Complete 1,300 word article, more pictures available
AFRICA'S LUXURY TRAIN
By Michael Algar
Pretoria, R.S.A. Acclaimed by some as the
world's leading luxury train, the Blue Train lives
up to its reputation in every way, despite being
only three-quarters the size of such rivals as the
Orient Expresses and India's Palaces on Wheels.
Not an inch of space is wasted. Everything has
been designed for maximum efficiency and
comfort for the no more than 76 or 84
passengers, depending on the train. There are in
fact two Blue Trains, each one carrying a
hospitality crew of 29 butlers, waiters, barmen,
chefs and managers. As well, there are two
technicians who keep watch on the train's many internal systems, and two locomotive drivers who
are relieved along with locomotive changes at various points along the way.
Room service is immaculate with all the touches expected of a first class hotel or cruise ship,
including laundry and valet services, even shoe shining. In their room, passengers can to take
charge of their own comfort with a remote control that operates everything from television and
radio to temperature and window blinds' angle.
The dining room serves superb meals, including such
South African specialities as crayfish tails and springbok
steaks, all freshly prepared with crisp salads, vegetables
and local fruit. South African wines, selected by an
acknowledged expert from hundreds of local vintages
accompany the meals and your waiter is only too pleased
to help with your selection. For example, when I asked
for a South African port to accompany the cheese
selection, Jeremia, our butler gently insisted I try
something different: a Constantia dessert wine. Coffee
and liqueurs are served in the two lounges, one of which
is a smoking car and provides excellent complementary
Cuban cigars, while our butlers assemble beds concealed during the day in the cabin walls. Those
same beds were returned to their daytime position while we breakfasted the following morning.
Our adventure started at 10 am on a Monday morning in Cape Town's central station. Luggage
was whisked away and we were ushered into the spacious Blue Train departure lounge, where our
butlers for the trip were circulating with champagne and canapés. As the train glided out of the
station we took up our seats in the observation car for views of the port city, with Table
Mountain as a breathtaking back-drop. Soon, with the mountain view receding, we entered the
Paarl valley with its vineyards and orchards and pretty villages of white-clad houses, and flowers
Lunch time brought us to the farms of the beautiful Hex River Valley, surrounded by the blue
Drakenstein Mountains. When the landscape was interrupted by a series of tunnels we emerged to
find ourselves in an entirely different landscape. Now, 3,000 feet above sea level we had arrived
on the edge of the Karoo, that vast plateau of semi-desert which covers two-thirds of South
A vista of sand, rocks and low shrubs, the Karoo seemed almost devoid of life. We saw only a
couple of zebras but none of the Merino sheep which graze here and which provide the famed
Karoo lamb which graced the lunch menu.
Late afternoon brought us to Matjiesfontein and an hour-long visit to this
living museum, a Victorian town which had been developed as a health
resort for those in need of the warm, dry air. While others explored the
town, I made a quick tour of the railway museum then met with one of
the train's technicians, who was only too happy to tell me some its inner
secrets. I was surprised when Henk told me that three different sets of
electric locomotives, which receive current from overhead cable are
employed on various divisions along the way, while one stretch uses
diesel power. While capable of higher speeds, all maintain a standard
speed of 60 miles per hour.
Our train was completely rebuilt in 1995, while her sister went into service three years later. As
well as a completely renovated interior, mechanical improvements included a suspension and
coupling system similar to that used on Japan's high speed trains to provide a vibration-free ride.
Train sets comprise 11 guest cars, staff and baggage cars as well as lounges, the dining car and
kitchen and a power car with two diesel generators, of which one is always on standby, to provide
lighting, heat and cooling, while the kitchen uses propane stoves and microwaves. Each
compartment has its own air circulating system and temperatures are maintained at around 70degF,
but floor heating units can deal with any cold spell.
South Africa's train services started in the 1860's when the overland journey by ox-cart from Cape
Town across the uninviting Karoo to what was soon the become the gold and diamond rich Reef
took as long as the sailing ship voyage from England to the Cape. Soon, railway developers
adopted a 3 ft 6 in gauge as being more economical and suitable for the mountainous terrain than
the world standard of 4 ft 8in thus posing some challenges for future passenger train designers.
Those first steam trains would run the thousand mile journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg
and Pretoria in two days, but they were dirty and uncomfortable, alternatively too hot or too cold.
Since the increasingly wealthy class was prepared to pay for the kind of service they had
experienced as first class passengers on mail ships to the Cape, the railways responded with
one-class Limited Expresses and, in 1928, articulated trains with dining cars and other facilities
were introduced. With a blue and cream livery in place of the lines' drab brown, they became
known as "those blue trains."
After World War 11, the now formally named Blue Trains
evolved into what we experienced today, but the advent of air
transportation very much changed their purpose. Today's service
is a tourist attraction, limited to a three trips each week between
Cape Town and Pretoria, as well as the weekly "Garden Route"
train to Port Elizabeth. Sadly, the political climate has led to
suspension of the international service from Pretoria, through
Botswana and Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls, but there is an
occasional charter service between to Pretoria and Hoedsprit
close to the game reserves bordering the Kruger Park.
Breakfast found us a mile above sea level when we passed through many communities, some
prosperous, some with abandoned railway stations. Approaching Pretoria, shanty towns show an
entirely different side of South Africa from the luxurious Blue Train.
Rates start at $1,300 for two persons occupying one room, or $1.,000 for one person, but an
overnight hotel stay at the destination is included and discounts on other bookings in South Africa
are available. Expensive, yes, but there is no better all-inclusive way to travel from the Cape to
Pretoria and the nearby game reserves and parks. Doing it again, though, I would probably
substitute the return journey from Pretoria because it provides a brief excursion to Kimberley and
the huge mine that played such an enormous role in South Africa's prosperity. A small thing,
perhaps, but I would be sure to take an overnight bag for use on board, stowing the rest of our
gear in the baggage car. (Really those are 3/4 size cabins.)
IF YOU GO: For more information on the Blue Trains, visit www.bluetrain.co.za and for
information on South Africa visit www.southafrica.net or or contact South African Tourism, 500
Fifth Avenue; Suite 2040 New York NY 10110, tel 212-730-2929