On the right track

If it isn’t his or her first time, does anyone still actually enjoy air travel? Traffic to the airport is frazzling; check-in is akin to being arrested—shoes off, belt out. After they have removed your liquids and herded you through the cattle crush of security, you have little to look forward to.

You know the way we tut-tut when we see people clinging to the roofs of Indian trains? Well, economy class is a standard of travel the rich world should never have accepted.
On long-haul flights, it should be outlawed on the basis of cruelty, except for politicians, who need a reality check.

Even business is far from luxury. The illusion of indulgence is actually nothing more than the effort made to limit one’s discomfort. The awful truth is that, once you are used to it, business class gradually grows more uncomfortable each time you fly.

Here, I must single out Lufthansa’s new seats, a design disaster. The airliner points out it’s a flat bed with extra length but, to save space, it has the seat set in at an angle. You slide down to the floor all night. Sleeping sitting up is more comfortable.

Unlike Europeans, and rather like North Americans, South Africans seem to have fallen out of love with a far better mode of travel, the train. In first class on Europe’s sleek, high-speed beasts you can tap away on free wireless internet, lunch à la carte (with metal knives) and use your electronic devices. My favourite coaches are those designated not only non-smoking but non-speaking, sparing one loud unwanted company and overhearing cellphone conversations.

Train stations are in the middle of the city, unlike airports; your bags are beside you all the way; there’s no waiting at carousels. Besides superior comfort, it is faster to travel door to door from central London to central Paris with the Eurostar than it is to fly, by more than 40 minutes, since the new St Pancras Station opened. You should also add, only 22kg of carbon dioxide emissions later, as opposed to the plane’s 244kg a person.

The overnight trains, though much slower, save daylight for tourist adventures, getting you to your destination while you have a good night’s rest in a hotel on wheels.

Our bodies might fly, but our minds always travel by train, which is why air travel gives you jet lag even when you don’t change time zones.

In October, with the spectacular autumn leaves in colour, I took Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited from New York up the Hudson and along the southern shore of Lake Michigan to Chicago. It’s an overnight trip that links up the next day with the double-decker Southwest Chief bound for Los Angeles. You cross the wide Mississippi, sail through the seemingly endless fields of Kansas and Illinois, grazing the Grand Canyon and traverse through numerous switchbacks of the spectacular rocky landscapes of Arizona and New Mexico.

The superliner bedrooms have private en suite showers; the staff are effusive; the menu is quite acceptable. A total journey of 5174km (three nights); each day you adjust your watch by one hour as you cross the four time zones of the United States. Your mind and body arrive together.

Unfortunately, in South Africa we have no high-speed trains, but cross-country services between Gauteng and Cape Town are working hard to offer an alternative to flying.

The garishly coloured Shosholoza Meyl runs two classes: “tourist” with sleepers and “economy” with reclining seats. A few steps up is the newish Premier Classe train (since October 2007). Bathrooms are still communal, one for each coach, but all facilities are spotless and better appointed.

Perhaps its greatest charm is that you travel in relative luxury with mostly fellow South Africans. The staff are responsive and well trained, but someone did muddle up the passenger manifest. I was listed as a Mrs (with a surname beginning with the letter X), while a business tycoon in the next coupé was down as Mr Van der Merwe, which he patently was not. He was soon on his phone to someone high up in Transnet complaining. “My brother, get your business in order ... This is unacceptable.”

The train takes motor vehicles, which makes it a serious alternative to flying and having to hire a car or driving, given the price of petrol and the dangers of our roads. You can have yourself pampered and massaged on board at the Amani Spa.

One of the most renowned trains in the world with an enviable history is, of course, the Blue Train. A well-oiled machine, it is exactly what it purports to be—a modern, five-star hotel on wheels with butler service, marble tiles, gold trimmings, lacquered interiors, big-screen TV with DVD player. All extremely comfortable, a first-class bubble, but the Blue left me rather unmoved.

The entire train is hermetically sealed; you can’t open a window as you sail through the landscape.

