Thursday, March 14, 2013

Gautrain: A day in the life

Some people's Gautrain day starts at 2am each morning. That's when Danie Pretorius stirs to consciousness on his farm outside Brits and begins preparing himself for work at the Hatfield Gautrain bus depot.

"It's a personal choice," says the burly dispatcher. "I like the farm life. Brits is forty kays out, and my shift starts at 4.30am, so that's when I've gotta be up." Faced with that kind of commute, many would consider a move to the big smoke of Pretoria, but not Danie.

The Gautrain buses start running at 5.30am, heralding the start of Gautrain's morning rush three hours, with commuters flocking aboard Gauteng's 80km rapid-transit rail network. Some are office workers heading from Tshwane south to Sandton, Rosebank and Park Stations.

Airline passengers head east to OR Tambo. East Rand commuters gratefully avoid the R24-Gillooly's highway freakshow, parking at Rhodesfield and taking the Gautrain west to Sandton.

Marlboro is the station where the north-south and east-west rail routes cross, and where you need to change trains, but all roads lead to Sandton, Gauteng's commercial heart, and the gateway to Joburg's affluent north.

That's where we find James and Devon, just finished school at Hilton College, and here to pick up their mate Ross, who's flying in from KZN to hang in Jozi for a holiday.

Nearby, schooling themselves up on the Gautrain information posters are Athi, Thapelo and Tshidi. They're about to embark for a hotel in Hatfield, where their company, Innovent, has a December treat in store for the team.

Also set to negotiate the turnstiles en route to Hatfield are the staff from Laerskool Die Ruiter in Roodepoort. Joe, Magda, Wynand, Susan, Esme and other Magda are about to join their colleagues on the platform, and from there to the Hatfield Dros.

It's the first Friday in December, traditional staff party day across South Africa. The sun is out, and no-one wants to be driving, so the Gautrain is the solution a lot of people have come up with.

Meanwhile, on the 10.30 to OR Tambo, Kevin from Durban finds a couple of open seats for him and his golf clubs. It's been a good few days in Joburg. A bit of business – he's in property development – and a pleasant 18 holes at the Riverclub course in Bryanston.

Two rows ahead of him, the striking Martha from Harare is on her way home from Pretoria, where she lives. Her countryman Tawanda in the next section resembles the rapper K'Naan. But him and Martha don't know each other, and he's headed for London. Tawanda's just spent a week visiting friends in Joburg, and now it's back to the J.O.B. as an aerospace engineer in the UK.

At OR it's the end of the line. Tawanda negotiates the crowds with ease no doubt practised on the tubes of the London Underground. His wiry frame weaves between the commuters trying to board, his homburg hat bobbing between the faceless heads.

Where Martha sat four minutes ago, Chris from London now sits announcing his arrival to friends on his cellphone. He's been to SA many times, in fact he lived here for a while, and he uses "you" and "we" interchangeably as he sings the praises of the country and our new transportation system.

"Our new train system is world class," he wheezes. "And as a destination, South Africa is great value for money. The only problem is it's so far away..." and he stretches his back a little, trying to ease the stiffness of his 11-hour flight.

At 160km/h on the train to Pretoria we meet the lovely Malegola, rocking some braids combed into a 'fro like a halo. She took last year off to complete her honours after working as a forensic analyst for the SA Police in PE. Tonight it's her brother's 21st in Polokwane. She's going to have to kill some time around Pretoria while she waits for him to finish his supp exam.

She's going back to work soon, but it would be nice to see the world first. You don't want to commit to some lab job that's not going to change for the next 20 years. That's why she's glad she left the police. But they said she can always come back – you don't want to burn your bridges. The private sector would make a change, though. She did an internship at the CSIR, so maybe there...

Across from her, Charmaine also has intimate knowledge of the public sector. She's an environmentalist at Eskom. She's heading north from Vereeniging and meeting people at Menlyn later.

No, she doesn't manage the coal-fueled power stations, she's more involved with powerlines, pylons and their effect on groundwater. Raptors, also, can be harmed by the cables if they fly into them at high speed. "That's why we install those bird-diverters. They're those kind of bobbles you see attached to the powerlines. It makes them more visible to birds. And the microlight guys."

At the station a gaggle of girls are on their way back from checking their matric marks. And the news is good. It's Lauren, Mona, Letso, Athi, Danielle and Tabo without the H. The grown-up world starts here, at the Hatfield Gautrain station.

Outside the station just chilling against the wall, Calvin is waiting for his mates. Well, not mates, they're more co-workers. He needs to collect something from them. They're in construction. He's come through from Benoni today. He gets on the Gautrain about twice a week. "Depends where we working."

Also waiting to be picked up is Ingrid, back from a sleepover at an old school friend's house in Rosebank. No, they didn't go out, just chilled.

Big Danie Pretorius from Brits is reaching the end of his shift when we find him in the Hatfield bus depot. He waves us aboard the Menlyn bus. Us and a party of gents on their way to another Christmas party. Larry speaks for all of them, when he wants to know, "How come you pay R35 from Sandton to Hatfield, but Sandton to the airport is R105? I know they want to make the Pretoria route cheap so they can alleviate gridlock, but the airport route is also congested. Have you seen how bad Gillooly's gets?"

"And another thing! If you take a return trip to the airport, they should only make you pay half-price!"

The only other bus passenger is Cobus, rocking a cap and a ponytail. He's also come through from Benoni. He's on his way to Menlyn Land Rover to pick up a Mercedes SLK he's just bought. "It's a gift I promised myself." He has conquered some medical challenge of Merc-worthy significance.

He's an aircraft technician, and also a fan of the Gautrain. "It makes me feel like I'm on holiday."

At the last stop before the bus turns for the return journey, Ofentse hops on. He doesn't think he smiles much, but he does. He's off to Centurion where he's going to classes for the board course. They should help him get through the chartered accountants' board exam. He starts articles in January.

As the bus pulls back into the Hatfield depot, Khololwethu is wrestling her sky-blue suitcase across the road into the station. Impossible to miss in a tan sundress and a wild curly weave of what might be burgundy, she's heading back home to the Eastern Cape for the holidays.

"To Queenstown. I'm taking a bus from Park station. Since the Gautrain, the trip is almost R100 cheaper."

She calls herself Kosh, and she's studying forensics at Tuks. Just like Malegola from earlier. Except Malegola left Pretoria for the Eastern Cape, and Kosh is doing it the other way.

"Good luck with your journey," says Egbert, who has overhead. He's over from Holland on business. His company advises and researches democratisation. They were discussing Zimbabwe at yesterday's meeting.

He gets off at Rosebank, where his hotel is, but Kosh is going all the way to Park Station, where she'll kill a couple of hours with a friend before the East Cape bus leaves at 6pm.

As we pull into Park, she takes a deep breath, shakes out that wild burgundy weave and gets up to wrestle with that sky-blue suitcase again.

There's going to be a bit more wrestling before she gets that case back to Queenstown and family. There will be a couple more legs on Kosh's journey.

But here is where she parts ways with the Gautrain. She wheels the sky-blue suitcase towards the escalators, past a couple of guys taking the Centurion train.

They come to sit in the same carriage Kosh once occupied. Also from the Eastern Cape, these guys. PE. Their names are Ashton and Jonathan. They've just knocked off work. Heading for Centurion.

"Welcome aboard Gautrain..." The doors close, and so it goes...

This piece first appeared in the magazine PIE.

No comments: