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There and back again, a short South African public transport odyssey

Until recently, for the average south African traveler who is no stranger to nipping up to Jo'berg on business for one or several days, his or her travel parameters would include, upon arrival , getting met by a driver or friend, catching a cab or hiring a car. The last option would seem to be the most popular choice by business travelers.
On the other hand, blind travelers were limited to the former choices for obvious reasons; after all no sane car Hire Company would hire a car to a blind man, right?

However since June 2010, thanks to monumental Soccer World Cup preparations, the long awaited Gautrain was opened for business, providing another post flight travel choice...

As a fairly frequent flyer, usually clocking between 15 and 50 return trips per year, I as a blind traveler have always regretted my limited choices. So it was either arrange for a pick up by a long suffering friend or hire a driver, or arrange for the client to fetch me.
To some, this may not seem to be too much of a hardship, but what is rarely understood is the inalienable desire by most confident blind people to be independent.
So it was with great yearning that I awaited my next trip up to Jo'berg, in September, where my guide dog Barklee and I fully intended to make use of the much heralded new Gautrain and its associated bus service.

The following capture some of the moments in this little odyssey between early Wednesday 8 September and late Friday 10 September on our return trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

Part One

8th September.

7.00am pick up by trusty hired driver Denis, makes a change to the usual pre sparrow affair, rather civilized of my client, booking a 9.00 flight.

7.30am, arrive Cape Town International, still rather early, but rather that, than late .( I would have an opportunity to put this theory to the test sooner than I thought).
Readers may want to consider now how a blind person will navigate the airport to find the needed airline counter. Signage is not an option, as neither Barklee or myself are able to read, Denis cannot leave his car for fear of booting or tow away, so finding a porter is essential to guide me. Not always as easy as one imagines. Having a 40kg dog practically surgically attached to one does tend to diminish the frequency of solicitice hawkers and in this case porters.

7.35 at last one is found, who with cheerful alacrity guides me to the kulula desk, where the necessary is completed, which includes blocking the seat next to me for Barklee, (no he does not use the actual seat, but lies on the floor in front of it.) a point to note here, is that in more than 200 flights together, Barklee and I have never had so much of a hint of trouble from a single airline.

8.30 -11.10 boarding flight MN 102, slipping into total auto pilot routine which includes the inevitable gushes and clucks of adoring fellow passengers, mostly women I might add, sadly not for myself but Barklee, who as fate will have it is pointlessly attractive and adorable. (Its really tough traveling with a golden Retriever)

11.20 finally out of the plane and have, literally bumped into the diligently waiting MAA, (Meet and Assist) individual, who gleefully tells me that she is Tuli, and has assisted me before. Now, here comes the acid test, deviation from tried and tested protocol. Instead of taking me to the arrivals hall, will Tuli be keen to or able to take me to the Gautrain area? I need not have worried, even I could see Tuli's face light up at the prospect of taking me there, and I doubt I could have stopped her even if I had wanted to.

11.30 at last Gautrain terminal, a longish walk, I am glibly trusting that Barklee was taking notes for I am not sure I could find it again, But I reckon that he could.
Here we are accosted by the inevitable and regrettable all too common occurrence, the bane of all guide dog users, the security guard who either missed the lecture on access for guide dogs, (or more probably was never taught this rather important bit of information). After firmly assuring him that Barklee was indeed a dog but a dog that was allowed to be there, we managed to get exactly 3 metres before encountering another , this time more assertive security enthusiast. With the same challenge. This has to be a record! Surely Gautrain have thought of this? I need not have worried, suddenly, I am met by Julia, who introduces herself as Gautrains Marketing manager, and welcomes me as, she believes, the first guide dog user to make use of Gautrain outside of the previous publicity and testing occasions. She was not amused at the tales of the security guards zealousness either. She points out to me, somewhat redundantly, clear signage I must presume that evidently states that Guide Dogs ARE allowed. A little note is in order here, it is an extraordinary truth that despite the good intensions of most organizations about access for guide dogs, the fact remains that security is almost always outsourced, and sadly this little bit of service information seems to be diligently omitted in training, by all security labour brokers.

11.37 aided by the still doggedly loyal Tuli, who is clearly determined to cling to her charge to the bitter end, we purchase the prevailing currency for Gautrain, the Gold card. Knowing that I will be returning in a couple of days, I put R250.00 into the card. This will cover the return trip to sandton and two bus journeys as well, with some change left over. By comparison, my usual means, renting an Avis or similar Point to Point service to get to Sandton would cost me about R350 one way.

11.50 At last, I am in Gautrain. No question, it is awesome.

12.05 We're off! This was really fascinating, especially for a long time defender and passenger, man and boy, of MetroRail in Cape Town for 35 years. Three principle observations should be mentioned, really quiet, really fast, but the most stunning thing of all, (Metrorail, hang your heads in shame) was the unobtrusive but wonderfully empowering announcements of pending stations.

12.17 12 Minutes to Sandton, pretty impressive, of course, coming from a professional passenger like myself, I can afford to be blaze about the piece of mind and relaxation of train travel versus sitting in traffic.

12.25 Have finally arrived at the bus, in this case the Four Ways bus that I need to take to my ultimate destination, where I will be picked up by my client. Between the Train and the bus was something of a bewildering combination of Escalators and elevators taking one up from what I am assured is the world's second deepest station. Interestingly, when I asked what the world's deepest station was, no one seemed to know. Naturally given the relative complexity of the trip to the bus it was necessary to seek help to get there. I was guided by a friendly chap that seemed to be there for just that purpose when I got off the train.

12.35 On the bus and off to Monte Casino, my final destination, by public transport anyway.

13.05 Monte Casino and the last stop for the bus before it turns back to Sandton. My client awaits having been called by me while on the bus. All that remains, is a short 3.5km hop to the venue where I will be attending a conference and delivering my paper.

By Jeremy Opperman
September 2010