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Review: Elgin Steam Train Travel with Ceres Rail Company

There is something about a vintage steam train that evokes a sense of timelessness mixed with childlike wonder. Ceres Rail Company’s Elgin train provides the perfect testament to this, revealing a special kind of train travel magic…

Maybe it’s the shrill choo-choo of the engine; the early morning excitement as you prepare to embark on your grand adventure from Cape Town to the verdant Elgin valley; the gentle swaying motion that you adjust to without thinking, as you secure your ‘train legs’; the inner-city-meets-Cape-countryside scenery chugging by… Or maybe, it’s all of these things – and more.

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Above all, it is a reminder that no matter what is going on in your life, as long as you are abroad this train – time slows down for you. You are removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and you begin to notice things in bolder colours, in greater vibrancy. The passing trees seem more alive, the city more fascinating, the country air fresher and more invigorating… so all aboard, it’s time to set off!

It’s About the Journey – and the Destination

They say life is about the journey, not about the destination. But, Ceres Rail’s Elgin train trip is about both this unique journey and the incredible destination: Elgin Railyway Market.

Few journeys bring your senses to life as easily as Ceres Rail Company’s pioneering trip to verdant Elgin. To put it frankly, this is bucket list stuff.

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It is the kind of journey that makes you feel alive again. Afterwards,  you go home tired and content – but it is the best kind of tired. Your cheeks ache slightly from smiling too much and your hair is windswept from sticking your head out the train window for fifty percent of the trip (or maybe that’s just me?). You feel richer and fuller thanks to this special trip.

So, if you are contemplating whether it is worth the bang for your buck. Then let me assure you: it is the experience of a lifetime.

Ceres Rail: Honouring Heritage Rail

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The inspiration behind Ceres Rail’s Elgin trip – and indeed the other trips (see here) – is to preserve and promote South Africa’s rail heritage. A large part of this involves refurbishing and restoring old locomotives and coaches.

At present, Ceres Rail possesses four locomotives: Jessica (and Dominique, both Class 19D), Bailey (Class 19B) and famous, one-of-a-kind South African locomotive, the Red Devil (Class 26, built in 1981).

Our locomotive for the trip was Jessica, manufactured in the United Kingdom in 1948. Between 1937 and 1949, some 235 of her kind were placed into service in South Africa.

Jessica offers a 4-8-2 mountain-type wheel arrangement, a Watson Standard boiler… and endless charm!

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Oh and of course, the train undertakes this journey with a doubleheader (two locomotives). This is to make it up the steep, scenic Sir Lowry’s Pass. A diesel locomotive assists the train up this stunning pass, as the line is steep. It’s a one in forty line with sharp curves and check rails, needing extra power to haul the train over the mountain area.

Restoring and Refurbishing ‘Classics’

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Ceres Rail have ensured that these steamy, old beauties run in ship-shape condition, both engine-wise and in terms of restored interiors.

For example, parts of the coaches (like the bar coach, number 7) have been beautifully refurbished and restored to offer well-kept, modern-meets-classic interiors. While others, like the impressive Observation Coach (coach 8), have been completely renovated. Either way, the results are lovely.

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The bar coach, where I sat, was built in 1950 and used to have compartments… Now though, it has taken on a new lease of life, offering an airy, sunny coach, complete with a very popular bar. Even the ceiling of our bar coach was beautifully ornate and I love how the old world blends so seamlessly with the new… It is the perfect setting for on-board drinks, snacks and selected alcoholic beverages.

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Discovering the Coaches

Each coach has an air of antiquated majesty about it. Yet, at the same time, you find comfy, modern touches, like the colourful wingback chairs, soft two-seater settees and electric lighting.

Despite this, the train coaches have a wonderful, old-school feel. The leather and light grey chairs lend themselves as well to the wooden panels as do the brightly coloured furniture pieces.

