A Blue Velvet Train Ride : the Scenery Outside Is Flat, but Inside the Blue Train the Living Is Silk

"There are many secrets to riding the Blue Train," Mike, my dinner companion, was saying.

This was Mike's sixth trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town on the train that countless connoisseurs have dubbed "a five-star hotel on wheels." Some cognoscenti go so far as to suggest that "the Blue," with its silky-smooth ride, its excellent cuisine, and at-the-drop-of-a-hat service, is the most luxurious train in the world, surpassing even the Venice Simplon-Orient Express when it comes to elegance.

I just wish I'd bumped into Mike before embarking on the 24-hour journey.

I'd have known:

To pack only a small case, Bring along elegant attire, Ditch the camera--there are few photo opportunities here, Include a winter nightgown and a heavy sweater and/or jacket, Take along a fluffy bath towel and Have at the ready my own entertainment; no comedians, lounge lizards or warbling divas are on this ride.

As it was, I arrived last December at Johannesburg Station, with a 26-inch Pullman packed to the rim, after a more than three-week journey throughout South Africa.

After a 30-minute ride that Wednesday from the Sandton Sun hotel in northern Johannesburg to the city center, I reached the station and was ushered by a porter into a seedy waiting area that was crowded, mostly with middle-aged whites. Soon, a clerk sporting a dark blue blazer arrived, and after depositing a bowl of plastic flowers on the check-in counter, began assigning boarding cards.

Meanwhile, down below, two armed guards patrolled a cold and deserted Platform 15.

The train, huge and gleaming in blue, pulled in from its origination point of Pretoria. Blue walk-on mats materialized in front of each coach as porters rushed about delivering luggage. There was barely time for a hug and a quick goodby to my friends before there came the clarion call, "All aboard; the Blue Train is now departing . . . ," over the loudspeakers.

I settled into the blue sofa in my private compartment and took in the details of my surroundings: Automatic blinds shielded gold-tinted windows from the encroaching morning sunlight; a brass panel beneath the window housed the controls for the blinds, as well as the air-conditioning, radio and the ever-important call button. Blue carpeting that matched the sofa fronted a small, shallow closet allowing for six hangers max.

Within minutes Victor, the corridor attendant, arrived with a bag of toiletries, consisting of soap, blue shower gel and hand lotion. Together we battled my case, which would not fit under the sofa, was too high for the luggage rack, and finally was left standing in the corner, partially blocking the entrance to the private bath.

The coupe was surprisingly narrow. I had paid $610 for the one-way journey and had not bargained that with the door shut the single would feel almost claustrophobic. There was a cheaper coupe to be had for $450, but that would have required that I share a communal bathroom. But then as train manager Torro Seegers told me as he did his rounds, "Very few people travel alone like you." Three months earlier, it had become clear that I would have to return to Johannesburg, where I was born, for personal reasons. Fondly recalling the many train trips I had taken as a teen-ager with my late mother from our home in Jo'burg to Durban--those government-run trains were brown and green--I opted for a journey on the legendary Blue Train.

Contacting the South African Tourism Board (SATOUR) in Los Angeles, I was referred to a Houston-based travel agent who urged me to secure my train booking before finalizing hotel and air dates.

Highly favorable exchange rates--the dollar was then fetching almost three times its value in South African rands--were proving a lure to overseas visitors, who comprise 80% of Blue Train business. The most frequent customers, according to train manager Seegers, are the Germans, Swiss and, increasingly, the Japanese.

A pictorial history, waiting along with a bottle of champagne on the cabin table, noted that in 1923 a luxury train, painted blue and cream, was introduced in both directions between Johannesburg and Cape Town. On the journey to the Cape, it was called the Union Limited; on the return trip it was known as the Union Express. Eventually, locals dubbed it "those blue trains." The train now leaves three mornings weekly in either direction between Johannesburg and Cape Town, completing the 1,000-mile journey in 24 hours. It has 11 sleeping coaches, as well as a baggage car, a power car that generates all electricity--the train can function independently for three days--and a carrier holding six-to-eight automobiles. Then there's the kitchen, a lounge/bar area and of prime importance, coach No. 8, the cheery dining saloon which accommodates 46.

Two sittings are offered: lunch at noon and 1:40 p.m., dinner at 7 and 8:40 p.m. I opted for the first call. Although the dress code for lunch is "smart casual," a designation used by many South African restaurants, I wore jeans and a shirt and was not challenged.

