Trains have a certain inextricable mystique – no wonder they’re often the setting for romantic rendezvous, murder mysteries and elaborate heists. Perhaps it’s the unstoppable forward momentum; the intimacy of the enclosed space; the sense of adventure and anticipation, as the train hurtles through vast expanses of countryside, connecting old towns and railway stations.
The steam locomotive drove the expansion of the British Empire, and helped tame the Wild West; and trains played an important role in our own country’s history, ferrying pioneers and prospectors from the Cape to the mines in Kimberley and the Witwatersrand. Many of the trains operating today travel the same routes as the explorers of old, and some not only transport their passengers through space, but through time as well (figuratively, that is, not like in Back To The Future 3).
Our fascination with these enduring machines led us to seek out the best train journeys in the Cape. Here are our picks.
1. The Blue Train
The route Cape Town – Pretoria
The journey The 31-hour train ride between Cape Town and Pretoria includes a stopover in Matjiesfontein, where guests can enjoy a glass of sherry at the Lord Milner Hotel – an appropriate scene-setter for this Victorian-style adventure. During the trip, passengers have access to luxurious facilities and first-class service, while the train meanders through a diverse landscape ranging from Karoo desert to coastal cliffs.
Duration 31 hours
The train The Blue Train is a five-star hotel on wheels – one that has hosted kings and presidents. Guests have the choice between De Luxe and Luxury Suites, which serve as comfortable lounges by day and elegant bedrooms by night. All are equipped with complimentary wi-fi, Blu-ray and CD players, air-conditioning, underfloor heating, double or twin beds, and en-suite bathrooms. The Luxury Suites even include sizeable bathtubs.
Gourmet meals prepared by onboard chefs are served in the Dining Car, with dishes ranging from Karoo lamb to Knysna oysters. Guests are welcome to enjoy a Cuban cigar and a cognac in the classy Club Car after dinner, or relax in the artfully decorated Lounge Car.
Also available on-board are laundry and valet services, snacks and beverages delivered to your room on request,by your own personal butler.
The history The dream of a single, continent-spanning railway connecting the Cape to Cairo proved to be a little too ambitious, but it birthed The Blue Train, which would eventually span the length and breadth of South Africa.
The Blue Train has served its country well throughout its long and illustrious history, starting in the 1920s when it provided luxury transportation for an upper-class that was still reaping the benefits of the 19th-century gold rush. During World War II, it valiantly assisted in the war effort by serving as troop transport, before finally being taken out of service in 1942.
But its story was not over. Following the war, The Blue Train returned to the rails, and continued to undergo modifications throughout the latter part of the 20th century, even as aviation usurped locomotion as the preferred form of transport. The train itself, rather than the function it provided, was the main attraction; and people still come from all over the world to experience its rich heritage.
Cost De Luxe Double: R15 500 – R19 130 per person sharing, depending on season
Luxury Double: R18 710 – R23 285 per person sharing, depending on season
Includes all meals, high tea, beverages, off-the-train excursions and a complimentary night’s stay at a five-star hotel, in Pretoria or Cape Town – pre or post your trip.
Maximum two guests per suite
Rates valid until 31 December 2017
Contact 021 449 2672 or book online
Where to find it Cape Town Railway Station, Guests will need to register and check-in at The Blue Train Lounge.
Operating times Trains depart at 8.30am on selected Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
2. Rovos Rail
The route Cape Town – Pretoria
The journey Every effort has been made to recapture the elegance of the Edwardian Era during the two-night journey on this luxury train, which includes stopovers at Matjiesfontein and Kimberley, the mining town that brought so many fortune-seekers to South Africa during the 19th century. Rohan Vos himself, founder of the family-owned Rovos Rail, often turns up to greet guests in the private departure lounge (though not always; he’s a busy guy after all), where champagne and canapés are served as passengers wait to board the train.
Then it’s off and away, on a journey through an ever-changing landscape that ranges from the lush winelands to the wide-open plains and deserts of the Great Karoo.
Duration 49 hours, including off-the-train excursions
Good to know If two nights isn’t enough time to truly immerse yourself in the old-world mystique of luxury train travel, Rovos Rail offers a number of other packages, including a three-night journey from Pretoria to the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls, and an epic nine-day trip from Pretoria to Namibia, crossing the vast deserts of the Kalahari and the Namib on the way.
