Life is about the journey, not the destination – especially when you go by train
By Chandrea Serebro
It is not likely that the youth of today will ever know the feeling of that slow chugging along the desert plains, head out of the window, wind in your hair while you watch the landscape of the Karoo pass you by at what seems like a snail’s pace. Like the changing landscape of the South African plains from Johannesburg to the Cape, so too is the landscape of growing up today so different to what it was then. The days of train journeys to camp is a time gone by, the experience another relic of the past.
They say that the (mis)adventures of kids never truly change over time, and never was this more true than on the train to camp. It was an exciting time, full of potential and the hopes and dreams of what was to come and how the camp experience would unfold; the tone of the trip determined by the frenzied hours on the train. “Going to camp was made up of two parts: Part A – The train journey to Mossel Bay, and Part B – Camp itself,” says Leanne Gersun. “The critical factor to the success of the train journey lay in deciding who your ‘train buddies’ were going to be. There were six ‘chanis’ (campers) to a cabin, and no one ever wanted the middle bunk.” Important logistics had to be sorted prior to departure, recalls Leanne, which included: who can get their parents to buy the shaving cream? Who is bringing which sandwiches? (chicken mayo was always a favourite.) What snacks to take? Who will be ‘rosh (head) raider’? And who will join you as you venture to the older ‘shichvas’ (groups)?
“Remembering the good old train camp days required me to think back over 30 years,” recalls Robyn (Kramer) Blumenthal, “bringing back beautiful memories of trouble, mischief, and excitement. The train was called ‘The milk train’ because it stopped at ‘alle stasies’ – all the stations. The two-day trip took us through what was then the Transvaal, the Free state, the Karoo, and the Western Cape.” In those days, recalls Robyn, parents could drive directly onto the station platform to load trommels onto the back of the train. The platform was always a hive of activity, and for many, the pinnacle of all their feelings about going to camp – the defining moment: the arrival at Johannesburg Park Station. “The first memory that comes to mind was going to Park Station in JHB CBD – which was a place that no one ever went to (especially coming from Glenhazel)” or would ever want to go to willingly – “so it was part of the experience, taking in all the activity and chaos,” recalls Dylan Berger. “Arriving at Park Station early in the morning, en route listening to your parents reminiscing about ‘the old days’ when they would ‘catch the train into Joburg to go to the bi-scope’, you would immediately find your friends to compare ‘who brought what’,” says Leanne, with the CSO guards “going berserk” trying to contain the “masses of hysterical Jewish mommies and over-excited chanis”.
“Standing at the train station with mother and my luggage (which had been packed and ready by the front door since October), there was hustle and bustle with kids in the camp T-shirt so as to be identified as chanichim, parents fussing over their kids, security guards with walkie talkies all over, madrichim with clipboards all over the place, random kids running around everywhere, the sounds of whistles, laughter, and names being called,” says Gabi Crouse, who first went to camp when she was 10. “And there, to our side, standing patiently, was the long maroon train which was to be home for the next two days. Sitting there calmly, not knowing the chaos about to explode inside!”
When the big whistle blew and the doors closed, the campers were officially on their way. “We waved frantically to our parents and went to look around. Our parents, who begged us to write to them, knew that if they received a letter in the post once a week they would be lucky. Not only did we have to choose who we would share a tent with, but we also had to choose who we would share a cabin with on the train. This is where ‘camp drama’ had its beginning,” says Robyn. Heart pulping with excitement and dread, Gabi entered her train compartment with trepidation at first. “Six beds (three a side), bunkbed-style, and a little sink between the beds by the windows.” And those windows! “The objects that didn’t come flying out of those windows!” she reminisces.
“There were water bottles in each corner of the coach, which would empty at the speed of light. We had been told that the Karoo is very hot, and yet somehow we always seemed to go through it at the hottest time of day, but it was very cool at night,” says Richard Fonn. “From Kimberley to De Aar we took a steam engine, so if we kept the window open soot would fly into the compartment.”
“Once we reached our destination I could not wait to shower and wash my hair as the journey made me and my long hair feel filthy from soot. Maybe because along the way we poked our heads out the train windows all the time, to see where we were,” recalls Sharon (Perkel) Cramer.
“I remember trying to wash my hands in the tiny sink, I remember the smell of the leather beds, I remember the sounds of the cabin doors sliding and how we mastered the ability to unpick the locks. I remember laughing and connecting to everyone. I remember that within the confines of those narrow lanes I had never felt more free,” remembers Gabi.
Once everyone was accounted for by the CSO security, children were allowed to leave the cabins – “almost never to return again!” says Gabi. Because, along with the hand luggage, sleeping equipment, large food parcels, and a spare pair of underwear, there was also the ‘undesirables’ – namely the dreaded water pistols, balloons (soon to become water balloons), shaving cream, and stink bombs. “After all, how do you keep hundreds of children occupied in a confined space for two days?” muses Robyn. The raids that were soon to come were well-planned, thought out, and duly executed in military style. “Within the first hour of the journey there was always at least one shaving cream casualty,” says Leanne.
As the train chugged along its journey, so too did the children get into the rhythm of it. When the sun began to drop, the excitement picked up – and now was time to get down and dirty, says Gabi. “Raiding. Shaving cream. Everywhere. Water and shaving cream fights left our hair stuck to our faces and our once white T-shirts a greyish brown.” Looking back, says Gabi, “I don’t actually know how I survived that. But I got involved! I raided and got raided. The sound of an aerosol can was drowned out by laughter and screams. Everybody loved it.” By sunrise things had somewhat calmed down, and everyone knew everyone else by then, and it was time for a well-deserved food break. “Taking out my mom’s lovingly-packed sandwiches, I felt a longing for home which lasted about as long as the sandwich,” says Gabi. “Because the history from the day before was about to repeat itself!”
