Expect the best from the best.
In the article linked above, I walk my blind friend through The Blue Train, back to front. Walk with us, imagine the grandeur and classy sophistication.
We were at a world renowned precinct, visited by 24 million people annually. It is called the V&A Waterfront, a working harbour with several shopping malls, roughly eighty restaurants, museums, cinemas, offices, residences over and above helicopter flights and ocean cruises from local sunset trips to ocean cruises, including the world’s largest liners. Tourists asked me if there was a travel agency and I said “NO.” They were taken aback, then I asked them to just look around them, saying “we are here already, where do we need to go to?”
I live in Cape Town, South Africa, one of the five most scenic cities in the world and the top travel destination in Africa. I am here to stay. Tourists sometimes ask me where I am from and I am quick to point out that I am a local tourist. That confuses them, so I explain that I must have a few thousand photos of Table Mountain alone. To do what with? Well, it was fun taking them! When asked if I travel, I say “of course!” When asked where I travel to, my answer is “Cape Town.
Let me explain: one an be born here, live here, see a new thing every day and still miss out on so much by age 85! The other day, a young tourist from Europe wrote on Facebook that she spent two very boring days in Cape Town….she must be very unimaginative as the world’s most scenic coastal rail route already was worth a day out on a Tourist Pass costing less than three United States Dollars? Nothing to do? Did she even put down her phone, detox from social media and noticed where she stayed – in beautiful Hout Bay where one won’t get bored for weeks on end, too much to do!
So, photos we take, things we see. Just yesterday, we discovered a very nice hotel hidden in plain sight right in the centre of the Mother City, as Old Cape Town is fondly known. Views from a rooftop garden on the ninth floor cover from Devil’s Peak to Lion’s Head. The rooftop is an ideal party venue, honeymoon suite with a great setting for wedding pictures. Or a rave with your young mates, or a corporate conference venue. That is where a sign advertising morning coffee at seventy US cents led me….nothing boring there!
Architecture, museums, action activities (well over a hundred!) plus so much more. I don’t need to travel abroad to see wales as we have our whales here 😀
Gosh, how can anyone become a couch potato in such vibrant surroundings?! If anything, cape Town can become an indulgent sensory overload, not that the young adventurer made herself guilty of that.
I travel every day, from Cape Town deeper into Cape Town.
I never get enough.
I coined the term PERMATOURIST to describe myself.
Follow me on Twitter @awethentiq
There is somehow a perception that trains have stopped running in South Africa in 1994. Many reasons are given by “those in the know” yet I am here to boldly tell you that all is well. We travel so often that I have lost count, but I am going to outline our journeys for you.
1-2 November 2016
Upon our arrival at the Premier Classe Lounge, we were served with tea, coffee, scones and muffins. Our Train Manager welcomed us and we were addressed by Mr Mthura Swartz, Executive Manager, Main Line Passenger Services. We were made to feel at home. We also soon made friends with a couple from Kenya.
We left Cape Town on the morning of November 1, 2016, on board PremierClasse, South Africa’s only affordable luxury train. At a price point less than a business class airline ticket, you get:
- Air-conditioned throughout with individual controls in each compartment
- Only two guests per compartment, one per coupe.
- Convenient lockable wardrobes, oodles of stowage space and lots of place to hang things
- Complementary amenities such as body wash, shampoo and shower slippers
- Shower gowns and towels – these remain on the train
- A variety of mood- and day/night lighting options with reading lights as well.
- A foldable table that hides a stainless steel wash basin
- Soft carpeting on the floors
- A complementary bottle of still spring water per guest
- Personalised welcoming letters that also serves as travel information regarding your journey
- Two lounges with cash bars, with card payment facilities – one for smokers, one for non-smokers
- Dining cars where some of the most delectable meals are served, prepared by top class chefs
- Dinner is a five course affair. Affaire could be the right description. It is a sensory seduction.
