Over the last two days, we have been travelling from Pretoria to Cape Town on South Africa’s premier luxury train, simply known as the Blue Train. The route covers approximately 1,600-kilometres and is reputed to be one of the most luxurious train journeys in the world. Each carriage of four compartments has its own butler, there are two lounge cars (smoking and non-smoking), an observation car and (of course) a dining car.
The Blue Train’s origins date back to 1923 when trains were introduced to take passengers from Johannesburg to the ships departing from Cape Town for England. After a break in World War II, the train returned to service in 1946. With its reintroduction, the colloquial “blue train” name (a reference to the blue-painted steel carriages) was adopted. The rail line was electrified in 1955. The current train cars were built in 1972 and refurbished in 1997 when the train was relaunched as a ‘luxury travel experience’.
We were picked up at our hotel in Pretoria at 6.45 am and taken to the station where we checked in at the private Blue Train Lounge. After being served coffee, we followed our butler to the train and settled in to our suite. We were in Suite 41, the rearmost one on the train. Although we had to walk through eight carriages to get to the dining car in the middle of the train, the rear observation car was just a few steps away. We spent most of our time there as we could see out the windows on both sides.
One rather amazing feature of our suite was that it had its own bathroom. I don’t mean a bathroom as the Americans use the term as a euphemistic name for a toilet. It certainly did have one of those too, but it actually had a bathtub!
The first few hours of our journey were slow as we stopped and started through the busy areas of Pretoria and Johannesburg. Out of the window we had glimpses of the vastly opposing lifestyles of the rich and the poor in this country. Whilst many of the poor (mostly blacks) live in shanty towns, the wealthy (whites) live in large houses and / or gated communities in comparatively opulent circumstances. It felt quite surreal for us to be travelling in such opulence and watching so much poverty glide past the window. Apartheid may be gone, but a significant wealth gap remains here.
Almost every house, building, farm and office that we have seen here is protected with metal fences, big gates and razor wire. I’m convinced that the best business to own in this country would be one selling barbed wire. Perhaos the optimists amongst us would argue that this creates lots opportunities, the pessimists in business would probably see the market as already being saturated.
Not coming from a royal background, I’m not certain as to what sort of things to ask of a butler. I know they buttle, but I’m not really sure what that covers. After showing us all the features of our suite, our butler, Alex, gave me a clue when he asked whether there was anything else that he could do for us. I asked him about the things that might be included and he mentioned ironing and polishing shoes. Of course! These things are obviously part of a butler’s job description, so I handed over a shirt and pair of trousers that I wanted to wear to dinner and they came back later superbly pressed and looking very neat.
The scenery on the first day of our trip was not very exciting to say the least. The countryside was very flat and unchanging. We could see evidence of a lot of mining activity as well as some vast fields of maize and sunflowers. Each town had enormous silos for storing them. We also passed many abandoned settlements – the shells of disused houses and railway platforms that were overgrown with weeds and no longer used. I can only speculate on the story behind these ghost towns. Perhaps the farm was sold and integrated into a larger one? Maybe the mine closed? Or, could have people just moved on?
Whilst the train was full, it only carries about 85 passengers. Meals were served over two sittings. We selected the early sitting for both lunch and dinner. Brunch at 10.30 on the first day was very welcome as we had missed breakfast due to our early morning start. It was a grand affair with a three course meal and lovely wine (all included in the ticket price). By noon, we had retired from the dining car, back to the observation car, feeling as fat as fools. High Tea was served at 3.30 pm but we passed on that as we just couldn’t eat any more.
The train was scheduled to stop at the town of Kimberley where we would visit the famous diamond mine. However, they announced that because we were 1 1/2 hours late, the tour would be cancelled. We had stopped on the track for long periods during the day as the train in front of us had broken down. I understand that the Blue Train has been too late for this tour on every trip over the last month. Instead of our mine visit, we just sat at a rather nondescript station for an hour while the locomotive crew changed and the water on the train was replenished.
Dinner was served at 7.30 pm (first sitting) and also consisted of a four course meal. We were required to dress formally for dinner (men wearing jacket and tie with women wearing ‘elegant’ evening wear). Of course, I wore my freshly pressed shirt and trousers. I know that dressing up like this suits the occasion, but I do find it a pain in the backside to have to carry a jacket on a holiday, just for one night. After eating and drinking, we took our rather quaint souvenir sherry glasses back to our suite and retired for the night. Our butler had already converted our suite into a double bed and by then were were well and truly ready for it.
I was awake at about 5.00 am and opened the blind to find quite a lovely sunrise. It was a pity that I hadn’t found ones as good as this on some of my photographic trips.
Breakfast was available at ay time between 7.30 and and 10.00 am. and a light lunch was served in the lounge and observation cars on the second day as we were due to arrive in Cape Town at 3.00 pm.
By now, the scenery was becoming much more interesting. Some of was semi arid with interesting rock formrtions.
By early afternoon, we were travelling through some more interesting country and were passing through some mountains to the west of Cape Town. A series of tunnels (19 km long in al) then took us out of the into one of South Africa’s premier wine growing areas.
Finally, we arrived into Cape Town two hours late at 5.00 pm because of a delay caused by a signal failure. By then, we had had enough of the train and were ready to leave.. Overall, It was a vey nice trip and certainly one should be included as a part of a visit to South Africa.
I hope that I haven’t lost my humility completely, as although this train is described as one of the worlds most luxurious trains, we left it with mixed opinions. The best thing is the train experience itself. The journey and countryside is interesting but has little ‘wow’ factor. Certainly, the service was first class. All food and drinks were included in the price. The fittings (although a little dated) were very elegant. On the other hand, I think that the food served on the Rocky Mountaineer Railway in Canada was slightly better. The scenery on the Alaskan railway between Anchorage and Fairbanks is far more stunning. Overall, the Blue Train is somewhat superior to the Australian Indian Pacific and clearly more luxurious than the Trans Siberian Railway which by comparison, is like camping. One day we may get to travel on the famous Orient Express and be able to make another comparison.