It is late afternoon, and my wife and I are sitting in soft lounge chairs and sipping cocktails from crystal glasses. Outside our window, the dry, golden grasslands of the karoo, interrupted only by windmills and abandoned farmhouses, stretch out for miles as if reaching into another day. Here, deep in the heart of South Africa's outback, the landscape is almost like a meditation, relaxing in its sameness.
But the spell is broken when, out of nowhere, an ostrich appears, running madly within several yards of our window. Its gangly legs trot at top speed. Its wings flap, as if the flightless bird had dreams of taking to the air. Our butler tells us there's a good chance of spotting springbok as well. He's right. My wife, Rena, who has developed a ranger's eye for wildlife, is the first to point out a group of these wily, leaping antelope on a nearby hill. The karoo comes alive and we are on the edge of our seats, wondering what we'll see around the next bend.
We are not traveling on safari, or staying in a five-star hotel. We are crossing South Africa on the Blue Train, the most luxurious railway journey on the African continent -- and some might argue the world.
At moments like this, we agree -- it's the best ride around. At other times during our journey, the government-owned Blue Train felt more like a colonial-era relic resting on its reputation for luxury, but more on that later.
Our 812-mile journey took us from the beautiful southern coastal city of Cape Town through the rich vineyards of South Africa's wine country, over mountains, across the karoo, past villages and townships to the end of the line in the historic South African capital, Pretoria.
During our 26 hours on board we not only got to see ostrich and springbok, we got to taste them as well. Both animals appear on the Blue Train's African wildlife-inspired menu. We sat in the grand observation car and watched the landscape slip by. We drank cocktails in the lounge. And at night we retired to our private suite where we fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the cars on the tracks.
The Blue Train is by far the slowest way to get from Cape Town to Pretoria. You can fly the same distance in less than two hours, and you could drive it in one very long day. But the Blue Train has never been about how fast you reach your destination; it's about how comfortable you are along the way.
The luxury train has its roots in South Africa's wild days of diamond and gold mining in the 19th and early 20th centuries. British mining giant and politician Cecil John Rhodes dreamed of a railway that would connect Cape Town to Cairo. His vision was never realized, but he did help lay tracks as far north as Victoria Falls and the Congo.
In the early days of African rail travel, journeys were about delivering supplies and shipping cargo to and from the mining towns. But as more wealthy fortune seekers arrived on the continent, a new breed of trains with showers, dining cars and card rooms developed to cater to these high-class clients.
By the 1930s, all steel, air-conditioned trains from England appeared in South Africa. Their blue and gray finish caught the attention of residents who referred to them as "those blue trains." After World War II, that nickname was made official, and the luxurious railway line was called the Blue Train.
Since then, the train's reputation for first-class service, comfort and luxury has grown. The Blue Train has been consistently rated one of the top train journeys in the world, ranked alongside the Orient Express. Although the Cape Town to Pretoria route remains the most popular, the train also offers journeys to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Kruger National Park and the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.
I was traveling with my wife, my mother-in-law from New York and her friends, Phyllis and Jerry, also from New York, who were on a two-week vacation in South Africa.
At the Cape Town train station, a man dressed in a leopard-skin pattern vest and white gloves greeted us and took our baggage. The 18-car train is like a first-class hotel on wheels. There is a wood-paneled club car for smokers, a lounge car where tea is served, a dining car, and the observation car. Inside our wood-paneled suite, a fruit plate and fresh flowers awaited us. Each suite has fold-down beds, a television, telephones, motorized Venetian blinds and complimentary robe and slippers with the Blue Train logo. The bathroom floors are made of Italian marble.
A letter personally signed by the train manager on the table promised: "Your comfort is our sole concern."
Each sleeping car has its own butler. Our butler, Terrence, was at our beck and call -- to do laundry, press clothes and turn down the bed sheets in the evening. His main duty, however, appeared to be monitoring the toilet paper rolls in all the sleeping car's bathrooms. He would fold the leading toilet paper square into a triangle and then pin it down with a shiny sticker with the Blue Train emblem, a golden "B."
