Whenever we travel around South Africa, I tend to look ruefully at the under-utilised train tracks. “Ah man, I wish there were more passenger trains,” my husband often hears me mutter, “that would be such an awesome train ride…” My biggest travel regret of all time is that when I first visited SA in 2002, I didn’t take the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe. The insanely scenic trip from Knysna to George has been out of action since floods damaged the tracks in 2006, although there’s regular talk of the line being repaired. There are occasional steam train trips between George and Mossel Bay, but if you’re looking for a reliable train ride to do with the kids, there’s always the Outeniqua Power Van.

I’ve taken the Power Van twice and I think the weather in this pic is pretty representative of the region…

OK, so the Power Van isn’t exactly a train, but it leaves from George train station and it runs along tracks, so most kids will let the nomenclature go. It is in fact a rail trolley – a funny little petrol-powered vehicle that pulls a small carriage behind it. Trips leave from the Outeniqua Transport Museum – also a cool place for kids that like trains, trucks, cars and – well – transport.

Into the mountains…

The Power Van trundles up into the Outeniqua Mountains on a 2½-hour trip. A local guide joins you on board, giving a commentary on the history and geography of the area but you’ll excuse me for not being able to share too much of that info with you. It was just me and Kai so between trying to get him to stay in his seat and stopping him from eating every last bite of our picnic before we got anywhere near the picnic spot, I didn’t take in much of the info.

Driving the Power Van

I can tell you that it’s an extremely scenic ride offering views of the Cradock, Outeniqua and Montagu Passes. I recall hearing that the track was built by convicts. And of course, having travelled with a four-year-old, I can tell you that we went through seven tunnels (you can thank Kai for that piece of information). After about 90 minutes of scenic trundling, honking at the occasional klipspringer playing chicken on the tracks, you turn around and come back down towards George. And when I say you turn around, I do mean you and not the van. The seats all flip, so those who boarded last and got stuck at the back on the way up get the best views on the way down.

There’s a cursory picnic stop with views over George – you get about half an hour to munch on anything that your children haven’t already eaten. And note there are no toilets on board or en route, so come prepared for some au naturale ablutions…

In truth, I think Kai might still be a little young for the trip. He enjoyed sitting at the front and pretending to drive, but at 2½ hours it might be more suited to kids a little older.

Strawberry picking… and another train

One thing he utterly loved was the Redberry Farm in Blanco, just west of George. The farm is perfect for little kids, with a mini train (got to admit, I think I enjoyed this just as much as Kai), bunnies to feed, bumper boats and a pretty cool jungle gym. For slightly older children there are go-karts, horse rides and bubble ball (kind of like zorbing but on water). And for even older people, a craft beer and wine tasting room is about to open. And there’s dessert everywhere… You could easily spend a couple of hours here, lunching and partaking in the activities, which range from R20 for a five-minute session to R35 for the maze, which could take hours…

This is Kai’s proud face. He took the strawberries to playschool in his lunch box the next day so he could tell everyone he’d picked them himself

But the biggest hit was the strawberry picking itself. Granted, I felt like a bit of a party pooper as I attempted to explain the concept of ripened fruit, but I didn’t want to end up with a punnet of minscule, lime-green berries. Kai was so excited that if I hadn’t intervened, he would have picked the first twenty strawberries he’d seen, most likely uprooting each plant as he went. But after a little schooling on what constitutes a good berry, we spent half an hour filling our containers. And as we left, Kai turned to me and said “Mummy, I love it here. And I love you…forever!”

In my book, that’s a pretty successful day out.

 

The Outeniqua Power Van operates Monday to Saturday. Times vary and booking are essential. It’s R150 for adults and R130 for children. To book, call or SMS 082 490 5627.

Redberry Farm is open Monday to Saturday, 9am-4pm, although many of the activities only operate on Fridays and Saturdays. New cafes and shops were due to open when we visited.