I live in the Mowbray neighborhood of Cape Town, which sits between Rondebosch (University of Cape Town) and Observatory (fun nightlife area, popular with college kids). My house sits a stones throw away from the Mowbray Station, which consists of two parts: 1) major bus interchange and 2) metro station. While I have never had occasion to take the bus, I frequently take the metro train from Mowbray Station to Cape Town Civic Station downtown. Mowbray sits on the Southern Line, which runs from Cape Town down along the shores of False Bay to Simon’s Town and back again. The train tracks are built right into the beach. I got to see them last weekend when I went down to Simon’s Town. Check out that view!
I’ve received varied responses when people find out I take the metro alone. One woman called me adventurous. Another said I was bold. One person even said I was reckless. After pressing some of these people further, I came to find that most had never actually taken the metro themselves; they just knew it to be a dark, dangerous netherworld where the only passengers are “poor” people (let’s get serious, they can couch it in whatever language they want, but they mean black people. Black people take the train). This is the first myth I can now officially bust: all varieties of people take the metro in Cape Town—women with little children, Afrikaner businessmen, school kids in uniforms, young guys wearing big headphones, old men toting fishing gear, families, couples holding hands, individuals, Indians, Blacks, Whites, men, women, and yes, some obviously poor people.
Interior of the Cape Town Metro
Let me clear the air a bit more for anyone interested in traveling to and around Cape Town. The metro is perfectly safe. I have never once been concerned for my safety and I almost always travel alone. It’s cheap (roughly US$1.00); it’s relatively clean (no better or worse than Paris…. much MUCH worse than Japan), and it’s convenient. I get on at Mowbray and four stops and roughly 12 minutes later I get off at Cape Town. I’ve taken the train in rush hour (where people are packed in and there is standing room only) and I’ve taken it where I am the only passenger in my car. To be completely transparent, I have never taken the metro at night. I only take it during the day. I once flirted with the idea of taking the metro at night from Cape Town back to Mowbray (around 8:30pm), but after only 5 minutes waiting on the platform I was convinced that taking a taxi would be worth it. The crowds at night are heavier and more rowdy on the platform, especially on the weekends. If I hadn’t had some shopping bags I maybe would have chanced it, but why take a chance when a taxi is only about US$7?
I took this picture from a train in India back in 2008. Now that is some serious fog!
There is one thing to keep in mind though if one is considering a journey by train: the train does not always arrive on time…if it arrives at all. For someone like me who is used to commuting every day using the Japanese metro system, the Cape Town system was quite a shock…. to say the absolute least. Trains in Cape Town are often late. If a train timetable says the train will arrive at 11:39, that might mean 11:39, it might mean 11:45, or it might mean 12:20…. and you have NO way to know how late a train will be, so you’ve got to expect it will be on time and just build in enough time to “roll with it” (pun intended). The first time a train was late, a voice came over the intercom and announced the train’s late arrival was due to fog. This made complete sense as you could barely see your hand in front of your face! I remembered taking delayed trains in India when it was exceptionally foggy, so I didn’t mind. And the train arrived within 10 minutes of the scheduled arrival time.
However, sometimes trains are late for no apparent reason! For example, last weekend I ran to catch a train into town that was due to arrive at Mowbray Station at 2:38. It was a clear, cloudless sunny day. At 2:39 a voice came over the intercom, “Very sorry, this train is delayed….. something something something. Very sorry.” No other explanation given. Five minutes go by… then ten… then fifteen. Twenty, are you kidding me?! By now I am annoyed. I stand on “my” end of the platform (all the blacks seem to have an unspoken rule whereby they don’t come close to me on the platform. If I approach them, it’s fine, but they do not approach me, or sit by me on the train if they can help it. Honestly, it’s discomforting. It reminds me of the culturally enforced “bubble” I was trapped in when I commuted in Japan—everyone looks, no on touches or approaches or speaks to you, but I digress). As I paced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, I keep waiting. 25 minutes. Wow. I may as well have walked into town! But I’ve already paid for the ticket so I’m now determined to take this damn train. Meanwhile, trains heading to Simon’s Town come and go.
The train finally arrives!!!
Pacing over to a where a young black man was standing, I leaned in and asked, “Do you think this train is EVER coming?” He shrugged, smiled, and said, “Yes…. maybe?” Just then we heard the sound of a train…. it was coming from the wrong direction!! This train consisted of an engine and two flattop cars toting a heavy cargo of rusty train tracks. Groaning, I watched the tracks go by and said, “They are probably going to build a new track!” The young guy burst out laughing and said, “Precisely. See, this is the problem when you have to rely on other people.” We sighed together and kept waiting. FINALLY, at 3:20 our train arrived, only 44 minutes late. Gotta love Africa time!
Today was an entirely new experience. I ran to catch the 11:39 train to go into town for a bit of exploring. I was running late so clutching my sides I sprinted into the tiny station only to find that both the ticket windows were closed. Looking around frantically, I went to an older black lady and said, “The train is coming, where can I buy a ticket?” She looked at me curiously and said, “The window is open. Go there.” And she pointed to the two obviously closed windows. “No,” I said, “They are closed.” “No,” she said, “Open.” I look again. She looks again. “Huh,” she said and walks away. Huh. Also, the train didn’t come. I just walked home. It’s just was not worth it today.