For such perks as these, you pay dearly. The Blue Train charges more than $1,000 for the overnight journey, or nearly $1 per minute on board. We found that if you're not careful, the cost will gnaw at you the entire journey. You'll be forced to consider whether you are really getting the luxury the Blue Train brochure promises.
The word luxury attached to anything, from a hotel room to a train ride, raises expectations so much that sometimes you can only be disappointed. In some ways, the Blue Train did disappoint. Sometimes the staff was right by our sides, fawning over us to freshen our drinks. Other times, we had to chase down waiters and bartenders to get their attention. The cloth napkins in the dining rooms looked like rags. The champagne was served at room temperature.
Some of the Blue Train's problems may stem from its financial troubles. Since its founding 50 years ago, the government-run train has reportedly rarely cleared a profit. Under apartheid, the train was the playground of government ministers. Making money wasn't part of the equation. When asked about the train's management, one bartender rolled his eyes and said it was a "disaster."
The situation may improve if the government decides to privatize the operation. Last year, billionaire Richard Branson, who owns Virgin Atlantic Airways, expressed interest in buying the train.
Short on staff, and passengers
The Blue Train has space for 76 passengers; on our trip, there were just 34. Many of the passengers, like us, were rescheduled on this trip because other excursions had been canceled due to a lack of passengers. In all the reshuffling, my mother-in-law and her friends were placed in smaller deluxe suites instead of the larger luxury rooms they had paid for. The management was apologetic, but blamed everyone -- travel agents, satellite offices, middlemen -- except themselves for the mix-up.
Our excursion appeared to suffer from staff shortages as well. The man who picked up our bags in Cape Town later surfaced as a bartender, and at dinner he was a waiter. Terrence, our butler, helped in the dining car as well. Who, we wondered, was monitoring the toilet paper rolls?
To be fair, the pleasure of the Blue Train is not all about the temperature of the champagne or the quality of the service -- it is about experiencing the stunning landscapes and vistas of South Africa.
Pulling out of Cape Town, we sat in the observation car. Table Mountain, the flat-topped landmark of Cape Town, disappeared from view as the train's two diesel engines tugged the 18 cars into the mountains. The lush green landscape of the wine country and farmlands slowly gave way to the pale grasslands of the South African outback, the karoo.
After lunch, the train made a one-hour stop at Matjiesfontein, a Victorian health and holiday resort founded in 1884 by a Scottish railway porter named James Logan. In its day, the little karoo town was a popular stop on the railway journey from Cape Town. Cecil John Rhodes spent many weekends there. And during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) it served as a base camp for 10,000 British troops and 20,000 horses.
Today Matjiesfontein is little more than a dusty ghost town. The main attraction is the restored fortress-like Lord Milner Hotel, where Blue Train guests are invited in for a shot of brandy. A London double-decker bus provides a brief tour of the town's one street. There's a wonderful museum near the train platform with a basement full of antiques and possibly the world's largest bedpan collection. Passengers taking the Blue Train in the opposite direction, from Pretoria to Cape Town, stop in the mining town of Kimberley.
As the sun began to set, the train pushed on through the karoo. With so few passengers, it felt empty. For much of the afternoon a European man sat alone at a barstool in the smoking lounge cars drinking one beer after the next until his face turned crimson. By early evening he had fallen asleep in a lounge chair.
Most of the passengers were from overseas, mainly Americans and Europeans who had decided to splurge. But there were several South Africans aboard as well. At times, the train had an almost colonial feel to it. Inside the club car, an older group of white South Africans bemoaned the changes under way in their country since the end of white minority rule. A berry farmer complained how his black workers demanded too much pay. Another man sat in the observation lounge and informed an overseas tourist how crime was destroying the country. Things were so bad, he said, people were stealing phone lines.
Elegance within, poverty without
The Blue Train's elegance is on full display at dinnertime. The train's smart-casual dress code is upgraded to semi-formal for dinner. Top South African wines are uncorked. I ordered the ostrich, some of the best I've had in South Africa.
After dinner, passengers mingled briefly before retiring to their rooms, where a bottle of champagne and chocolates awaited them. Nighttime is magical on the Blue Train. From our window we could look out on the lonely karoo and a night sky sprinkled with stars. The train rocked as gently as a cradle. There are few more pleasant ways of falling asleep.