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The latter coaches (6-8) are decidedly spacious. In  my experience, they are also the most popular. But the nice part is, even if you aren’t allocated a seat here, you can come into these coaches to enjoy a drink or savour the view… There is no sense of exclusivity.

As for the compartment-style coaches, these are well-equipped for families with children. Indeed, they are usually reserved for this purpose. They are slightly less roomy but still spacious enough.

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The passages are narrower in these coaches (it’s generally single file going one way) but they are elegant in their own right. I especially liked the emerald green leather seats that positively pop with vibrancy.

The coaches all offer a sense of classic train travel… It’s easy to imagine yourself on the Hogwarts Express or leaving London with the Penvensie children. Indeed, Jessica’s journey to Elgin Railway Market is as magical as discovering Hogwarts or Narnia…

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All Aboard! The Train is Preparing to Leave the Station…

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One thing I must emphasise about this trip is: punctuality, punctuality, punctuality. You cannot be late. Ceres Rail, as far as possible, runs like clockwork and they are punctual.

The train sets off just across from aha Harbour Bridge Hotel & Suites, Dockrail Road, Foreshore. If you’ve never been here before, don’t worry. The emailed directions are perfectly written, leaving no room for confusion. (Tip: You curl around the hotel.)

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You need to be there at least twenty (20) minutes prior to the train’s departure time of 08:00 am. But, if, like me, you err on the side of caution, it is best to locate the platform at least 30-40 minutes ahead of time. (Most of us arrived bright and early.)

A good place to kill time or enjoy a hasty breakfast is the Canal Cafe… It’s located just across from the parking lot too.

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Once the train pulls up, you sign the indemnity form and get marked off the passenger list by Operations Manager, Stefan Andrzejewski and his capable team of coach controllers.

Before boarding, you must present either your surname or booking ID.

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From here, you are assigned a coach… When you arrive in your coach, the coach controllers will allocate your seat number. You retain this seat for both legs of the journey so, if you have any gripes about it, rather speak up immediately upon boarding. The staff really do their best to ensure that everyone is seated comfortably.

From there, it’s a short wait while they check if everyone is accounted for – and then, with a whistle, the train is off!

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Laying Down the Train Rules

When you are aboard the train, there are a few rules that your coach controller runs through at the start of the journey.

Here are a few things I jotted down:

  • Stay seated if the train stops because it might mean another train is passing. Passengers may not disembark without a coach controller’s permission.
  • Keep your rubbish with you and please don’t litter. They have refuse bags on the train for collecting rubbish.
  • No food and drink is allowed on the train. (Exceptions can be made in advance for baby food and those with allergies and dietary requirements.)
  • The dining coach serves light meals (muffins, sandwiches) and tea, cappuccino or instant coffee.Meanwhile, the bar coach – managed by lovely Melanie during our trip – also offers drinks and snacks. Please rather bring cash along because there is only one card machine on-board. (Snacks and drinks are well-priced. You can buy everything from chips to chocolates to cool drinks, beers, ciders and champagne.)
  • Certain drinks, like red wine and brandy, are not sold on the train. Largely because they are a nightmare to clean if spilt…

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  • There are marked toilets on-board at the end of each coach.
  • No smoking is permitted on the train.
  • The dining coach (number one) can only hold 40 passengers at once… So you take rotational turns inside there.

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  • Be careful looking out the windows when there are passing trees and branches. (I nearly got swiped across the face at least once, even heeding this warning.) It’s also a risk for knocking cameras and phones out of your hands.
  • The train goes through two tunnels: Ysterplaat Air Force Base and Sir Lowry’s. Before you enter either tunnel, the windows must all be properly closed.

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  • Be careful crossing between the coaches… The coupling jiggles about so mind your step.

A City in Passing

Anyone who has caught a train in Cape Town, knows the city sights are always worthwhile. Whether you head into the Northern or Southern Suburbs, Table Mountain rises bold and impressive in one’s periphery. It’s impossible to escape this beautiful mountain.