- Lunch is a three course delight fit for a king
- Breakfast – once you have been served, you can face an army. It is scrumptious and laden with goodness
- Afternoon tea with a selection of cake
- Welcoming tea/coffee with a selection of muffins and scones, jam and butter, sometimes cheese as well, in the PremierClasse Lounge
- Welcoming bubbly or juice with crisps, nuts, sandwiches and biltong once on board.
- I forgot to mention the crisp bed linen, really in a league well above the travel price – also included.
- A conference car that can be equipped according to your needs and taking 20 – 30 delegates. Also great for weddings, birthdays and wedding anniversaries or just a nice party!
- Telephones are being installed so that guests can order room service or summon the Train Manager.
- Mains power ports – 220V great for USB charging, laptops, cameras or your own music gadgets!
- Plain clothes Police and Security officers keep guests safe. Relax, all is well!
On this first journey, we traveled to Potchefstroom, some 1,200km away – it is not a scheduled stop yet the Train Manager allowed us to disembark as we had another train to catch.
Our train traveled through the vineyards of the Boland and finally we stopped in Worcester where fresh water and Diesel fuel were replenished. The fuel is for the twin generator set that powers all facilities on board as overhead power is only for the electric locomotives. We then passed through the scenic Hex River Valley, then the Hexton tunnel complex that consists of four tunnels of 0.5km, 1.1km, 1.2km and 13.5km respectively. We emerged in the Karoo desert and witnessed a sable antelope that stood guard over a solar power farm. On to Beaufort West, where we arrived about 90 minutes early. On our way there, we were served with afternoon tea and cake.
At Beaufort West, more replenishment and a single Class 7E locomotive replaced the twin set of Class 6E1’s. Overhead voltage now increased from 3kV to 7kV. This is also where the sun set as we passed Steenbokkie Private Nature Reserve while the famous five course dinner was served. Some had energy left to party the night away, smoke cigars in the Club Car or just converse with fellow guests over a few drinks in the Lounge Car. In the last few rays of daylight, we were treated to three herds of Springbok (Thomson’s gazelle) showing off their skills. A beautiful sight to behold and as African as it can get.
The next morning, we woke to coffee being served at our compartment – sunrise was so beautiful but we soon saw more herds of wild game – kudu, eland, sable antelope, zebra, gnu, giraffes, red hartebeest……and we were being served that famous breakfast as we passed through Klerksdorp and the first gold mines. Our journey was over within forty minutes and we greeted our new-made friends from Kenya, delightful people that we are still in contact with.
Our Train Manager was the venerable Mr Sydney Pele Nodikana.
14 March 2017
A number of journalists were invited but only showed up. Then you ask me why you didn’t know that main line rail passengers in this country is still alive and well, just better than in the days of old. The occasion was celebrating the brand new Conference Car and I travelled with Mr Karel Crous, the Area Manager, Prasa main Line Passenger Services, as a special guest, to Wellington. I had the opportunity to view the Conference Car on its maiden journey, but had to terminate my travel at Wellington as I had another appointment soon after.
17 March 2017
Karen and I boarded at Klerksdorp, on the return journey of the PremierClass with Conference Car. This was an excellent choice, as the SiMODiSA #VentureTrain was happening in the Conference Car and I was the first media representative to see it in action. Quite phenomenal and those people brought a great mood with them. Our journey to Cape Town, like our November one, was a delight and bordered upon indulgent. We met the owner of a game ranch, his wife, brother and sister-in-law. As our train was a bit delayed, we had the benefit of traveling about two hours longer, due to speed restrictions imposed by the Rail Safety Regulator and/or Transnet Freight Rail, both separate entities. Even so, these and other guests were reluctant to end their journeys as they found it so enjoyable.
Mr Sydney Pele Nodikana was our friendly Train Manager.
