By Stef Terblanche
Few forms of travel beat the romanticism and sheer enjoyment of a train journey. It also allows for one of the best ways to discover a country, its scenery, its towns and its people, whether in utmost luxury or simply ‘roughing it’ with the locals.
There is no better perspective on the world than from a train carriage as you peer out the window at the passing scenery and listen to the rhythmic clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails beneath you. There is also no nicer way to fall asleep than listening to that sound and feeling your carriage gently swaying from side to side. And this is enhanced even more if there is a huffing and puffing steam engine at the front.
Let’s face it: few of us can resist the romantic lure of a train. As the famous travel writer Paul Theroux once said: “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it”.
Some of the world’s greatest travel experiences can be enjoyed on board any number of famous trains: the Trans-Siberian train, the Settle-Carlisle Railway across England, the Orient Express across Europe, the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada, the Eastern & Oriental Express across Southeast Asia, India’s Palace on Wheels, Switzerland’s Glacier Express and Bernina Express, the Ghan across Australia, the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, the Danube Express, and of course South Africa’s very famous Blue Train and Rovos Rail.
In fact, many lists of famous train journeys compiled by travel writers place South Africa’s Blue Train or Rovos Rail right at the top.
What is perhaps less known is that South Africa offers a far greater variety of train travel than just the luxurious top-of-the-range journeys…from day trips to epic long distance journeys, from top-of-the-range luxury to budget and daily commutes, from steam to diesel or electric, from old to new, slow to high-speed, local or cross-border. You name it, we have it all.
Travelling by train in South Africa you can experience the country’s dramatic coastline, cross its beautiful mountains, traverse the vast plains of the Karoo, stop in small out-of-way hamlets and villages, get a first-hand ‘inside’ look at our cities, visit the famous Cape Winelands or even watch game from the comfort of a lounge car.
This is without a doubt South Africa’s most famous train…a 5-star luxury hotel on wheels that will take you through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful parts of the country.
The Blue Train offers unparalleled luxury, from your very own personal butler, to cordon bleu dining, the best South African wines on board, the finest bed linen, marble floors, gold fittings in the bathrooms, elegant lounges, cocktails and sundowners in the Club Car, watching the passing landscape from the luxurious Lounge Car, and more. Meals are prepared by top chefs and presented on fine china, and wine comes in delicate crystal.
The train is truly worthy of its claim to offer “a window to the soul of Africa” as it travels the 1,600km between Cape Town and Pretoria in 31 hours. There are currently two standard routes: the original Pretoria-Cape Town route, and the Pretoria-Hoedspruit/Kruger National Park route added in 2016. The train can also be chartered and can host on-board conferences.
The first Blue Train was launched in the 1920s, making the service almost a century old. The idea for the train came from a desire at the time to be able to travel from the Cape to Cairo and subsequently grew from two earlier trains, the Union Express and the Union Limited. While it never made it to Cairo, the train did at times travel to the misty, thundering Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Sadly it no longer does so due to incompatible infrastructure in Zimbabwe.
During World War II the train was pressed into military service, reincarnated in 1946 and has undergone several refurbishments, upgrades and modernisations since then, also switching from steam to electric and finally to diesel.
The northbound train stops in the historic little hamlet of Matjiesfontein in the Karoo, fittingly founded in 1884 by the legendary Scottish railwayman James Douglas Logan. Today the hamlet still boasts a number of splendid historical buildings and sites, including the Lord Milner Hotel while relics from the Anglo-Boer War can still be found in the surrounding fields. The southbound train stops in Kimberley with its diamond mining history and Big Hole, as well as numerous other attractions. Both the stops in Matjiesfontein and Kimberley allow time for excursions.
Bear in mind though that this train does not come cheap: the lowest rate currently is R15,500 per person sharing a De Luxe Double suite. However, some consolation for South Africans: locals can get better deals – anything between R10,500 to R 15,500 per person sharing – if they book through local tour operators and travel agents. This would include The Blue Train (one way) between Pretoria and Cape Town, two nights’ accommodation at a 4 or 5 star hotel, car hire and flights. These packages are available throughout the year.
Reservations: Pretoria Tel +27 (0)12 334-8459 or +27 (0)12 334-8460; Cape Town Tel +27 (0)21 449 2672
A worthy rival to the Blue Train for the title of South Africa’s most luxurious train, the trains operated by private rail company Rovos Rail are often hailed as the most luxurious in the world. One of the more unique offerings of Rovos Rail is that on some parts of their journeys passengers can sit in the comfort of a luxurious viewing lounge, or stand on an open observation platform at the end of the train and actually watch a passing parade of wildlife as they travel through game reserves. No other train journey anywhere in the world can probably offer anything like this.
