On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

I took a pinch of biltong between my fingers and stuffed into my mouth. The dry meat was salty, tangy, and really quite delicious: from across the Blue Train’s carriage, Vanessa nodded in approval at my reaction.

“See?” she said, taking a sip of her freshly mixed Bloody Mary through a long white straw. “That’s South Africa for you. Biltong and cocktails at ten in the morning.”

Behind her head, I watched the dry aridity of the African landscape as it zipped past through the windowpane. I felt pretty sure that an early morning snack of cured beef paired with alcohol wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when I thought about South Africa.

But then again, the country seems dead set on offering its guests the unexpected treatment.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

Getting to grips with the Blue Train

I’d only just met Vanessa and her husband when we clinked our glasses together in Pretoria to celebrate boarding the Blue Train. As native South Africans, they’d never ridden the train before – but the luxury locomotive’s 27 hour journey from Pretoria to Cape Town had finally proved too tempting to resist.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

From start to finish, riding the Blue Train is one of the most luxurious experiences I’ve ever had. It’s also one of the most bizarre.

Where else would you find a dedicated team of butlers ready to grant your every wish, a club car devoted entirely to cigar smoking, an observation car with floor to ceiling windows, an on-board jewellery shop, a black tie dinner service and unlimited, all-inclusive food and drink (the only exceptions being caviar and champagne), all on one train?

As soon as I’d learned the extent of the train’s amenities, drinking a Bloody Mary at 10am became totally acceptable.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

It’s difficult to know how to behave in this kind of environment though, particularly when you’re unused to such luxury.

On arrival at the station in Pretoria, greeted by bellhops who placed our bags onto trolleys and led us up a red carpet to the waiting lounge filled with blue upholstery, I could feel my palms sweating in the pockets of my unfamiliar blazer. If you haven’t noticed, my travel style is not exactly fancy: aged 27, I’m still most comfortable wearing a long vest, black leggings and scruffy dust-covered Toms.

But my trip through South Africa was about experiencing the country’s icons, and the Blue Train’s sheer opulence is undoubtedly one of them.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

As the train moved slowly out of Pretoria station I walked down the long, narrow corridor, trying to find my balance between the bumps. Each compartment doorway I passed gave me a further taste of this train’s luxury: the gold-edged window frames and scones; the expensively branded luggage; the dress jackets hanging on the backs of doors; the bottle of Veuve Clicquot nestled inside a silver ice bucket.

By the time I reached my own compartment, I was half-expecting to see a four poster bed with resident birds singing in the canopies. Trevor, the butler in charge of our train carriage, opened my door to a gorgeous little space; all mahogany wood and gold details, comfortable chairs, and fresh flowers and fruit on the table.

I could barely believe this was my pseudo-home for the next 27 hours.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

But once I started to explore the train properly, I realised that the obvious luxury – though incredible –  is only one part of the Blue Train experience.

A lowdown of life on board the Blue Train

For most passengers spending a day and night on the Blue Train, the journey is a chance to indulge in a way they don’t often have the chance to do: in a truly unique setting.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

Sitting in the leather backed chairs of the observation car, potted cactuses on every table, I looked out at views that could easily have been painted on the glass. There were crowds of flamingoes at the edge of a lake and impala herds hiding in the long grass, purple clouds floating languid in smoky skies and fields of crops moving in the breeze.

All of it was stunning, and completely captivating.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

And when I got a little peckish, I discovered there was no end to the food on offer: freshly baked cakes and muffins, platters of fruit, and a eventually a four course extravaganza that masqueraded as lunch.

I’m talking spicy grilled tubes of calamari; cauliflower and truffle soup; lattice of beef loin; and a vanilla soufflé. Plus a cheese plate to finish. Obviously.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

After lunch, most people retired to their compartments for a bit of a rest/food coma. I, however, had vowed early on that I’d stay awake as long as the daylight held – so I roamed the train’s single corridor and talked to whichever passengers I could find.

