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Editorial Picks: Rail Rhodes

Nick Maynard uncovers a slice of Victorian high society on South Africa 's Blue Train

When Paul Theroux said, "Travel is glamorous only in retrospect", he hadn't banked on South Africa's Blue Train. Far removed from the usual rail experience - stumbling back from the buffet car, Styrofoam beaker in hand, sloshing around scalding coffee that's pound for pound more expensive than the latest Dior scent - the Blue Train is a five-star hotel on wheels. As a working train, it transcends the criticism that is thrown at other "theme park" trains, such as the Orient Express. Since its first incarnation as the Union Express, it has undergone a number of facelifts, including electrification and new, sapphire-blue livery(hence the name change) at the close of World War Two. In 1997, it underwent a £7 million makeover and a re-launch, with Nelson Mandela among the first passengers.

The track itself is a relic of Cecil John Rhodes' efforts to create a rail link between The Cape and Cairo, in a single-handed attempt to "paint the map of Africa red", the euphemistic colour of the British Empire(in fact, his plans didn't stop here - he also had aspirations to bring the USA under British rule). However, by the turn of the century, his plan was beginning to run out of steam, and track had only been laid from Cape Town to the "Thundering Smoke" of Victoria Falls. Today's Blue Train splits the journey in two. The first leg runs from Cape Town to Pretoria, the second leaves Pretoria and heads deeper into the heart of Africa to Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls. The price of a ticket on either leg almost rivals that of the domestic output of several of South Africa's neighbours.

Certain features are to be expected if the train's claim to period elegance is to stand up. Stepping into the Blue Train is to enter into a world of high teas served by butlers braced with starched collars and pillbox hats. You half expect to bump into Miss Marple fawning appreciatively over a piano with Noel Coward at the helm. Birch panelling, acres of ankle-swallowing shag pile, picture windows and an antique English writing desk in every room are par for the course; but the train still has a few tricks up its sleeve: where else in the world can you soak in a marble bath bedecked with gold taps while gliding along at 110kph? It has also added its own unique spin to the "in-flight movie": a camera mounted on the front of the train relays live outdoor footage for the enjoyment of the lounge car. Then there's the food: the culinary day starts with a modest five-course breakfast, then multiplies at a geometric rate until, at the close of the day, you're well into double figures. Its kitchen brings traditional South African fare up to date: regulars on the menu include Knysna oysters, Karoo lamb and impala. The wine list is also exclusively South African, and justifiably so.

Rolling out of Cape Town, the train squeezes out from under the shadow of Table Mountain and confronts visitors with the stark contrast of the extravagance of their immediate surroundings and the poverty of the townships that are fleetingly glimpsed through the glass. The train then hauls visitors up into the Winelands, which provide a last swatch of colour before entering the stark Thirstlands of the Karoo. One of the settings for Whitbread prize-winning author JM Coetzee's autobiographical Boyhood: A Memoir, the Karoo elicits polarised emotions: you'll either love it or hate it. It is still home to plenty of wildlife and, though this had mostly dwindled to small game, several species of antelope, Black Rhino and Mountain Zebra have recently been reintroduced.

The first stop on the train is Kimberley, where the red carpet is rolled out(literally), and you get a chance to stretch your legs and gawp at The Big Hole. At its zenith, this open cast mine had 3,000 men working 1,600 claims in an area that is not much larger than a football stadium. Then Rhodes came along and bought the lot, establishing the De Beers mining company. The hole stretches to a depth of 800 metres(though most of this is now filled with water), and has produced a mighty 14.5 million carats.

After the first night on board, the terminus, Pretoria(known locally as the Jacaranda City), rolls into view. By now you will have spent in the region of £1,000 and covered 1,600km. If your craving for luxury hasn't been sated, and you've deep enough pockets, a second ticket can be bought for the Zimbabwe Spectacular. En route to Victoria Falls, the train pulls up in Bulawayo, a former colonial stronghold, and Rhodes' final resting place. It's worth making the effort to track down his grave, a half-hour drive into the Matopos range, at the suitably-titled World's View. The return leg from the Falls cuts through Hwange, the best-known of Zim's game reserves and the world's largest elephant sanctuary. Having returned to Pretoria, it's a churlish traveller who can argue with TS Eliot's sentiment that "The journey, not the arrival matters".

For more information, see the official website at www.bluetrain.co.za

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