Go Back in Time with Cape Town’s Atlantic Rail

Imagine being transported into 1920’s South Africa? I boarded pleasant Jenny 3655, a vintage steam locomotive and did just that. I departed Cape Town from a quaint building tucked away in the city centre known as the Train Lodge. This was to be the beginning of an adventure back in time.


Upon embarking this almost ancient mode of transport, I acquainted myself with the maroon wooden exterior, distressed brass handles on the windows and doors, faded green interior, and the smell – reminiscent of musty, locked up houses. This was a no doubt as much an odorous journey as a visual one.

In the 1920’s one may have been welcomed by ushers with gloves and a conductor with a little flag, instead I was welcomed by casually dressed staff and volunteers wearing jeans and striking florescent bibs, evidence of our modern times.

Stepping into carriage four I noticed that parts of the wooden floor at the entrances were slightly giving way – a surefire sign that this baby is a classic of her time. As I entered, I expected the chit chat of foreign tongues keen to see the beautiful False Bay coastline but was instead taken aback by the interesting amalgamation of local and foreign accents, with the former far outweighing the latter.


The leisurely journey took us out of central Cape Town, through the industrial area that is Woodstock towards the greener Newlands cricket grounds and traversing towards the False Bay coastline. At this point, the view became exceptionally beautiful and I was lucky enough to have a window seat facing the ocean since graceful Jenny closely hugged the rocky coastline comprising Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek and Simonstown. The winter cloud cover over central Cape Town quickly disappeared as soon as we approached fresh sea air. The azure ocean and juxtaposing earth-coloured houses in the distance were now clearly visible – this could be the Mediterranean, the Cinque Terre or the French Rivera had it not been for the architecture of the clustered houses close to the bay.

As Jenny resplendently snaked from town to town, the sea air rose to my nostrils alongside the sharp mustiness of wooden window frames against which the side of my nose was eagerly pressed for most of the journey. In doing so, I quickly observed a pod of whales in the bay, frolicking beautifully and here for the breeding season and the warm False Bay water.

Approaching Fish Hoek, Jenny’s coal furnace was quickly dampened by workers in overalls and everyone on board simultaneously exhaled at her sojourn. The hordes quickly disembarked, with children first up to view her burning interior. I moved towards her anterior and examined what is to be a more modern, pitch black locomotive built in 1949, plainly contrasting with Jenny’s weathered wooden coaches from 1922 clutching on behind. If Jenny could be likened to wine, she would be a full-bodied merlot, matured in South African oak.

And one can easily indulge in a glass or two onboard the Jenny, for she even houses a smoker’s lounge and onboard bar upfront, ideal for socialites. For those pondering the spilling potential of their precious drinks onboard, do not fear – Jenny travels slowly at about 70 km/hour (and you’ll be happy to know that you’re issued with a plastic cup to boot).

Full-bodied Jenny was stationary for a bit longer than we’d expected at Fish Hoek Station. But this was no problem for those onboard – besides building up an appetite and exploring her interior, we were keen to discuss the niceties of the train including Jenny’s Victorian-shaped seat legs and perplexing windows that opening down instead of up.


When we finally departed for Simon’s Town and knowing that we would lose some of our lunch time because of the delay, the driver picked up speed and we were choo-chooing along as speedily as The Flying Scotsman. Jenny gave her all for the last lap, coal fumes spewing prominently in the air and finding their minuscule blackish remnants onto the shoulder of my jacket. Nonetheless, a waft of fresh sea air cleansed us again, coming in through every nook and cranny (and as you can imagine, Jenny’s age sure does give her leeway in this regard). We were even forewarned by volunteers on board not too play too much with our cellphones for Jenny’s porous bodice is known to consume some of the slimmest of phones to be lost in time to the gravel below her vintage underbelly. In fact, one volunteer informed us of the numerous wallets that had been ‘swallowed’ between the wooden sheeting of her walls just below the strange mechanism of a window. I wanted to try my luck at the game of discovering a treasure trove of change but decided that my fingers were far too precious to further pursue the prize.


When we came to a halt near the Simon’s Town Naval Base, Jenny slowed but never calmed as crowds exited her carriages as they have done for over 90 years. And as soon as our time in the town was over, we succumbed to her overwhelming toots and hoots (many locals nearly jumped out of their skin at the unfamiliarity of the sound). Once on board, insurmountable Jenny was ready to rumble again; her reverberations brought us back to the city with a fresh sense of self and a hint as to what life was like in 1920’s Cape Town.


Elizabeth Joss

Elizabeth Joss is the founder and main writer at The Museum Times. She works as a university lecturer by day and is an avid travel blogger and arts and culture enthusiast by night. Elizabeth started The Museum Times out of the need to give smaller, lesser-known museums more exposure.

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