We've used Premier Classe before - from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town (Wonderful) and from Durban to Jo'Burg (OK, but a bit short).
We'd spent a week in Kruger and were heading down to Hermanus for whale-watching - both terrific experiences. So we were booked on Premier Classe for the trip from Jo'burg to Cape Town.
I love long-distance rail travel so a trip on Premier Classe is a must for any holiday in South Africa. It can be difficult to book as travel agents don't know about it - often asking do I mean Blue Train or Rovos - and the web site isn't really very functional. But with a bit of determination, its possible to get booked. For us, R2500 (about £200) for 25 hours on a sleeper with all food included is good value - and you see some of Africa and meet nice people along the way whilst avoiding airports and airlines. What could be better?
The accomodation is clean, reasonably comfortable, and the food was very good and plentiful, with good service throughout. The daytime compartment converts to a two bed sleeping compartment with nice bedlinen etc. It also has a small washbasin cleverly hidden under the table and plenty of room for luggage. Whilst not very roomy it works OK and the sleeping cars have shared toilets and shower compartments - one of each for roughly every 4 sleeping compartments. The toilets and showers were reasonably clean and everything worked.
The scenery along the way is wonderful and you get a feel for just how vast the country is - and an insight into some of its modern-day problems. For example, as we entered the wine region after passing the longest tunnel in Africa, we encountered 9,000 agricultural workers holding a strike for better housing services. For "strike" you can read "riot" and we were advised to draw the blinds in case someone hurled rocks at the train. Mildly worrying, but you wouldn't see all this is you flew.
But, there is a sting in the tail and it made this experience suitable only for the most intrepid traveller.
First, the suspension on the bogie (thats the wheels etc) of our carriage needed some maintenance - it caused a bit of vibration. Not enough to be disturbing but it set up a rattle in the trim above the sleeping compartment door - which was disturbing until I shoved a paper tissue in to stop it rattling. The train manager apologised and explained that the carriages would be replaced the very next day with another set that had been in the works for maintenance. But the train staff must have walked past that rattling trim on every trip and ignored it - not even shoving a paper tissue in to stop the noise!
Next, we'd not travelled very far before the air conditioning in the bar car packed up and it soon became a bar-sauna. A shame because the bar car is the social centre of the train. So we adjourned to the dining car - and the air conditioning in that carriage promptly packed up. Thence to bed. Luckily the nights in the Karoo desert are cool so the lack of a/c wasn't too much of a problem - but the days in the Karoo are very hot so the lack of a/c anywhere on the train on the 2nd day was a really big problem for many people. I asked the train manager if anything could be done to get it working and he told me it had become unreliable and couldn't cope with global warming (!!!!). He repeated that it would all be OK on the next trip - not a big help.
Now, I know a little about trains - this train compares very favourably with UK and Amtrak long-distance trains - but things can go wrong anywhere. In this case, I know the air-conditioning etc is driven by electrical generators in the rear cars of the train. They were running when we left Jo'burg - and had definitely stopped running when we got to Cape Town. So did someone forget to top up the diesel tanks? I shall ask Shosholozo Meyl.
I really don't want to give Premier Classe a bad review as its usually such a good experience and the staff are so nice - but I'm afraid the air conditioning problem and the train managers excuses couldn't pass by without comment. I'm fairly sure that on another day, the trip would be lovely and so I'd return to use it again and would recommend the long-distance Premier Classe services to others - with the caveat that it could happen again!
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