South Africa boasts some of the world’s finest trains, with rail experiences that are a million miles away from the daily commute
While most travellers would think nothing of travelling around France or Japan by rail, few would consider opting to let the train take the strain in South Africa. This is surprising, as one of the world’s most wildly beautiful countries boasts some of the most impressive rail scenery on the planet, with a variety of services - from rudimentary trains through to luxury adventures - that are up there with the world’s finest rail journeys.
One perception that first-timers have is that travelling by train in South Africa can be dangerous. It can be, but mainly on the local, single-class services. The Shosholoza Meyl trains, meanwhile, are run by the state operator Spoornet and are a useful way of getting between the nation’s cities. You can travel between Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban on their Trans Karoo, Trans Oranje and Trans Natal services, with beds available in both Tourist and Economy classes. Passengers can either eat in the dining car or use the trolley service.
A serious step up in luxury, and staking a claim to being the most famous train on the whole continent, is the Blue Train. The most popular option is the Cape Town-Pretoria service, which suits those short of time, as it only takes 27 hours. Heading south is perhaps the best way to go, as you get more time off the train during the single excursion and the last part of the trip is spent cruising through the Winelands, snatching tantalizing views of Table Mountain on the run into Cape Town.
All of the Blue Train routes offer the same high level of comfort in air-conditioned carriages that have been built with real attention to detail. Double beds and baths are welcome accompaniments and all meals and drinks, bar champagne, are included, taking away the hassle of signing slips as you go. The carriages have been designed to allow easy movement between them, with few dividing doors.
There are a few downsides to the remarkable Blue Train, such as the fact that only one of the trains has an observation car and even that can be off limits when booked by corporate groups, which can be frustrating. Any worries on this, though, are soon erased by the excellent South African wines aboard. South African wines are now up there with the world’s best and you can try some top-notch reds and whites. Highlights include the Diemersfontein Carpe Diem Pinotage 2005 and the gorgeous Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc 1996. Much of the food is local produce too, including Cape Town rock lobster and Karoo lamb.
If a ride on the Blue Train just seems an indulgence too far then Premier Classe is run by the same people. This is a more reasonably priced service that travels weekly in both directions between Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town. It takes in a swathe of scenery as it goes, crossing the barren Karoo and the expanse of the Kimberley. You get the same epic scenery at a fraction of the cost but still a lot more comfort than the Shosholoza Meyl trains.
Rovos Rail, rather than being a direct luxury rival to the Blue Train, is a completely different experience, and rail travellers flying all this way often see the sense in riding both of these world famous trains in one trip. The train, or rather the three trains, are the brainchild of Rohan Vos, a man who loves his railways so much that he has built his own station and marshalling yard just outside the capital, Pretoria. Leaving from here is a sublime experience, as most trips are steam-hauled for the first leg, and you unfurl away from the platform in a whirl of steam as you ease back through the centuries.
In contrast to the Blue Train, Rovos is a vintage train where the ride is bumpier and slower and the air conditioning not always spot on. On the plus side, it has a greater sense of nostalgia and romance. The pace is far more leisurely, too: Rovos takes almost two days on the Cape Town to Pretoria route, with excursions at both Kimberley and Matjiesfontein. Rovos also often ‘stables’ at night, allowing a good night’s sleep.
The public areas on Rovos are impressive, with an observation lounge with an outdoor section and a restaurant where it feels like you have been transported back before World War Two. In effect you have been, as these are expertly refurbished vintage carriages. The wine list is bang up-to-date, though, with a fine choice of South African wines, and the food is equally impressive, with the likes of ostrich fillet and exotic soups like sweet potato and lychee.
The Shongololo Express is a few notches down in terms of luxury, and markets itself as a ‘train safari with a difference’. It certainly is different. The Shongololo carries its own Mercedes-Benz ‘Sprinters’ to enable passengers to make excursions en route, with three journeys available: the Southern Cross, Good Hope and the Dune Express, all 16-day trips that make forays into neighbouring countries as well as South Africa. They carry quad bikes on board, too, so you can shoot off into the wilds beside the train on your own wheels. If you are an adrenaline junkie, you can also opt for hot air ballooning, scuba diving or even elephant riding.
Whether you want to splurge out a bit and try a night or two on the Blue Train or Rovos, embark on a multi-day safari on a train that boasts quad bikes and minibuses, or just use Spoornet as an enjoyable way of exploring, South Africa has something for you. It may not have the extensive high-speed networks of France or Japan, but letting the train take the strain in South Africa opens up a world of travel experiences.