“And what would a train ride full of Jewish kids off to camp be without a collection of heavily-packed food and snack parcels?” wonders Robyn. “After all, the train ride was two days long – which meant we needed enough food for a week!” “My mom prepared the first meal for the train ride,” remembers Richard, but all the other meals thereafter were tinned food. “Sardines, baked beans, and condensed milk because there was no fridge on the train.”
Travellers also needed pillows and sleeping bags because, even though no one would be sleeping, “we needed to be comfortable – and no stewards were going to make up the beds for all the loud, noisy kids on the train to camp, that is for sure! I remember my mom packing me food for the next two days so that I wouldn’t go hungry on the train. The train ride was broken up into two parts, the first couple of hours flew by with all the excitement and mingling taking place, the next 15 hours went by a lot slower. The tradition was to stay up the whole time, which became increasingly difficult the further into the journey we went, but the looming threat of being raided if you fell asleep proved to be enough of an incentive to stay awake,” says Dylan. “Sleep? What’s that?” asks Gabi. She remembers the journey as “a march up and down and up and down – bumping into the same people going the opposite direction doing their up and downs.” Gabi met every member of camp on the trains. “You could just go into anyone’s compartment and there was a different vibe in each one, some had occupants wildly singing camp songs and war cries, others had serious card games going with high stakes, some were older kids just chilling watching the open Karoo out their windows.”
“I remember a lot of noise and chaos for about the first hour or so, as everyone tried to find which compartment their friends were in. I actually don’t remember any boredom, and through the clickety clack of the wheels on the rails we could hear radios and cassettes playing music. I don’t remember taking food with, so we must have eaten in the ‘dining car’. I do remember all of us getting together in the lounge and being told where to meet and what to do and what to expect when we arrived in Port Elizabeth. And, of course, out came the guitars and we had a sing-a-long,” says Michelle Fonn.
“With the wheels turning and the carriages shaking, we were free to roam from carriage to carriage while wearing our paper name tags. These trains were no modern-day, smooth, sleek, quite, air-conditioned modes of transport – they were the real clickity-clack, shake-rattle-and-roll type of trains, which occasionally blew the odd puff of black soot through the window. This stuck with us a day or two after disembarking onto terra firma. Many happy campers could be seen swaggering and misjudging tent poles or pegs and tripping over them,” says Robyn. The train would stop frequently during both the day and the night and since there was no CSO at the time, senior members would take turns to hop onto the platform and check that no one got on or off the train, recalls Robyn. But, in later years, the CSO was a ubiquitous presence on the train, informing many of the memories people hold of the journey.
“The train would stop late at night in De Aar and I clearly remember the CSO running to each compartment telling us to close our windows and shutters in case anyone tries to climb in or throw something into the train,” says Dylan. “Usually by the time we hit the Karoo most of the channies had passed out. Inevitably there would always be a ‘delay’ on the tracks and we would get stuck in a dorptjie for half the night. The CSO guys would go into panic mode again, making sure all the metal shutters were closed on our cabin windows, and they remained on high alert for the local Pofadder anti-Semites to show up at four in the morning. Baruch Hashem, this never happened, and we carried on with the journey. But throughout the trip, bypassing and dodging the CSO was always fun,” says Leanne.
The first time going to camp for many kids was also the first time going on a long train journey, says Leanne. “Nothing could prepare you for the toilets, and the fact you could see the tracks beneath you while you did your business. On day two, excitement settled and then you realised – too late – that reading on the train can cause major motion sickness.”
“As we chugged into the Free State, the next highlight of our journey was about to unfold. It was at this point that we would ‘hook-up’ with the Durban train,” says Robyn. In the most literal sense – the carriages were joined with a giant pin and chain, which caused the trains to suddenly expand. “It was rather beautiful looking out the windows while we went around the curves or bends of the track to see the newly hooked-up coaches following behind.”
On arrival at the station, Shalom Aleichem resounded and the next part of the experience was to begin, the kids boarding busses (after they finally arrived, late every time) bound for the campsite. “It was a downer getting off the train and onto the bus; sticky, smelly, and hungry teenagers,” says Leanne. But camp was about to begin; there were three weeks to look forward to what had already proven to be an exciting, fun-filled, friend-making journey.
“Coming home was a different experience altogether. The raiding was substantially less and the mood was calm. The rocking of the train comforted the sadness of the end of camp. We recalled and processed all that had transpired throughout our three weeks of fun and exchanged stories to gain perspectives of others – but the main thing we did was plan next year’s camp,” says Gabi. “Going home on the train, exhausted after three weeks on camp was a very long and depressing journey. I personally think that campers have it better now as they get to spend more time at the actual camp site rather than spending two days of their holiday getting to and from camp. It also allows for the campers coming from Cape Town or Durban to start on a level playing field with their JHB friends as they don’t feel left out not being part of the train bonding journey,” says Dylan.
“The words ‘fond memories’ and ‘camp train ride’ cannot be used in the same sentence,” says Ilanit Shiel. But whether you loved or loathed the train to and from camp, everyone agrees that it set the tone for the experience to come. Best friends were made in those squashy cabins, lying boxed in by someone above and below you, the South African desert passing by as you got into the frenzy of the adventure. “Camp days when growing up in South Africa are almost 50 years ago, so I hardly recall much of what we did on the train or too much detail about the train ride. However, more important were the friendships that were formed on the train journey and beyond,” says Sharon, who is still in touch with some of her camp friends today. “Camp was the best time of my life,” says Gabi, “and kids today are sorely missing one of the most exhilarating experiences of camp itself: the train!”