Luke travels through Africa by Train

Staff member: Luke // Trip date: Aug 2013

The Blue Train - Pretoria to Cape Town

The Blue Train has an aura of mystique about it. Kings and presidents have travelled on this magnificent moving five-star hotel. It's very name has become synonymous with the ultimate in luxury and personal service.

Upon arrival at Pretoria station, I was given a warm-hearted welcome by The Blue Train staff , my luggage was tagged and whisked away and I was escorted to the exquisite Blue Train lounge. A selection of snacks and drinks were available in the lounge. After a brief introduction by the train manager, we were ushered to our suite by our dedicated butler, who provided us with impeccable service the entire journey. The butlers are available 24 hours a day and can be called using the phone in your suite. As soon as I entered my Deluxe Suite, I literally jumped with glee; as I knew I was in for a very pleasurable night. The Deluxe suites are very spacious and elegantly furnished and featured either twin beds with a shower, or double beds with a bathtub (fyi, the bathtubs look big enough to fit two!). The Luxury suites are more spacious and boast an enhanced entertainment system.


Linking the private suites of The Blue Train are two wood-panelled cars: the lounge and club cars. After a few drinks and smokes in the club lounge getting friendly with the other guests, it was time for brunch. Reading the menu made my mouth water. I wasn't even concerned that escargots (snails!) featured; a food I would usually be afraid to try, as I knew they would be good - they ended up being absolutely delicious! I could eat these snails every day. The main course (choice between 3 options) was amazing as well.


After brunch and high tea, the Blue Train arrived at Kimberley Station for our off train excursion. As we were pulling in the train manager announced for us to look out of the window as we travelled past the flamingos of Kimberley's Kamfers Dam which offered a rare and lovely sight - thousands upon thousands of these pink birds stretching for as far as the eye can see. We were taken to the viewing platform on the edge of the Kimberly hole, giving a wonderful sense of the Big Hole's remarkable scale and grandeur, where a site guide spoke about the history of the hole. We then watched a short, but entertaining film introducing us to the story of diamonds in Kimberley. Finally we were taken to the vault for the real diamond display - seeing the largest uncut diamond in the world gave me tingles. Back at the station we were greeted with a glass of tasty sherry. The sherry glass engraved with The Blue Train logo is a memento for guests to keep. I was glad we had time to do this (it's not guaranteed) as I really loved the tour. For guests starting in Cape Town, you'll visit the historic town of Matjiesfontein instead.


As dinner is an elegant affair it's compulsory for men to wear a jacket and tie; which made dinner an experience in itself. I was more than happy to be looking my best on this special occasion anyway. The Blue Train provided the finest dining experience I'd ever had - the meals were suburb and each meal was scored to a selection of tasteful background music ranging from smooth jazz to light classical to the mellow tones of the Soweto String Quartet. I finished off the night with a Cuban cigar and some of the finest whisky available on the train - all included in the price of course.


The Blue Train is widely regarded as one of the world's most luxurious trains and has been voted the "world's leading luxury train" at the World Travel Awards multiple times. Taking this in account, it's also amazingly one of the cheapest overnight luxury train journeys. Since it's only 2 days, it will perfectly fit with any touring plans for South Africa. And with The Blue Train's "Value Add" promotion currently running (and not finishing anytime soon!), you're effectively receiving a 3 day/2 night experience for the same cost.


Shongololo Express - The Southern Cross

 

This 16-day journey encompasses six countries on a route that is carefully crafted to deliver stunning experiences each and every day. The train travels between Johannesburg and Victoria Falls, stopping at carefully selected locations in South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana. As the tracks unfurl a rare insight is offered into the cultural and geographical cocktail that makes Southern Africa so vibrant and exciting.


We had booked a pre-night on the train, which is recommended as most visitors find it too tiresome to arrive on an international flight and continue with the usual day tours, which are offered on the first day of the trip. Optional extras are also included on the pre-day if you arrive into Johannesburg early enough. We were met upon arrival at Johannesburg Airport for our included transfer and taken to a hotel instead of the train. The train wasn't quite ready from the preceding Dune Express tour so everyone stayed at the hotel, which was actually nice. The next morning we had breakfast and everyone met in the foyer. Our passports were taken by one of the guides so that he could acquire our Mozambique visa (R800.00) whilst we were out for the day. For the whole trip, conveniently no visas had to be purchased in advance (except for the Mozambique one in Johannesburg); they could all be obtained at the border crossings.

