TRAIN TRAVEL – the Union Limited Remembered Part Two

The sea can be cruel, as the first sailors to round the tip of Africa 500 years ago found out.

Bartholomew Diaz – blown around the Cape of Good Hope without knowing it – eventually landed 400 kilometres further east, here at Mossel Bay.

Dias was the first European to set foot on South African soil. In the Maritime Museum is a replica of the Caravel in which he sailed, as well as displays dedicated to the great fifteenth-century Voyages of Trade and Discovery.

TRAIN TRAVEL – the Union Limited Remembered Part Two – At sunrise the next morning, our refreshed and serviced train is ready to take us on the next leg of our journey – the 80 kilometres from Hartenbos to George.

With clerestory coaches and varnished teak saloons, this was an age altogether more dignified than our own. Gentlemen were gentlemen, and ladies always wore hats. Trains were the way that one got from A to B, and rail travel was not just a way of life, it was an art.

TRAIN TRAVEL – the Union Limited Remembered Part Two goes on to tell us that the first Union Limited trains were the precursors of today’s Blue Train – a luxury express service from Pretoria and Johanesburg to Cape Town, carrying first-class-only passengers, and mail for shipment to Europe.

Today, the Union Limited runs again – in her blue and cream livery, and as true to the spirit of the original as it is possible to be.

Right on schedule, we pull into George, the first station on the Transnet Heritage Foundation’s museum line.

Timber is the chief freight commodity, harvested from the planted forests of the area.

George today is a place of coal-dust, smoke, and simmering locomotives – a working depot straight out of the Steam Age.

A short walk from the station and the depot is the Outeniqua Railway Museum where South Africa’s railway history is on dignified display.

The country’s prestige trains were renowned for their six-course meals, served in elegant wooden dining saloons.

With its luxurious appointments – white and gold crockery, set for a right royal lunch, and imported walnut panelling throughout – the White Train travelled the length and breadth of the country, hauled by that faithful servant of the Commonwealth, the steam locomotive.

Fortunately, thanks to a growing culture of preservation in South Africa, not all her trains and locomotives have been lost in the mists of time.

From George, the Union Limited takes us inland over the Montagu Pass and northwards to Oudtschoorn.

The Outeniqua Mountains presented a formidable challenge to the early railway engineers of the Cape. For decades, they lay in the path of the through route to the East coast and its harbours.

The Pass remains to this day one of the most intimidating railway ascents in South Africa. Through a series of tunnels, horse-shoes and and cuttings, we climb over half a kilometre in 24.

Intermittently visible from the train is the tortuous original road pass, built in 1848.

TRAIN TRAVEL – the Union Limited Remembered Part Two is the second of four episodes about the “Golden Thread” tour train.

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