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Finding Connection on a Legendary South African Railway Sleeper

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 8/10/2020 Travis Levius
a train traveling over a bridge: The Blue Train crossing the Gouritz River in South Africa, 2005 © Luxury Train Club The Blue Train crossing the Gouritz River in South Africa, 2005

On a trip aboard South Africa's elegant Blue Train, the legendary railway sleeper that logs 1,000 miles between Cape Town and Pretoria, I traveled in such refinement that I had my own designated dining server: a middle-aged South African man named Colleen. When we'd pass each other in the birchwood-paneled lounge and dining cars, he'd always refer to me as “my brother.” The entire train staff was Black, many from townships, and out of 80 guests, I was one of only two Black passengers.

During a jacket-required dinner one night, Colleen confessed, “You know, we don't see many Black people on this train, so to see one of our brothers here makes us proud.” That moment made me feel so many things: the connection between me, an African American without a strong ancestral identity, and an African who still saw me as one of his own; the pained, prolonged effects of apartheid; and humility, for having earned the privilege to take this journey. I'd imagined the highlights of my trip would lie beyond the walls of the train car, among majestic peaks and golden grasslands. Instead, I found them within.

This article appeared in the August/September 2020 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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