Escape from Covid: South Africa’s luxurious “Blue Train”

On board the Blue Train (South Africa) (AFP)

Waiters in gray vests with delicate plates of canapés circle the private lounge at Cape Town Central Station, and the clink of champagne glasses is in the air.

Timeless lightness fills the room while passengers wait to board the fabled Blue Train for a luxurious two-day hike through South Africa.

But even in this spoiled world, 2021 invades and shows that nothing can escape the grip of the coronavirus pandemic.

Passengers are discreetly guided in small groups to a fast-track coronavirus test center nearby.

A negative result sent by text is followed by an elegant starter lunch – the last step before “Everyone on board!” signals the beginning of the adventure.

In the background stands the dashing Blue Train, ready to accommodate excited passengers in 19 plush carriages lined with wooden panels and polished brass.

Forty-eight hours of pampering begin when the train rolls out of the station on a 1,600 kilometer journey through the Karoo Desert and cuts the center of the country into the capital Pretoria.

Arid ocher landscapes gradually transform into rolling hills and green pastures, sporadically punctuated by mining towns and informal settlements.

The Blue Train is a perfect escape from the worries of the world.

Ironically, most South Africans could never have dreamed of affording their luxuries before Covid showed up.

However, coronavirus travel restrictions have halted the influx of wealthy international tourists who have long dominated the train’s clientele, mostly from Australia, the UK and Japan.

The service was resumed in November with greatly reduced prices. Today almost all passengers come from South Africa.

“I grew up knowing there was a blue train that was unaffordable,” said Cape Town-based doctor Mashiko Setshedi, accompanied by her 67-year-old mother. “Thanks to Covid it became possible.”

Unlike Setshedi, most of the passengers were white couples in their fifties and sixties.

“Our trip to the US was canceled in 2020,” said Bennie Christoff, a 54-year-old financial advisor who was flanked by his wife.

“We’re locked up and the Blue Train is one of the things I wanted to do. My grandparents told us about it.”

The decade-old train is operated by South African state-owned logistics company Transnet, which has been trying to keep rail traffic running smoothly since the economic setbacks of the pandemic to increase cable theft.

– ‘Once in a lifetime’ –

A reduced ticket still costs 23,000 rand (1,544 USD) – roughly four times the average monthly minimum wage in one of the world’s most unequal countries.

“Returning guests are rare,” said barman Simon Moteka. “It’s often a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them.”

The 43-year-old pushed drinks over the counter, had an expert conversation and peppered discreet small talk with the occasional well-placed joke.

As meal time approached, a loudspeaker announcement politely reminded men to put on a coat or waistcoat, and “Women to be as elegant as possible”.

Flip-flops and shorts gave way to dark suits and dresses before passengers walked to the restaurant car and filled the narrow passage with the scent of perfume.

The sun was setting as the guests were led to their tables and cast a golden glow over the sheep-strewn karoo as it whizzed past the windows.

Each dish on the three- to five-course menu is paired with a different glass of wine.

Dessert – deconstructed cheesecake or lemon meringue cake – was followed by a shot of grappa or a sweet South African white from Klein Constantia.

“Nelson Mandela’s favorite,” said restaurant manager Sydney Masenyani, ramrod straight and impeccably dressed.

The 61-year-old began his career in 1981 as a senior waiter on a smaller train.

In 1993, two years after the official end of apartheid, he joined an all-white team of employees.

His first few months were tough. Masenyani was tall and shy and was often teased.

Four years later, Mandela got on board herself to launch a new, completely redesigned Blue Train, flanked by US music producer Quincy Jones and British model Naomi Campbell.

“It was wonderful,” recalled Masenyani, vividly describing the red carpet and the nervous bodyguards.

“Motorcycles on the road, helicopters,” he glowed. “We took pictures with him.”

The highlight was the serving of Mandela, his favorite chocolate fondant “with passion fruit heart” and a sweet South African dessert wine.

“In fact, he was sitting at the same table as you,” Masenyani said cheerfully to AFP journalists.

“He says that to everyone,” joked one passenger who overheard the conversation.

– Invisible fairies –

Some satisfied guests retired to their freshly made cabin beds. Others went to the observation car with its oversized windows, the lounge or the club to get a nightcap.

Once on board, everything from your first morning coffee to a midnight cigar is included in the ticket price.

Cash is banned – passengers are asked to put their wallets away and “indulge in the luxury of the show”.

Time becomes fluid. Between meals and naps, the day is spent reading, playing cards, and making new friends.

Every evening, invisible fairies tiptoe into the cabins while dinner is served.

They bring firm mattresses out of the corners of the walls and stretch fresh-smelling comforters tightly over them.

From fluffy pillows you can turn to the window and look at the moonlit landscape rolling by under a starry sky.

Tucked under the covers, there was a hot shower or bath waiting in the morning, and the passengers rocked as the gentle movement fell asleep.

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