High tea is served in the lounge after lunch. The 27-hour trip includes a tour of the Big Hole of Kimberley. The dining is haute cuisine, silver service, with Sheffield cutlery and crystal glasses. Smokers have a club car in which to puff away while digesting their ostrich fillet and Karoo lamb as they glide past the very creatures in the Great Karoo.

During the day the Blue coasts along at 60km/h and then speeds up overnight to make up the distance.

The deluxe double-bed suite has a bath tucked away in a room the size of a cupboard, but it’s deep and it’s rather cheeky to bath in a train compartment.

The most luxurious train in the world, however, is Rovos Rail. Its Royal Suite is 16m2 and includes a queen-size bed, a sitting room and bathroom, with a shower and a full-size, claw-foot Victorian bath. There is something unreal about sloshing about in a foam bath, with the windows open, as you trundle into Matjiesfontein. Folk on the platform are quite astonished at the sight.

The emphasis at Rovos is on personal service and relaxed, splendid old-world-style travel—dress for dinner, no mobile phones or laptops in the lounges. The passengers are mostly well-heeled tourists and train enthusiasts; there are always a few good conversationalists on board.

Trains leave Capital Park in Pretoria under steam power (for a short distance with locomotives rescued from the scrapyard and returned to working condition by the affable owner, Rohan Vos).

There is an open veranda observation car at the back of the train. In gorgeous Art Nouveau dining coaches from the 1920s and 1930s five-course dinners are served: Cape rock lobster tails, springbok loin, duck à l’orange.

An impressive range of expensive wines, cognacs, cigars and unlimited drinks are included. I did notice that not every glass is crystal and the champagne on tap is no longer French as it was when I first travelled with Rovos, but those costs were clearly unsustainable. This year Rovos Rail celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Though every compartment has its own efficient air conditioner, it is wonderful to roll down the windows and enjoy that great interior that drives white men mad without any barrier.

In the early hours the train usually sleeps on a siding for an extra comfortable night’s rest. The journey to Cape Town takes two days and is exactly enough of a good thing.

In summer Rovos travels to Durban and includes malaria-free safaris and battlefield tours en route. When I did this three years ago, it still went via Swaziland. After viewing rhino and giraffe, a freak storm that no one could have foreseen drenched us. The poor purser beat himself up about it, but we were all quite happy, steaming dry in the tropical air under a giant sausage tree while we ate dinner in the boma. Only about 600km, it’s a serene two-day trip with plenty of stops.

Ironically, when train travel first took off, many doctors in the US said the health repercussions of travelling at such speeds would prove disastrous. We now know train travel is not only healthier than air travel, but also environmentally more acceptable. Jetting around the world at high speed as we hurry through life seems only to have got the world into a ghastly pickle.

It is time to slow down, question what on earth we are doing in the first place and make travel human again. If there was a train to Europe, I’d take it.

Tremendous train trips

South Africa
Shosholoza Meyl—about R450 to R600. Book at this rather frustrating site: www.cbsc.co.za/shosholozaonline

Premier Classe—from about R1500 to R2500. One night. Book at Tel: 086 000 8888.

Blue Train—about R10 000 to R14 000 depending on season. All tours, meals and drinks included. One night. Book at: www.bluetrain.co.za

Rovos Rail—from R11 000 in the Pullman to R22 000 in the Royal Suite. All tours, meals, drinks included. Two nights. Book at www.rovos.com. It is worth being on their mailing list as they often have specials for RSA passport holders.

(All rates per person sharing Gauteng (Pretoria or Johannesburg) to Cape Town)

Rovos Rail also offers a trip from Pretoria to Durban from R12000.

TransAmerica, New York to Los Angeles
Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited & Southwest Chief—in first class bedrooms, about $750 per person sharing. Three nights. Includes all meals, excludes bar and tipping (expected). A travel agent will have to book this for South Africans, unless you have a credit card with a US address. The website is otherwise excellent: www.amtrak.com