The train The spacious wood-panelled suites accommodate two passengers each, with the option of twin or double beds. All of the suites have en-suite bathrooms with showers, and the Royal Suites (which take up half a carriage) also have Victorian-style baths. All suites are air-conditioned, and equipped with well-stocked bar fridges, personal safes and writing surfaces (no TVs, as they would ruin the atmosphere). The Pullman Suites function as comfortable lounges by day, and convert into bedrooms at night, while the Deluxe and Royal Suites have private lounge areas.
In the Dining Cars, passengers are invited to enjoy first-class cuisine prepared by a team of onboard chefs, with an emphasis on traditional South African dishes, and complemented by a selection of fine South African wines.
The rest of the time can be spent relaxing in the non-smoking Lounge Car, enjoying a cigar in the Club Car, or taking in the views from the Observation Car, which includes an open-air balcony at the rear of the train.
The history The Pride of Africa hit the rails in 1989, fulfilling Rohan Vos’s lifelong dream of owning his very own train set. The Locomotion Museum at Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria tells the story of how Vos, much like the visionary railway entrepreneurs of old, pursued his pet project with single-minded vision, purchasing old steam locomotives from scrap dealers and commissioning Dunns Locomotive in Witbank to restore them to working condition. Capital Park itself, where Rovos Rail Station is situated, stands testament to an important piece of South African history, having once been the hub of the Transvaal steam-train network.
Cost Pullman Suites: R17 495 per person sharing
Deluxe Suites: R26 395 per person sharing
Royal Suites: R35 150 per person sharing
Includes accommodation, meals, beverages and excursions
Rates valid until 30 September 2017
Contact 021 421 4020, email@example.com
Where to find it Platform 23, Cape Town Railway Station
Operating times Train departs from Cape Town at 11am on select dates. See the timetable for more information.
3. Atlantic Rail Steam Train
The route Cape Town – Stellenbosch / Spier / Vredenheim (return trip included)
The journey After departing from Cape Town, the train passes through some mesmerising scenery on the way to its destination: Stellenbosch, Spier Wine Farm or Vredenheim Wine Estate, depending on the package purchased. Urban sprawl gradually gives way to tranquil farmlands, majestic mountain ranges and rolling vineyards, whereafter guests are free to enjoy some wine tasting and a country-style lunch in the winelands, or a sightseeing tour in the grand old town of Stellenbosch. The package also includes a visit to Eagle Encounters bird sanctuary at Spier, or the Big Cat Park at Vredenheim.
All this, having been transported in a vintage wooden-bodied steam train, dating back to 1922.
Duration 7.5 hours (including off-the-train excursions)
The history It was the power of steam that drove the expansion of the British Empire during the Victorian Era, and the Cape Colony was no exception. The first steam-train line in the Cape was completed in 1862, and ran from Cape Town to Eerste River. Within a year, the route had been extended to include Stellenbosch and Wellington. Gradually, a network of railway lines spread throughout the province, managed by Cape Government Railways; while in the north, the Netherlands-South African Railway Company facilitated the expansion of the railway network in the-then independent South African Republic. By the time the four provinces merged to form a nation in 1910, an expansive national railway system had effectively been established.
Cost Stellenbosch: R300 (adults); R200 (children, aged 3 – 12); free (children under 3); R50 per pram
Stellenbosch (with wine tasting and cellar tour): R360 (adults); R260 (children, 3 – 12); free (children under 3); R50 per pram
Vredenheim or Spier Wine Estate: R550 (adults); R450 (children, 3 – 12); free (children under 3); R50 per pram
Contact 021 558 5805, firstname.lastname@example.org
Where to find it Train Lodge, Old Marine Drive, Foreshore.
Operating times Trains depart Cape Town at 9.30am on select dates.
4. The Forgotten Route
The route Worcester – Matjiesfontein
The journey Guests are transported by bus from Cape Town to Worcester, where they’ll board the Trans Karoo train bound for the old colonial town of Matjiesfontein. It’s a relatively short train ride, part of a comprehensive two-day tourist package offered by Wine Flies that includes guided walks, a braai under the Karoo night sky (larger groups enjoy a sumptuous dinner at the Lord Milner Hotel instead), a wine-tasting experience and a visit to a local Olive estate.
