Blue Notes

South Africa: The luxurious and anachronistic Blue Train takes passengers into the heart of a country of vivid contrasts.

May 13, 2001|By John Murphy | By John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

It is late afternoon, and my wife and I are sitting in soft lounge chairs and sipping cocktails from crystal glasses. Outside our window, the dry, golden grasslands of the karoo, interrupted only by windmills and abandoned farmhouses, stretch out for miles as if reaching into another day. Here, deep in the heart of South Africa's outback, the landscape is almost like a meditation, relaxing in its sameness.

But the spell is broken when, out of nowhere, an ostrich appears, running madly within several yards of our window. Its gangly legs trot at top speed. Its wings flap, as if the flightless bird had dreams of taking to the air. Our butler tells us there's a good chance of spotting springbok as well. He's right. My wife, Rena, who has developed a ranger's eye for wildlife, is the first to point out a group of these wily, leaping antelope on a nearby hill. The karoo comes alive and we are on the edge of our seats, wondering what we'll see around the next bend.

We are not traveling on safari, or staying in a five-star hotel. We are crossing South Africa on the Blue Train, the most luxurious railway journey on the African continent -- and some might argue the world.

At moments like this, we agree -- it's the best ride around. At other times during our journey, the government-owned Blue Train felt more like a colonial-era relic resting on its reputation for luxury, but more on that later.

Our 812-mile journey took us from the beautiful southern coastal city of Cape Town through the rich vineyards of South Africa's wine country, over mountains, across the karoo, past villages and townships to the end of the line in the historic South African capital, Pretoria.

During our 26 hours on board we not only got to see ostrich and springbok, we got to taste them as well. Both animals appear on the Blue Train's African wildlife-inspired menu. We sat in the grand observation car and watched the landscape slip by. We drank cocktails in the lounge. And at night we retired to our private suite where we fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the cars on the tracks.

The Blue Train is by far the slowest way to get from Cape Town to Pretoria. You can fly the same distance in less than two hours, and you could drive it in one very long day. But the Blue Train has never been about how fast you reach your destination; it's about how comfortable you are along the way.

The luxury train has its roots in South Africa's wild days of diamond and gold mining in the 19th and early 20th centuries. British mining giant and politician Cecil John Rhodes dreamed of a railway that would connect Cape Town to Cairo. His vision was never realized, but he did help lay tracks as far north as Victoria Falls and the Congo.

In the early days of African rail travel, journeys were about delivering supplies and shipping cargo to and from the mining towns. But as more wealthy fortune seekers arrived on the continent, a new breed of trains with showers, dining cars and card rooms developed to cater to these high-class clients.

By the 1930s, all steel, air-conditioned trains from England appeared in South Africa. Their blue and gray finish caught the attention of residents who referred to them as "those blue trains." After World War II, that nickname was made official, and the luxurious railway line was called the Blue Train.

Since then, the train's reputation for first-class service, comfort and luxury has grown. The Blue Train has been consistently rated one of the top train journeys in the world, ranked alongside the Orient Express. Although the Cape Town to Pretoria route remains the most popular, the train also offers journeys to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Kruger National Park and the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.

High expectations

I was traveling with my wife, my mother-in-law from New York and her friends, Phyllis and Jerry, also from New York, who were on a two-week vacation in South Africa.

At the Cape Town train station, a man dressed in a leopard-skin pattern vest and white gloves greeted us and took our baggage. The 18-car train is like a first-class hotel on wheels. There is a wood-paneled club car for smokers, a lounge car where tea is served, a dining car, and the observation car. Inside our wood-paneled suite, a fruit plate and fresh flowers awaited us. Each suite has fold-down beds, a television, telephones, motorized Venetian blinds and complimentary robe and slippers with the Blue Train logo. The bathroom floors are made of Italian marble.

A letter personally signed by the train manager on the table promised: "Your comfort is our sole concern."

Each sleeping car has its own butler. Our butler, Terrence, was at our beck and call -- to do laundry, press clothes and turn down the bed sheets in the evening. His main duty, however, appeared to be monitoring the toilet paper rolls in all the sleeping car's bathrooms. He would fold the leading toilet paper square into a triangle and then pin it down with a shiny sticker with the Blue Train emblem, a golden "B."

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