Entrepreneur Rohan Vos started Rovos Rail as a small operation in 1986. Since then it has grown into a rail enterprise that enjoys worldwide recognition and offers at least eight unparalleled itineraries.
Topping the list is the 15-day ‘Pride of Africa’ trip from Cape Town all the way to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Along the way you will pass through Matjiesfontein and Kimberley, spend 2 nights in the Madikwe Game Reserve, and continue on through the northern parts of South Africa, then through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and finally Tanzania. This epic train journey is hailed as one of the most famous in the world.
Another unique three-night adventure will take you north from Pretoria crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, passing into Zimbabwe at Beitbridge, and on to Bulawayo, the capital of Matabeleland. The train then traverses Hwange National Park, rich in wildlife that can be spotted from the train, before ending its journey in the misty spray of the mighty Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River.
Then there is a 1,600km meander through the grasslands of the Highveld gold country, to the haunting planes of the Great Karoo, then snaking through the Cape’s awesome mountain ranges and on through the scenic Winelands, before ending the journey in Cape Town, the Mother City at the foot of Table Mountain.
Or you can try the 3-day Durban Safari between Pretoria and Durban during the summer months, which includes game drives and a Midlands battlefields guided tour with a world-class historian. Train guests can also visit the Nambiti Conservancy – a Big Five private retreat set on 20,000 acres of malaria-free Bushveld in KwaZulu-Natal.
Other offerings include a 9-day Golf Safari, a 9-day African Golf Collage that also includes game watching and other delights, as well as special packages and private hire.
Most of these journeys start at Rovos Rail’s own station in Pretoria, which also boasts a railway museum. All trains consist of meticulously restored vintage train coaches, with Rovos Rail now owning one of the biggest private collections of vintage trains in the world. Careful attention has been given to every detail to live up to the company’s slogan of ‘The most luxurious train in the world’. Style, grandeur and old-world charm is the order of the day – from the superbly appointed suites to the cosy lounge cars, 1940s style dining coach and everything in-between.
Rates vary per type of accommodation and per itinerary, but start at around R18,950 per person sharing.
Contact: Pretoria Tel +27 (0) 12 315 8242; Cape Town Tel +27 (0) 21 421 4020.
Rovos Rail also offers an alternative more casual than Rovos or the Blue Train but still coming with high-end luxury, namely its Shongololo Express, named after the African millipede. Also based at Rovos Rail’s station in Pretoria, this service offers three journeys of between 12 to 15 days each across South Africa, Namibia, Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. These come with golfing and non-golfing itineraries and include visits to most of the destinations listed for Rovos Rail packages.
Rates start at around R52,000 one way per person sharing and include accommodation, excursions, entrance fees to places of interest, off-train lunches, off-train accommodation at lodges, resorts, hotels and clubs, all beverages, laundry, gratuities, and golf course fees.
Contact: Tel Pretoria +27 (0) 12 315 8242, or Tel Cape Town +27 (0) 21 421 4020.
Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe
If you cannot quite afford Rovos, the Blue Train or the Shongololo Express but still want excellent service, luxury, safe and comfortable train travel, and see some of the best of South Africa, there is nothing better than the Shosholoza Meyl or Premier Classe. Operated by the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (PRASA), the Premier Classe train offers mainline train travel services on routes between Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
Priced very competitively – the Johannesburg-Cape Town journey costing R3,120 per person single – Premier Classe trains are less expensive and a great alternative to all other luxury train travel services in South Africa.
The Premier Classe trains come with fully refurbished air-conditioned deluxe sleeper cars that offer more space than tourist class trains: one passenger per 2-berth coupé and two passengers per 4-berth compartment. Bedding and luxury amenities are inclusive and there is a special restaurant car, a lounge car with TV, and the train fare includes all meals, tea/coffee and soft drinks. During the day, sleeper compartments are converted into suites with hot and cold water from a basin underneath a fold-up table.
The Premier Classe offers travellers with one of the great South African train experiences, namely the route from Cape Town to Johannesburg that crosses the Great Karoo, while the Johannesburg-Durban route also takes travellers through some of the most beautiful natural scenery the country has to offer.
Contact: Reservations Tel 021 449 2252 / 011 773 8785 or online www.premierclasse.co.za.
Shosaloza Meyl Tourist Class
The Shosholoza Meyl Tourist Class, or ‘ordinary train’, offers budget train travel at its best – safe, comfortable, good service and with lots of beautiful scenery thrown in as you cross South Africa to your destination. Also operated by PRASA, it comes dirt cheap: a berth in a 4-person compartment or a 2-person coupé travelling one way between Johannesburg and Cape Town will only set you back R690 per person single.
All berths, whether in compartments or coupés, include bunk beds, a communal toilet and hot shower at the end of each coach. Couples travel in 2-berth coupés and families in 4-berth compartments. Solo travellers share a 4 berth with fellow travellers of the same gender.