Guests and staff alike.

Who rides the Blue Train, exactly? 

Some guests were South Africans, others were from around the world, and most seemed to be on holiday – I think one couple was even enjoying their honeymoon. And in total opposition to my earlier thoughts, most people on board weren’t overly posh. Taking the train for the first time, they saw it as something special they were treating themselves to, and weren’t exactly planning to do the trip again.

Hence they were really pushing the boat (train?) out…

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

It felt reminiscent of a holiday atmosphere; a group of strangers bonding for a finite amount of time because they’re all in the same strange place together. The atmosphere of the Blue Train is relaxed enough that you feel People who chatted when we boarded were firm friends by the time dinner rolled around (a black tie affair which every passenger is expected to dress appropriately for).

Of course, the ‘let’s make the most of our money’ mindset had the ability to descend into some rather drunken behaviour – but luckily the team of dedicated staff also on board had it covered, discreetly chaperoning one man back to his compartment when he got a bit too rowdy. Which was only one example of why the Blue Train butlers were, to put it simply, incredible.

The staff of the Blue Train

Each train carriage has a butler dedicated to fulfilling every wish of the passengers residing within it – and I mean everything. One guest told me he’d forgotten to pack any dress trousers for the black tie dinner and had mentioned the problem to his butler, who appeared at his door a few hours later with a new pair, freshly pressed and in his size, with no explanation of how he’d managed it. Bear in mind there isn’t exactly a department store on board.

I’m definitely not used to being waited on in any aspect of my life and I honestly found the concept pretty uncomfortable, so the only thing I asked our butler Trevor about was his experience working on the train.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

At the same time as working, Trevor was studying for a Food and Beverage degree at university in Johannesburg and funding the course with his butler wages.

“Maybe I want to be a journalist – but I have to make money,” he told me, as he folded my bed back into the compartment wall with an expertise borne of repetition. Working as a Blue Train butler and talking to people from all over the world has only heightened his desire to travel. Now he’s considering eventual career paths in the USA and Dubai.

Down the corridor were the team of kitchen staff, headed by Esther the chef, who successfully cook and serve up four full meals (plus afternoon tea) for more than eighty guests and staff members, all from this tiny kitchen.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

Despite prepping for dinner, they let me take a quick peek around – and I mentally reiterated that I wouldn’t be able to hack the stress of working in a kitchen.

Not least because carrying multiple plates along a moving train’s narrow corridor is particularly impossible.

Sunrise, silence and reflections

My favourite part of the Blue Train’s journey, though, was at 6am, when I awoke to the carriage’s gentle rocking and forced my eyes open. The night before I’d decided I had to at least try and catch sunrise from the observation car.

I walked through the train slightly blearily, whispering hello to the butlers I encountered – all of whom looked a little confused to see me awake.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

Sitting in an armchair at the very back of the train, pressed up against the floor-to-ceiling window, I watched the early morning sunlight spark off the rails behind us; the dry gravelly scrubland, the lone lorries on the roads, waiting for the light to burst from behind the hillocks.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

Then all at once, sunlight flooded over my knees and across the carriage – and just like that, it was a new morning.

During 27 hours of riding the Blue Train, I learned to savour the slowness. Sitting by myself in that observation car at 6am, absorbing the sunshine and the near quiet, save for the rattling of the track.

My whole trip to South Africa was a lesson in slowing down, in fact. Training myself to be slow within a fast paced environment; absorbing at speed; searching out those moments of stillness and holding onto them.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

Later in the morning, my sense of quiet calm continued when the train stopped for a brief inspection and we walked down the platform to meet the men who look after the carriages. They were taking pride in their latest endeavour; a new lead locomotive in the same shade of royal blue that identifies every section of the Blue Train. Taking us along with its inaugural run.

“It’s from China, this one – but it used to be red. It’s been painted especially. So it’s part of the Blue Train forever now.”

