The Blue Train's route is the best of South African scenery. There's nothing like a train trip to remind you how beautiful this country is.
Behind the microphone in The Blue Train lounge at Pretoria Station, Siya Mbambo takes on the aspect of a stand-up comedian, rather than the manager of one of the world’s most iconic luxury trains.
“My name is Siya,” he begins, “But I don’t like to say that too loudly in Cape Town…”
That brings guffaws of laughter from the whole room and even more from The Sharks contingent, when he adds: “and I am from KwaZulu-Natal, actually…” As he makes other announcements, he is greeted with clapping and even some cheering. “This normally never happens, that people applaud when I say that…”
This then is not your normal pre-boarding for The Blue Train (and the words MUST ALL start with capital letters, insists parent company Transnet). Two years ago, there would have been murmured moneyed conversations among the foreigners for who the R30 000+ asking price for two days of travelling and pampering would not have been excessive.
The Blue Train. Picture: Brendan Seery
And it isn’t – in dollars, euros, pounds or yen. South Africans, apart from the staff, though, would
have been few and far between on South Africa’s most prestigious piece of railway equipment.
Siya is chest-burstingly proud of The Blue Train which, he says, has been the model on which other luxury trains of the world have been built. “Only,” he adds, with a mischievous grin, “They cannot
have a Siya … they cannot be what we are as the people of this country; they cannot have what we have around us.”
The Blue Train is a South African icon – up there with Nelson Mandela, the Big Five and Table Mountain. Up until now – the Age of Covid – the experience has been out of reach of most South Africans. The virus and global lockdowns have devastated the train’s foreign visitor numbers, meaning Transnet needs to get local “bums in beds”.
So, after The Blue Train recently re-opened for business, there were, and still are, incredible bargains to be had for those South Africans wanting an all-important tick on that bucket list.
Make no mistake, this train journey is not cheap – but you can get a price as low as R12 500 per
person sharing (not on the official site, though, it must be said), which includes a return flight to
your departure city or, for a little bit more, an extra hotel night or two.
Factor in the exquisite, world class fine dining experience – at breakfast, lunch and supper (along with high tea in the afternoons) – and the fact that the price includes all drinks, with the exception of French champagne; then the price starts to look reasonable.
This, after all, is a globally competitive five-star experience … at least that is what the marketing hype says. Judging by the fact that the passenger complement for our trip to Cape Town was about 90% full (and only myself and a German TV crew were there as journos), then already a lot of locals are taking advantage of the bargains.
That meant that, unusually, there were some older children, travelling with their parents, on board.
And, of course, being South Africans, this guaranteed that the normally sedate journey would be anything but for many of those travellers.
On a train, with unlimited booze, what’s there that South Africans will not love with a passion? Some of the staff confided that the foreigners – older, well-heeled and well-travelled – don’t often get down for a “party”, whereas the local one which rolled through the Club Car only finished after 2am.
But it was more than the thirst which gave this trip its South African flavour. Never mind that the
“house rules” stipulate that dress is “smart casual” during the day and “elegant formal” for dinner, it was apparent that smart casual for many was shorts without holes in them.
Then there was the typical South African penchant to say “howzit” to fellow travellers and strike up a conversation. That’s something I’ve seen before when I’ve been abroad – and it’s something other nations often look at with envy.
Travel should be about more than just the journey, the food and the excursions, it should be about the conversations, meeting new people and learning things.
South Africans are the world’s best travel companions in that sense…
As an experience, The Blue Train more than lives up to its billing. Despite the relaxed approach to smart casual, everybody took dinner seriously and the dining car – with two “sittings” every evening – looked every centimetre like a Parisian restaurant.
Etched glass partitions separated tables set with silver cutlery. To me, admittedly not a gastronome, the food was exquisite.
A piece of pan-fried beef fillet was easily among the top three pieces of meat I have eaten in my life and when I asked to see the chef, who turned out to be Executive Chef Cresan Ramjathan, he shared a secret with me: “We take it off and let it rest for a few minutes.”
My next dinner party trick right there. The wine list ran to four pages and confirmed the framed award in the lounge bar – for excellent wine selection – was justified.
The suites – there are two levels of luxury – were close to being the last word in luxury on rails. All the fittings are plated in 24-carat gold, while the upholstery and bedding is straight out of a five-star hotel. And there is nothing quite like rocking to sleep in a gently rolling train carriage.
To see whether Siya’s original boast still holds up, I went onto YouTube and looked at some other famous luxury trains. The Venice Simplon Orient Express is immaculate – but no better than The Blue Train. And its base level compartments are far smaller than those on The Blue Train and don’t have private bathrooms.
Ditto with the accommodation on The Ghan, the jewel in the crown of the train network in Australia. American and Canadian luxury train travel doesn’t come close.
The route is billed as the best of South African scenery … and there is nothing like a long train trip to
remind you how achingly beautiful this country can be. Also, there is nothing like a train trip to remind you that we “face challenges” as a country.
We left late because there was an accident on the line near Olifantsfontein and further derailments happened ahead. That, along with interminable delays because of the crumbling rail infrastructure, brought on “arrival anxiety” for us as we were booked to fly back to Joburg when we reached Cape Town.
We made it, but the worry put a damper on things. Top tip: don’t fly back the same day. Stay over, it’s much less stressful.
We were also told to use water sparingly because, when the train stopped to replenish in Klerksdorp, there “was no water”.
Dave from Durbs was a lot more phlegmatic about the delays – his attitude was that at least they kept us informed. He was retired and for him and partner Marianne, the journey (and the conversation) was more important than the destination.
Still, the delays meant we had less than an hour to tour the Big Hole at the stop in Kimberley.
These days, a 13.5km long tunnel puts paid to the most spectacular part of the rail journey to the Cape – and one I looked forward to as a boy – the twisting and turning through the Hex River Valley, surely one of the most beautiful places in the world. The Tulbagh Pass is still impressive – but some things are better when you’re young.
Then again, there was also the near full moon, draped with thin clouds rising right outside the carriage windows as my wife and I celebrated our anniversary in glamorous style, rocking gently through the Karoo darkness.
Bucket list tick. The Blue Train is proof South Africans can compete with and beat the best in the world … yet the world outside can bring you back to reality.
If you can afford it, get it while you can, because there is nothing quite like it. The foreign travelers will start coming back next year and these prices will vanish like an early winelands mist as the sun peeps over the mountains and glints along the rails…