It's a corny phrase, but I really buy into the "romance of rail travel". I was chatting the other evening with someone about overnight train journeys, and he hit the nail on the head: they force you to slow down, and that's their beauty. You're not hurrying to get anywhere, you're not about to be late for anything and there is literally nothing expected of you. Even when you're on a holiday, trying to relax and unwind, there is often that niggling voice at the back of your head telling you to get out, explore, see something of the country you're visiting. But when you're on a long train journey that voice is silenced: your time is absolutely 100% yours to do as you wish, and that is a wonderful sensation and allows you to truly relax.
South Africa boasts two world-famous luxury trains that are the ultimate indulgence for the traveller looking for a special, unique experience: The Blue Train, and Rovos Rail. They principally ply the rails between Cape Town and Pretoria, although other journeys are possible, and offer a wonderful way to link up stays in the north and south of the country. It's such a relaxed alternative to flying: no check-in queues, no endless security checks, no fears about who you might be sat next to. You have your own private cabin which serves as somewhere to sit during the day and sleep at night, although there are also lounge and observation cars where you can relax with a refreshing drink, watch the scenery glide by and get to know your fellow passengers a bit.
Both the Blue Train and Rovos Rail offer off-train excursions: so as well as seeing the country pass by the window, you can legitimately claim to be seeing some of South Africa (to finally silence that niggling voice!). Excursions are offered at Kimberley and Matjiesfontein. Kimberley is famous as the diamond mining city where Cecil John Rhodes made some of his fortune amongst the prospectors, characters and villains of the diamond rush. The legacy of that time is clear - the Big Hole, the vast open-cast diamond mine, dug by hand and now the centrepiece of a museum recreating the sights and sounds of diamond-rush Kimberley. Matjiesfontein is an altogether more genteel place, a Victorian spa town that seems frozen in time. An ancient double-decker bus tours the historic buildings before depositing you at the Lord Milner for a quick drink in the 19th Century before reboarding the train.
One of the most common questions I'm asked is the difference between the two trains, and "which is the better?". The truth is that they are both excellent and both offer different experiences, so it really depends on your preferences - but it's almost certain that one of them will offer exactly what you want. I've actually travelled on both of them and I would just leap at the chance of getting back onboard either of them.
The Blue Train is modern, comfortable, quick and quiet. It takes around 24 hours to get between Pretoria and Cape Town, running high-tech trains with advanced suspension and sound-damping. You have one excursion, at Matjiesfontein travelling north and Kimberley when travelling south.
Rovos Rail runs lovingly restored rolling stock from around the turn of the 19th/20th Century, all warm woods and polished brass. You spend two nights on board between Pretoria and Cape Town and stop at Matjiesfontein and Kimberley in both directions. Steam engines pull you into and out of Rovos's private station at Capital Park in Pretoria, although diesels are used for all but this short stretch of the journey.
For those who are more pressed for time, or who need a smooth, quiet ride, the Blue Train is probably the better option. For those who like their history and want to recreate something of the Grand Age of rail travel, Rovos Rail is the answer. Both offer excellent food in a fine dining atmosphere, and are staffed by the most attentive array of butlers, barmen and waiters you could possibly hope for.
There's no point in hiding from the price of these trains - they are going to be the single most expensive element of your trip in all likelihood (except possibly for the flights) - however if you can fit them into your budget, you won't be disappointed: the two journeys I've done on them remain two of my major highlights from years of South Africa holidays. If you're a real train buff, then you should consider our South African Rail Odyssey, which combines both trains as well as sightseeing and time spent in Cape Town and the Johannesburg / Pretoria area: it's a great little trip and of course we can tailor it in any way you want.