Steel Safari

Blue Train Diary – South Africa’s Famous Blue Train

Blue Train tickets and itinerary

Trains started running north from Cape Town to Pretoria back in the 1890s. The Union Ltd and the Union Express would take miners and millionaires alike north to the diamond mines of Kimberley and the goldfields of the Witwatersrand. With the millionaires’ money came the demand for luxury. By the 1930s, the trains, painted in a smart blue livery, had every conceivable comfort. It was only in 1946 however that the train became known as the Blue Train. And it was 1997 before it was completely overhauled to become the type of service it is today, a regular luxury link between Cape Town and Pretoria that has become a staple of many South African holidays. Today, South Africa’s Blue Train is recognised as one of the finest luxury train trips in the world.

Day 1

5.45am Wake up call. Far too early, but the hotel is being super-efficient. There could be a traffic jam getting into Cape Town and I don’t want to miss the train.

06.27am I leave the hotel 3 minutes ahead of schedule – this never happens! My taxi driver reminds me that today is a holiday, called because of the elections. We whistle into town at record speeds and I am 45 mins early for check-in at Cape Town station. No matter. I may be sleep-deprived but there are smiling attendants in pristine uniforms to tag my bags and show me to a comfy armchair.

7.50am I have a cup of tea, have met up with Rod and Jan from Essex who were in the same hotel last night and there are mimosas on offer. Other travellers are beginning to drift in. Muzak is burbling away over the speakers and smoked salmon canapés have appeared on a nearby table. Outside, Cape Town station is incredibly ugly and really rather empty for such a major city.

Shot of the front of the Blue Train, taken through the dining car window

The Blue Train, through the dining car window

8.40am The train purrs into the station. It is a lovely shade of cobalt blue. The staff don white gloves and line up ready to escort us on board. I half expect them to burst into song. My suite seems unbelievably luxurious but is one of the standard ones. They apparently come bigger and better still. It is wood paneled with marquetry inlay, a sofa, fold-down double bed, TV (for movies), armchair and table. It even has a full en suite bathroom, complete with bath.

9.00am I am visited in quick succession by Angela, my beaming personal butler, Herbert the Rooms Manager and Mosa the Train Manager, all of whom enquire tenderly about my personal wellbeing. I feel cherished. I also learn how to work the TV and the electronic blinds. I am informed that all drinks are included except imported champagne. Tamely I settle for orange juice, which arrives in a crystal tumbler.

 11.00am We are winding through the Winelands mountains. It is incredibly beautiful and a stunning day. There is a real frustration that the windows are not the sort you can open and lean out to take photos! I’m loving the luxury but for photographic purposes remember back fondly to the rickety Nairobi-Mombasa train in Kenya, when we opened the door and sat on the step.

11.30am It’s time for brunch. Time to explore the dining car with its crisp white linen, silver service and murals of trees. Rod and Jan have taken pity on a single traveller and invited me to sit with them. Any relationship to breakfast in the brunch menu is purely coincidental. I have mushroom quiche, biltong dusted veal and chocolate and orange tart.

12.30 Coffee in the lounge car. I end up having a long conversation with Oscar the barman about Zimbabwe. I should be working but this is far more interesting. And he makes a great cup of coffee.

1.30pm On my way back to my suite, I make a quick stop at the boutique to drool over the tanzanite. When I win the lottery…

2.15pm We arrive in Matjiesfontein on the edge of the Karoo. We are 15 minutes early – what is it about today? This is where we get our outing off the train. A whole hour to explore with a 10-minute guided tour. I’m not going to describe it in detail as it would spoil the fun for future travellers but it involves a big red London bus, a large man in a bowler hat, plentiful quantities of sherry, some amazing colonial architecture, a honkytonk piano and a bank.

3.30pm Back on board it’s time for more food. High tea is served in the lounge car. We all say we are just going to have a cup of tea, but the cucumber sandwiches, cream scones and chocolate cake prove too much for the willpower and the table slowly empties. I stay and talk to Mary from Melbourne and others join in. This is a very friendly train with a good crowd on board.

5.57pm Sunset over the Karoo. The sky is vast and the most amazing colour, changing from apricot to scarlet to purple and a deep indigo above. There are a few streaky clouds on the horizon, just enough to add texture to the display. With a sky this clear, there will be the most astonishing display of stars tonight. We aren’t far from the home of South Africa’s Large Telescope at the moment.

7pm Yet more food. Dinner time and Melbourne Mary has joined our table. Everyone has put on the glad rags. Another wonderful if giant meal with a distinctly South African theme – springbok shank followed by rooibos pannacotta served in a chocolate potjie. Wide-ranging conversation includes the benefits of baobab as a superfruit, Ataturk and the Armenian question, and the beneficial effects of a bowtie as a sales tool.

9.30pm Early to bed. Everyone tired after the early start. Wonderful to lie in bed reading my book, gently rocked, listening to the tackety-tackety whoosh of the train on the track.

Day 2

2.38am Middle of the night wakies. There’s a full moon! I wish I could leave the blinds open but there are stations along the way. I lie and luxuriate in my double bed and the night sky for a bit before tucking myself back in.

