South Africa’s Blue Train

Let's Travel - - FRONT PAGE - 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.

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