 

There were two inclusive tours to choose from on Day 1, one covering Johannesburg and Soweto; the other covering Pretoria and Soweto. I decided upon the former as it would be my only chance to explore Johannesburg which is something I really wanted to do, despite making a conscious decision not to spend any additional nights in the city. Though I was told by the guides that it has become a lot safer since the World Cup and is becoming one of the world's most exciting new frontiers for arts and tourism! The day started at Constitution Hill, which is the new home of the Constitutional Court and the site of Johannesburg's notorious Old Fort Prison Complex, where many of South Africa's leading political activists were detained. The absolute highlight for me was our visit to Soweto; a township comprising of more than one million people and made famous by the laws of Apartheid - and where 'District 9' was filmed! During our walk through one of the poorer areas, we visited an orphanage and the Soweto Klipton Youth society performed for us. (SKY provides hope and services to some of the most neglected children in South Africa through formal and informal programs to support children and teens.) I couldn't wipe the smile off my face, the kids performing were brilliant and it was such a joyful way to start everything. After a pleasant first day, we were taken to the train. After an introduction by the train manager, Senele, who spoke about the operations of the train, like how everything works, and what to expect, we were given our cabin keys. I was booked into a Commodore cabin, which I thought was a good size and includes a private bathroom; cleaned daily by the staff. The beds were really comfortable as well. The cabin had an air-conditioner which I loved, and the staff would turn it on after cleaning my room so that I'd come back to a nice cool room after a big day of touring in the hot sun! If you prefer more space, the Emerald suites have a separate lounge area and the people staying in these were very happy with them. You can always speak to the Train Manager if you wish to upgrade, provided space is available. Later that night we had our first onboard dinner. There are two sittings for dinner each night. All dinners are 3 courses and although the servings were small they were filling, plus they were constantly delicious and different each night. After a few drinks with some fellow guests (that we simply put on our onboard account to pay at the end) I retired for an early start in the morning.


After a hot breakfast (continental breakfast is also available), we set off for our full day tour of Swaziland. The tiny Kingdom of Swaziland covers only 17 000 square kilometres, making it the second smallest country in Africa. It was such a fascinating day, hearing about the current king of Swaziland and his many, many wives (13!), going to a glass factory, an amazing candle shop and a bustling Swazi Market; all whilst watching the interesting Swaziland scenery go by; it seemed like we had literally covered a whole country in just one day - in fact we probably did. It was a big driving around day and thankfully we did this in the comfort of an air-conditioned Mercedes Sprinter. These vehicles are carried on board the train, which makes Shongololo Express a unique concept worldwide; allowing us to see a lot more of the countryside whilst providing a nice break from the train. The guides and vehicles were rotated on a daily basis; and they were all excellent and made the trip. The guides were professional, informative and really funny. Their experience and wealth of knowledge allowed us to gain the most from each day's programme. We met up with the train again at Mpaka Station in Swaziland, where it departed in the evening towards Mozambique!


After an already big and exciting two days, I welcomed the relaxing tour offered on Day 3. We had the choice between two inclusive options; but mostly everyone decided on the beach resort day on Macaneta Island. The guides recommended this one as well. It was just a pleasant, peaceful day allowing everyone to unwind and socialise. Watching the adorable monkeys scamper past us was hilarious and I really enjoyed my refreshing swim in the ocean! The distance travelled on this tour is more than 100km compared to the other tour as well; so you are seeing a lot more of Mozambique! We had dinner at a local seafood restaurant (buffet style) rather than on the train which was great - I liked the experience of eating at a local restaurant. As the train was stationed overnight at Maputo station, some of the guides took a group of us out to check out the Maputo nightlife; all the bars were only a short walk from the train station. I had a very enjoyable night. The next day we did a half-day tour of Maputo that involves a visit to the municipal market followed by a stop at the old Fortaleza among a few other interesting sites. Later that night the train headed back into South Africa en route to Kruger National Park!

 

Day 4 involved a tour of the world-renowned Kruger National Park, which offers a wildlife experience second to none. Its 2 million hectares are unrivalled in diversity of life forms and the park is a world leader in advanced environmental management techniques. There were a number of different optional extras available; these tour add-ons are not included in the package and the extra charge is conveniently added to your onboard account. For the optional extras, the train manager would display a list in the lounge the previous night (with the price) - you simply had to note down your cabin number if you wanted to do one. Where multiple inclusive tours are offered in a day; the same method applied. The following mornings you would check the whiteboard in the smoking lounge to see which van you had been allocated. It was a straightforward system that worked incredibly well - and this is one of the major things the train manager will go over in the introduction. Anyway, I had chosen to do an optional extra: Open Vehicle Drive (R950.00), which means the game drives are conducted in open safari vehicles, specifically designed to ensure safety as well as optimum game viewing. I absolutely loved this and within the first two hours I had seen impala, elephants, warthogs, hippos, rhinos (including a baby!) and 6 cheetahs stalking a hyena; which apparently was really rare! A person I spoke to while having lunch had been staying at a lodge for 6 days without seeing cheetahs yet. The inclusive tour involved driving around the park with the Shongololo Express guides, which would have still been good - one of the groups actually saw more than anyone else. The people that went on the optional overnight stay in a luxury lodge said it was wonderful and well worth the extra money.