In the dining car, large tables, covered in white linen cloths with crystal glasses and shiny silverware, seat four, while narrow window tables accommodate two.

I was assigned to share my first meal with Mike, a Britisher who, in between sips of Cabernet Sauvignon, cheerfully regaled me with minutiae gleaned from years of railway travel: The windows on the Blue Train have double glazing to provide better sound insulation; the best time to gaze out of them is 6 a.m., when the train continues its journey into the Karroo (the desert region that derives its name from a Hottentot word meaning "thirstland").

G-L-I-D-I-N-G by the flat countryside (the Blue Train maintains a steady 40 m.p.h.), we dined first on fish: kingclip fried in a coconut batter and served on china bearing a little blue and gold insignia. Next I had a filet of beef cooked to a perfect medium rare and a side of yellow squash and creamed cauliflower and boiled potatoes. Soon fresh fruit, accompanied by a silver finger bowl, materialized. But lest you linger too long over cheese and biscuits, the waiters in their blue suits and bow ties hovered discretely nearby, scraping tablecloths clean for the next shift.

Later, Seegers' voice interrupted on the public address system with a hot flash: We were approaching the Rob Ferrera nature reserve.

"Watch out for rhino," he announced.

Camera poised, I frantically scoured the brush from my little compartment window. Nothing but a couple of lazy, grazing calves.

The red-and-blue-carpeted corridors were now empty. The lounge, warmed by afternoon sunlight that illuminated the ever-lingering curlicues of cigarette smoke, too, was deserted. Suddenly Billy Ray Cyrus blared from the bar radio. Alone, somewhere between the Transvaal and the Karroo, I did the Achy Breaky.

"Crazy bloody Americans," a wine steward in a white tux and bow tie mumbled as he went about his railway business. "You're all the same. Wish we had more of you, though." He then poured for me, free of charge, a passion fruit and lemonade (a bubbly drink in South Africa not unlike 7-Up).

"If my boss knew I was giving you this for nothing . . . ," he said, explaining that the cost of sodas begins at around $1.

Dismissing my grumblings about petty gouging, he insisted that "anything is possible (to obtain) on the Blue Train. All you have to do is make the right connections." There are 23 crew members on the train--all from Cape Town and, apparently, all male. With the dismantling of apartheid, these days the crew is, of course, multiracial. However, I saw no blacks on board, traveling either as passengers or as members of the crew. There were two chefs on board.

Ten minutes before the dinner gong was to sound, we pulled into the diamond town of Kimberley for a short stop while the train switched from electric to Diesel locomotives. Here, couples in evening finery strolled on the train platform arm-in-arm in the cool night air. Alas, we did not venture inland, but starting this season, the Blue Train stops in Kimberley for two hours, transporting passengers to view the purportedly largest diamond excavation in the world.

It was too cold to hang around outside. And in the dining car, the temperature seemed just as chilly. Fritz immediately placed a plate of duck-liver pate before us, followed by a creamy tomato and orange soup and broiled crayfish tail. I selected a main course of grilled lamb chops with vegetables.

As we dawdled over a dessert of warm date pudding and brandy sauce, near chaos prevailed in the lounge as diners, some in suits, some in silk gowns, others in jeans and jackets or plain dresses, impatiently awaited the second sitting.

As the smoke-filled room cleared, Mike, 50, a Manchester engineer who helps monitor equipment at several South African oil refineries, and Steve, a businessman in his 40s from Singapore, sipped liqueurs and debated the "fine art" of riding the Blue Train.

"This is a challenge. You don't undertake something like this regularly," the younger man volunteered, as his wife looked on. "The navy helped me to learn how to live in confined spaces." Time to turn in. Everything seemed smooth, sort of blue velvety.

The corridors were strangely silent as I returned to 12B. The blinds were closed and the sofa had been turned down into a comfortable bed with a thick foam mattress covered by a rich blue blanket. A teeny chocolate rested on my pillow (yes, it had a blue wrapper).

I pressed the call button. Soon, Shaun, the steward, arrived with hot milk and a plate of cream puffs, crackers and cookies.

