Just like any African inner-city train station at 7:30 on a week day morning, Pretoria station is a vibrant, colorful cornucopia of organized chaos. So in this rush-hour hot bed, pulling up next to a red carpet on a warm day in early autumn and having your door opened by an impeccably tailored, smiling person knowing you by name is slightly incongruous. But this is what you can expect when you are about to board the Blue Train... Kings and presidents have indulged on this magnificent, moving five-star "hotel-on-wheels".
I was but a child when this iconic phrase entered my consciousness for the first time. I say phrase and not "brand" because the Blue Train is part of the South African DNA, so in many ways this Blue Train journey from Pretoria to Cape Town is seminal to me.
We gather in a lovely reception and are served juices, teas and coffees waiting for everyone to arrive and then we are escorted - again via red carpet - to board the train. I hear many different languages and accents from the excited faces around me. There are people from all over the world and no matter how jaded and experienced they may be as tourists, we are all equally in high spirits.
The minute I board, I feel like I’m stepping through a frame into a sepia-tinted haze, where nothing is real and everything is fabulous.
Raphael accompanies us along the corridor to my compartment where my personal butler, the amazing Angela, shows me around and explains all the features in this plush suite. I’m in a De Luxe Suite and this piece of heaven will forever alter your definition of what style and class entail. From your elegant and relaxing lounge during the day, it transforms into a subtly-lit bedroom of indulgence during the night, bedecked with goose-down and 100 per cent percale-cotton bedding, from your individually-controlled air-conditioning system, under-floor heating, opulent marble and gold-fitted bathroom, its scented bath salts and plush monogrammed towels, to the electronic entertainment options on offer, with a great selection of movies and music. The De Luxe coaches each have four suites that measure 4 by 2 meters. One of these contains a double bed and a three-fourth size bath tub with handheld shower, while the others have twin beds with showers. The Blue Train’s telephone system runs the full length of the train, allowing you to contact your butler or the Train Manager 24-hours-a-day. If you wish to make international calls, the staff will gladly assist you to do so, at an additional fee.
In addition, two highly-trained on-board technicians are always eager to share their knowledge with you, and you can also enjoy a camera-view from the drivers’ perspective from the comfort of your own suite.
Then my mom and friend have to be on their way since were about to depart. Right on time, this southbound journey train slowly flows into smooth motion at 8:30 a.m. and we are on our way with that delicious, deep in the pit of your stomach feeling making you do a silent, internal oooowheeee and plastering an idiotic, involuntarily grin on your face. I tear myself away from my suite and go exploring.
The Blue Train offers two convivial spaces in which to build friendships over a beverage of choice. The Club Car, ideally situated behind the train’s engines, offers the feel of a burnished, wood-paneled gentleman’s club where you are free to enjoy a Cuban cigar, which they serve after dinner to round off a perfect evening. Whether you’re after a game of backgammon, chess or cards, the lure of the big screen or a tome from the library’s selection, a fascinating chat with the barman or simply a solitary reverie of the star-lit skies, then the Club Car is your ideal setting.
The beautifully designed Lounge Car, conveniently situated in the middle of the train, is an ideal venue to enjoy the charming view of the countryside, with its windows perfectly framing the ever-changing panoramas and interrupted only by rare works from some of Southern Africa’s finest artists.
I make myself at home in the luxury of the Club Car with its delicious snacks and immediately a waiter is on hand to enquire after my choice of beverage. This is to set the tone for the rest of the trip. The staff on this train - many of whom have been working on the train for many years - leave me amazed and truly proud to be South African. They remember your name, and more importantly, your drink. A proper fuss. That is what these amazing people make of you, dear reader. A late night snack? An early morning wake-up call? A blouse in pressing need of a little tender care? One call and your butler will take care of it. The Train Manager is also on call at all times. All of them - Collin, Moosa, Ephraim, Raphael, Swazi and of course the inimitable Angela - are super stars.
The train softly flows forward like a languid snake and the dour scenery of the Highveld flies by to make way for a more rural landscape. The route between Pretoria and Cape Town is a 27-hour journey of 1,600 km, through some of the most diverse and spectacular scenery offered by the African sub-continent. The soothing sounds of Crowded House and Eric Clapton accompanies the changing country side like a soundtrack written just for you.
