Blue Train, South Africa … Ritz on Rails
By Roderick Eime
You are on the shortest tour in Africa,” John, our megaphone-mouthed, trumpet wielding guide informs us, “the bus will turn left, because it cannot turn right!”
This surreal, albeit brief tour around the tiny 19th century rail stop village of Matjiesfontein, takes place in a Leyland 1950’s London double-decker bus, with a motley mix of locals and internationals surveying the minute township through dusty windows that once looked out upon Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.
Matjiesfontein is a regular afternoon stop for the famous Blue Train on its daily 27-hour, 1,600 kilometre journey from Cape Town to Pretoria through the arid plains of the Western Cape. The town expanded in line with the railway from a humble refreshment recess in 1878 to an ornate Victorian village with the imposing Lord Milner Hotel as its centrepiece.
Forever frozen in a quaint colonial time warp, this outpost of empire in the Central Karoo district has enjoyed National Monument status for almost 40 years. The station, also part museum, was built in 1884 and has welcomed trains since opening in the same year.
The ultra luxurious Blue Train can trace its own history back to the Union Limited and Union Express of the 1920s, when the wealth and romance of the burgeoning South African nation called for a luxury service between Johannesburg, the gold and diamond fields of the Kimberley and the port of Cape Town.
The plan for a pan-African railway, joining Cape Town and Cairo was always a British colonial dream, driven by the colossal character of Cecil Rhodes. Yet, despite considerable construction efforts, political, financial and geographic obstacles thwarted its completion, leaving a massive gap between Northern Sudan and Uganda.
The Blue Train, which took on its current moniker directly after World War Two, stands as a nostalgic testament to both Britain’s colonial aspirations and the indelibly romantic appeal of a stylish long-haul train journey.
The route and rolling stock were progressively upgraded and in the late 1990s, the luxury overnight carriages were painstakingly restored with The Blue Train reborn as a standalone luxury travel offering.
While the signature route is now Cape Town-Pretoria-Cape Town, the Blue Train made the scenic journey to Victoria Falls as recently as 2002, but in a throwback to the times of Rhodes, Zimbabwe’s delicate political situation meant the train could not reliably use that nation’s infrastructure. Instead, route options now include seasonal weekend diversions to Durban in September and October to take advantage of the glorious seaside climate and numerous attractions there like uShaka Marine World, the Sea World Aquarium and Durban Botanical Gardens.
Travelling on the Blue Train is an unabashed high brow affair. It all starts as guests mingle in the plush lounge, sipping champagne or enjoying tea and canapés before boarding is called. Of course, there is the predictable scrutinising of fellow guests, their matching luggage, coiffure and fashion ensemble. Sure, it’s a bit of a parade, but an unassuming and entertaining one all the same.
My eyes keep turning to the Riviera chic couple with his casually shoulder-draped cardigan and impeccably unkempt over-length hair and deck shoes. She, meanwhile, sports a delicate chiffon scarf, elegant blouse and understated accessories to compliment her flowing blonde locks. By comparison, I feel like I’m standing in line at the soup kitchen.
But none of that impresses the staff. To them we are all celebrities, or something. “Just pop your name on these luggage tags please,” beckons Hennie, “we’ll look after your bags until boarding.” I temporarily farewell my suitcases, relieved that I decided at the last minute to bring my brand new, glittering Samsonite Firelite collection and not my well-beaten, army surplus duffel.
Cheery Hennie Steyn, as it turns out, is our waiter in the dining room. His more than 35 years experience on the Blue Train almost certainly has brought him into contact with all manner of personalities, dignitaries and wannabes, yet he maintains an air of enthusiasm that belies his lengthy tenure.
Our butler, tending to all our cabin needs is Albert, while fellow cabin staff, Jan and Herbert, can count over 30 years each on the Blue Train. Clearly there is something special about this journey and the cast of thousands who have followed its tracks over the decades.
The Pretoria bound train accommodates up to 52 guests in either Luxury or De Luxe twin suites. While both are necessarily compact, each are cleverly arranged to avoid any sensation of being cramped. In particular the panoramic window is almost the full width of the suite and affords a fabulous view of the countryside as it rolls past at 90 kmh.
At the tail is the observation car with a wide all-encompassing view of the landscape as it disappears behind the travelling train. This same carriage doubles as a convivial conference venue. Then there’s the well stocked bar where there is only a top shelf and a lavish, wood-panelled club car where you can swill cognac and puff on a fat cubana.
But these delightful diversions are just accoutrements to the main event, the fine dining extravaganza. The 42-seat dining car is perfectly in keeping with the nostalgic theme that runs seamlessly through the entire train. Flawless wood panelling, polished brass fittings and full fine dining china place settings with crisp, embroidered linen set the scene for what is the cherry on this 5-star experience.
With a leaning to choice local ingredients, expect to see Karoo lamb, ostrich and venison as well as seafood delights such as Knysna oysters on the ever-changing menu. Want a sneak peak? Squeeze your nose up to the window of the kitchen and check out what chef is making, or do what I did and just ask Hennie.
“Ostrich, sir,” says Hennie with unflinching confidence, “and may I suggest the Catherine Marshall Pinot Noir?”
Of course you can. And it’s a meticulously paired success, melding ideally with the salmon entrée. And unless you develop an insatiable penchant for French champagne and caviar, all your drinks, high teas and meals are included.
The overnight journey is over far too quickly for my liking, so when the announcement came that our arrival into Pretoria would be delayed two hours because of repairs on the line ahead, you could almost hear the cheers.
The Blue Train runs daily in both directions from Cape Town and Pretoria, leaving at 8.30am and arriving around midday the following day. Limited seasonal journeys are also offered from Pretoria to Durban.
All meals, drinks and excursions are covered in the fare and includes high tea, lunch, evening dinner and breakfast.
Fares begin at R13,015 (approx. US$1,200) per person, twin share for a low season De Luxe suite on the Cape Town – Pretoria route.
P: +612 9290 2877
For further information: ➜ www.bluetrain.co.za
Staying in Cape Town: The One&Only Cape Town is arguably the Mother City’s premium hotel resort complex, right on the V&A Waterfront and just a few minutes by taxi to the railway station.