11 April 2017
Arriving at the PremierClasse Lounge, we were met by Chris and Nathan, who efficiently took charge of our luggage and directed us towards the lounge area, where Mr Sydney Pele Nodikana awaited guests for the welcoming snacks and drinks – and the regulation welcoming speech and “house rules.” We soon made new friends and were soon on our way, but I first showed an interested guest the heritage trains at the nearby Monument Station. Our journey to Klerksdorp was very pleasant and we were yet again treated to much wild game along the way. We arrived some twenty minutes late despite having gained 90 minutes during the course of the night. This was welcome as it afforded us an opportunity to breakfast before we disembarked.
27 April 2017
Our train arrived a few hours late due to speed restrictions as there was a TFR freight train that had derailed a week prior and the Rail Safety Regulator did not give clearance to travel at the usual 90km/h, but rather at 30km/h. As our train drew into the station from Johannesburg, a guest stepped out to stretch her legs. Her words to me: “Sir, you’d better board this train, the MOOD on here is GOOD.” So, it runs much late yet the guests celebrate? We were whisked to the dining room where our food was served, as they kept our lunch for us. A very nice touch. Then we went to unpack and settle in, as my usual paraphernalia had to be hooked up to the mains power to get charged. Cameras, laptop, tablet, three phones. We are geeks on a mission.
This journey became memorable in so many ways, as we saw even more wild game, twice we found that eagles glided for some distance right next to where we sat to breakfast in the Dining Car. We could advise foreign guests on matters travel in South Africa and we were delighted to count so many relics from the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902, in the form of blockhouses.
People really enjoyed themselves even though we were running quite late – they found it a bonus as they now had more time to play card games or chat while having a few more cocktails from the cash bar. One guest came up to me and said: “You told me this is the #GoodFoodTrain, but I can improve upon that. Let me call it the “GreatValueTrain as we get more for the same money.” I just loved that attitude!
So, we rolled along the Karoo desert towards the Hex River and Cape Town. Because of circumstances beyond the control of Prasa, our train arrived nine hours late; we had two extra meals meanwhile and dessert with each. I stand amazed at the hours the staff were on duty and how friendly their service was throughout. As we neared Cape Town, a few guests came up to me, asking if I knew “the guys at the top.” They then asked me to “put a letter forward asking that the train always travels at 30km/h so that they can sleep another night on board.” Out of 68 guests on board, only ONE person was upset because of the delays.
Our Train Manager was Mr Patrick Khumalo assisted by James. As we disembarked, James asked me if the trip was exhausting and I surprised him by saying that, to the contrary, a number of guests indicated that they would board at the drop of a hat…..ready to go! Traveling on the PremierClasse is exceptionally pleasant and I am so glad I am not on board on the many days that I see it arrive either on time or a bit early. I would hate that!
- Two classes, Sleeper and Sitter
- Dining Car
- A La Carte restaurant
- Cash bar
- As on PremierClasse, two flushing toilets but traditional types
- Hot showers
- USB charging ports, 220V
- Carriages are being refurbished and have wood paneling (almost as great as PremiewrClasse)
- Some have air conditioning
- 5 or more uniformed armed SA Police Officers
- 5 or more uniformed Prasa Protection Services Officers
You are in capable and safe hands!
November 2, 2016,
We boarded the ShosholozaMeyl at Potchefstroom and were allocated our compartment. It was old and maybe needed a lick of paint but it was really very clean and somehow, someone had made our (optional). Otherwise, spic & span! We left in a mild thunderstorm, treated to the beauty of Highveld lightning as we passed the many gold mines on our way to Kimberley. Soon, we had dinner which was a beautiful Sirloin served with Hot and cold salads. We had nice company in the form of a few couples who traveled quite often, ONLY to experience the train! They came to beautiful Cape Town, stayed a night or two and were on the next train back. They take all routes on ShosholozaMeyl and never seem to get enough of it. A good sign.