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

On the platform stood Herbert Prinsloo, the train’s General Manager. He was overseeing the journey, and as we walked back towards our waiting carriages he spoke to us about the time he welcomed the former President Nelson Mandela on board; that despite the train’s tinted windows, he watched people waving from the track’s edges along the entirety of the Blue Train’s 1600 km route.

Hearing this made me more reflective, and as we pulled into Cape Town alongside a cloud-covered Table Mountain, I was immersed in thoughts about the townships that had flashed past the train carriages so fast that I caught little more than a mental snapshot; small shacks with outside toilets, bright clothes drying on barbed wire, a group of men fishing in a shaded stream.

I’m acutely aware that I’ll have to come back to South Africa and see it through a different lens, without a window and a track separating me from the people in these communities.

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

So what did I really make of the Blue Train?

Train travel is a hugely popular form of transport, particularly abroad. It connects you to the country you’re in, moves you along at a slow enough pace to take everything in – and when the luxury element is thrown in, it becomes something of a dream.

When I was handed my Blue Train ticket in Pretoria, it read ‘a window into the soul of Africa,’ and that’s exactly what the Blue Train is; an introduction through the most high-end, bizarre luxury to a country where the wealth gap is extremely pronounced. Spending 27 hours on a train like this gave me an insight into what travel can be like for the rich, made me feel incredibly privileged, and ultimately furthered my need to spend time on South African ground too, so I can get a more well-rounded perspective.

Next time I visit.

Have you ridden a luxury train before? Think you’d like to board the Blue Train? 

On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

NB: I rode the Blue Train as a guest of the South African Tourist Board and Ethos Marketing, and flew to South Africa thanks to South African Airways. I’m eternally grateful to all of them for preemptively believing that I’d be able to fit seamlessly into luxurious on-board society. I reckon I did alright. 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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28 Responses to On Board the Blue Train: Travelling in South African Luxury

  1. Kim April 30, 2015 at 11:11 am #

    Another well written blog. Somehow you capture the magic of travel.

    • Flora April 30, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

      Thanks so much Kim! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  2. Jenia April 30, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    Wow Flora – what an incredible account! We would classify ourselves as train travel enthusiasts, having grown up in Russia and over the years taking the trains in every country we’ve traveled to (if available.) I am preplexed as to how I’ve never heard of the Blue Train — but I know for sure (!) that we will be boarding one when we make it down to South Africa.

    • Flora April 30, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

      Strangely enough I’ve heard the same thing from other train lovers, Jenia – it’s not the most well known of luxury train journeys, but it’s definitely worth doing!

  3. theworldonmynecklace May 1, 2015 at 1:33 am #

    What a beautiful experience, a lot more luxurious than the kulula flights I usually take to Cape Town! I would definitely like to do this in the future 🙂

  4. Jessi P (2Feet1World) May 1, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

    Wow this looks so incredible! I love those quiet moments of beauty like the sunrise you saw – well worth an early wakeup 🙂

    • Flora May 28, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

      Getting up that early was definitely made slightly easier once I was sitting in the train carriage :p

  5. Nikita May 10, 2015 at 1:30 pm #

    I’m not sure how well I’d do in such a luxurious setting… Looks like you saw some beautiful sights though! And I completely understand your desire to not be separated from the people in the communities… But, as you said, there’s always next time!

  6. Kathryn May 15, 2015 at 2:52 am #

    This sounds amazing! One day I would love to experience this. You are an excellent write, taking us into the moments. The most recent overnight train I took was in Vietnam, and it was definitely the complete opposite of this haha 🙂

    • Flora May 28, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

      Thanks Kathryn! I still haven’t made it to Vietnam but I’ve heard the trains out there are a little less comfortable than the Blue Train 😛

  7. Cameron May 15, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Wow,what a great travel! I find here the beauty of nature.Thank you. Write more and more and inform me.

    • Flora May 28, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

      Will do, Cameron!