"You should have stayed up until 11; then I could have gotten you a free glass of wine," he scolded. "You Americans. You're all chicken. You all go to bed so early. The Germans and Swiss stay up all night. Service, you know, is 24 hours on the Blue Train." I turned off the little fluorescent reading lamp. And waited. For the clickety clack.

The Blue Train does not go clickety clack.

Seegers says that's because the tracks are welded and the train has air cushions to smooth the ride and air brakes to ensure a safe stop.

The only sound to be heard that dark night was the hum of the air-conditioner.

It was 2 a.m. And freezing. I negotiated the giant Samsonite in the corner and retrieved a cashmere sweater originally intended for the return journey via wintry London.

Knock. Knock. Coffee was served. Seconds later we entered a tunnel. (We had been warned of this impending darkness the night before.) This time, breakfast was a haphazard affair. It's first come, first served, and the staff appeared tense. My waiter, sporting a white tux and bow tie, rushed me through stewed fruit, orange juice, cereal and poached eggs and grilled bacon. (I declined the kippers and the poached haddock.) There were tables to be cleared, especially before 9 a.m., when duty-free goods went on sale at the bar.

An ashtray memento, Shaun suggested, for about $5? A Blue Train tie for, say, $7? An ostrich billfold went for about $50, and an ostrich handbag, the hottest-selling item, for about $110.

With the warming sun now filtering through the gold-tinted windows, it seemed a good time for a shower. Surprisingly, the bath towel was somewhat threadbare. The immovable shower head was awfully high and the cubicle was becoming alarmingly flooded. Never mind. Re-entering the cabin to the strains of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" everything seemed peaceful. Color the world mellow yellow. Another day would just about do it.

But we were heading into the home stretch. Fritz arrived with souvenir menus and a $1.50 tab for a mineral water. The crew was running around. There were beds to be made, newspapers to be delivered and bags to be packed.

The train pulled into Cape Town at 10:40 a.m. Again, there was not a minute's pause as porters in blue hastily transported luggage from Platform 24 to the waiting hands of anxious taxi drivers.

"Are you crazy, lady?" my driver exhorted upon learning that my travel agent had booked a first-time visitor to the Cape into a downtown hotel just minutes from the station.

"You should be at Sea Point where you can breathe the wonderful air," he continued. "You're gonna get killed here. Last week a German tourist had her finger chopped off outside the hotel. You spend all your money, go on the Blue Train and are nice and happy, and then you do something like this. You're really stupid, lady." P.S. He was right. Cape Town's business district is deserted--and scary--at night and on weekends . . . . After three days I moved, at considerable expense given that I'd pre-paid the whole trip, to a seafront hotel in lovely Bantry Bay. This is midway between Sea Point and Clifton, with its glorious white beaches rimmed with frothy, turquoise waters. Too icy to swim, though. Great seafood. I left Cape Town on South African Airways, which has a terrific nonstop flight to London. Leaves around 10 p.m. Had a wonderful vegetarian dinner. First time I've walked away from a 12-hour flight with no jet lag. Feels good to be back home, though . . . .

GUIDEBOOK Tracking the Blue Train Train particulars and prices: In high season (October through March), the Blue Train operates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, in both directions between Johannesburg and Cape Town. The 24-hour journey begins in Johannesburg at 10:10 a.m., stopping at Kimberley for two hours en route. The train leaves Cape Town at 10:50 a.m., stopping for one hour at Matjiesfontein. Check-in is one hour earlier. April to October, the train runs sporadically.

Prices (one way only) vary according to the rate of exchange. Accommodations fall into four general categories: Type A, a suite with private lounge and refrigerator, bath and toilet facilities, about $2,200; Type B, a compartment with private bath and toilet, about $860; Type C, compartment with private shower (no bath) and toilet, about $84; Type D compartment with private toilet but communal shower, about $695, and Type D compartment with communal shower and toilet, around $590. Prices include meals, snacks, compartment service and bedding; liquor and soft drinks are extra. Smoking is allowed throughout the train.

To make reservations: Among the travel agents recommended by the South African Tourism Board is Safariplan, 673 E. California Blvd., Pasadena 91106, telephone (800) 358-8530.

For more information: Contact the South African Tourism Board, 9841 Airport Blvd., Suite 1524, Los Angeles 90045, tel. (800) 782-9772 or (310) 641-8444.

A Blue Velvet Train Ride : the Scenery Outside Is Flat, but Inside the Blue Train the Living Is Silk 1

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