Duration Trans Karoo train ride: 2 hours
The Forgotten Route tour: 2 days
The history In the late 19th century, thousands flocked to the Witwatersrand as news of the discovery of gold spread. The Forgotten Route hearkens back to a time when the Karoo was South Africa’s “Wild West” – a gathering point for adventurers and fortune-seekers, travelling en masse upon railways that supplied the dusty collection of encampments and settlements that would one day become Johannesburg.
The train trip to Matjiesfontein forms part of the-then Trans Karoo Express, which ran on the same route as the famous Blue Train, but excluded the expensive luxuries, making it the preferred form of transport for more down-to-earth folk. The Trans Karoo Express was incorporated into the Shosholoza Meyl network of operations, but the route remains the same as the one travelled by the pioneers of the past.
Cost R1 850 per person sharing (maximum 13 guests, excludes lunches and personal drinks)
Contact 021 462 8011 or 072 916 8035
Where to find it Cape Town Tourist Information Centre
Operating times The bus departs for Worcester at 10.30am on scheduled dates.
5. Ceres Steam Train
The destination Cape Town – Ceres (with the option to return)
The journey The old beauty chugs its way across the picturesque valleys of the Witzenberg, passing through the majestic Michell’s Pass en route to Demeter Station in Ceres. Passengers can enjoy the sights from the comfort of the spacious Lounge Cars, which were restored and refurbished in preparation for the 70-year-old train’s return to the rails in 2015. Hot beverages, snacks and alcohol are for sale in the Dining Car, and guests have the option of partaking in a buffet lunch at the Ceres Golf Course.
Duration 11 hours (including off-the-train excursions)
Good to know Ceres Rail Company is running a special Wacky Wine package on the weekend of the festival, including a train ride to Robertson, 2 stops at Wine Cellars, and a bus ride back top Cape Town. The cost is R800 per person.
The History The Ceres Railway track was completed in May 1912, and remained active until the 1990s, when Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) shut it down for financial reasons. But the Ceres Rail Company, which has dedicated itself to the preservation of South Africa’s rich railway heritage, reopened the line in 2012. It currently operates three steam trains; Jessica 3321 and Dominique 3322, both Class 19D locomotives that date back to the 1940s; Bailey 1412, a class 19B; and Red Devil 3450 (not in service yet), a one-of-a-kind South African-built class 26 locomotive.
Cost One way trip: R400 (adults); R250 (children)
Return trip: R800 (adults); R500 (children)
Lunch: R150 (adults); R50 (children)
Infants travel free of charge
Contact 079 077 5332, email@example.com
Where to find it Royal Cape Yacht Club
Operating times Train departs at 7.30am on a Saturday, every two weeks.
6. Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe
The route Cape Town – Johannesburg
The journey The affordability and comfort of this 1 600km train ride, which includes a stop at Kimberley, makes it a viable alternative to plane travel. Of course, it won’t get you to your destination as quickly, especially when there are delays; but there’s no more authentic way of experiencing the South African countryside in all its diversity and awe-inspiring beauty.
Duration 26 hours
The train Premier Classe has air-conditioned coaches, and four-sleeper compartments for couples and families. Bathrooms and shower cubicles are located at the end of each corridor. Breakfast, a multi-course lunch, dinner, and High Tea is included in the package, along with bedding, towels and luxury amenities. There’s also a Lounge Car, with a bar and TV.
The history Shosholoza Meyl was named after the famous folk song, which was sung by migrant workers as they rode the steam train from Zimbabwe to the mines in South Africa, and later taken up by Nelson Mandela and his compatriots during their imprisonment on Robben Island. Shosholoza, which describes the forward momentum of a train, made a fitting symbol for the apartheid struggle, and the colourful carriages of Shosholoza Meyl are an appropriate representation of the spirit of our Rainbow Nation.
Cost R3 120 per person (single)
Children (3 to 9 years) receive a 20% discount
Car transportation services are available for R3 500 to R4 880 (depending on vehicle size)
Contact 27 21 940 3474 or 27 21 449 4596
Or book online at www.premierclasse.co.za or with African Sun Travel
Where to find it Cape Town Railway Station
Operating times Departs at 9am on Tuesdays