RAIL JOURNEY: A window to the soul of Africa
THE words on the blue and gold mat at the entrance to the check-in lounge are prophetic of the journey we are about to embark on.
Over the next 30 hours and 1600km, we will peer into the lives of everyday South Africans, get up close with their history, culture and traditions, observe their industry and agricultural practices, and be embraced by their dramatic and diverse scenery.
But this is much more than that for me: it is also my window of opportunity to sample a whole new world of excellence in service and elegance in travel.
The Blue Train through South Africa's interior has cemented its reputation among the world's great rail journeys for its relaxed ambience and grand old-world style.
It starts with the seamless check-in. Attentive staff have us out of the taxi, with our luggage organised, the paperwork done and floating into the comfortable welcome lounge with a pot of rooibos tea in under seven minutes.
You know this is going to be special.
Before we know it, white-gloved porters in matching white long-sleeved shirts and colourful vintage-style waistcoats are showing us the way to Carriage 18, Suite 34.
The rich blues and golds that have become The Blue Train's signature design, coupled with the solid birch wood panelling create a tranquil yet sophisticated ambience in the suites and throughout the public areas of the train as its smooth ride reaches a maximum speed of 90kmh.
The journey only ebbs and flows while passing through some of the towns, or stops to replenish water supplies and for the off-train excursion.
It doesn't take long to discover that the Observation Car (with windows on three sides) and the Lounge Car (next to the Dining Car) are the social hubs of the train - places to share tales of holiday adventures, rub shoulders with some of the world's most interesting people, and simply enjoy each other's company while watching the changing landscapes.
Adding to the comfort are specially designed thinner-than-normal body sides that create spaciousness within, plus a revolutionary air-conditioning system that maintains an even 20-21 internal temperature even when the outside temperature in the African continent reaches 45 degrees.
But many prefer retreating to their compact oasis of their suite: simply reading a book and occasionally lifting the head to be surprised by yet another unusual African setting, watching a new-release movie on the in-cabin TV, taking in the journey on the "driver's eye view" camera or drifting off as their favourite background music creates a lullaby soundtrack.
Your surroundings border on opulence with rare Gialo Royale Italian marble and fittings plated in 24 carat gold in the bathroom, comfortable lounge chairs with matching ottoman, double-glazed long, rectangular windows with automatic roll-down blind, dual-control air-conditioner, occasional chair and fold-down table, closed-circuit TV, recessed soft lighting, and bed with white cotton sheets and plush duvet with a selection of pillows and cushions.
Your suite's butler is at your beck and call from 6am-11pm, and thereafter on request, to outline everything from how to lower and raise the electric blind to where the remote controls are kept, replenish drinks and snacks, ensure the room is tidy and the bathroom sparkles, make and put away the beds while you are at dinner and breakfast, ensure your stay is as relaxing and comfortable as possible, and always have a ready smile and be happy to chat.
Similarly, the bar and dining car staff are a breath of fresh air - combining grace, etiquette and manners as they promptly fill that request for an exotic cocktail, or add sides of mushroom and bacon to your breakfast dish, or help you combat a dreadful cold by suggesting specially prepared lemon, ginger and honey tea.
Dining on specialities such as springbok tenderloin served in a barley casing with herb jus (a dinner main meal option), pan-seared scallops with parsnip puree and cranberry reduction (recommended brunch starter) and breakfast delights such as eggs benedict or savoury omelette with your choice of filling while watching this fascinating new world pass by your table-to-ceiling window is nothing short of divine.
Karoo lamb, line fish, crayfish, Knysna oysters, ostrich and cuts of venison grace the menu when in season and fresh fruit and vegetables are always available as part of the showcase of fresh, South African cuisine created on board and fine Western Cape wines.
With the exception of caviar, French champagne and external phone calls, everything on board The Blue Train is included in the price.
So you can add that cheeky nip of scotch to your coffee, indulge in an afternoon mojito or three, select that recommended bottle of wine with dinner, have a beautifully brewed cup of your favourite tea blend at any time of the day or night, and shout the bar with chardonnay if you wish.
As we roll into our final destination, we start to count a procession of highlights - from the welcome champagne and tropical fruit, to "the world's shortest tour" on a double-decker bus ride around the main street of Matjiesfontein while being regaled with stories of the enchanting colonial town frozen in time, to the animated conversation over cigars and warmed cognac late into the night in the Club Car Lounge (the only area where smoking is permitted).
Our journey ends with handshakes and merriment as we bid farewell to newfound friends who have shared our grand experience.
The "window to the soul of Africa" has also revealed a kind, hospitable heart.
(The writer was a guest of The Blue Train as part of an Australian Society of Travel Writers convention in Cape Town, South Africa.)
THE Blue Train, owned by Transnet Freight Rail, operates two trains of 14 or 19 carriages long that can accommodate 52 to 80 guests.
Our train - the longest of the two - was completed in 1998 with an Observation Car (with full rear panorama window) that can be converted to a conference centre for 22 delegates.
Over 25 years of service, the two trains are expected to travel 12 million kilometres.
While the official name The Blue Train enjoys a 70-year history, the wheels were set in motion for the current trains in 1994.
That vision has long been met, with The Blue Train being the undisputed winner of the title of Africa's Leading Luxury Train in the World Travel Awards since 2009.
*The all-inclusive overnight stay (twin or double bed) on The Blue Train includes brunch, high tea, dinner, breakfast, all beverages (except French champagne but including top-shelf liquors and liqueurs), and an off-train excursion, Travel on The Blue Train and receive one free night in a five-star hotel in either Cape Town or Pretoria before or after the journey including bed, breakfast and a transfer between the hotel and the station.
South-bound from Pretoria, guests stop at Kimberley with a visit to the Diamond Mine Museum and to the edge of The Big Hole; and north-bound from Cape Town, the train stops at Matjiesfontein in the Little Karoo where the entire village has been declared a National Museum, with a free drink and souvenir at the Lord Milner Hotel.