By the next morning we were approaching the outskirts of Johannesburg, on our final leg to Pretoria. As we were seated for breakfast, the train cut through some of the country's poorest black townships, reminding passengers that the new South Africa remains a land of stark and painful contrasts.
Entire families live in shacks smaller than our Blue Train cabins, with no toilets or running water. With such a view, you cannot help but feel guilty as you dine grandly on salmon and scrambled eggs. And you can't help but wonder what crosses the minds of the squatters -- living as if in a past century -- when the Blue Train clicks by.
Those thoughts stayed with us as the train passed through Johannesburg's industrial corridor, the giant gold mine dumps and Pretoria's suburban homes surrounded by walls topped with razor wire and electric fencing.
The reality of South Africa, a country in the throes of transformation, with high unemployment, a spiraling crime rate and more AIDS cases than anywhere in the world, sinks in. Then it struck me that perhaps we Blue Train passengers -- not the poor squatters cooking over an open fire a few miles back -- were the ones living in a past century, an era of colonial privilege and luxury trains. As we pulled into Pretoria station, we knew, no matter how pleasant it had been, that our fantasy ride had come to an end.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Flights from BWI on Delta Airlines connect from Atlanta to Cape Town on South African Airways. You can also fly to Europe, where you can get direct flights to South Africa. American tourists can travel to South Africa without a visa.
The Blue Train, Central Reservations Pretoria Station, Pretoria, South Africa 0002
* Phone: 27-12-334-8459
* Internet: www.bluetrain.co.za
* The most popular of the train's four excursions is a one-way, overnight trip along the Cape Town-Pretoria route. Prices in season range from $1,000 per person for a single deluxe cabin to $1,512 per couple for a luxury cabin. Prices vary with exchange rates, and departure dates vary throughout the year. Check with your travel agent or Blue Train reservation office for details about routes and dates.
Cape Grace Hotel, West Quay Road, Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, 8002 Cape Town
* Phone: 27 21 410 7100
* Online: www.capegrace.com Choice
* Rates: Rooms with breakfast included from $250 per night
* Voted the best hotel in the world by Conde Nast Traveler magazine in 2000, this small luxury hotel offers beautiful views of Table Mountain and is located in the heart of Cape Town's vibrant waterfront.
Holiday Inn Waterfront, 1 Lower Buitengragt, Cape Town, 8001 South Africa
* Phone: 27-21-409-4000
* Online: www.basshotels.com / holiday-inn?_franchisee=CPTWT
* Rates: Rooms from about $67 per night.
* Affordable, quality hotel minutes from the waterfront and downtown attractions
Sheraton Pretoria Hotel and Towers, Church and Wessels streets, Pretoria, 0007 South Africa
* Phone: 27-12- 429-9999
* Online: www.sheraton.com / property.taf?prop=1136&lc;=en
* Rates: From $80 per night
* Located in the heart of South Africa's capital
In Cape Town: Take a cable car up Table Mountain; visit Robben Island, where former President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned; tour the Cape wineries.
In Pretoria: Visit historic Union Buildings where former President Mandela was inaugurated; explore the Voortrekker Monument; visit the Pretoria Zoo, one of the world's Top 10 zoos.
10:30 a.m.: Board the Blue Train in Cape Town. Get settled in your cabin, and meet your personal butler.
11 a.m.: Go to the observation car and watch the spectacular views of Table Mountain as the train leaves Cape Town. Relax and enjoy the view, or, take some time to explore the train's 17 other cars.
1 p.m.: Lunch is served. Order the springbok. Sample some of the Blue Train's outstanding South African wines. Don't be shy. All the drinks are complimentary except the imported champagnes.
4:30 p.m.: When the train stops at Matjiesfontein, a Victorian town located in the heart of the karoo, take the double-decker bus for a quick tour.
5:30 p.m.: Take a nap in your cabin, but don't sleep too long: The sunsets in the karoo are stunning.
10 p.m.: There are two seatings for dinner. Dress is semi-formal. Order the ostrich and a bottle of red wine. Coffee is served in the club car after dinner. It's a good chance to meet other travelers.
11 p.m.: Order an after-dinner drink in the observation car and look out at the lonely karoo and the Southern Hemisphere's night sky.