The Blue Train Review - A Capetown to Johannesburg Dream

Back in the 1920's all forms of transportation had set and broken numerous records.  Planes, trains, automobiles and boats had conquered many of the great journeys the world offered. It was the vast continents of Australia and Africa that still held challenges yet to be tamed. Both by now had the car fully ensconced in city life. It was the enormous distances between the cities, already linked by the railways, that the car would have to master.


Many hands make light work

In Africa, the ultimate journey not yet undertaken by car was Cape Town to Cairo. That, however, would only be for the adventurous few. In South Africa the holy-grail was to drive the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg, some 1000 miles. The first car to complete the journey we believe, was a Crossley taking some 60 hours but by far quicker that the oxen and cart's six weeks. The race was on. The publicity-hungry, franchised motor dealers quickly realized that being the fastest marque over the distance would result in greater sales. The public loved it and the drivers became heroes. With the time taken being reduced on a regular basis it was in 1924 that H. P. Rose, the main dealer for the American built Hupmobile, who not only wanted to break the record, but at the same time beat the train that was at that time referred to as 'that blue train' because of its color.


The concierge


It is Rose's attempt that interests me because along with breaking the record, it was the first serious effort at beating the train.  Secondly, after restoration the Hupmobile re-raced the train in 1990 and thirdly I have owned that car since 1998..........I would like to have you relive that journey with me,not from the road, but from the opulent surroundings of the famous Blue Train.


Pre departure drinks

It's 7am and Cape Town railway station is alive with activity. The organized chaos only the impecunious can create juxtaposed with those executing the precision commute. Behind the bustling bus station and car park is a glass door with a 'B' etched into it. This is the window to a wonderful experience. Starting out from a friend's house (that has a magnificent view of Table Mountain ), Leonard is delivering us in style courtesy of his 1926 Hupmobile sports roadster - a splendid example of American Art Deco machinery. We are allowing ourselves to drift back in time to 9/10th October 1924 when Rose would set about his formidable task.


The dining car

On arrival at the station, butlers greet us with smiling faces and make light work of our luggage. The ever efficient Amelia checks us in and allocates our suite. Time to relax and enjoy the lounge facilities. Sparkling wine is served and we choose to wander onto the platform where the Hupmobile is now parked beside the train. Its elegant sports playboy lines against the backdrop of the carriages whose windows delicately lit, reveals the sumptuous interior.


Tables laid for dinner

Boarding is a delight and once inside our suite Alex our butler explains the layout. What an efficient use of space, especially the en-suite. A light jolt and we are on our way. This train doesn't roll, it glides on soft iron wheels and air suspension. Time to explore, first to the saloon car for a fresh coffee and pastry then onto the dining car, already laid for lunch. Now for the long walk to the rear observation/lounge, it will soon be 'Bloody Mary' time. Lunchtime we choose a table to share and join the Henderson’s, wonderful entertainment. With a four-course menu on offer I plump for the scallops to start followed by parsnip soup and a filet cooked to perfection. The portions are so generous I decline the sweet course. After all high tea is served at 3:30!


The non smoking lounge has an excellent bar

As the train meanders through the valley the old road can be seen clearly

By now Rose would have cleared the Cape Town hub-bub and be negotiating the first of the 10 river crossings, 43 level crossings and 161 cattle gates. We on the other hand are approaching our only scheduled stop, Matjiesfontein (pronounced mike-keys-fontein ).  This is a little well-preserved Victorian town with a very interesting history. Take the bus tour, all ten minutes of it and keep your tongue firmly in your cheek. The commentary will reveal much of the past. Time to depart and in the observation car we sit back, enjoy drinks, coffee and take in the scenery. As we enter the Great Karoo the big red sun is setting as only an African sun can.  The Karoo for Rose, after the blistering sun and harsh wind, would deliver a cruel blow - a very cold night.  Meanwhile our travelling companions are preparing for dinner. A formal affair, strictly jacket and tie for the men and ladies in their finery. After the obligatory gin and tonic we sit down to another four-course meal. This time the star of the show was the Springbok and Ostrich paired with a bottle of good Cape red. All this with good company, in such charming surroundings.  Later and much later we find ourselves with like-minded souls enjoying a nightcap and Cohiba (a once a year treat for me) in the front saloon car. On the front of the carriage is a flat-screened TV displaying the scene ahead from the camera up front. Just the single track is visible with the occasional pair of eyes picked up in the light. And with that we wander to the next car in total darkness and outside the window the stars put on the greatest show on earth. A noise from outside - could it be the ghostly bark of an exhaust from an old Hupmobile chasing towards Jo'burg?.... Comfortable beds beckon and after a restful nights sleep we awake early and refreshed to see dawn breaking. Rose would have battled the cold and tiredness, and he even had to straighten a bent axle. We prepared for more food. Following breakfast it's time to reflect on our journey. With one more meal to go we are in striking distance of Johannesburg, Rose after all of his efforts would arrive two hours behind the train but claim a new record time of 38 hours 28 minutes.


Rose arriving in Johannesburg after the drive

We of course are going through to Pretoria and with lunch over we start to say goodbye to new friends and the cheerful, smiling staff. We had a ball. We have just crossed South Africa by rail, a childhood dream of mine. Words that epitomize 1920's travel - adventure, luxury and style come to mind.


Lounge and observation car looking back at one of the few passing sections

Just one word of warning, DO NOT book onward travel for the day of your trains arrival unless it is flexible. This is Africa and delays on the railways are the rule not the exception.

The majority of the journey is single track but surprisingly electrified the whole way

For more information about the Blue Train . We booked through  Luxury Train Club, a safe and secure UK based company.



Photo credit: Martin Males


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