The following day we had two inclusive options offers; to go back to Kruger National Park (most people did) or go to Nelspruit, which is considered the gateway to Mpumalanga; a province of extraordinary natural beauty. After a guided tour of the Sudwala Caves, a small group of us were driven to a Chimpananzee Sanctuary in Nelspruit and the only one in South Africa, which is home to chimps that have been misplaced from their natural habitat in Africa. This was an optional extra (R120.00) that wasn't listed on the itinerary; so it was a nice surprise that I couldn't miss.

On Day 7 we all went on a full day driving tour along the famous Panorama Route. The scenery along this route is beautiful, and the view of Blyde River Canyon (the third largest canyon in the world) was breathtaking! This would be our last full day in the exhilarating, spectacular South Africa! With its unequalled variety of landscapes, tremendous variety of attractions over and above its wildlife resources, it's no surprise the tourism board used to run the slogan "A world in one country", which is very fitting as South Africa has something for everyone.

We spent Day 8 relaxing on the train as it travelled through the countryside of Mpumalanga, Gauteng and Limpopo Provinces towards the Zimbabwe border. It was a nice day of rest, and a good chance to socialise with fellow guests and look back at all the amazing things we'd done. Lunch was served on the train and the guides hosted informative talks in the lounges. The next day we were meant to have arrived into Zimbabwe with a full day of travelling through attractive granite hill country to Great Zimbabwe, the Largest Monument in Africa. Unfortunately though due to delays on the train network, we spent another full day on the train and missed out on this tour. Although it was a shame to miss, considering how much you see on this tour anyway, I was fine having another full day to relax onboard.


Day 10 we spent a full day at Antelope Park; a lion conservation camp; where their long-term project aim is to reintroduce the offspring of captive bred lions into the wild. Included in the package was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to walk with lions! Roaming free with these magnificent creatures, interacting with them and getting closer than you ever thought possible is just another thing you can only do in Africa. Everyone loved this. After the walk, it was time for the lion feeding! We were driven to a large fenced off area where laid out less than a metre in front of us was a line of impala, kudu and warthog body parts. Then we watched as 5 huge male lions ran towards their feed (towards us!); the ground actually vibrated in the rush. Swaying golden manes, several pouncing lions and the blood of the pray is right before your eyes in this dusty, energetic and most awesome scene never to forget. There were quite a few optional extras on offer, such as game drives, elephant riding, a bird watching cruise, horseback riding or an overnight stay at Antelope Park; but the only one I really wanted to do was the lion cub viewing (R350.00). We had about 20 min of viewing and interacting with younger lion cubs. I could have done this all day. After a day that couldn't get any better, we had the pleasure of visiting Somabhula Primary School where the children had prepared a touching show for us all. This was definitely my favourite day so far!


The next day we explored Bulawayo (the second largest city in the country) and Matoba National Park; where we leant about Cecil John Rhodes, who gave the country its previous name of Rhodesia, and visited his burial place at the sacred "World's View" on top of the Matopos Hills which has the most incredible view out over the extensive hills. Later that day after a tour of the Natural History Museum, one of the best of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, we had the choice of two inclusive options; an art gallery or railway museum. Being the mad train buff that I am, I couldn't resist the railway museum. The optional extras offered were a visit to Chipangali, a famous wildlife orphanage and Rhino Tracking in Matobo National Park. Both received excellent reviews from the guests that choose to do them. Chipangali was apparently quite depressing for obvious reasons, but you do get to see a lot of different animals - and they got to pat a leopard!


