• On the rails

    Hopping aboard the iconic Blue Train in Cape Town, Richard Holmes travels from the coast to the capital
    On the rails

    I’m not sure who was more excited, my eight-year-old son or me. There, on Platform One of Cape Town station, stood our ride to Pretoria. Gleaming navy carriages disappeared into the bright sunshine, the huffing and wheezing of a shunting engine the soundtrack to the start of our journey. Ahead of us were three days on board The Blue Train, one of the world’s most famous luxury trains.

    Befitting the five-star experience offered on board, we did not have to wait on a cold platform bench for the conductor’s whistle. Rather, the staff at the comfortable Blue Train lounge, all red carpets and suited porters, welcomed us with warm smiles, boarding passes and a buffet of light snacks. Half an hour later, the whistle blew for boarding and we met our butler for the journey, who ushered us on board to explain the inner workings of our De Luxe Suite.

    While the Luxury Suites are larger (and more expensive), the De Luxe has more than enough room for two. Armchairs offer a comfortable space for relaxing and reading during the day, converting into twin-beds come evening.

    As the engine groaned forward and the train trundled slowly out of the city – right on time at 4 pm – we pored over the map of our route; three days and 1 600 kilometres of track bisecting South Africa. This classic cross-country run would take us through the scenic Cape Winelands, across the empty plains of the semi-arid Karoo and into the grasslands of the Highveld before tackling the crowded tracks of Gauteng and, finally, to Pretoria.

    Fine dining on the tracks

    By sunset we’re out in the Winelands, enjoying drinks in the spacious Lounge Car as we admire the trellised vineyards and the golden light on the sandstone of the Hottentots Holland Mountains.

    As we approach the Nuwekloof Pass and the Breede River Valley, dinner is served. When the train is full there are two sittings, and it’s a glamorous affair of linen napery and crystal glasses. Ladies are requested to wear elegant evening wear and men – even eight-year-old gentlemen – require jackets and ties. Suited and booted, my son and I revel in the old-world novelty of rattling through the countryside as our five course meal is served.

    It’s an impressive spread too. Salmon salad on micro-herbs to start, then soup, followed by the main courses of pepper-crusted venison or seared duck breast on Pommes Anna.

    The wine list is equally impressive and showcases some of South Africa’s finest cellars, both big-name brands and boutique pioneers. Happily, almost all of the drinks on board – bar French Champagne – are included in the fare.

    Be aware too, that there’s no separate menu for younger travellers. It’s made clear at the time of booking, but you’ll need a youngster with an adventurous palate.

    The next morning, we’ve exchanged vineyards for the wide scrub-covered plains of the Great Karoo. Over breakfast, and coffee in the comfortable Observation Car at the rear of the train, we spend the morning trading travel tales with the foreign guests on board.

    A touch of history

    The Blue Train traces its origins to the heady days of the late 1800s, when the discovery of gold and diamonds here brought fortune-seekers and diamond barons that were eager to stake their claim on the Highveld. The Union Limited and Union Express ferried passengers in great comfort from the mail ships of Cape Town harbour to the diggings inland. With the money flowing, the trains offered ever-more-impressive luxuries on board, from card tables and ceiling fans to running hot water. At the time, even five-star hotels on solid ground didn’t offer this innovation.

    It’s a history made real after lunch on the second day, as we slow to a halt at Kimberley’s historic station. This off-train excursion is a highlight of the Blue Train’s journey north, with guided tours taking passengers to the famed Big Hole. While the guides do rather enjoy the sound of their own voice, there’s plenty of interesting info to gather up. Stretching 463 metres across and 240 metres deep, the Big Hole was, remarkably, dug entirely by hand. There’s an excellent museum alongside, with diamond exhibits and historical artefacts to pore over.

    Too soon, we’re back on board and heading east again. We pass the famed Kamfers Dam, where thousand-strong flocks of flamingos are often seen, and into the russet grasslands of the Highveld.

    Over dinner – another five-course affair – we toast the last night on board with new Australian friends and a glass of the Cape’s finest. Rocked to sleep by the rolling of the tracks, we wake up to the outskirts of Gauteng, and a slow crawl through the commuter suburbs of Africa’s economic powerhouse.

    As we come to our final stop at Pretoria Station, we step straight from the train to the platform and into central Pretoria with a whole day ahead of us. A visit to the Union Buildings, perhaps, or to pay our respects at Freedom Park? Rietvlei Nature Reserve for a stroll, or Capital Craft for artisan beer? Or we could hop onto the high-speed Gautrain and be in Joburg in 30 minutes…

    From the heart of the Mother City right to the heart of South Africa’s capital, it’s no surprise that the world is beginning to rediscover the joys of travelling by train.

    Book The Blue Train

    Journeys include luxury accommodation, all meals, wine, beverages and off-train excursions. To book, visit bluetrain.co.za or call 012 334 8459.

     

    Day-trips by train

    If you don’t have time, or the budget, to embark on a multi-day rail adventure, book a ticket for these easy urban excursions…

    Winelands: Ceres Rail Company

    Enjoy a full-day adventure as restored steam locomotives pull your historic carriages through the Winelands. You’ll rumble through vineyards and wheat fields, and cross two memorable mountain passes en route to the farming town of Ceres. Enjoy lunch in town, or at the golf club, before returning the same afternoon.
    ceresrail.co.za

    Magaliesburg Express

    For train-fanatics staying in Johannesburg or Pretoria, rail enthusiast group Reefsteamers run full-day excursions to the Magaliesberg region west of the city. The trip departs from Johannesburg’s Park Station (also on the Gautrain network), with private compartments available for small groups. A comfortable lounge car sells a range of refreshments en route.
    reefsteamers.com

    Umgeni Steam Railway

    The Umgeni Steam Railway trains in KZN run on the last Sunday of each month, chuffing from Stoker’s Arms in the suburb of Kloof to the Inchanga station, where a pop-up market offers food and crafts stalls. A picnic area is available to enjoy a light bite before returning to Kloof.
    umgenisteamrailway.com

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