TRAVEL: A South African bedroom with a view
I FEEL like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz as I lie back against the pillow and see the dusty, arid landscape flash past at 90kmh. The blind partially raised, the large rectangular window by my bed is capturing sunrise behind the desert-like landscape and what looks to be some sort of refinery.
I grab my camera and begin snapping away once pinks and blues start to decorate the sky and the sun's golden colours start to peek through an earthy blanket of dry grasses. Kilometre upon kilometre of glorious nothingness is broken only by the odd shrub or tree.
A cowhand pushes a dozen head of cattle near the train tracks in the opposite direction. A windmill comes into view. Then a small township. It could have been an Australian setting - perhaps in the Western Downs - except for the ostriches and those zebras.
What strikes me as I watch this world unfold from the comfort of my bed is how much this part of South Africa reminds me of drought-stricken Queensland. It's just after 6.30am on The Blue Train, about 22 hours into our 30-hour journey from Cape Town to Pretoria.
And I just can't get enough of the dramatic paintings Mother Nature has splashed across her canvas just outside the double-glazed windows. Already we have encountered the jaw-dropping Boland Mountains as we left behind Cape Town and its own Table Mountain backdrop, the swartland (gently undulating fertile plain between the mountain ranges) and wheatlands that make up the bread basket of Cape Town, past fruit and vegetable crops to the world-famous winelands and up through the Hex River Pass to this Karoo (semi-desert) plateau.
While viewing the ever-changing scenery is great from bed, it is perhaps best shared with new-found friends in our train's Observation Car with windows on three sides, including a panorama window taking up the full rear end. My next choice would be sipping a South African rose and sampling dry-aged fillet steak with a veined blue rock cheese dusted in biltong and sauced with a herb reduction at lunch in the dining car.
The good, the bad and the ugly of South African life are laid bare through these windows. The truck driver who waves as the highway runs parallel with the train tracks. The workers happily toiling in the fields. The destitute scavenging what they can from litter that has blown across the plains. The barefoot children in awe of the massive blue "train set" passing by their backyard.
Whether travelling on the Pretoria-Cape Town or Cape Town-Pretoria route, guests have the opportunity to stretch their legs in an off-train excursion that takes them into the heart of South African life. South-bound from Pretoria, guests stop at Kimberley with a visit to the Diamond Mine Museum and to the edge of The Big Hole. Our northern journey excursion takes us into the time warp of the hamlet of Matjiesfontein for the "world's shortest tour" on an authentic London double-decker bus around the short main street of this historic Karoo village with original 19th-century London lamp posts.
The area was occupied by British Forces in the Boer War and used as a horse remount and breeding centre.
After a complimentary glass of sherry at the impressive Lord Milner Hotel and a singalong around the piano, guests can stroll the town that has been declared a National Museum, also taking time to see the restored post office and museum while having the chance to take photos of the train itself.
The vast Great Karoo, towns of Beaufort West, Victoria West, De Aar and Kimberley, the Kalahari thornveld and more agricultural areas to the goldfields of the Free State will all catch your eye - even when you're preoccupied with the five-star dining and drinking in the all-inclusive package.
Finally comes the sprawling Johannesburg that eventually melds into the administrative capital of South Africa and the end of the line. At least the moving pictures you have stuck in your head and in your camera after your trip of a lifetime on The Blue Train won't seem like a dream when you finally do return to Oz.
The writer was a guest of The Blue Train as part of an Australian Society of Travel Writers convention in Cape Town, South Africa.