The Blue Train – To A Blind Friend

Do they serve pudding after dinner?
I looked at the lady, not sure how to react. Was this a joke, a trick question? Even so, I responded: “Either side.”
The Blue Train is where everything is included, it oozes with luxurious opulence. To even think that there won’t be dessert is, err, unthinkable.
People ask questions about The Blue Train when they learn that my wife and I had the privilege to travel on arguably the world’s best train.  Let us investigate further, taking a blind friend with me.

 

A Tour of The Blue Train

Taking a blind friend on a short walking tour of The Blue Train, awarded the title of World’s Best Train eight times consecutively.

1st Class “Trans-Karoo” Culture Lives on!

The neatly dressed gentleman greeted us friendly as we entered the foyer of the PremierClasse Lounge around 7am on a Tuesday morning. he soon relieved us of our luggage, which he tagged to our compartment and handed us our welcoming letter and boarding passes.

Guests’ Luggage Checked In

Some impressive “baggage” went into the Car Carrier as well. The cars in the background, plus a number of Mercedes-Benz’s travelled in the back.

Another “passenger” boarding!

PREMIER CLASSE LOUNGE

Soon, we were installed in the lounge area where we were served with tea or coffee, with muffins, scones and other niceties. In no time, we were chatting away with Frasier and Christine from the United Kingdom, who would be joining us for a memorable rail journey towards Johannesburg, South Africa. It was interesting to listen to Frasier’s account of a pleasant trip on the Algoa line of the ShosholozaMeyl, the tourist class sibling of the PremierClasse.

Scones, Tea & Coffee In the Premier Lounge

Among the guests congregated in the PremierClasse Lounge, were a number of people with restricted mobility. It is always good to see that people with special needs are being taken care of. I soon learned that meals and drinks could be served in their compartments, should these guests have preferred it that way. However, I did notice that some opted for joining us in the Dining Saloon for meals.

Special Needs Guests Accommodated

The almost legendary Food and Beverage Manager Millie addressed the guests, welcoming all to PremierClasse and gave a brief summary of house rules on the train. We soon left the lounge and strolled leisurely towards the light blue train waiting on Platform 24. (Frasier and I, however, had a brief meeting with a very Red Devil as well, but that is a story for another day.)

BOARDING THE PREMIER CLASSE

As my wife and I boarded the train, we soon found our compartment with our names on a neat card on the door. There were two bottles of distilled water, pillows and our luggage neatly installed by the efficient porters.

Our very comfortable, luxurious compartment.

We wasted no time to make our way to the Dining Saloon, where we were served with bubbly and snacks. Millie welcomed us on board and informed us of the credit card payment system after he had introduced us to the Dining Saloon Manager Faith. A similar party was underway on the other side of the kitchen car, as we had a full train and Train Manager Mr Groenewald was welcoming guests in the Lounge Car, I presume.

Millie welcoming his guests

After the initial complementary drinks, the cash bar was open – and we noticed that a huge rock was shifting past us. It was in the shape of Table Mountain. So imperceptible was the smooth departure by expert driver Okkie Pretorius that a few exclaimed their astonishment – guests did not immediately realise that our luxurious train was in motion.

This was when some noticed that the train was in motion, departure was very smooth and discreet!

Our train snaked its way along the Monte Vista line, then through Bellville, Brackenfell, Kraaifontein, then onto the Paarl and Wellington. We soon saw wild game on a ranch near Klapmuts, still on our way to Paarl. The lions disappointed by hiding in their den.

As we left Wellington, we saw the first of seven Anglo Boer War blockhouses on this route, used by the 450,000 British soldiers to defend the Cape Colony against some 16,000 Boers, between 1899-1902.

British blockhouse dating back to Anglo Boer War 1899 -1902

Will Britain partner in restoring and preserving these? They are going to waste.

These “monuments” did spark some interest and some guests were able to take nice photographs. Slipping ever so discreetly past the wheat fields of the Swartland, then snaking through Nieuwekloof Pass, PremierClasse made its graceful debut to the Witzenberg region of Tulbach. From there, leaving the Little Berg River behind, we crossed the Breede River and saluted another two blockhouses, while sipping at our drinks. Flanked on either side by the beautiful Boland mountains, we passed through the last bit of grapes harvesting from vineyards that would soon be changing into its autumn attire. The smell of fermentation hung in the air as we passed the various wine cellars. Waboomsrivier, Botha’s Halt, Sedgwick’s Distillery.

Slanghoek Mountains and vineyards near Worcester

LUNCH

Lunch was served as we approached our first stop at Worcester, a town rich in history. Its railway station has featured in many films and commercial advertisements – we soon departed and passed the KWV House of Brandy which houses the world’s largest pot still brandy distillery, which was soon followed by award-winning olive farms.

Smoked Salmon
Roast Chicken
Cheesecake with Grenadilla

Passing through Hex River Kloof, we were enthralled by the rock formations of the mountains and some lovely farm scenes. It was time to enter the Hex River Valley, home of some of the world’s finest table grape farming. The spectacular valley was still dressed in green vineyards, a month from now it will be a colourful display of patchwork with warm autumn colours.

