South Africa is home to one of the world’s most famous and luxurious train journeys. The Blue Train is the five-star way to travel from Cape Town to Pretoria, but will set you back 18,000 ZAR (£842/$1088) per person one-way. If that’s a bit steep, there’s a normal, no-frills overnight passenger train between Cape Town and Johannesburg – the Shosholoza Meyl. But there’s also a relatively unknown third option, South Africa’s budget-luxury Premier Classe train.
Cape Town to Johannesburg by Premier Classe train
Premier Classe comes with some of the same perks as the Blue Train – private cabins, three-course meals and Champagne send-off – but for a more budget-friendly 3120 ZAR (£146/$190) per person. It runs once a week in each direction between Cape Town and Johannesburg (departing Cape Town on Tuesdays and Johannesburg on Thursdays), and takes about 26 hours.
My journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg by train started at Cape Town station at 8am, where we were shown to the Premier Classe lounge (shared with the Blue Train). After checking in, our bags were taken off us and tagged with our cabin number ready to be delivered to our room, and we were given tea and scones (the first of many opportunities to eat on this trip).
On board the Premier Classe train
At 8.45am we got on board and went to check out our cabin. The train is a mirror image, with a kitchen in the middle, then a dining car and lounge bar on each side, followed by the cabins with toilets and showers at the end of each carriage. The Premier Classe trains aren’t hugely modern but they’re clean and well maintained. The cabins have been converted so what was originally a four-person cabin now sleeps two, and two-person cabins are now singles.
So that means there isn’t an expensive single supplement if you’re travelling on your own, and nobody has to wobble their way up a ladder into a bunk bed on board a moving train. Inside we had two seats/beds, a table which lifted up to reveal a sink and a storage area above the door for bags (the doors don’t lock from the outside but it all felt safe, though we did keep our valuables with us). You’re also given towels, dressing gowns, slippers, toiletries and bottled water.
The journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg by train
As we pulled out of Cape Town station, all the passengers gathered in the bar for snacks and glasses of bubbly as we watched Table Mountain disappear into the distance. The other passengers on board the Premier Classe train were mainly South Africans along with a few international tourists, and a mostly older crowd of couples and small groups of friends.
Back in the cabin, I had planned to spend the morning reading or working but ended up transfixed by the view out of the window. The train’s slow pace and rocking motion had me too relaxed to do much else. We went from farmland and fields of ostriches through the vineyards around Paarl, then on through the Nuwelkoof Pass into the mountains. The landscape got rockier and drier as we went along, changing from shades of green to gold and red.
Our cabin steward called in to give us the menu and allocate us a table for meals – you can have a table for two or share a larger table like we did. There’s an immense amount of food included, with a three-course lunch followed by afternoon tea and a four-course dinner, then breakfast and morning tea the next day. The lounge also does a good selection of drinks (though was suffering from a major tonic shortage during my trip so there were no G&Ts!).
The bar menu featured a selection of local wines for 80–90 ZAR (around £4/$5) which we thought was quite pricet by South Africa standards until we realised that was for the whole bottle not just a glass. You can buy a bottle of wine and the bar steward will look after it for you, so you can just go and get a top up when you want or take it with you to lunch or dinner.
At 12pm it was time for lunch so we headed to the dining car. We sat next to a South African couple in their 60s on their third Premier Classe trip. Over lunch (which was vegetable terrine, Chicken Kiev and strawberry cheesecake) we talked to them about all sorts of things to do with life in South Africa and how things have changed for them over the last 10 years.
By the time we finished lunch the train was out in the Karoo – the semi-desert landscape at the heart of South Africa. For a while we followed the road past huge transporter trucks before leaving them behind in a vast expanse of empty land. But there are towns out here – we stopped in Beaufort West to stretch our legs and made another unscheduled stop that had the engineers out checking the train. But 20 minutes of tinkering later we were on the move again.
The sky started to glow as the sun set behind us, disappearing below the horizon as we headed back to the dining car for dinner (afternoon tea too was a step too far!). The kitchen staff do an amazing job cooking up multi-course meals in a tiny space for so many people. Dinner was another feast of tomato soup, fish, lamb with peaches, chocolate mousse and cheese.
Pretty much stuffed by this point, we finished our wine in the lounge before heading back to our cabin. Our beds had already been made up for us so we crashed out for the night. The beds were really comfy but the train stops and starts as it travels through the night and lurches around a bit, so we did wake up a few times (ear plugs are a good idea for light sleepers).
Just before 7am I woke up, opened the curtains and sat watching the scenery go by. The landscape had changed again, this time it was back to green with farms, roads and more signs of life. There’s a shower at the end of each carriage, and it’s a bit of a weird feeling washing while you’re moving around but it was warm and had decent water pressure.
Breakfast is served between 7am and 9am so you can wander down when you’re ready. We carried on the whole ‘eat until you burst’ theme of the trip with juice, yogurt and cereal followed by eggs, bacon, sausages and toast. The train is scheduled to arrive into Johannesburg at 11am so we packed up our cabin – which had been turned back into seats – ready to go.
The last stretch of the journey through the suburbs of Johannesburg seemed to take the longest, but we arrived into Park station spot on at 11.05am. From there you can catch the Gautrain around the city, to OR Tambo International Airport, or out to Pretoria.
Although we were on time, the Premier Classe train is known to have a few delays, so I would allow plenty of extra time if you have a flight to catch (we stayed overnight in Johannesburg so we had a day to look around the city too). But if you have time to spare and want to relax, see South Africa’s landscapes, chat to a mix of locals and travellers, and eat practically non-stop, then the journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg by train definitely beats the plane.
The Premier Classe train departs from Cape Town at 9.05am on Tuesdays and arrives into Johannesburg at 11.03 on Wednesday. Or in reverse it departs Johannesburg at 10.30am on Thursdays and arrives into Cape Town at 12.40pm on Fridays. Tickets cost 3120 ZAR (£146/$190) per person one way, or 3590 ZAR (£168/$217) in the peak periods from December–January and during school holidays. You can tickets book online through their website.
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