Take a train to Elgin and beyond with the Ceres Rail Company
A nostalgic way to explore small town gems in the Western Cape
It all started in 2002 when Derick du Toit had a vision to reinstate the Ceres Rail line. Together with Simon Beckett and Transnet, the railway line was reopened in 2012, and it has been full steam ahead for this nostalgic way of traveling through the Western-Cape – by steam train.
Today the Ceres Rail Company gives visitors a chance to explore the Western Cape by train on one of three routes: Cape Town to Robertson, Cape Town to Klawer and Cape Town to Elgin.
We embarked on the latter route to the little Overberg town of Elgin to see what a day on a steam train with the Ceres Rail Company (CRC) would look like. The beautiful scenery of the route boasts everything from harbour views of Cape Town's waterfront to panoramic vistas along Sir Lowry’s Pass and serene settings of the apple orchards around Elgin.
But besides the value in views, the trip is characterised by the friendly faces of the volunteers and staff aboard the (almost) vintage steam train. The combination of their stories and that of the grand old locomotive makes this roughly 9-hour day trip to the Elgin market end all to quickly.
Here’s everything you need to know about the train to Elgin and the market that waits at the peak.
The trains and trips are part of CRC’s mission to help preserve and promote South African Rail Heritage, which involves restoring and refurbishing old locomotives and coaches. CRC currently have three working locomotives.
The first, named Jessica, is a Class 19D #3321 and was manufactured in the UK in 1948. About 235 of these types of locomotives were in service in South Africa between 1937 and 1949.
The second, named Bailey, is a Class 19B #1412 and the third, known as the Red Devil, is a one of a kind South African built Class 26 locomotive which was manufactured around 1981.
For a lot of the volunteers on the train it’s exactly this infatuation with preserving old steam engines that motivates them to be a part of this project. Reggie Diedericks, a coach controller and volunteer at the CRC, was a railway worker for 31 years and rode on the Bluetrain, the Trans Karoo and the Orange Express amongst others. "This dining cart we're sitting in used to travel between Cape Town and Bulawayo in Zimbabwe," he recalls.
Similarly Peter Elrick, also a coach controller, says he’s concerned with everything old. Peter used to work as a volunteer at the Air Force Base Ysterplaat’s museum but after taking a trip on a CRC train himself he decided to volunteer at an exhibit that’s not “static”.
Dominique Du Toit, train hostess and daughter of Derick Du Toit, says that from an aesthetic point of view the train itself is a great attraction. “If you look at the compartments, the dining car and the lounge areas, we try and keep it as authentic and true to the original as possible which is really beautiful,” says Dominique, who’s a fine arts student at UCT.
While some tourists and volunteers see the physical train as a point of interest, others see the journey as a nostalgic wonder. Jenene Hattingh, a cleaner for CRC, says the train brings back memories of her schooldays in the 1970’s when steam trains were more common in SA.
The nostagia is a draw card for the passengers to, Louise van der Nest, a 25-year-old graphic designer and passenger on the Elgin trip, told us she remembers taking a train with her siblings from Potchefstroom to Hermanus to visit their grandmother over school holidays in the early 2000’s. Which makes us wonder – can cross-country train trips become regular holiday excursions again in South Africa?
For many of the students on the train, the prospect of being able to travel across SA by train is exciting and inspiring. Aaliyah Mogotsi, a waitress on the CRC and psychology student at UWC, says she hopes that South African tourism can improve over the next few years by giving more publicity to smaller destinations that are off-the-grid and not on the map yet. “I’ve heard Limpopo has hot springs and I would love to go visit there.”
“I would like to travel inbound and outbound,” says Alice Manuel, a waitress on the CRC and a marketing student. “It excites me that South Africa is coming together as a unit and we stand out from other places in the world as a Rainbow Nation that’s working towards that.”
The Elgin Railway Market
At the peak of the train ride from Cape Town to Elgin is the Elgin Railway Market where travellers can hop off for three hours to stretch their legs before heading back to the Mother City.
Elgin Railway Market is the brainchild of businessman Roger Orpen, who converted the old apple warehouse into an industrial steam-punk station market. He was inspired by the barn's proximity to the railway and drew inspiration from the industrial age which marked the rapid development of rail networks across the world.
At the heart of the market is quite literally an engine that hosts a cosy fireplace. The market's atmosphere is relaxed and laid back with ample stalls to visit.
With live music in the background, visitors can pick and choose from a variety of cuisines to tempt their pallet for lunch. From sushi and Korean food to Mexican and Mediterranean dishes, there's plenty of choice.
Besides the popular craft beer station, the L-Gin gin stall is a crowd favourite for a Saturday afternoon cheers, and can be enjoyed on the open balconies that overlook the railway and the steam train.
The full market is open on Saturdays from 09:00 to 18:00 and Sundays from 09:00 to 17:00.
Train travellers can expect to spend between two to three hours at the Elgin Railway market before heading back to Cape Town - full-bellied and stocked up with some great local produces.
Nothing stops guests from staying in Elgin longer but the train departs at 14:00, with or without you, and aims to arrive in the Mother City at approximately 17:00.
From the scenic views and industrial chique interiors of the train, to the cosy fire and great food at the market, this comfortable day-trip with the Ceres Rail Company will give you a fully-rounded adventure filled with nostalgia and a perfect excuse to break out of the city and explore the character filled small towns of the Western Cape.
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