The perfect holiday is often made extra special by the people met along the way. Herbert Prinsloo is the Train Manager on board South Africa’s iconic Blue Train. Today, we have a chat with him to get to know the person behind the face and see what has made his years on board so memorable.
Have been worked for The Blue Train for over 25 years, Herbert Prinsloo is passionate about his job as Train Manager and loves nothing more than sharing his stories with an eager audience on board. We think he is as much of a national treasure as the Blue Jewel he loves so much! We decided it was time to get to know him a bit better with a quick Q & A session…
To kick this interview off in style, tell us some interesting facts about yourself:
I love South Africa. I communicate easily and am a people person. I have really “not worked a day in my life” as I don’t consider what I do work. I love it so much, it feels like a hobby! My name is an important part of myself. By keeping my name high stead, I am not only doing it for myself or my company, but also for South Africa as I’m an ambassador for my country. I am also very proud of the fact that I am a qualified national tourist guide and love it when guests ask me questions – especially the ones I don’t know. This gives me an opportunity to go and do research and find the answers whilst the guests are still on board, which in turn enriches my knowledge.
What made you want to work on The Blue Train all those years ago?
The Blue Train is a world-renowned South African icon. When the opportunity presented itself by way of a vacancy for rooms manager, I grabbed it with both hands and never looked back.
Searching for employment on board The Blue Train turned out to be a very interesting journey of ‘discovery’. I lived in Port Elizabeth (in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province) and had to go for an interview in Johannesburg (in the Gauteng Province). It was also going to be my first plane ride.
What made it more exciting was that I arrived late at the airport. I did not know about the 1 hour prior to departure check-in time. As a result, I lost my seat, but through strong will and determination, I was offered none other than a CREW SEAT, in the cockpit between the Captain and the Commander (Co-pilot as he was known those days) of the aircraft! Whilst on board, another seat became available, but I WASN’T GOING TO TRADE THIS EXPERIENCE FOR ANYTHING!
This became an experience of a lifetime! These two white gentlemen were so accommodating (especially considering the history of South Africa at the time). They showed me the ropes on how to fly, which controls to use, what each control was for etc. They even made sure to point out landmarks that the plane was flying over during our trip. For instance, they would point out dams and rivers that the plane was flying over…It was magical! I felt like a child who had received his first ever lollipop candy! The gentlemen, in their status and capacity, were also very helpful and started telling me about The Blue Train – how sophisticated it was, and that it was the best of the best! The Captain even joked that I better remember him when he comes on board when I am now employed on The Blue Train.
Wow – 26 years and counting is a long time! Tell us a bit more about your career path?
I started working on board The Blue Train in 1989 (26 years). Every opportunity that presented itself by way of hospitality courses that the company presented was grabbed with both hands. I’ve worked in all divisions on The Blue Train – Food and Beverages, Rooms, Operations etc. I attended UNISA (biggest correspondence university in the southern hemisphere) studying Business Management and Labour Relations. I have also done an Individual Management Development Programme (IMDP) offered by the company. I started out as a Room’s Supervisor, as well as being a unionist – shop steward. During that time I would be given an opportunity to act as Train Manager, until I was appointed full time in 2008/9.
So, having worked your way up, what is your favourite and least favourite thing about your job now?
My favourite thing about my job is that I get to meet people from all across the globe on a weekly basis, which makes every journey a unique experience. When guests bid us farewell, I know someone from another country, thousands of miles away, will always remember my name!
I can’t think of a least favourite thing about my job, except when the train is delayed due to incidents beyond my control, and especially when guests have pressing forward arrangements. It becomes very challenging but gratifying as well when you sort things out and you see the relief and gratitude on the guests’ faces for your efforts. If there is one thing that is inevitable in life – change, and how you adapt to it will determine your longevity, I always say!
Any famous faces you have served on board?
The highlight of my career was being the personal butler of Nelson Mandela (Madiba) and Graca Machel in 1997, during the launch of the two new Blue Train sets, on the Pretoria to Cape Town route. The trip also included stars such as Quincy Jones, Naomi Campbell, Mia Farrow, Danny Glover, etc. Other famous people who have graced The Blue Train include, Paul Simon, Leo Sayer, Kylie Minogue, the “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher, Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu, Former President Thabo Mbeki and many more.
Are there any exciting things happening onboard in the next year?
The Blue Train is introducing a new route to Hoedspruit, in the Kruger Area in 2016. This will be in July and August.
Are there any real characters on board – other than yourself of course?
Yes there are. Israel loves to clown and makes guests laugh. Simon loves entertaining guests and always has his bar area full. It seems like he wants all the guests in his bar. Should they go somewhere else, he makes them promise to come back and spend some more time with him. He loves promoting SA and tells them all sorts of stories about Soweto (where he comes from) which they enjoy.
We’d love you to share your funniest story about past guests … you must have a few?
One day departing from Hoedspruit on an evening charter, I noticed two gentlemen enjoying themselves in the Club Car and being the centre of attraction. They did not fit in with the group that was travelling due to their dress code of short-sleeved shirts and short pants. I then asked the group’s tour manager if they were part of the group and she could not confirm. I then approached the one gentleman and asked him for his suite number. He answered, “Suite, and blurted out the ‘Sweet Caroline’ song.
Needless to say I had to get them off the train at the next station at Kaapmuiden. Their ‘visit’ and drinks at the Club Car turned out to be quite an expensive charade as I had to issue them with a R 3000,00 ticket!
They happened to be two farmers of the Hoedspruit district who made a bet in the restaurant at the station that they could travel on The Blue Train – even if it meant going as far as Dar es Salaam and then flying back home.
Today their pictures and train ticket are framed and on the wall of the station restaurant for all to see, and their story was captured by the local newspaper.
Is there anyone who has been working on the train longer than you have?
Our longest serving butler is Mr Hennie Steyn, who has been working for The Blue Train for 38 years – since 1977. Not only is he a funny and jovial person, but very dependable and much loved by fellow employees.
The Blue Train is famous for its food. What is your favourite dish on board?
My favourite is the springbok and a lamb cutlet, served with barley and seasonal vegetables.
The Train was officially launched in 1946 as The Blue Train. When the King George the VI came to visit South Africa with the Royal family, it was their ultimate mode of transport and it is said that there was a Friesland cow on the train to supply fresh milk for breakfast to the King every morning!
A live cow for the King’s fresh milk!
On the Cape Town/Pretoria journey is there a particular favourite spot you always make sure to stop and look out the window for?
Yes there is. On the northbound journey from Cape Town to Pretoria, nearing Matjiesfontein, there is a big rock resembling a frog which, 10 minutes prior to arrival, I bring to the attention of all guests on board – a rare and unique treat indeed!
Southbound, the spot I look out for is Kamfers dam, home to a large variety of bird species, especially flamingos which the guests absolutely love to take pictures of.
Who has been the biggest inspiration/influence in your career?
My wife! Working on The Blue Train you are away from home four days a week. Over the years she has been both a mother and father to 6 children! A true pillar of strength in my household.
What is the best advice you recall?
To always portray yourself well, which will earn you respect as a leader and to talk less and listen more. Whenever you do something, picture the desired outcome and act accordingly.
My famous saying is “a fish rots from the head”.
What’s your favourite town/part of Africa and why?
Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape because it’s my birth town and lives up to its nickname, the “friendly city”. I love the beaches and to watch the sail boats and the waterfront.