It’s 1,600 kilometres from Cape Town to Pretoria, a journey that takes 28 hours and 20 minutes on a train rolling along at a leisurely 90km per hour. But when it’s the Blue Train, with so much history and prestige wrapped up in the experience, this is a day and a half to savour.
The Blue Train has its roots in Cecil Rhodes’ dream of a railway line “from Cape Town to Cairo”. It was an ambition worthy of a young nation awash with money from goldfields and diamond mines. The grand plan never eventuated, but the railway built to carry mining magnates from Johannesburg and Kimberley to the port of Cape Town was remarkably successful. These tycoons could afford luxury, so a dining car was introduced in 1933, the world’s first. That was followed by air-conditioning in 1939, again leading the world.
The line formally took the name Blue Train in 1946 and was refurbished and relaunched in 1997. Today, the old colonial atmosphere of the train masks high-tech features such as the carriage stabilisation system that prevents our champagne flutes rattling.
Stepping out of a taxi at the Blue Train’s reception area is like arriving at a five-star hotel. Suitcases are whisked away and champagne appears in the VIP Lounge before David our butler shows us to our cabin. There are 52 passengers on board and our cabin is a perfect luxury hotel room in miniature with fresh flowers and a comfortable lounge that gives no indication it will be transformed into a dreamy double bed while we are at dinner. The birchwood panelling, leather upholstery and brass fittings are beautiful. Our television provides movies, GPS data or a view of the line ahead, we have WiFi, air-conditioning and a heated floor if the weather turns cold. The bathroom features a marble floor, gold fittings and a full-sized bath. Cecil Rhodes would have been very comfortable here.
There are, in fact, two Blue Trains, each departing Pretoria and Cape Town on Monday, Wednesday and Friday throughout the year. The train from Pretoria features a conference car instead of an observation car, some wheelchair capability and a capacity of 80 passengers.
We watch Cape Town recede as our journey begins, an excellent view of Table Mountain through the picture window as we sip tea and nibble canapés in the observation car. Lunch is like dining inside an exquisite jewel box. Our leisurely three-course meal offers African game such as ostrich, crocodile and impala, perfectly cooked, well presented and matched with quality South African wines.
The service on board is all about relaxed elegance, which makes the 45 minute stop in Matjiesfontein all the more surprising. It could have been scripted for a comedy show, with a three-minute bus tour before we are deposited at the Lord Milner Hotel. Kipling, Churchill and Rhodes have long left this bar, but their spirits remain. While emptying our monogrammed souvenir sherry glasses, we learn the rich history of the town, founded in 1884 to supply water to the railway. It reinvented itself as popular Victorian health retreat and, during the Boer War, 10,000 British troops were stationed here and the Lord Milner became a military hospital. Today, it’s a popular stopover for the Blue Train – northbound only as the train from Pretoria stops at a Kimberley diamond mine.
Fine dining on board
The Blue Train journey is one of transformation. The dress code aboard is smart-casual as we take in the scenery of the Hex River Valley and the Karoo, but as the sun sets it’s time to change for dinner. It’s clearly stipulated that: “Dinner is an elegant affair and men are requested to wear a jacket and tie and ladies elegant evening wear”.
There is certainly a sense of style over drinks in the lounge bar before dinner. The dining car is formally set with linen, crystal and silverware. Leon, our waiter, a 17-year Blue Train veteran, delivers an outstanding four-course meal. All the food is freshly prepared.
After dinner, we retire to the observation car for an evening pot of tea and then it’s time for bed. Our room has been transformed, the doona-covered double bed complete with slippers and dressing gowns. The rhythm of the train lulls us to sleep.
We wake to sunrise over farmlands then luxuriate in a hot morning bath as the countryside rolls past. After breakfast there is time for shopping in the train boutique, so diminutive that only two shoppers can fit inside at one time. The unique pieces for sale feature diamonds and gold, naturally.
With considerable regret, we enter Pretoria railway station several hours later, our rail journey over. We are given a small Blue Train travel clock as a memento, but the experience of this grandest of rail journeys will be equally enduring.