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And, I am pleased to report that on this journey through the Northern Suburbs, Somerset West and Elgin – you are greeted with the best views of Table Mountain and mountain ranges beyond.

Another highlight is passing through Blouberg and Milnerton (we enjoyed waving at the Milnerton Flea Market folk) and edging the crashing ocean…

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Before long, Century City looms and then it’s into the Northern Suburbs proper. You pass N1 City and the lengthy Bellville Station, flanked by the infamous Bellville taxi rank.

You stop quite often at the other train stations and it’s fun to see how people wave or hoot at this eye-catching maroon train as it passes. It’s definitely a highlight for many of the locals. I could tell that some of them specially anticipate its weekend trip.

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I found the city scenery fascinating, even winding through suburbs I know so well from the road.

Travelling by train through a city offers a unique perspective. It’s an almost out-of-body experience because, although you are present, you are also totally removed from the world around you. It feels like being caught in your own, comfy time capsule.

I’ve commuted by train more often than I would have liked to in Cape Town… but no train journey has filled me with as much wonder and fascination as the Ceres Rail trip to Elgin.

Breakfast Aboard the Train

Due to my early start, I didn’t have time to grab more than a takeaway coffee so I was grateful for my turn in the dining coach. I dined alone at a two-seater table; staff make sure you have a table suitable for your group size.

It’s cosy and welcoming inside the dining coach, with friendly, efficient staff. My waitress, Siba, was really lovely and brought over my carrot muffin and cappuccino within minutes of my ordering.

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I savoured my light breakfast (which was lovely, fresh and well-priced) and after a few minutes enjoying the views and sunshine, I returned to my coach. (I paid before finishing my meal, that way I could exit the coach once I was done.)

This is also a fun way to see the whole train – especially if you are seated right at the end as I was! 🙂

I was originally meant to sit on one of the leather seats in coach 7. However, because the group next to me never turned up and I was travelling solo, I was able to move to a ridiculously comfy two-seater couch.

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Although, to be honest, I spent much of my journey by the window, the scents of fragrant flowers and fynbos filling my nostrils.

My loose hair was a mess afterwards – but my heart was happy, a a smile of wonderment constantly ghosting my lips…

Connecting with the Crowds

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Although I enjoyed each stage of our journey – irrespective of which station we stopped at or where we were passing through – the city scenery, as our coach controller, assured me, improves after Kuils River station.

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The most notable stations you pass through include Black Heath, Eerste Rivier and Somerset West. After that, you pass through Van Der Stel station.

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For me, the only trying part of the journey was passing through the township area… It was heartbreaking to see the poverty there. I know many corners of the globe face extreme poverty and inequality – but it still pains me.

One beautiful thing about this part of the journey though was the children. They run along the train begging for smiles and sweets – and receive both in equal measure.

Our driver, Cassie Carstens – a man with over fifty years’ train driving experience – has a very soft heart… So, more often than not, we would see the children dashing forwards to claim a cheap packet of chips that he had sent flying out of his cab.

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We spent ages standing at the windows waving to the children and local residents… I probably grinned and waved for a good ten minutes solid.

My favourite was when a mother and baby or a young boy (standing solitary in the woods), waved at us, simply enjoying the moment with us. This is why I love travel: it has a way of connecting us… even through train windows.

It was certainly one of the most special parts of the trip and my heart was brimming. If you take the train, take part in this… it’s now one of my loveliest travel memories.

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Sir Lowry’s…and the Sights You See

From Van Der Stel station, the scenery becomes truly breathtaking. Green lands, crisp vineyards and countless forests flash by. And, if it’s a clear, warm day like we enjoyed, the ocean shines out bright and blue in the distance.

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You see the pass approaching and, as the train snakes up it, smoke billowing ahead, excitement builds aboard the train.

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People stick their heads out or, if your as devil-may-care as I am, their phones and snap different shots of the train and gorgeous Cape scenery. All marvelling at the sights, pointing and exclaiming with joy.

