South Africa’s Blue Train
By Phoebe Smith | August 2019 | 5 minute read
Now offering its Cape Town to Pretoria train journey as a two-night experience, South Africa's Blue Train is embracing the trend for so-called 'slow' travel.
Palace on wheels
There’s something mesmerising about the sound of a train pushing its way along a track. I remember when I was a little girl, my mother would tell me to listen carefully to hear the locomotive talking to itself, uttering the words ‘I think I can, I know I can’ as it went.
As I got older trains somehow lost their magic, being merely a means to an end, crammed full of commuters. So when I received an invitation to travel across the expanse of South Africa on a two-night journey by rail it was – perhaps understandably - met with a certain amount of trepidation. But this was no ordinary train.
First established back in 1923 as the Union Express, it was a vital link between Johannesburg and Cape Town, allowing post to reach the waiting mail ships.
The journey back then was all about function until, following a suspended service during WWII, it was resurrected in 1946 with its distinct blue-and-cream livery, a luxury overhaul and a new name – The Blue Train. This was to be a true ‘palace on wheels’ and large on luxury.
From the private lounge at Cape Town station, where we toast with pink Champagne as a jazz musician plays the saxophone, a blue-blazered butler leads me to my cabin. He opens the door to reveal a sumptuous suite consisting of two large armchairs that fold into twin beds, a table where a bottle of fizz chills, and a bathroom complete with a walk-in shower.
But the real show-stopper is the huge picture window that makes the in-room entertainment system instantly redundant.
Five-star on the move
As we roll out of the city, with the cloud spooling over the top of Table Mountain, the urban sprawl gives way to farmland, vineyards and mountain passes. I’m mesmerised by the ever-changing palette – from greens to golds, grape to granite.
“It used to be a bit of a rushed journey – luxurious but fast,” explains the train manager as we sit in the lounge car enjoying an aperitif before dinner.
“Now, however, with the two-night journey time. it’s about allowing guests to have the space to properly unwind.”
The food is as glorious as the scenery. Dishes of smoked salmon, pan-fried steak and biltong flakes are whipped out from a kitchen smaller than my cabin, each paired with lovely local wines and followed by a dessert bonanza of chocolate cigars, hot fudge pudding and deconstructed lemon meringue.
Despite the mesmerising flavours, I can’t help but gaze out at the mountains as we reach the Karoo plateau, where the grey is transformed into pink as dusk falls.
I wake early, raise my blind and lie in bed, simply watching the world go by. Breakfast is not at a set time so I head to the dining car when I feel hungry and later call my butler for an in-room coffee.
The one stop on this journey is at Kimberley, famed for its diamond mines. A waiting tour bus whisks us away from the train to the Big Hole. This massive mining crater is 214 metres deep and filled with water that has a surface area the same size as five football fields.
As I look down at this man-made excavation I notice my usual hurried pace has been replaced by a much more laid-back meander – it’s as though I’m channelling the speed of the train despite having left it. By the time I step back onboard I’m ready to do more of what this whole experience is about – nothing at all.
I head to the observation car at the back of the train and, with a drink in hand, watch the setting sun. My journey will come to an end the following morning, rolling back towards the urban, as I pass through Johannesburg to end in Pretoria. From there I will head four hours west, for a safari in Madikwe Reserve. But you can combine the Blue Train with Kruger National Park, the Garden Route along the Eastern Cape, as well as the Hoedspruit and Sabie areas of the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal.
For now, I watch a cluster of pink flamingos on the lake. With our increasingly fast-paced lives, slow travel offers something that no other experience really can; the chance to disconnect from technology, to reconnect with the landscape, and to realise that the journey really can be the destination.
More slow South Africa
A sidecar tour from Cape Town: Someone else worries about the driving while guests simply sit back and take in the sights, smells and sounds as the little motorcycles travel down the coast at a leisurely speed, taking in views (including a stop for a Champagne breakfast), Victorian seaside towns and South African penguins at Boulders Beach, before ending with a toast and local wine in Stellenbosch.
A multi-day safari: Just four hours on good roads from Jo’burg is Madikwe Nature Reserve, a place where the Magnificent Seven roam – including elephant, rhinos, lion, buffalo, leopard, cheetah and African wild dog. Royal Madikwe Lodge is situated by a prime waterhole where, after undertaking sunrise and sunset drives, guests are encouraged to grab a sundowner and watch the wildlife come to them.
Tuk-tuk tour in Soweto: Sick of being gawped at by coach tour tourists snapping photos of them as though on a human safari, locals in Soweto decided it was time for a change and provide a more authentic experience. Buying a fleet of bikes and three tuk-tuks, they now offer visitors a local view of the famous township, telling stories and offering the chance to actually meet and talk to the locals too.
Where to book it
Carrier has a seven-night Window to the Soul of South Africa holiday priced from £3,185pp, based on two adults sharing. It includes two nights’ B&B in a one-bedroom luxury apartment at More Quarters in Cape Town, two nights’ full-board in a Deluxe Suite on The Blue Train from Cape Town to Pretoria, two nights’ all-inclusive in a Luxury Suite at Royal Madikwe Luxury Safari Lodge and one night B&B in a Luxury Suite at The Saxon Boutique Hotel & Spa in Johannesburg. Plus fast track service and lounge access at Heathrow, return flights with South African Airways and private road transfers within the destination.