Blue Train, South Africa, Cape Town to Pretoria review: 31-hour journey beats flying

The 1600-kilometre journey from Cape Town to Pretoria takes just two hours by plane. But my current journey has taken more than 30 hours. And I wish it had taken even longer.

I'm on board South Africa's Blue Train, one of the survivors of the golden age of train travel. Its origins go back to the days when air travel was still out of reach for most travellers, when it would transport passengers across the country so they could begin the long sea voyage from Cape Town to Europe.

Today, the Blue Train exists as a luxury journey for those wishing to see the South African countryside in style.

We start early in the morning at Cape Town's main train station, where the Blue Train has its own private check-in lounge, complete with red carpet entrance, that puts most airline business class lounges to shame. Inside, we're seated on comfortable couches and offered snacks, tea, coffee and champagne (despite the early hour) before we board and head to our allotted berths.

My Deluxe cabin is opulent, with two large armchairs that convert into comfortable beds in the evening. The bathroom is tight, but spacious by train standards with a sink, toilet and separate shower (though the train's Luxury suites feature bathrooms with actual baths in them – extraordinary for a train, though on curving rails I wonder whether much of the water ends up sloshing out).

As we wait to depart, I take a walk through the carriages. There are 19 in total – along with the passenger cars there's a lounge, dining car, observation car, a smoking lounge and one car dedicated just for the kitchen. I also meet our carriage's butler, who is available 24 hours to meet all our needs.

We set off from Cape Town at 8.30am, heading out of the central city while enjoying the view of the majestic Table Mountain. This morning the "tablecloth" – clouds that often cover the top of the flat peak – are in full force, flowing and cascading over the mountain's sides like a waterfall.

Soon the city gives way to the plains and rolling hills of the karoo – the arid inland landscape of this part of the country. Though it's bleak in parts, it has a beauty of its own. Small valleys create microclimates allowing farming – wineries are a common site along the route.

We make our first, and only, stop of the journey at the tiny township of Matjiesfontein where we're greeted by Johnny Theunissen, our local guide for a tour of the township, who ushers us into an old red double-decker bus. "It's showtime!" he declares (repeatedly) as he drives the bus around the town on what he declares to be the world's shortest bus tour. Along with being a tour guide, we're told, Theunissen is also an entertainer, mayor, priest and wine connoisseur.

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It certainly is a short tour – the bus takes us around the whole town, which could easily be walked in about 20 minutes, before we head to the local pub, where Theunissen immediately heads to an upright piano in the corner to bang out a few jazz classics.

The town was once a popular spa retreat and later a base during the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century, though now it's just a tiny tourist stop for the train and any visitors who might happen to pass through. Theunissen, with his eccentric style and thorough knowledge of the town's history, make it an entertaining experience and the Victorian buildings are beautifully maintained.

After a glass of sherry in the pub, it's back onto the train and onward east towards Johannesburg.

We take high tea in the lounge car, the caboose of the train, with large windows offering great views of the countryside as we hurtle along the tracks.

Dinner that evening is a formal affair – men are expected to wear a jacket and tie, women evening wear. The four-course dinner is efficiently delivered in good time (there are two sittings to accommodate all the passengers) with a nice selection of dishes, with mains including venison and lamb cutlets together, prosciutto-wrapped monkfish or duck breast with asparagus.

After our dessert (in my case, a delicious chocolate fondant) we retire to the bar where the cocktails flow freely and we get a chance to meet our fellow guests – a couple of South African ex-pats from Mozambique, a family of Americans and a group from Queensland.

It's a contrast to travel in such decadence as we pass by some of the townships on the route, where locals live in little more than corrugated iron shacks, which become more common as we get closer to our final destination. While plenty of these locals, especially the young children, come out to wave at the train as it passes by, it's clear not everyone appreciates the site – a rock is thrown at one point of the journey.

After a good night's sleep we find ourselves on the outskirts of Johannesburg the next morning (perhaps with a hint of a hangover).

The train pulls in to Pretoria, South Africa's executive capital (the country officially has three capital cities, each home to a different branch of government). The train station here links directly to Johannesburg's airport, which is just a short ride away.

In a few hours I'll be boarding a Qantas flight to Sydney, a route that will take 12 hours to cover the 11,044 kilometres. It may be a hell of a lot faster, but it certainly won't be as much fun as the last 31.

Trip notes

Fly

Qantas flies direct to Johannesburg from Sydney seven times a week, while South African Airways flies from Perth seven times a week with domestic connections through Virgin Australia.

Travel

The Blue Train will run roughly once a week in 2019 between Cape Town to Pretoria and in the opposite direction. From 2019 the journey time will increase to 39 hours and take place over two nights. Rates for the journey start from R18,405 (about $1719) a person based on double occupancy, low season (January-August, November 16 to December 31). See bluetrain.co.za

The writer travelled as a guest of the Blue Train.

See also: Photos: Japan's new, ultra-luxury train is amazing

See also: The world's most beautiful country to see by train

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