PUT ON YOUR PLATFORM SHOES
There’s no better way to shake off the blues of a bad year than to dress up in one’s finest and board the Blue Train, writes Aspasia Karras
In the present moment, dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction is coming at us thick and fast. Pick your endgame — plague, climate, religious wars — and there is sure to be some suitably grim but lavish expression of humanity’s last-ditch attempts to outwit ourselves playing out on a screen near you. Having now watched a few of these horror shows, I have concluded that if you have to eke out some form of survival then you could do worse than the luxury end of the Snowpiercer — the 1,001-car train in the eponymous TV show in which the survivors of a self-induced ice age have taken refuge, but which can never stop.
Or you could take the safer and much more genteel option and escape the plague by hopping onto the Blue Train, which is happily running again and even more joyously does not serve up insect life in the dining carriage.
It also has an infinitely more varied vista on offer. In fact, I can happily report I saw no snow at all.
I have travelled by train before. There was the high-speed train in Greece from Thessaloniki to Athens. It stopped in some village in the plains around Larissa, where a lady boarded with a barrel of cheese. It had clearly turned in the heat of the day. That was apocalyptic.
And there was the time I took the train from Milan to Paris and the man sitting across from me took his shoes off and placed his besocked feet uncomfortably close to me, inching ever closer. That was post-apocalyptic.
So I had my worries. Completely unfounded. The only cheese I smelt was presented beautifully for high tea with fruit and cake, and again after dinner. And strangers’ socks were thankfully nowhere to be seen, as people have to dress up for dinner and keep their feet to themselves.
There is, it transpires, a very good reason for sitting at the front of the train even when you are not in the Snowpiercer. It is delightful. Your wood-panelled cabin, made by Italian craftsmen when the train was rejigged almost 30 years ago, is like a jewel box that opens and closes to reveal either a lovely little seating area or a magically transformed bedroom with ingenious foldaway beds.
There is a marvellous person who is dedicated to your case, on hand to smooth the edges, supply alcohol and help to coax feelings of wellbeing out of you by being so very, very nice. And there is the benevolent sense of steady progress, but not too much.
This is, it seems, the charm of oldschool rail travel, making your rather stately way from Pretoria to Kimberley, on to Worcester and finally to Cape Town.
Along the way you eat, you drink, and you make merry.
My journey was indeed very merry. There was a feeling of stolen pleasure. The sensation that somehow just being on the train was proof in itself that we had survived.
So now we would throw ourselves into the pursuit of the small pleasures of life in the various lounges or in our little cabins and together with our fellow passengers, and take in the changing landscape with multiple gin and tonics. It was like a collective sigh of relief, as if we had all been holding our breath in anticipation of fresh horrors, but now we were ensconced in a luxurious buffer zone on this charming train, voyaging to a place of safety. You could feel a thawing out from the year that had been.
Also, if you happen to need a leg stretch and to work a little exercise into your train journey, I am happy to report that the train manager will embrace your plan to run around the platform of a morning, before the whistle blows to depart the station.
Platform-running is now my thing, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers and the bemusement of the train staff, who said this was very unusual behaviour.
I, for one, felt it was very necessary behaviour as I had to work off the many delectable offerings of the Blue
Train kitchen and the pairings from the sommelier. Somehow the tour of the Great Hole in Kimberley, while a f ascinating interval, was not of the highintensity variety.
It is surprising how quickly you transition into a genteel approach to life. Taking spiritedly to the joy of delicious multi-course meals presented in the oldschool manner by ladies and gentlemen who have in their time served multiple celebrities, world leaders and Madiba — and have the stories to prove it. Partaking in the pleasure of impromptu bar conversations with interesting people as the train slices into the night. The delight of other humans putting their best foot forward as you step out to dinner or tea in your happy clothes. All quietly celebrating our renewed lease of life.
I found myself unspooling gently, like the train. It was clearly a general feeling of wellbeing. I know this to be true because in the last hour of our 31-hour journey, as we approached Cape Town, the bonhomie and general cup-runneth-over feeling was palpable.
Two of the guests suddenly burst into song. Not any song mind you: traditional Chinese opera rang out in the carriage, a sweet duet from Oriental climes. The carriage was awed by the strange and lovely interlude and burst into joyous clapping. What a way to pull into the station.