July 01, 2013

Shongololo Express: South Africa's dream train

David Ellis

MOST blokes dream at some stage of owning a train, something for a table-top maybe, or if really lucky, to run around the garage walls.

But for Leon Plutsick, dreaming of owning his own train meant going one step further than most. Growing up in South Africa and with a dad in the mining industry, Leon constantly confronted mighty hissing steam engines and growling, grimy diesels hauling strings of coal wagons seemingly kilometres long, or shiny passenger carriages that appeared to stretch forever into a shimmering mirage-like distance.

And when he decided he would get his own train, he knew just what he wanted. Now a successful entrepreneur with numerous business interests under his belt, he told  business partner George Milaras of his vision; and George liked it so much he even stumped-up to join Leon in buying his train.

But no table-top or garage wall job. Rather a fair-dinkum, life-size train to carry tourists into the many spectacular attractions of Southern Africa, both well-known and lesser-known. And rather than go off for advice from business advisors, accountants or other professionals, Leon and George went instead to someone they had more faith in.

A witch-doctor, one who after peering into her personal inner sanctum and doing whatever else witch-doctors do, came back with the answer that, Yes, their train would be a success. But only if they called it Shongololo, after a local millipede whose long body has scores of little legs that forever work together to get it along its slow-moving journey as quickly as possible.

And which, she foresaw, would be reflected in the Shongololo Express, that with the lots of little things combining in and around it, would cover its winding rail journeys as quickly as possible as well.

So call it Shongololo Express they did, launching in 1995 and running it successfully until 2000 when they sold out to concentrate on other individual business interests. But Leon could never quite get "his" train out of heart nor head, and in 2007 he made an offer to buy it back from the investor he'd sold it to.

The rest, as they say, is history. Shongololo is now Leon Plutsick's life, love and passion, and he spends four months every year travelling to his major customer markets (Australia number one, followed by Canada and Germany) promoting it, and riding the train whenever he can to ensure all is as he believes it should be, and refining where he believes it's not.

And for those fortunate enough to travel aboard the Shongololo it is a rewarding experience, with yesteryear polished teak-wood dining, lounge, bar and sleeping carriages having appointments that make for a delightful reminisce back to a time when train travel was leisurely, unhurried and genteel.

A kind of Good Life, shoe-horned into the confines of narrow-gauge rail.

Shongololo currently has four 13-to-16 day itineraries embracing the best of South Africa and its Winelands, Kimberley, South Drakensbergs, KwaZulu-Natal, and Kruger and other National Parks, and further afield fascinating Zululand, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and Zanzibar… with others, Leon hints, in the pipeline.

And rewardingly, rather than jamming guests onto local coaches with other tourists for daily sightseeing, Shongololo carries its own Mercedes-Benz air-conditioned mini-vans, so that with the train travelling mostly at night while guests sleep, these make for wonderfully personalised sightseeing tours led daily by the train's own onboard professional driver/guides (most of whom have been with Leon since the re-emergence of Shongololo in 2007.)

And with a choice of two such tours included daily in the train's price (and others available through other operators at optional cost,) it provides for diverse sightseeing and adventures a-plenty.

In our case, this included amongst numerous others, riding the cable car up Cape Town's Table Mountain, tasting the product of the Winelands, getting up-close with the animals for three days in Kruger and other National Parks, visiting villages and remote towns and communities, the Kimberley Diamond Mine, King Shaka's Royal Hunting Grounds, seeing the homes of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and an escorted tour through Soweto whose 1976 riots were the catalyst for the eventual dismantling of South Africa's apartheid laws.

More details from Bench International toll-free 1300AFRICA or www.benchinternational.com.au

NEXT WEEK: Indulging Shongololo's yesteryear ambiences. 



1.SHONGOLOLO Express to a Zulu witch-doctor resembled a winding millipede. (Shongololo Express)
2. CAPE Town from the cable car to Table Mountain. (David Ellis)
3. KIMBERLEY Big Hole, once one of the world's richest diamond mines. (David Ellis)
4. A HERD of elephants hold us up on the road in Kruger National Park. (David Ellis)
5. MALE and female lion sleep it off after fun and games roadside in Kruger National Park. (David Ellis)
6. SHONGOLOLO Express carries its own fleet of Mercedes-Benz sightseeing vans. (Shongololo Express)

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