Di­ver­sity on south­ern tip of epic con­ti­nent

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - WESTERN SPIRIT -

Whether it’s wildlife, nat­u­ral won­ders or World Her­itage sites, South Africa won’t dis­ap­point in the jour­ney of a life­time

con­tem­po­rary com­fort. Dou­ble-size com­part­ments elim­i­nate the yo­gic con­tor­tions de­manded aboard a more typ­i­cal sleeper train, and are fur­nished with geo­met­ric bro­cade and dark mar­quetry in homage to this mode of trans­port’s Agatha Christie hey­day. Best of all, there’s a yawn­ing, gold-tinted pic­ture win­dow show­ing this mag­nif­i­cent coun­try slide by.

Ta­ble Moun­tain is left be­hind swirled in its mist, slip­shod sub­urbs give way to flamingo-dot­ted lakes and then it’s out into a rolling panorama of vine­yards and or­chards.

Among the waist­coated but­lers in the lounge car is Frits van Helden, who at 56 has been sway­ing down the Blue Train’s thickly car­peted cor­ri­dors for 39 years. “Ev­ery­one who worked on the rail­ways wanted a job on this train,” he says. “We were all hand-picked.” The trains have evolved since then – “we ran steam lo­cos well into the ’80s, and our best suite took up half a car­riage” – but the view is age­less. “It’s a thou­sand miles to Pre­to­ria,” says Frits, look­ing at the Hex Val­ley’s snow-dap­pled crags, “and I know ev­ery one of them like an old friend.”

Lunch, dis­patched amid a fes­ti­val of linen and crys­tal, is pars­ley-crusted rack of lamb with many tooth­some cour­ses ei­ther side of it. Be­tween the dessert wine and the cheese board the train is swal­lowed by a long se­ries of tun­nels; the last opens into the Ka­roo, a cop­pered scrub­land that cov­ers a third of South Africa and most of the voy­age.

The Blue Train pitches it­self as “a win­dow to the soul of Africa”, a maxim that isn’t con­fined to the scenery.

If Dutch-born Frits is the old­est hand aboard, then Takunda Mposhi is the youngest – a 24-year-old in his third month of ser­vice. “Our coun­try has seen great changes in my life­time,” he says, per­form­ing the deft me­chan­i­cal origami that con­verts a com­part­ment’s arm­chairs into a won­der­fully plump bed.

“On this train, people from ev­ery back­ground and of ev­ery colour work to­gether and play to­gether. When we get back to Cape Town we will all go down to the beach.” Suites are but­ler-ser­viced with dig­i­tal en­ter­tain­ment and mar­ble en­suite bath­rooms. The din­ing car spe­cialises in na­tive pro­duce such as Ka­roo lamb and Knysna oys­ters. “Now for me, this is the true priv­i­lege of my job.” Lazarus Mkhonto has parked in the sun­set-gilt sands of a dried river bed, but his eyes aren’t on the scenery, nor the re­fresh­ments laid art­fully across the Land Cruiser’s bon­net, nor even the many rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a sa­fari-spot­ter’s wish list am­bling past on all sides: the crazy-

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