I slept like a log and woke in time for breakfast. Trains lull me to sleep and the gentle sway is something I love. I almost forgot to tell you: we were woken with coffee, a rather nice touch. After breakfast, we stopped at Beaufort West to replenish (there were two such stops while I was sleeping, at De Aar and Kimberley.) From there, we started our slow descent towards the Hex River Valley a few hundred kilometres away, passed through the four Hexton tunnels, the valley itself and on to the beautiful Worcester. We spent some twenty minutes here and I was fortunate as Mr Karel Crous, Area Manager, awaited me and promptly installed me in the driver’s cabin with driver Okkie Pretorius and Assistant Henricho Vermeulen. I had a fantastic ride to Wellington, through Nuwekloof Pass between Tulbagh and Gouda and, all too soon, our journey ended.
Our Train Managers were Mr Veldtsman and Delafontyn while Soraya Stemmet managed the dining car. We were really impressed.
November 23, 2016
We boarded at Cape Town and were once again surprised to see how smooth a train can pull away. One just sees the “platform move away.” So subtle, even on a budget tourist class train. We followed the same route to Beaufort West and took many photos, or bloopers, rather. Fun with cameras….. The train was very neat and tidy, nothing out of place. James, Assistant Train Manager was installed in the Dining Car where Suraya Stemmet did her usual magic and we really enjoyed the shorter journey to Beaufort West, where Dries Potgieter of Steenbokkie Private Nature Reserve collected us for a farm stay. Something I can really recommend.
We stayed for a week en returned on ShosholozaMeyl on November 28, 2016 – another pleasant journey.
I think this is sufficient to give you an idea of passenger rail travel in South Africa that really is doing quite well. You owe yourself a nice journey!
July 5, 2017
Stepping from a train that had been awarded the title of World’s Best Luxury Train some sixteen times or so, of which eight were consecutive, we boarded this train that cost almost twenty-two times less. With some guests in our party who had never traveled on trains before! No problem, they found all to their satisfaction and they soon were tweeting and posting all over social media about how great this backpacker on wheels was! Yes, ShosholozaMeyl is LOVED by we South Africans, yet we see that visitors from abroad travel here to experience her yet again. Some adopt some sort of “addiction.”
Yes, rail travel in South Africa is just great and, if anything, better than 25 years ago!
Join the #RailLoveRevolution (also as a group on Facebook) and re-live the days of rail travel. It is here and it is as great as ever, if not even better!
So many times, people will advise me that it is too expensive to travel on The Blue Train. It is expensive, of course, as that supreme level of luxury and comfort decidedly cannot come at giveaway prices. One has to be fair in making direct comparisons.
As a retired financial consultant, I decided, to do just that and had a quick look at comparable prices:
- 1 night for two persons sharing in a comparable five star hotel would cost upward of R14,000
- Business Class airline tickets (no comparable domestic first class flights) R7,000
- Gautrain R350
- Meals, snacks, drinks R9,000 at the very least
I have arrived at R30,350 without including all possible drinks, snacks, room service, etc. Already, this is just short of our own De Luxe ticket of March 2017, which had amounted to R31,000. Of course, on The Blue Train, all meals, drinks, snacks, high teas are included in the price!
Thinking back to our most enjoyable trip, I do not think that most equivalent hotels would have afforded us the same levels of comfort, superlative levels of service and memorable meals while offering us an ever-changing landscape, a pleasant interlude at Matjiesfontein or even delivered us in premium class style to Pretoria, from Cape Town, at the same price.
As there are no premium or even first class flights on domestic flights, The Blue Train does afford the most luxurious travel between the two capitals of South Africa possible, except for much more expensive charter flights using private jets. For the levels of sophistication we had experienced on The Blue Train, we still rate it as the very best hotel we had ever stayed over at.
Value for money it certainly is – I have made basic cost estimates and I am of the opinion that their tariffs are at least thirty percent lower than expected. Given the top service from each and every staff member, from making our reservations right to the end of our journey, we decided that we had the very best deal available in South Africa.
I find that travel takes me places. No, I don’t mean destinations. I am talking personal growth, a broadened mind, a greater understanding of how the world fits together. It takes me to new friendships, tastes, smells, fragrances, stimulating thought and creativity. Travel prompts me out of my comfort zone into the torrent called life. One can never travel and return as you left, you will be a changed being.