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It’s a really special part of the journey (both there and back again). So, as much as I was furiously clicking away on my camera and phone at this point, I also took the time to savour the sights and simply be present in the moment.

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The pass – and the tunnel, black as pitch – are thrilling to experience by train. I especially loved that, despite feeling like an endless night, the tunnel took us roughly 26 seconds to pass through.

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There is also the splendor of Steenbras Dam, the municipality’s oldest dam. Another highlight is when the main road flanks you and for a moment, even big trucks seem minuscule.

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It is also amazing to see how, in each different area of the Cape, the landscape and terrain subtly shifts. You notice that even the flowers and fynbos vary from one place to the next…

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Elgin – which is famously fertile and green – felt like landing in Hobbiton.

Arriving at Elgin Railway Market

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When we arrived in Elgin, we were reminded to be back on the train by 14:00 pm, with a 14:15 pm departure time. We disembarked and made our way into the bustling Elgin Railway Market.

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I have visited the market once before – and since then, I’ve been convinced it is one of the best markets in the Cape. With its chic steampunk interior pieces, incredible food, drink and retail stalls, live music and overall hive of activity, it is a joy to explore.

This time though, it was going to be quite a rushed, yet exciting time at the market for me…

Market Explorations, Feasting and Fun

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Not only can you feast on incredible food (everything from curries to gorgeous carrot cake or hearty dishes) and shop for gifts, home/clothing pieces, jewelry and fresh produce… but you can also enjoy good coffee, wine, beer, ciders and gin tastings. Food- and drink-wise, it’s sinfully good.

Last time we visited, I explored every inch of the market, checking out all the goods on offer and soaking up the relaxed, yet fun atmosphere.

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This time though, I was on a mission because I had a tour scheduled with Elgin Adventure Centre. Based near the silos, Elgin Adventure Centre provides market visitors with unique opportunities to see a different side of Elgin… the more adventurous side.

As the owners of Cape Canopy Tour Elgin Grabouw (another unmissable local experience), it is safe to say husband and wife team, Ryan and Tamaryn, are extremely passionate about creating and curating special and exciting outdoors experiences in the Overberg Region.

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So, while the other train travellers enjoyed leisure time at the market, I hopped on a guided e-bike tour. This takes you through Oak Valley Wine Estate in what is a fun and astoundingly beautiful outdoor experience.

And it certainly kept me happily busy, especially as part of the tour includes a wine tasting at the estate! Oak Valley Wines offer real quality wine tastings, with some of the best wines I’ve ever had. So, if you are in the area, I strongly recommend visiting them!

My whole outdoor adventure was magical from start to finish and it was great fun challenging myself. (But more on that experience in another post.) And I am pleased to report: we got back to the market just in time!

Homeward Bound: The Return Journey

After that, I managed to grab a rich, mouthwatering lunch with my parents. (They travelled by car to meet me at the market.) This was from the excellent Die Rooi Olyf Tuis Kombuis. We tried their divine oxtail stew with rice… and boy, was that the perfect end to my market outing! The food was glorious.

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After that, it was time to rush back to the train. I am pleased to say though, in spite of all my stressing on the day, I easily made it back aboard for the journey home.

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This time, I had the pleasure of sitting with Elgin Railway Market’s owner, Roger Orpen, who briefly joined us on the train as a special birthday treat.

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The trip back was, if anything, as beautiful and balmy as our journey there. We particularly enjoyed travelling back down Sir Lowry’s Pass and seeing the engine at the other end of our coaches.

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Admittedly, I stood by the window going down the pass but eventually retired to my seat to enjoy a cool drink and chocolate… after all, luxury train travel is hard work: you have to reward yourself. 🙂 After my adventurous afternoon, I thoroughly enjoyed the train’s quiet luxury and calm surroundings.

