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When vacations go bad: surviving a fiery ride on South Africa’s luxury Blue Train

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    The famous Blue Train burns as the rest of its cars are finally unhooked.Nadine Jolie

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    Passengers waiting for the fire to be extinguished included an 80something wheelchair-bound South African woman, traveling to Johannesburg with her grandson--who was set to be married two days later.Nadine Jolie

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    After lunch, the train stopped in historical tourist town Matjiesfontein for a tour of the local hotel and a glass of sherry.Nadine Jolie

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    The Blue Train, unhooked from the fire by another train, makes its way into the sunset.Nadine Jolie

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    Back on board the train, and so happy to be safe, sound and on our way home.Nadine Jolie

Despite the best laid plans, a perfectly pleasant vacation can suddenly turn disastrous--just ask the more than 3,100 passengers on the Carnival Triumph cruise line. 

Although disasters like the Triumph are rare, living through a vacation gone bad can be a scary thing, especially when lives and property are lost.  

But, as I experienced myself, a travel mishap (on a much lesser scale), while upsetting can evolve into moments of surreal humor, build brand loyalty and provide fodder for a pretty great travel story.

I recently was on a trip when the luxury Blue Train caught fire in the middle of the South African desert.  In my case, rather than "hell-like" unsanitary conditions and long food lines like on the Triumph, the biggest concern, as the 53 passengers were evacuated, was dwindling champagne reserves and whether we’d still have to wear suits and dresses to dinner. Welcome to travel disaster, first-class-style.

While watching coverage of the Carnival Triumph disaster, I thanked my lucky stars that our own trip hadn’t taken such a turn for the worse.

Palace on Wheels

The five-star Blue Train—named Africa’s Leading Luxury Train at the 2012 World Travel Awards—has been called a "can’t-miss travel experience" with an unblemished record for more than five decades. Known as a “palace on wheels,” the Blue Train runs once a week from Cape Town to Pretoria, just outside Johannesburg, South Africa. The 27-hour all-first-class journey features butler service, soundproofed sleeping compartments, en suite bathrooms (all with showers, many with tubs!), and two nightly dinner seatings requiring passengers to dress up in their finest: dresses for the ladies, jacket and tie for the gentlemen.

The waiters wear white gloves and blue and gold uniforms, there’s an afternoon tea, and the wood-paneled corridors tinkle with classical music. It’s a Downton Abbey-esque fairy tale, lulling you into such cozy bliss as the train snakes through the stunning South African countryside that the real world seems but a distant memory.

Never underestimate the importance of luck while traveling, however.  What could have unraveled into tragedy as our train caught fire became a mild comedy of errors. 

Rolling Out the Blue Carpet

Our journey began without incident in Cape Town, where we were escorted to a private waiting room at the train station, the proverbial red carpet literally rolled out for us. (Actually, ours was blue.) We received our tickets, porters took our bags, and then we boarded, ready for the adventure to begin. Once on the train, we oohed and aahed at our luxuriously appointed Deluxe Cabin, with two twin beds, a private bathroom, and large picture windows allowing you to see the countryside zooming past. Lunch was similarly spectacular: a highly elaborate affair involving cloth napkins, silver cutlery, fine china, salmon tartar, kingklip fish, and delicious South African wine from Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.

After lunch, it was back to our cabin where our butler Andre seemed to have read our minds: our beds were unfolded, made-up, and endlessly inviting. We crawled under the covers, sank into the pillows, and had a two-hour nap as the train chugged and swayed over the tracks. Pure bliss.

Post-nap, we stopped for a half-hour excursion in a miniscule Victorian-meets-Wild-West town called Matjiesfontein, where the passengers and crew had a glass of sherry in a commemorative Blue Train glass. By the time we’d walked the town street and peeked inside the gorgeous Lord Milner hotel, it was time to re-board the train and continue our journey through the heart of South Africa.

Disaster in the Desert

About two hours outside the Victorian town Matjiesfontein, the train slowed, then ground to a halt. As my friend and I sat in the plush club car, drinking champagne and munching on cucumber sandwiches, another passenger pointed out the Blue Train staffers running outside the picture window, pointing in the direction of the first car as they sprinted. Suddenly, we noticed a plume of billowing smoke: the train was on fire.

Everybody seemed uncertain, tentative: surely this would be fixed immediately and we’d be on our merry way? More champagne was poured. The watercress sandwiches were considered. The smoke plumes became darker. But soon, passengers were wandering through the club car, saying they heard we might need to disembark. About 15 minutes later, a staffer confirmed it, rushing into the club car and instructing us to get off the train with our luggage—and quickly.

