‘It’s so wonderful to see young people here!’ exclaims a silver-haired English lady named Hilary. Looking around the waiting room, it’s true that we seem to be the only group of passengers who haven’t yet retired. We’re about to board the Blue Train, probably the most elegant way to cross South Africa.
The Blue Train travels 994 miles between Cape Town and Pretoria, stopping off half-way in the diamond town of Kimberly for a tour and a chance to stretch the legs. By air, the trip takes a couple of hours – time for a quick rest, maybe a few chapters of your book. But by train, the journey is slow. Delightfully so. In fact, slow travel has become so popular that this year the Blue Train has increased the journey time from one night to two.
Inside the gleaming, royal-blue carriages are private suites with pull-out beds; your butler can tuck it away to maximise space during the day, or you can choose to keep it out for a mid-afternoon snooze. The interiors are clad in dark polished wood with gold trimmings. There’s a dining car with tables covered in crisp white linens, a lounge car for afternoon tea – or, apparently, raucous parties – and a large observation car from which to take in the ever-changing scenery of South Africa.
As we ease out of Cape Town in the late afternoon, we wind our way into the Winelands around Paarl, rolling fields of vines on either side. After a few more glasses of South African fizz – Méthode Cap Classique (MCC), which is made the same way as Champagne – we smarten up for dinner. The dress code is formal, ‘to match the sheer elegance of the Blue Train’, according to our pre-departure information. Dinner is a four-course affair, featuring crumbed camembert for starters, cauliflower and truffle soup, dry-aged fillet with blue cheese and a biltong dusting, and hot fudge pudding to finish.
The Blue Train team effortlessly nail the balance of professionalism and fun – they’re quick to show off their moves as Nigerian saxophonist Ayo plays all our random music requests later in the evening. William, originally from Maputo in Mozambique, has a dry wit and is armed with a stash of quips he repurposes throughout the journey. ‘Coffee? It’s strong and black. Like me.’
The next day, recovering from a night of overindulgence and thanking god I didn’t toss back those springbok shots (creamy Amarula layered over crème de menthe) that were doing the rounds, I realise that I have nothing to do. The wifi isn’t working and there’s no signal out here. We don’t arrive in Kimberly for a few hours and everyone else is enjoying the downtime.
I decide to lean in and embrace it. We’re rumbling through the Karoo, the vast, dusty semi-desert that sprawls across 40 per cent of South Africa. Curled up on the armchair in my cabin with a cup of tea, I sit and stare out of the window at the passing emptiness, the odd farmhouse peppering the landscape. I don’t even read. I just sit and enjoy the rare sensation of doing nothing.
The Blue Train is proof that slow travel can be whatever you want it to be: a chance to meet other passengers and actually get to know them over a couple of days; an excuse to digitally disconnect and catch up on rest or reading; to see a remote place you’d otherwise miss; or to party up a storm with strangers and new friends.