We were scheduled to arrive back in the city between 17:00 pm and 17:30 pm. We got back just after 17:30 pm so the return journey was well-timed. In fact, the whole day ran seamlessly, with the train crew managing their time impeccably.

As much as I loved the trip back home and enjoyed mingling with the crew and passengers, it had been a long day and I was glad to be back in the city. It was time to return to everyday life… ending the day on a natural, travel-loving high.

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A Magical End to Perfect Day

The return trip was a magical end to what was, by all accounts, a perfect day. I honestly cannot fault anything about my experience aboard Ceres Rail’s Elgin-bound steam train. Every aspect, from the train to the market, was wonderful.

It was also incredible to enjoy this kind of luxury train travel experience in an era where, more and more, the emphasis is on instant rewards rather than practiced patience. I think, especially in a time where we have forgotten how to disconnect, this kind of travel encounter allows us to reset.

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Even though we had smartphone signal for almost the entire journey, apart from using our phones for taking photos – I honestly didn’t see anyone, young or old, touch their mobile device.

Children played with building blocks and actual toys (remember those?), while the rest of us did something we avoid daily: we spoke to other human beings. It’s funny but you know what? That added to the journey, to the magic of it all.

If you are looking for a memorable experience to enjoy with a group of friends, parents and children or your dearest loved ones – stop searching: this is it.

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How It Rated

Ceres Rail Company’s Elgin steam train experience is one of the most flawless, beautiful travel experiences I have reviewed to date.

As such, I am happy to award Ceres Rail Company a well-deserved 10/10 rating. (If I could rate them higher, I would.)

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In particular, for the following:

  • offering a world-class, family friendly travel experience;
  • preserving a part of South African (rail) heritage;
  • working with local communities to promote South African and Western Cape tourism in the best possible way;
  • and providing the highest level of professional service and passion.

This weekend trip, which runs for roughly 9.5 hours, can be booked online via the Ceres Rail Company website. For available dates and additional information, please check the website.

Tickets are priced as follows: R750 (per adult), R500 (per child) and free for children under two. The ticket price only includes your train fare. Food and drinks or Elgin market goods must be paid for separately on your own account.  

To some, the cost per ticket might seem exorbitant. But, when you consider that this is a full day trip and a unique, unforgettable experience – you realise it is really not so excessive. This truly is something worth saving for. I  recommend it to anyone who is prepared to save (or splurge) on a stunning local travel offering.

A Word of Thanks

I wish to extend a special thank you to Ceres Rail Company. In particular, to Rika, Stefan and the entire crew, who made this such a wonderfully memorable day.

The passion, concern and dedication you show, not only to your passengers but to each other, is inspiring. You have the most professional, fun and united team of staff. Stefan does an incredible hands-on job on the train, while Rika ensures the booking process and correspondence leading up to your journey is informative and organised.

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And to Skye Leask of Discover Overberg, thank you for helping to make this trip possible.

Finally, I am immensely thankful to my parents, who went to such great lengths to share this special day with me. I am so grateful for your efforts and selflessness and I could see the joy and excitement I felt inside, reflected on your smiling faces… I love you both.

It was an honour to collaborate with Ceres Rail Company. This is honestly one of the most faultless, impressive travel reviews I have covered.

For more information on Ceres Rail Companyplease contact: +27 (079) 077 5332 or email them at: bookings@ceresrail.co.za. You can also visit their website.

Ceres Rail Company is also on leading social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram, so be sure to connect with and follow them there.

Author: Tamlyn Ryan

Content writer by day and blogger by night, Tamlyn Ryan passionately runs her own travel blog, called Tamlyn Amber Wanderlust, from her home base of Cape Town, South Africa. And, despite a national diploma in Journalism, in her free time, Tamlyn’s preferred niche remains travel writing.

Tamlyn is a hopeless wanderer, equipped with an endless passion for road trips, carefully planned, holiday itineraries and, above all else, an innate love for the great outdoors.

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