good day; I saw you could take the train here safely, maybe eat and hang out, or swim, then ride back on the clean train with its views of the ocean.
I am early and there are schoolchildren at the station. One of them tries to impress his peers and jumps high to touch the top light of a lamppost.
He tries repeatedly. I say: “It’s all in the mind. You can do it.” He just looks at me.
“Stand back and I will count back from three to one, then you run and jump.” He does that.
“Three, two, one!” I shout. “You can do it!”
He runs and jumps. He touches the lamp. His friends shout and clap.
Just then, at exactly 3.30, the train whistles. I get on and think: I didn't find that lone wolf teenager I once was on the quay, but I suspect I taught someone else that your thinking can lead you to great heights.
Had I only known it then. I will have to go back to that quay and I will have to tell him myself — even if the symbolic seals of life want to stop me.
* To find out more about the times and routes of the trains, call Metrorail's information centre on 0800 65 64 63 (all hours).
♦ VWB ♦
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