  8. ivy kriste May 21, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    Beautiful writing and pictures. Thanks for sharing

    • Flora July 8, 2015 at 7:22 pm #

      Thanks so much Ivy 🙂

  9. Kennedy June 20, 2015 at 8:51 pm #

    I never thought travelling in South Africa was that much enjoyable Flora. That’s why as i began reading this blog I thought it wasn’t real because i could not imagine. It’s an incredible post that makes anyone including me want to visit South Africa. I am already loving this blue train

    • Flora July 8, 2015 at 7:23 pm #

      That’s great to hear Kennedy – it really is such a gorgeous country! Hope you get to visit at some point 🙂

  10. Indrajit Gahlot June 23, 2015 at 7:18 pm #

    Wow and just wow!! I was actually staring wide- eyed and perplexed while reading your experience verbally lit! Thank you Flora for this amazing post! It’s all blue, beautiful and beguile! That’s the blue train. The rooms, food and accommodation are simply amazing.

    Will try it one day when I visit the cape country!

    • Flora July 8, 2015 at 7:24 pm #

      Let me know when you do visit South Africa, Indrajit – I’ll give you some tips if I can!

  11. Sara Essop July 20, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

    Sounds amazing. I live in South Africa and I haven’t been on the Blue Train although it is on my bucket list. I have been on Rovos Rail though and I loved it.

    • Flora July 22, 2015 at 6:13 pm #

      Hope you make it onto the Blue Train soon, Sara – I’m sure you’d love it!

  12. Savio Wong July 20, 2015 at 9:46 pm #

    Really enjoy this blog post. Train is my preferred mode of travelling. I find train travel prepares me much better both physically and psychologically for a new city. It affords me the time to adjust to the new setting, the freedom to roam and stretch my legs, and the perfect setting to interact with strangers.

    I really like how you capture the different aspects of the trip on the Blue Train: the travellers, the attendants, the food, the landscape, and the I particularly like how you articulate the tension for someone who is not used to luxury travel. It reminds me of doing Carribean cruises with my family. The food was great, the service was more than attentive, and it was luxurious but I learnt almost next to nothing about the locals. It’s just a different way of travelling.

    I have never ridden a luxury train but dream about the fun one could have on the Old Oriental Express. Actually, given a chance, I would have loved to do the Trans-Siberian Express. .

    Happy exploring.

    • Flora July 22, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

      I totally agree with you, Savio – if it was possible to take trains everywhere I really would! The Trans-Siberian is definitely on my list for the future too…

  13. The Vagabond Baker August 10, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

    Wow, just read this. I’m so envious! The Blue Train is high up on my train geek bucket list, it looks so fantastic!
    Such a thorough post too, now I totally want to do it! I reckon it’s a little out of my budget unfortunately. But oh to lounge on those armchairs with a tattered copy of the Agatha Christie novel (yes, this is my brain ticking over, musing the possibilities!).
    Sleeper trains are my ultimate transport, there is just no finer way to cross a country, it’s so romantic (in the travel sense). Even the tatty sleepers of Myanmar or the awesome Russian trains are as fabulous as the highly glamorous trains. I’d love to do at least one though!

    • Flora February 17, 2016 at 9:59 am #

      Hah I love the immediate thought process for your Blue Train experience though! It’s seriously such a stunning journey (I had to pinch myself multiple times throughout) – and although pricy it’s not overwhelming… If you can work it into an anniversary/birthday/honeymoon etc then it’s totally worth it 🙂

      I think I might have developed a lasting love for long haul train travel now though. Already planning what else I can do around the world!

  14. Shannon Kircher February 7, 2016 at 5:10 pm #

    Prepping to enjoy this journey in September! Thanks for sharing the experience – looks fabulous and I love the photos!

    • Flora February 17, 2016 at 9:59 am #

      Fantastic news, Shannon! I hope you have an amazing time 🙂

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