A train of memories: From Durban to the Shongweni Crafts Market

The train ride on the KZN Business Express Train to the Shongweni Farmers’ and Crafts Market was my two daughters’ – Camara and Tamzyn – birthday gift to me.

Warmed by hot chocolate purchased at its Premier Business Lounge, and the friendliness of the Holiday Express Staff, we descended into the belly of Durban’s Railway Station. The Business Express Train spread along the length of the railway tracks, a steel and metal snake of carriages, patiently waiting for the motley crowd of visitors – mainly young parents, toddlers, and the older silver-haired brigade (me included), to embark.

Time passed somewhat slowly after this. We checked out the carriages, chatted with Etienne Smit, the affable and patient ‘train driver’, who let us into the ‘control unit’ and explained its workings. He has thirty-four years of train-driving under his belt and agreed that his job is a great way of seeing the country.

The train left promptly at eight. The streets and buildings of Durban flashed by overhead. We tried to identify the different areas of the city through these and get a sense of the railway route from Umgeni Road to Alice Street and beyond. Make no mistake. The exit from Durban does not provide an edifying view.

The railway tracks seem to be an unofficial dumping ground for refuse and waste. Its magnitude and obvious neglect by the city authorities is shocking. Further on, we saw a mini-town of informal dwellers’ shelters, constructed with black bin bags stretched tautly over supports.

This community was waking up to another uncertain day. A naked man bathed unabashedly in the cold morning. Each rhythmic clatter of the train revealed another piece in an unexpected patchwork of Durban’s socio-economic contrasts and contradictions. Whoonga City flashed by. Thin young men and a few women, stared into the morning sun, trying to soak up its warmth.

Old familiar names of inner-city suburbs, Berea, Dalbridge, Umbilo – seldom trodden now – appeared on station platforms evoking a host of memories, like long-lost friends. Soon this gave way to the peri-urban townships.  We passed by Shallcross, Marriannhill, Mount Vernon and Kwandengezi, going through what seems to be their backyards.

Children waved friendly greetings at us. Semi-rural townships sprawled across and around hills and plateaux; some dwellings cling precariously onto sloping areas here. It is clear that informal housing has grown and is growing everywhere – the train ride is an unscheduled expose of this phenomenon.

We passed (and whooped) through many tunnels, short and long, each a doorway to a new vista. We looked out the windows marvelling at the rest of the coaches ‘shongololing’ behind us. Shongweni appeared suddenly at the end of three (or is it four?) of these. Luxury buses took us to the Farmers’and Crafts Market where the vibrant electrifying sounds of maskandi music greeted us. What an expected treat, listening to David Qadasi Jenkins and Maqhinga Radebe!

The Market is a place of abundance, of quiet wealth, an artisanal paradise – from clothes, furniture, food, beer, garden plants, garden produce – the good life.  You either hold on to your purse or empty it. I bought myself a magnificently cheeky, orange poppy. We cased the place. The hills of Shongweni rolled out before us. At the bottom the railway line snaked its way around their winding perimeters.

We met up with my sister Tims and her family, had a mouthwatering breakfast, and browsed and bought in the remaining forty-five minutes. Again, the buses and train left on time. The Shongweni Falls, its misty plumes of spray cascading down a great red rocky height, was a beautiful unforgettable sight.

There was much to reflect on, on the way back. Beyond the ‘pleasures’ advertised by its organisers, this train ride, like many earlier ones, had awakened that impalpable sense of connection with places and persons – known and unknown. I look forward to my next one.

NB: The Holiday Express, operating the modern KZN Business Express, has arranged superb family orientated one-day train outings to the Shongweni Farmers and Craft Market on Saturday, August 26 and to Scottburgh on Sunday, August 27. For any further information, visit www.theholidayexpress.co.za

Asha Moodley

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