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 trarogevel 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. These 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, air-conditioning, underfloor heating, double or twin beds, and en-suite bathrooms. The Luxury Suites also have blu-ray players, and 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 basic laundry facilities, valet services, and 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: R16 430 – R20 280 per person sharing, depending on season
Luxury Double: R20 850 – R25 615 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 2018
Where to find it Cape Town Railway Station, Guests will need to register and check-in at The Blue Train Lounge at least an hour prior to departure.
Operating times Trains depart at 8.30am on selected Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
2. Steam Train to the Elgin Railway Market
The route Cape Town – Elgin
The journey Another scenic train journey brought to you by Ceres Rail, this one takes you through lush countryside and rolling green hills towards the apple orchards of Elgin. The best part: the train stops at the steampunk-themed Elgin Railway Market, where you have three-and-a-half hours to enjoy live music and wide selection of food, beverage, clothing and art stalls. The train transports you back to the Mother City in time for a 5.30pm arrival.
Duration 9.5 hours (including time spent at the Elgin Railway Market)
The history An old apple warehouse, where children used to gather decades ago to enjoy potjiekos with the workers as they waited for their school bus, is the setting for the Elgin Railway Market. Entrepreneur Roger Orphen, inspired by Victorian-era railway stations, converted the barn into steampunk-themed station market, complete with elaborate metal archways, overhanging bridges and lanterns.
All that was missing from the picture was an actual steam train. Thanks to a partnership with Ceres Rail Company, that final piece of the puzzle has been provided, as the grandeur of the Victorian age comes back to life everytime the old beauty pulls up alongside the bustling station platform.
Cost R750 (adults); R500 (children)
Where to find it Royal Cape Yacht Club, Duncan Road, Table Bay Harbour, Cape Town
Operating times Check all the upcoming dates for the steam train ride to Elgin
3. 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 57 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 that 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 nonsmoking 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: R18 950 per person sharing
Deluxe Suites: R28 650 per person sharing
Royal Suites: R38 150 per person sharing
Includes accommodation, meals, beverages and excursions
Rates valid until 30 September 2018
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.
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 950 per person sharing (excludes lunches and personal drinks)
Maximum 13 guests (larger groups can be catered to, but will be quoted on enquiry)
Where to find it Cape Town Tourist Information Centre
Operating times The bus departs for Worcester at 8.30am on scheduled dates.
5. Diaz Express
The route Mossel Bay – Great Brak River – Maalgate River
The journey More of a rail experience than a train, but a spectacular journey nonetheless, these coaches roll through the lush landscapes of the Garden Route – a bountiful and mesmerisingly beautiful region that ranges from verdant plant life and rushing rivers to pristine white-sand beaches and turquoise ocean. It’s the kind of adventure you’d expect to see in an Indiana Jones movie, or even Jurassic Park, as you imagine a ferocious T-Rex crashing through the wall of trees.
The train’s first stop is Seeplaas, a boutique coffee shop and art gallery with stunning views, and then it trundles on to either the Maalgate Bridge or the Glentana viewpoint (depending on your choice of route), where the train turns around.
On the way back, it stops off at Great Brak River, an old village built around the lagoon of the river that gives it its name. There you’ll enjoy lunch at the award-winning Transkaroo Restaurant in the beautifully restored old station building, or the rustic Opispoor Pub & Grill, before heading back to Mossel Bay.
Duration Glentana excursion: 6.5 hours
Maalgate excursion: 7.5 hours
The train Three dark-blue railcars named Tom, Dick and Harry, each one able to seat a small group of people, are restored Wickham railcars dating back to the 1960s. With windows all around, they are ideal for viewing the beautiful landscape.
The history It’s named after Bartolomeu Diaz – the famous Portuguese explorer, and first European to round the Cape. His arrival on the shores of Mossel Bay was witnessed by the Khoi-San, who would continue to trade with European explorers passing through the region over the following centuries. Seafaring trade was the primary driver of growth as Mossel Bay became a thriving settlement, but steam trains have also played a vital role in its history, and today it serves as a hub for the restoration and maintenance of steam locomotives.
The Diaz Express is not a steam train, but it runs along the Transnet George-Mossel Bay railway line, which was opened by Sir Peter Faure way back in 1907.
Cost Mossel Bay – Glentana excursion, return trip: R150 per adult; R120 per child (under 12)
Hartenbos – Maalgate excursion, return trip: R150 per adult; R120 per child (under 12)
Food and beverages at restaurant not included in rate
Where to find it Kaai 4 Braai Restaurant, Mossel Bay harbour area, Mossel Bay
Operating times Mossel Bay – Glentana excursion: 9.30am, Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday
Hartenbos – Maalgate excursion: 10am, Monday, Wednesday & Fridays
Good to know These excursions are available throughout the year, except in December. During the December school holiday season, the Diaz Express only does the Hartenbos – Mossel Bay shuttle service.
Mossel Bay – Glentana Lunch Excursion
Hartenbos – Maalgate Lunch Excursion
Researched by Matthew Flax and Alicia Chamaillé
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