The Tourist Class restaurant coach offers South African meals and beverages on a cash basis. Snacks can be purchased from the service trolley while bringing one’s own food is allowed. Bedding can be purchased on the train at R60 per person. The service also provides transport for private vehicles on train routes between Johannesburg and Cape Town, Durban or Port Elizabeth. Fares are quoted on the Shosholoza Meyl website for three months in advance while bookings can be made up to 90 days in advance.
Some Tourist Class trains have air-conditioning, but the windows open to allow for cool air circulation. Travelling on Shosholoza Meyl Tourist Class is perfectly safe. All trains have 24-hour security personnel on board, while on certain routes members of the SA Police Service are also deployed. Each train has an on-board manager who will see to any requirements travellers may have.
Contact: Reservations Tel 011 773 6566 / 012 315 2090 / 021 449 3474 / 041 994 2002 / 051 408 2555 or online www.shosholozameyl.co.za.
If you are arriving at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport from overseas or elsewhere in South Africa, your very first train experience might well be the high-speed Gautrain connecting Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg with a dedicated airport link from Sandton to the OR Tambo International Airport.
Perhaps not quite as fast as Japan or France’s bullet trains, but fast enough at 160km/hour and every bit as comfortable and luxurious. Its state-of-the-art stations have fast self-service ticket vending machines and these stations have become hubs of local development.
The rapid-transit Gautrain is safe and convenient, with trains departing every 12 minutes at peak times and every 20 to 30 minutes outside peak times. A one-way ticket between Pretoria and Johannesburg’s Park Station costs an affordable R76. You first have to purchase a Gold Card at R16, then load credit onto it for your journey, while children under 3 travel free. A number of different product passes can be purchased and the integrated ticketing system allows passengers to pay for the train, bus rides and parking with a single card.
The Gautrain, with its distinctive gold, silver and blue livery and sleek, aerodynamic appearance, has become a favourite with people seeking fast and convenient connections between the airport and local destinations, or for commuting between Gauteng’s three major cities.
The train runs along two corridors: the north-south route from Johannesburg to Tshwane, and the west-east route from Sandton to OR International Airport. A journey on the train will have you travelling at high speed through the suburbs of the three cities, through industrial areas, flashing across open countryside, zipping through high-end residential areas, passing the busy airport, riding elevated high above the ground, or down below the surface through sections of tunnels. Buses and shuttles are available to transport passengers during weekdays to and from all stations excluding the OR Tambo station.
The trip from Sandton to the airport takes 15 minutes, and from Johannesburg to Pretoria a mere 40 minutes. It is truly Africa’s most state-of-the-art train and a magnificent world-class rail experience.
Contact: Call Centre Tel 0800 428 87246
Metrorail Cape Town-to-Simonstown
While part of Metrorail’s regular Cape Town commuter train services, the service from Cape Town to Simonstown has long been very popular for weekend picnic excursions with locals. The train departs at regular intervals from Cape Town’s main station, travels through the southern suburbs, and eventually hugs some of the most scenic coastline in South Africa from Muizenburg to Simonstown. From Muizenburg all stops are at stations sitting virtually on the beach.
For steam train enthusiasts, South Africa has an abundance of unique offerings, mostly private operations using Transnet rail lines, but some operating on their own private lines.
One such company, Atlantic Rail, offers some of the most scenic trips from Cape Town through the famous Cape Winelands to Stellenbosch and to wine estates such as Spier and Vredenheim. Atlantic Rail uses a Class 16DA steam locomotive built in 1929, while its wooden-bodied vintage coaches date from 1922 to 1938. Each train has a lounge car with a full cash bar service.
The company has several more steam train trips scheduled for most of the remainder of the year. One trip takes you to Stellenbosch where you will have about 3 ½ hours to yourself to explore the town and its many delightful experiences. Another trip to Stellenbosch includes a return steam train journey, a tour of Distell’s Berg Kelder wine museum and cellars, and wine tasting.
After it leaves Cape Town Station the train travels to Bellville, passing Century City, then branches off to Eerste River after which it crosses through the Winelands, stopping at the Spier and Vredenheim wine estates, before steaming into the still original old Stellenbosch Station. At this station you can see the stationmaster still working the hand-operated switches of the semaphore signals that switch the lines. The station is just 700m from Dorp Street, which leads into the heart of the old town with its many historic, architectural, heritage, culinary and other attractions.
The return steam train journey to Spier Wine Estate includes wine tasting at Spier, visiting the wild animal and bird sanctuary on the farm, and lunch on the estate. The return journey to Vredenheim Wine Estate includes a similar package. Train trip packages start at R300 for adults and R200 for children aged 3-12 years.
For more information go to www.atlanticrail.co.za, or for bookings send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with name, phone number, number of adults and children, and date on which you wish to travel.