“Sir, you must board this train. The mood here is good”
She said this after stepping off the train to stretch her legs, accompanied by a relative, who was equally enthusiastic. Of course, we were eager to board, as the train was already more than three hours late. As it was a public holiday and almost every shop was closed, we had nothing to eat or drink since we left the home of our hosts around 14:15 that day. It was around 18:25 when the train arrived.
I am diabetic and need regular meals and water to drink. One cannot blame the train service, though, as they were as much victim to external factors as ourselves. The RSR – short for Rail Safety Regulator – had recently imposed a new rule that had brought train speeds down from 90km/h to 30 in some sectors. At short notice, this had affected train schedules badly. Of course, it would be really unfair to hold our Train Manager or even the drivers accountable, as this was not their fault. They have to comply, just like airlines have to comply with FAA rules, even when it appears to be unnecessary. Furthermore, our train ran on rails it didn’t own and powered by electricity from yet another company.
Our slight discomfort was soon forgotten. Train Manager Patrick welcomed us on board and we were placed in a very neat compartment, 4B. Beds were neatly made with crisp linen, there were complementary bottles of distilled water for each of my wife and myself, while fresh shower towels and amenities were placed in the convenient storage rack.
Our carriage was next to the Lounge Car, followed by the Dining Car. A few minutes later, we were on our way! As soon as the train was moving, I started making my way towards the Dining Car but was met almost immediately by Faith, the efficient Dining Car Manager. She invited my wife and I along to dinner right away and we were served a most delectable dinner.
Our meal started with soup made with fresh sweet corn and cream with a fresh bun, followed by lovely freshly fried hake. The main course consisted of fresh vegetables, potato bake and a slice of succulent oven-roasted leg of lamb. This was followed by a chocolate peppermint desert and then the traditional highlight of a South African railways dinner, delicious cheese and biscuits. Anyone who had traveled on the Trans Karoo, Trans Oranje or Trans Natal trains a few decades ago, will recognize this tradition with fond memories. Of course, tea or coffee was served.
As I am diabetic and my meal plan was disrupted, the chef gladly obliged to send some very nice sandwiches to my compartment later that evening. Instead of just a slice of buttered bread, as requested, he prepared a midnight feast of toasted cheese & tomato instead!
We went to bed quite content, my wife only waking up the next morning, just in time for breakfast. I did wake up as we arrived at Kimberley, after we crossed the Vaal River. This was where a different set of locomotives were coupled. Locomotives are voltage specific and we were now entering a sector with much higher voltage. Also, water and Diesel for the power generators were replenished ever so discreetly.
Our night train continued and we crossed the Gariep River but I was blissfully unaware and only remotely became aware of our stop at De Aar a few hours later. However, by 6:30AM I was fully awake, in time to experience a most beautiful sunrise. The Karoo had seen the most excruciating drought over the past few years, yet this was broken some two months prior, with follow-up rains turning the arid wasteland into vast grass fields, with bodies of shallow water visible – and antelope, sheep and even some cattle visible.
At the breakfast table, we were served fruit juice, coffee and cereal with yoghurt. This was followed by a lovely hot breakfast consisting of eggs to order, generous slices of thick bacon, toast, butter, strawberry jam, a sausage and a little bit of fresh salad. While breakfast was happening, we saw even more springbuck, impala, reebok, two steenbok, ostriches and then we were treated to the sight of two eagles separately.
We passed Merriman where we saw the first of a number of blockhouses dating back to the Anglo Boer War and we were bemused by the fact that few South Africans seemed to know about this terrible and bitter war, but foreign tourists could tell some of the history with fair accuracy. From Merriman, we would also pass through the cuttings at Biesiespoort and see so many wind turbines, generating renewable energy.
