Diversity on southern tip of epic continent
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-