As we enjoyed our cheesecake dessert, we passed through the four Hexton tunnels of 0.5km, 1.1km, 1.2km and 13.65km respectively.

One of the four Hexton tunnels in the Hex River Rail Pass

PremierClasse shone in the bright sunlight as it appeared on the other side at Kleinstraat, where a solar power plant welcomed us, its myriad of panels bowing ever so courteously. This is where we had seen sable antelope before, but luck wasn’t on our side. Slipping through Touws River, past Matjiesfontein through Laingsburg, we soon saw the fifth blockhouse at Dwyka. By now, we were invited to afternoon tea, celebrated with a choice of carrot- or chocolate cake served with either tea or coffee. While at it, the two blockhouses either side of the train at Leeu-Gamka stood to our attention, somewhat worn yet as alert as ever.

Guests were socializing in either of the two Lounge Cars (one is a club car for smokers, both with fully provisioned cash bars with credit card facilities) or just enjoying the comfort of their comfortable compartments. An array of night-, reading- or main lights complemented the lockable stowage space, amenities such as shower gels and shampoos, take-home slippers and leave-behind towels and gowns. Did I mention that the train was air conditioned right through? Luckily, windows can still be opened, as some of us still prefer that.

Lounge Car – The Club Car for Smokers Is Similar

Beaufort West! As in Worcester, it was time for staff to replenish Diesel fuel and water. The former is used to power the facilities on the PremierClasse, from air-conditioning to lighting. Only the engines in front use the overhead power lines but, talking of which, our two trusty SAR 6E1 units were replaced by one with a higher voltage rating.

DINNER

Dining on the #GoodFoodTrain is a lovely affair. As in the days of old in the “Trans Trains” such as Trans-Karoo or Trans-Oranje, we have repeatedly found that cuisine is well-prepared and expertly served. Their way of dishing up, for instance, is their legendary party trick, perhaps a signature. On a moving train, the waitron will hold the serving dish in one hand and then use the other to dish up, using two spoons held between the fingers, or a spoon and fork. I have tried it at home and found it to be fairly challenging, say no more! Service is swift, food is really tasty and of good quality. Anyone complaining about food on this train is either very spoilt, or perhaps not used to anything this good.

As I am not paid to write this, I can speak my mind: so many people have doubts about our main line passenger services and some do live in the past. I can assure you that it only improved upon an established tradition. South African railways are known for its excellent catering on trains and PremierClasse is no exception.

Cream of Sweetcorn Soup
Delicious Fried Hake
Braised Beef Sirloin
Malva Pudding
Cheese n Biscuits – a long-standing tradition!

Darkness fell and we departed on our way to Kimberley via Three Sisters, Biesiespoort, Merriman, Hutchinson, De Aar. That is where we could smell the fresh Karoo air. Then, Poupan, Kraankuil, Hopetown, Belmont…..until we reached Ronald’s Vlei where we once again received electric locomotives with a different voltage rating.

Then it was Kimberley itself where we had another logistics stop, from where we departed towards Warrentown. Fog was fairly thick, even past Fourteen Streams up to Bloemhof, where it lifted to reveal African savannah mixed with typical Highveld grass. And a fair herd of red hartebeest, oryx, eland, kudu and giraffe while we were enjoying a scrumptious breakfast. We were glad that our foreign guests could also get so see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat.

Soon, breakfast was over and so was our trip, as the first mine shafts and -dumps appeared near Orkney.

Complementary Fruit
Fresh Juice
Muesli with Yoghurt – There is a choice of cereals
A delicious English Breakfast. The eggs in the picture were the best I ever had, anywhere, on the morning of April 12, 2017. I did inform the chef.

As we slipped past Lava, my wife and I readied ourselves to disembark when we arrived at Klerksdorp, a gold mining city, while other guests would continue to Johannesburg. At Klerksdorp, Frasier stepped off the train and first took photo’s of the ancient plinthed SAR Class 7 locomotive. We said farewell to Frasier and also to Mr Groenewald, our friendly and very helpful Train Manager. Of course, we took a few photos of the lovely sandstone station building.

Train Manager Mr Groenewald at Premier Classe, Klerksdorp

12 April 2017

Premier Classe saluting the SAR Class 7 plinthed at Klerksdorp
Lovely sandstone station building at Klerksdorp

Thus ended a memorable trip on a lovely PremierClasse train, one that even had a bit of a “wild side” to it! As an afterthought: so many folks ask if South African long distance trans are clean, safe or as good as they were three decades ago? YES! YES! YES!

Footnote

PremierClasse has a ConferenceCar with a full bar and this can also be converted to a venue to celebrate events. Furthermore, an intercom system is being installed into the new train set, that would allow guests to order food and drinks from Room Service. USB charging points, wireless internet and an electronic map are all being planned and should be installed soon.

We also thank Quinten Pendle and PerronFM for having us and for broadcasting our four radio talks on air.

The Blue Train – Great Value

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.

Reclining at the rear of the Observation Car really is a window into the soul of Africa!