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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.