The Three Sisters – round hills with typical Karoo table tops – came into view, we unexpectedly passed another blockhouse and, soon, we were at Beaufort West. On our way there, we encountered the beautiful “carnival colours, partipants” tourist class ShosholozaMeyl train; that one was the Amatola heading towards the Eastern Cape. Friendly, enthusiastic passengers struck up conversation with us while parked alongside in a loop, at Ysterrante. A name meaning “iron hillsides,” referring to the iron rich rocks burnt black by the sun. The Amatola’s passengers were a jovial outfit, in a great mood just like our train and we enjoyed this encounter very much. One even offered us apples through his compartment window! This was now a train supposedly involved in “quite a serious accident” the previous afternoon, as erroneously reported by Network24. Accident, my foot – it was just a locomotive that was coupled a bit too hard, really uncommon in South Africa, as our train drivers generally can do this without spilling anyone’s tea. The Amatola’s whistle blew and our own train also soon continued its journey.
It was time to replenish and also to get our final two locomotives of the day. This was done at Beaufort West, birthplace of the heart transplant pioneer Dr Chris Barnard. Passengers stretched their legs, yet we were under way soon again, passing even more of the blockhouses. A Karoo with pockets of water, some greenery and fat livestock is a sight to behold. Our train made excellent progress yet we still encountered speed restrictions and we were now far behind schedule.
A group of tourists in the Lounge Car then dubbed it the #GreatValueTrain, stating that they scored a few hours’ travel at no extra charge! If anything, the mood improved even more as we went, yet that can be ascribed to goodwill and not any kind of inebriation. Our fellow travelers were too well behaved for that kind of thing.
Lunch happened as we approached Laingsburg and this was once again a lavish affair. There was delicious fried fish for starters, followed by roast chicken served with freshly peeled and roasted baby carrots with young green beans. This was followed by dessert and coffee.
We passed historical Matjiesfontein and proceeded towards Touws River – and were treated to sightings of even more wild game. I also took some guests to view the Conference Car, which is an ideal venue for corporate or social events, celebrations or even church conferences. It has a fully fitted bar with a large display fridge, microwave ovens, coffee machines, ice machine, etc. There also is a draw-down screen for overhead projectors and a sound desk at the rear.
Afternoon tea was served, with a choice of carrot- or chocolate cake. We entered the first of four tunnels, passing through in thirteen minutes, then the second, third and final ones followed, revealing the picturesque Hex River Valley at De Doorns. Vineyards getting dressed in colourful displays of rich autumn colours, patchwork of the gods. Passing the largest pot still distillery in the world at Worcester, we soon drew into its beautiful railway station, one that has featured in so many international movies and commercials over the years.
At Worcester, a shuttle service was generously provided, at no extra cost, to the few guests who had other commitments and who preferred to complete their journey by road. The majority of us won’t let buses or airlines interfere with our #RailLove, so we stayed on board!
Once again, we were on our way towards Cape Town, the smell of fermenting grape skins letting out a little secret: we were now in the world’s prime co-operative wine making region, even though this is lesser known to the public. The evening sun painted the mountains called Brandwacht, Waaihoek, Mostertshoek and the Witzenberge in soft pastels, the sun setting as we passed through Nieuwekloof Pass. We were invited to yet another meal – the second one on the house, not part of the travel plan. Our Train Manager is a friendly guy and ensured that all get treated ever so nicely. Braised beef in a brown sauce with veggies, served on savoury rice. Yum! And dessert, never think you won’t get served dessert!
We now traveled in darkness until we finally rolled into Cape Town, where our marathon trip sadly came to an end. Many of us would board right away if given the option, I did not hear anyone complain about the train being late. The staff had worked many more hours than planned, it really added more than a work day to their itinerary. Throughout, they were friendly, helpful – others can learn from them. They really were great, even down to the cleaners. Always polite, always willing to assist, always a smile. Our showers and toilets were always clean, nothing ever lacked.
Yes, how shall we best describe this Premier Classe journey?
“….you must board this train. The mood here is good”