On Day 12 we awoke to the train slowly moving through Hwange National Park. It was amazing to think the train travelled along tracks that were in the actual park, hence why they had to move so slowly. Hwange National Park is the nation's largest wildlife area and contains a variety of animals and bird species, but is most well known for its prolific lion population. Covering 1 462 000 hectares, Hwange is roughly the same size as Belgium! During a morning game drive (in an open safari vehicle), we had a picnic breakfast in the park next to a waterhole that was home to hippos, crocodiles and surrounded by various types of antelope and zebra. I don't think I'll ever be able to have another picnic again, sadly the parks in Melbourne just don't compare. On this particular game drive, we saw lots of kudu, impala, warthog and elephants - too many baby elephants to even count! Later in the day we had lunch at the luxurious Sikumi Tree Lodge that had amazing views of the park; and just as we were having lunch; a big herd of elephant walked by - it was unbelievable. Later in the evening the train departed towards Victoria Falls, where the train would be stationed for the remaining days.


I'd been looking forward to the next two days; which consisted of seeing two completely new countries on each day - Zambia and Botswana. Zambia (US$20 for the visa) was fascinating and noticeably different from Zimbabwe. Our first stop was seeing the Zambian side of Victoria Falls before continuing to the town of Livingstone, named after David Livingstone, the Scottish visionary who discovered the falls. Although not on the itinerary, Shongololo Express had organised at short notice an alternate inclusive option involving a tour of a local tribal village and a crocodile farm; this was mainly for people that did not want to pay for the Zambia visa but also another Zimbabwe visa; as upon entering Zimbabwe you are only able to get a double entry visa; and since we had to use one entry to get into Zimbabwe initially; then one to get back from Zambia, you would need to get another the following day when coming back from Botswana. I didn't mind though as I just wanted to see as many countries as possible! You will most likely see a lot of baboons on this day. The next day we travelled to Chobe National Park in Botswana, In the morning we took a river cruise on the Chobe River, which was relaxing, surreal and allowed game viewing from a different perspective. As we drifted along we witnessed monkeys, kudu, impala, sable, herds of elephants playing by the river banks as well a large array of water birds. This was a highlight for me; and something I will always remember. After the cruise, we had a game drive around the park where I got to see a lot of giraffe. I love giraffe and I was thrilled to get so close; especially the baby ones! You could really spend a whole week game driving at the one park and see completely different things every day, which is what makes the activity so amazing; and so addictive! Later that night we had a delicious buffet dinner off the train in a beautifully lit area whilst being entertained by different performers throughout the night - this was really special.

 

Day 15 had arrived and I wasn't happy about it, but thankfully it was a great day to end on. I signed up for white water rafting, which was one of the optional extras. The twenty-three white water rapids provided one of the most intense sensory thrills imaginable deep within the sheer black cliffs of Batoka Gorge. The most popular optional extra was Flight of the Angels, a helicopter ride over the falls; which was apparently phenomenal. As the rafting took up most of the day, I had missed out on the morning tour of Victoria Falls with the rest of the group. Fortunately Senele had organised for one of the guides to drive me there after the rafting so I had at least a few hours to walk around. Forming the largest single "curtain" of falling water on earth, it's one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. I was so happy to end on this and have a peaceful, reflective walk to myself along the falls. Later that night we paid for our onboard accounts and re-confirmed our flight details for the included airport transfer. The following morning, after saying goodbye to all the wonderful staff and the many new friends I had made, I was transferred to Victoria Falls airport for the flight home.

 

Shongololo Express provides a very special touring experience. Without doubt, a train safari is one of the most convenient ways of seeing Southern Africa, allowing you to enjoy the continent's splendour without having to endure its harshness. Eliminating endless hours travelling long distances in a tour bus, alleviating the daily chore of packing and unpacking suitcases, from a warm welcome and transfer to the train at the start of the journey, to an exciting and varied program of touring, superb breakfasts and dinners on board, and a lounge full of new friends each evening - all these combine to create an unforgettable holiday. Shongololo Express is currently working on providing special backpacker tours in the future that will be a lot cheaper. Watch this space!

 


I also spent a few nights in Cape Town as well. Nothing beats the magnificent Table Mountain; I think it's the best landmark a city has in the world, and why Cape Town is considered one of the world's most beautiful cities. I found myself looking up at it every few minutes and being blown away every time! Unfortunately the cableway up to Table Mountain was closed for annual maintenance (22 July - 25 Aug) so I couldn't go up. On my last day, I decided to do the City Sightseeing Hop On - Hop Off tour which was great. I spent the day exploring the V&A Waterfront, District Six Museum and Camps Bay to name a few. Usually there is a drop off at the Cableway, but since this wasn't operating we were taken up to Signal Hill which allowed excellent views of the city. I loved everything about Cape Town and can't wait to go back; it's a city that you simply must experience for yourself!

In conclusion, I have only 3 words to say: GO TO AFRICA!

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