I may be watching too much Downton Abbey, but I could’ve bet money that I heard the conductor scream, “All Aboard” as we headed down the platform of Pretoria’s central station. Stepping back in time to the days when train travel was the only way to go is why you take the Blue Train in the first place. Twenty-seven hours seems like a long time to get from Pretoria to Cape Town, but I relished my time away from the tweets, likes and friend requests. Relinquishing your constant wireless access sometimes can seem like a blessing, but when biltong and burgundy are on the menu as well, that’s the trip for me!
At one time, the Blue Train was the only transport available from Cape Town to Kimberely, the vortex of the diamond frenzy out of which Cecil Rhodes emerged victorious. The Union Limited as it was known then had a few nicknames throughout the years: the Milk Train, as very real cows were onboard to provide fresh milk for your yet to be invented macchiati. Then it was known as the Champagne Train as naive scally-wags graduated to Diamond Jims. Finally the moniker that stuck was the Blue Train, the color it was painted when George VI came for a ride on a trip down south.
Its most famous passenger was Nelson Mandela who hopped on at Pretoria to do a cross-country victory lap after winning the election in 1997. People stood waving, up and down the whole route, trying to catch a glimpse of the man himself. Even during the dead of night, there were those who hoped to receive their new president. Mandela made reference to them in his speech at the Blue Train gala dinner and charity auction Cape Town, 27 September 1997, “All our journey, we were overjoyed at the warm welcome we received, especially from the children.”
Our journey began up the red carpet, into the waiting room with my boarding pass in hand. Then a quick coffee and our escorts were ready to show us to the train.
So now that I was all set with my cabin and key and had been introduced to our butler, Trevor, then it was time to explore. Past the kitchen car where Esther, the executive chef for the last 18 years, was busy preparing lunch service, through the bar car where many were already taking advantage of the Marys that had been bloodied, straight down to the observation car where I plonked down on a cushy chair and was transfixed by the landscape disappearing behind us.
A cup of tea and a muffin were munched while I made friends with the chatty folks who joined me. Although the Cypriot is never far from my mind, his presence was felt when I overheard an English couple say they lived in Cyprus. I interrupted their conversation to ask where in Cyprus they hailed from. A little town outside of Paphos, I was told. Which town? I asked. Well, blow me over with a feather, if they didn’t go and say the teeny, tiny town that the Cypriot is from. 300 people in total live in this town and now I know two more! “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…!” (We’re now practically family and are seeing each other in June.)
Brunch service was called and now it was time to eat!
Brunch promised to be a lavish three course affair with cocktails, wine, but, if you look closely on the menu, a small but confusing typo made me grow cold. The second choice under the Main Event was called Lattice Beef Lion. Was that even legal? I did order it though realizing quickly that it was loin, not lion, that was eventually cooked to order.
After lunch, we disembarked for an off-the-train tour of Kimberely, the diamond capitol of the world, and its Big Hole – the largest , man-made hole in the world. Seeing the actual diamond that launched the whole craze was incredible but I loved learning about the exploits of Barny Barnato even more. An East End London Music-Hall veteran as early as his teens, Barny tread the boards no more to take a chance at diamond mining across the globe in little-known Cape Colony. This was 1873 and he was only 22! Barny had the foresight to buy up everyone’s claims when they thought the diamond mines were exhausted. He and Cecil Rhodes competed to be the only name in town. Although Rhodes won, he did have to buy out Barny for a whopping, record-breaking, first check ever written for such an amount, £5,338,650. Not bad for 1889.
A civilized glass of sherry was waiting for us as we got back on the train and were sent shooting off toward Cape Town again. An equally sumptuous dinner followed and then into bed as we put our heads down after a rather tiring day of sitting and eating and gazing.
Lying in bed watching the train emerge out of the Karoo and head straight into the Winelands was breakfast enough for me. Then I thought maybe I should see what was on offer in the dining car. A long hot shower and then eggs benedict were my only morning activities. A 15 minute stop at Worcester allowed for a breather outside and a chance to check out the front of the train.
As the wireless service became less spotty, I knew we were approaching Cape Town. As excited as I was to be there, I wished I could get right back up on the train and start the journey again.