The Joy of Rail Travel in South Africa

By Damien Read  

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.


Travel Through Thailand and Malaysia in the Lap of Luxury on a Rail Tour

By Dipika Patel  

If you don't want to have a backpacking experience in south-east Asia then you may want to consider taking rail tours as a way of travelling in luxury in the region. For an experience more akin to the Orient Express than a packed bus full of people, you should look into booking a berth on the Eastern Oriental Express. You can journey from Bangkok in Thailand to Singapore at the tip of Malaysia in the utmost comfort when you decide to travel by rail.

Along the way, you will have the opportunity to stop off and discover a few of the vibrant and historic cities that Thailand and Malaysia have to offer. If you decide to take a grand tour of this nature, you should certainly make sure that you have time to spend in Bangkok, your starting point. The Thai capital is an exciting destination to visit and you can enjoy viewing beautiful temples and monuments, as well as sampling some delicious street food and haggling for a bargain at one of the city's many markets.

Among the sights that you should not miss on a visit to Bangkok are Wat Pho - otherwise known as the temple of the reclining Buddha - and Wat Traimit temple. Wat Traimit is home to the world's largest seated golden Buddha - in fact the statue of the deity is made out of more than five tonnes of solid gold and is almost ten feet tall. The Grand Palace is another landmark that should not be missed, with the complex boasting temples and government buildings built in an ornate and beautiful style.

Enjoy a drink or a meal by the river and gaze at the imposing structure as you relax and begin your journey. From the Thai capital you will travel to one of the country's best-known sights - the bridge over the River Kwai. Your train will drop you at the Kwai Bridge station and from here you can choose to take to the water and view the bridge in all its glory.

Once back on dry land, you may want to spend some time at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, where you can learn more about the construction of the railway along which you have been travelling.

After your stop by the river, your train will journey on and pass over the Malaysian border, bringing you to the town of Butterworth. From here, you will be able to catch a ferry to the island of Penang, where you can spend a day seeing the sights of its capital, George Town. The city was granted Unesco World Heritage status due to the fine examples of different architectural and cultural styles that still exist here. Take in some of the sights at your leisure and be sure to find a restaurant to try the local cuisine, which has been influenced by various different nations.

A great way to get a view across the whole city is to take the cable car to the top of Penang hill - as long as the clouds don't close in! When you board your train again, you will be starting the final section of your journey which takes you to Singapore. This island state has much to offer visitors from its beautiful Botanic Gardens to its astounding array of shopping malls and various museums. The Singapore Art Museum could be ideal if you want to round off your holiday with a bit of culture.

Alternatively, you may prefer to investigate some of Singapore's history by visiting the Changi Prison Museum, which was constructed in memory of the former prisoner of war camp that was situated here. For some relaxation, you may want to hit the shops and pick up some souvenirs or just treat yourself at one of the many malls. Another thing that you should certainly do before leaving the city is visit Raffles for a Singapore Sling.

The gin-based cocktail was invented at the hotel and although you can find it served on almost any bar menu in the city, for an authentic experience you should head here.