7.07am The morning light is golden but it’s falling on the Caltec garage and Connie’s Wheel Alignment. The scenery is far more built-up now. Are we already at the edge of the Gauteng conurbation?

The lounge car on the Blue Train

The lounge car on the Blue Train

9am I wander through for breakfast. Fruit salad, eggs benedict and cappuccino. I get chatting – it’s inevitable on this train. The train stops – a freight train ahead has broken down. No one minds. As long as people don’t miss their flights, they are happy to stay on board.

10.30am Back in my suite, there’s a small present waiting for me to say thank you for travelling on the train. I should be the one saying thank you. I finally settle down to my notes.

12.30pm An announcement that we will be arriving in 10 minutes and then suddenly we are there and it’s all over. As I walk across the station past the local metro trains, I feel like Cinderella at the end of the ball.

Practical Details:

Routes: The Blue Train runs regularly between Cape Town and Pretoria with occasional trips between Pretoria and Durban and Pretoria and the Pilanesburg National Park.

The trains: There are two train sets, one with 74 guests in 37 suites. The second accommodates 58 guests in 29 suites. It travels at 90 kms per hour.

Prices: prices start at R12,280 per person sharing, all inclusive, low season (1 January to 31 August and 16 November to 31 December), 2012 prices.

Web: Blue Train

This article was first published on in 2011. Melissa travelled on the Blue Train on a complimentary basis as a professional travel writer.




Kenya’s new railway … but will they write poems?

train carriages going through the African bush

This week, the tender documents went out for Kenya’s new railway – a second standard gauge railway line between Mombasa and Nairobi. There will also be a link from the city centre to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi and future plans to extend the line to Kisumu and on to Uganda. Journey times to the coast will drop from a rickety 14 hours (if you are lucky) to around three hours.

They aren’t hanging around with the building either. The aim is to get the whole thing up and running within three years. The budget is around 340 billion Kenya shillings (about £2.5 billion/$4 billion). It’s being financed by a loan from the African Development Bank and a 1.5% tax on all imported goods. Needless to say, the Chinese are in control of development.

The grand plan

Look a bit further afield and this is just one cog in a far grander plan for the railways in East Africa. The vast new and improved web of lines being planned calls for development on a scale that has not been seen since the empire-builders first swept into town in the 1890s. Existing lines will be upgraded. New lines will fill in obvious gaps, such as a connection between Kenya and Tanzania. However the bigger projects will take new lines north to South Sudan and Ethiopia, inland to Rwanda and Burundi, with a projected new high speed line connecting Lamu’s new deep-water port with central Africa. There is even a mooted plan to cross Africa with a high-speed link and two deep-water ports, thereby cutting out the long Cape sea route.

A lot of buts…

It’s all incredibly exciting to watch and could transform the continent. But – and there are a lot of buts – at the moment, Africa’s rickety railways are slow and stop a lot. They are also incredibly cheap. Where passenger trains run, which sadly isn’t everywhere, they are crucial arteries for local communities and traders. High-speed lines are being built for freight. If passengers are considered at all, tickets will be expensive and stops will be infrequent. These new lines are railways for developed nations. The poorest people still need those lifelines. And while the trains themselves will undoubtedly be safer, they may not be safer for the wildlife and people who live along the tracks. Hitting an elephant at 180 kph is no laughing matter. There are serious ecological implications to a route that runs right through the Tsavo National Park.

The Lunatic Line

Personally, my biggest query hanging over Kenya’s new railway is – will it have a soul? Clanky it may be, but I’ve never forgotten my journeys on the Jambo Express Deluxe, carefully timing the soup between jolts so as not to pour it down my front, sitting on the steps of the open door taking photos and chatting to local women in the stations as we passed. This line, from Mombasa to Nairobi, down the sheer wall of the Rift Valley and on to Lake Victoria, is one of the great historical railways of the world. It was christened ‘the Lunatic Line’ in a satirical poem of 1896 when it set off across virgin bush towards the source of the Nile, absentmindedly founding Kenya along the way. Thousands died in its construction, including 142 Indian railway workers eaten by the notorious maneating lions of Tsavo. One is now on display, stuffed in Chicago’s Field Museum (lion, that is, not railway worker)! There’s a fabulous little Railway Museum next to Nairobi station filled with stories, photos and memorabilia.

Will they write poems?

So, Rift Valley Railways, when building your new and undoubtedly necessary fast track , please don’t forget the people, the animals and the history. I’m not for one moment suggesting you allow any of your workers to get eaten for the story. That wouldn’t be nice. But alongside the high speed services, please run stopping services for the villagers and on the front, use the old Uganda railway cars and let nostalgic tourists continue to wave to children, take pictures of zebras and spill Brown Windsor soup off crested spoons. Above all, make sure that Kenya’s new railway, like the old one, has a soul about which people wish to sing. In your planning, pause for a moment and ask yourselves – will they write poems?

man watching out of a train window

Looking for lions as the Jambo Express Deluxe crosses Tsavo – on board the Nairobi-Mombasa railway.


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