I grumbled as we returned to our cabin, taking our luggage down off the shelves above our Murphy beds and stuffing the toiletries spread on the bathroom counter back into our carry-ons. “This is all so silly,” I huffed, still not realizing the magnitude of the fire. Before I left the bathroom, I reapplied my eyeliner.

Once outside the train, however, I finally got a glimpse of the situation firsthand, where the locomotive was burning—and realized that, far from being a minor inconvenience, it had the potential to turn into something horrible were the wind to shift: the entire train could easily have been engulfed, along with the dry countryside bush surrounding us. Suddenly, I felt like one of the pompous first-class jerks in Titanic, commanding for my evening tea to be kept warm in my suite while I temporarily indulged the silly people begging me to go on deck.

American winter is South African summer so, as you can imagine, it wasn’t exactly chilly outside. Aided by staffers, the passengers lugged our bags as far away from the fire as possible, then gratefully accepted the bottles of water being passed out by  the Blue Train staff. As we all watched helplessly while staff simultaneously tried to put out the fire and unhook the burning locomotive engine from the rest of the train, a group of British tourists took the initiative, raiding the club car, producing champagne bottles and popping corks as we surveyed the locomotive car quietly burning. Keep calm and carry on, eh?

After an hour, while the staff still worked to free us, I desperately needed to use the bathroom. I climbed back on board, where I crossed my fingers that my toddler-sized bladder wouldn’t result in my fiery demise. On the way to the bathroom, I stumbled across a group of American and Canadian tourists in the lounge, laughing and swapping stories as they drank vodka tonics and beers. I asked them if they knew that it wasn’t safe to be on board, and they cited the air conditioning, refusing to disembark in the blazing heat and insisting that everybody was overreacting.

Two hours later and 6600 gallons of water later, the fire was raging larger than ever, but we were finally unhooked. We cheered and sighed in relief as another train arrived to haul us to safety, just as the sun began to dip beneath the horizon.

The Show Must Go On

While cocktail attire is typically required at each of the evening’s two dinner seatings, the management made an announcement reliving us of the duty. However, my friend and I decided that, disaster-averted, it would be nice to honor the train’s original spirit, so: on went the dresses, the pearls and the perfume. As we walked down the hall toward the dining car, passengers popped their heads out of their open compartments—the experience massively bonded us all—applauding our decision to dress up. Though my friend and I were the only dressed up duo in the first seating, as the second seating sauntered in two hours later, everybody was showered, scrubbed, and dressed to the nines—as if nothing had ever happened.

The water reserves were severely diminished—to say nothing of the alcohol—and we would ultimately be stranded overnight in the desert, waiting for the signal points in the rail network, which were harmed by the fire, to repair. However, back on board in the comfort and safety of the Blue Train, the passengers were mostly happy to sit and simply enjoy the train itself as the luxury machine whirred back to life.

The classical music resumed in the hallways; the white-gloved waiters returned to their posts. Andre came to our cabin to check on us after dinner, and gave us turndown service and another glass of sherry, which we sipped as we stared out the picture window at the gaping black desert, the Southern Cross twinkling overhead while we gave thanks for a trip ultimately saved.

For a five-star “palace on wheels,” disaster or no disaster, the show must go on.

The Blue Train’s Response

Kudos must be given to the swift and successful response of the Blue Train’s management, who handled the crisis while honoring the train’s deservedly luxurious reputation.  All passengers were given full refunds, offered vouchers for future travel, and immediately booked onto direct flights from Cape Town to our final destination Johannesburg.

The next morning, once the signal points were fixed, another train arrived to haul us back to Matjiesfontein, where two luxury coaches drove us three hours to Cape Town for our flights. We were given a packet with our tickets and a written statement from the Blue Train’s executive manager Hanlie Kotze, which explained what had happened (one of the locomotives overheated and caught fire, which then affected the signal points throughout the rail network, causing our overnight delay) and offered apologies.

The statement read in part: “The Blue Train is synonymous with luxury hospitality, tourism and leisure. One of our value propositions is to offer personalized excellent service at all times…One disappointing incident is one too many…It would have been our greatest honour to treat you to the full Blue Train experience you so truly deserve, and we know that this (refund) gesture will not make up for the disappointing experience, but hope that this incident will not discourage you from visiting us again in the not so distant future.”

Despite the mishap, I was impressed with the Blue Train’s response—to say nothing of the splendor of the train itself—and would indeed return. I await my next journey on the “palace on wheels” eagerly.