I befriend a lovely Australian guest who tells me that the Blue Train is the cherry on top of the most magnificent two-week holiday in South Africa they have ever had anywhere. I beam with pride of course and tell her a bit about the illustrious history of the Blue Train. Emanating from a fantasy of travelling from Africa’s southern to northern most tips, the Blue Train was steam-rolled into being in the 1920s. The two original trains, known then as the Union Limited and the Union Express, meandered their way as far as the Great African Railway would allow - a bridge straddling the Zambezi River, showered by the "thunderous smoke" of the Victoria Falls - a trip taken by Former State President, Thabo Mbeki in 1998.
As news of the discovery of gold and diamonds travelled afar, thousands flocked to South Africa’s Witwatersrand with a dream of digging their way to untold riches. The railway lines became utilitarian, ferrying society on the move. But the ridge’s mineral wealth soon funded a burgeoning upper-class, one that came to expect a more opulent mode of transport. And the Union carriages became standard-bearers of the easy-living heyday of the 1920s, boasting everything from card tables to ceiling fans, to hot and cold water on tap.
After being pressed into military service during World War II and then reincarnated in 1946, the trains’ distinctive royal blue and cream shades gave rise to "those blue trains" intimations. It was in these shades that a legend was born, and the Blue Train rode the rails to legend status.
A carriage-by-carriage refurbishment in the 70s and modernization from steam to electricity and diesel in the 90s, defined this train as an unmatched experience of luxurious modern travel, and yet invoked the romance and history of its glittered past. There are two Blue Train sets - simply referred to as Train Set 1 and Train Set 2. The former can accommodate a maximum of 52 guests and is available for use during charters. Train Set 2 is the weekly schedule train running between Pretoria and Cape Town. It accommodates a maximum of 80 guests and includes a paraplegic suite and a Conference Car.
Later I breeze into the Lounge Car for lunch like Lady Muck. By now my expectations have been seen and raised many times so it stands to reason that the food will follow. And it does. For starters you have a choice between camembert and cranberry coulis with pan-seared scallops or cauliflower and truffle soup. Mains present you with the option of either Scottish baked salmon, dry-aged fillet with blue cheese filling and a herb coulis or peppadew and feta chicken... Dessert is a sublime cigar of hot fudge pudding. A culinary feast, all silver-service of course presented with some of the best wines and champagnes in the world.
I return to the Club Car after lunch and revel in the late-afternoon solitude, watching the landscape of rows and rows of golden sunflowers getting whiplash as they follow the setting sun.
Unfortunately, due to delays, the Kimberley excursion is cancelled but nobody minds.
I meet other kindred spirits later and we share travel tales until a few minutes shy of dinner. I have lovely hot shower and dress in my finest frock for the five-star, five-course dinner. And what a splendid affair! The dining car has been transformed into a low-light magically opulent space with the silver ware and crystal glasses picking up the candle light on the tables. Starters are either smoked salmon trout or oriental seafood parcels and for the main course you can choose between prosciutto wrapped monkfish or seared duck. The succulent duck falls off the bone with beautifully balanced flavors. The deconstructed lemon merengue pie is just the thing to finish off this banquet.
We retire once more to the Club Car for an after-dinner round of superb Port and more merriment before I finally decide to call it a night. My wonderful Angela has turned down the bed with exquisite imported chocolate on my pillow. I fall into a coma-like sleep with the clickety clack of the train on the tracks sending me into dreamland.
The next morning I wake up to the arid beauty of the Karoo. The dusty Highveld and Free State has during the night given way to the forlorn and haunting expanses of this timeless, nowhere land which has inspired the muse in countless writers and artists. A lonely track of dust flying up into the air behind a vehicle in the morning sun in the far distance is the only sign of human life. The Karoo is the backdrop for breakfast. The most delectable array of teas, coffees, pastries, cheeses, cold cuts, hot English breakfasts and other delicious morsels are served with a smile, always a smile.
We are now moving into the Breede River Valley and through the Cape’s famous vineyards. The majestic mountain scenery all along the route hugs the red and yellow colors of autumn. Nowhere, but nowhere could be more beautiful.
We groan into Cape Town Station at about 4:00 p.m. and disembark in the same sad, somewhat disorientated state as someone just having woken up from a fabulous dream. Angela gives me a stunning gift of a tiny gold replica of a grandfather clock of pure gold, again reiterating the immense class and style of the Blue Train.
I find my Cape Town transfer after long good byes, but with all my heart I yearn for another night on board the Blue train. Just one more night...