The Climate Train comes to town

[Image] The on-board theatre educates pupils
in a fun, easily understandable way.
(Image: Kathryn Fourie)

[Image] The Climate Train has spent the past
month raising awareness around COP!7.
(Image: Climate Train)

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Kathryn Fourie

Skooching along the obviously-not-clean tar on my bottom, I’m trying to maintain a low eye-line to take a decent photograph of a wheelbarrow.

Not the most interesting gardening artefact I know, but this one says ‘love me’ on it, painted in happy bright white letters. The shutter makes a satisfying click noise; I pull my face back from the view finder and am flustered when I catch the eyes of a tall man in a green t-shirt who is smiling under his arm at me.

His hand is resting on a cow print bicycle with a solar panel attached behind the saddle. “Is this your bike?” he says.

No, it’s not my bike unfortunately. Rather, it belongs to the travelling environmental activism collaborative that is the Climate Train.

The tar I was sitting on is part of the passenger platform of the Pietermaritzburg train station, the second to last stop on the Climate Train’s journey to COP17 (the COP bit actually stands for Conference of the Parties, and yes, you guessed it this is the 17th meeting of this kind) in Durban.

The much-anticipated climate conference opens on 28 November, with thousands of delegates flocking into Durban to debate crucial environmental issues.

Spreading the environmental message

The Pietermaritzburg train station is not a place I come to often, nor do a great percentage of the town’s people.

It’s a forgotten historical spot, a redbrick brookie-laced building that hails straight out of a 1940s movie scene. I expect to see my grandad in his safari suit holding out his hand for me.

Despite its charm, all around it the buildings have fallen into complete disrepair, equipment is abandoned, and shipping boxes are stacked and forgotten. Strangler figs eat their way through cement and brick.

To me, it seems a very apt spot for a collaboration of artists to swoosh into town with a creative and vibrant environmental message.

The Climate Train has been whizzing along South Africa’s railway tracks since 28 October, when it left Cape Town to visit 17 cities in seven provinces. It carried on board a true mixed bag of people and organisations; including poets, artists, environmentalists and even the occasional politician.

Green awareness agency Indalo Yethu, Copart (Connecting our planet and re-imaging together), the British Council, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa are the main bodies making the Climate Train a reality…but what is it really about?

What’s happening on the Climate Train

After chatting to the man in the green t-shirt, who turns out to be a land artist called Simon Max Bannister (after Googling him later I discover he’s darn good at what he does), I step aboard the train to see what’s going down.

A hand-drawn map shows a layout of the train, and it seems I’m at the door of the board room.

Venturing in I find an enormous box with ‘Coral Art Reef Capsule’ stencilled across the front. It has portholes that let one peer in, and inside is a mesmerising kaleidoscope of crocheted corals.

Through the train windows I can see the women responsible for this art work crocheting like mad, sitting around a plastic table covered in a rainbow of wool. It is utterly beautiful, and I have to resist the urge to break into the box and roll around in the squishy nest of woolly colours as I move on to the theatre coach.

Here, Copart’s Dylan McGarry is talking to a group of schoolchildren and a couple of adults about using renewable energy sources. He is surrounded by tomato plants, sculptures, TV screens and people.

I smile to myself as he says “That’s right! It takes a very long time for organic matter to turn into oil, so we should rather be using sunlight to power things which is way better for the environment and we don’t have to wait a bazillion years for it to make itself!”

I always like it when science people use words like bazillion. It makes them so much more human.

This is what the Climate Train is about, making the rather large and scary topic of climate change something that anyone can relate to. Using mixed mediums of art, drama and teaching as well as discussion forums, the topic of climate change is tackled from a variety of different angles.

A child will enjoy a creative play and the chance to paint all over a large sheet of paper, while an adult will relate to the exhibition coach filled with examples of alternative technologies and moreover, the opportunity to speak about environmental issues effecting their communities.

Bringing the people’s concerns to COP17

The Climate Train is as much about listening to disenfranchised communities around South Africa as it is about creating awareness around climate change.

Station platforms are a subtle metaphor for a platform to allow voices to be heard, and it is the responsibility of the artists and organisers on board to take those messages to the end destination of COP17.

McGarry, one of the creators of the original Climate Train idea, commented that he has been absolutely blown away by the response in some towns and horrified by many of the tales he has heard, especially those related to the mining industry.

“The Climate Train has always been about opening up dialogue with people, we want to listen to what South African communities have to say; particularly those who are never given the opportunity to talk,” he said.

But the mission of the Climate Train is not to preach about green issues, said McGarry, but rather to listen so that the people’s voices can be heard at COP17.

COP17 ‘absolutely massive’

After a long day filled with hundreds of schoolchildren, film crews, journalists and curious townsfolk; the Ambush group packs up all the indigenous trees from their Guerrilla Gardening initiative, they lift chairs and tables, pack up giant puppets and to be honest they look absolutely shattered.

It’s bizarre seeing Bannister remove his installation art, like the cleverly split rock that he had placed on the tar and dressed with a sticky, dark stain of blood. In a few moments this very striking work of art is gone, and a wash of water later the ‘blood’ will trickle off the platform. Tomorrow this spot will simply be the station most of us don’t visit again.

As we dismantle McGarry’s cleverly designed circular community conference table, crafted by his own hands which are now thrown in the air, he says “I have to protect this table, kids and graffiti, what can you do?”

Blue ball point is scratched into the plain untreated wood; the Climate Train is far from a shiny glamorous PR circus, once you get past all the branding and media hype.

Dirty, sweaty and exhausted, the crew talk about how they’re looking forward to departing for Durban the next day but are also a little nervous.

“I haven’t ever been nervous about any kind of environmental march or gathering before” says Kyla Davis of the Well Worn Theatre Company and a member of Copart, “But it’s just that no-one knows what to expect with COP17. It seems like it’s going to be absolutely massive.”

COP17 kicks off today in Durban. Just as Davis mentioned above, we are all curious to see what manifests at the conference, and as the Climate Train chugs its way into eThekwini we hope that the voices recorded on its month long journey will be heard among the din of the show.