This is a country where the trains run on time, so at precisely 11 a.m., South African Railway's pride and joy glided into Platform 16 at Johannesburg Station, the largest train station in Africa.

The electrically powered "Blue Train," trimmed and chevroned in bright yellow, was sparkling with the shine of a mountain lake on a cloudless day. Through the window, (dusted with a layer of real gold to reduce glare and heat) you can see the white-jacketed, all-male staff of 26 waiters and valets standing at their posts.

In just over 24 hours, this 16-coach repository of old-world stateliness and comfort wends its way on a 958-mile route stretching practically the length of South Africa and embracing the country's three major cities of Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Connoisseurs rate it as one of the most luxurious and beautiful train rides in the world.

Embarking passengers find their names and assigned compartments typed on a small white card pinned to a board on Platform 16. Standards are definitely maintained inside, where soft carpets, soothing piped-in music and a complimentary half-bottle of chilled champagne keep the Blue Train living up to its reputation.

Each air-conditioned compartment, or coupe, has a built-in radio console (both English and Afrikaans), an icewater tap, a bell for the valet, electrically controlled venetian blinds, a washstand, closet and berths.

In one corner is a locker that also opens onto the corridor. It is for your shoes. You put them there for overnight polishing.

There are four classes of coupes, including one suite of three rooms -- bedroom, sitting room and a bath complete with marble tub. At full complement, the Blue Train sleeps 106.

Under the scrutinizing eye of a black-suited maitre d', cordon bleu meals, accompanied by South African wines, are served on the dining car's white-clothed tables.

The Blue Train, unlike most trains of the South African Railways, is "international," which is South African bureaucratese for multiracial. It will take passengers of any race, so long as they can afford the fare (about $180 one way). Railway officials say they run the Blue Train at a loss, but will continue to do so because it is a tourist attraction and "a prestige train."

Its history began in the 1920s when the steam-powered "union express" puffed uphill from Cape Town to Johannesburg and the "union limited" made the return trip. But those were ordinary coaches.

Twelve blue luxury coaches were imported from Britain in 1939 but had to be mothballed during the war. In 1946, they were officially baptized the Blue Train and put into service. Today's Blue Train was made in South Africa, replacing the imported one in 1972. It makes two trips a week in winter months and three during South Africa's warm season, between November and April.

Southbound, the Blue Train starts from Pretoria and stops first in Johannesburg, 40 miles away. As it pulls out of "Egoli" or "city of gold," it passes Johannesburg's distinctive gold dumps -- huge, ziggurat-shaped mounds of earth churned-up from the gold mines.

Then it heads into the flat, brown countryside, whose wealth lies in huge farms of corn and wheat and deep mines of gold, diamonds and coal. Black laborers in overalls and barefoot schoolchildren stop to wave.

Only at one small station in the late afternoon is there a hint of the problems this outwardly tranquil country faces. A freight train heading north toward Pretoria is filled with twisted, bullet-pocked jeeps and armored cars -- debris of the distant war South Africa is fighting against black guerrillas in neighboring Namibia.

By nightfall, the smooth 60-mile-an-hour pace has brought the Blue Train into Kimberley, site of the "big hole," the largest diamond mine site in the world, where the sparkling stones were first discovered in this country.

Kimberley station is crowded with black and Colored (mixed race) families shouting goodbyes and jostling for places on the regular passenger trains. Sedate and elegant, the Blue Train looks strangely out of place.

Kimberley is the gateway to the night passage through the Karoo. The name of this central plateau was given by the Hottentots, one of South Africa's original brown-skinned tribes. It means "land of thirst." Here, dusty, dry winds turn sheep farmers' faces red and raw. Giant balls of tumbleweed flounce aimlessly across the plains, and the springbok, a lithe little antelope that is South Africa's national emblem, runs wild.

From your gently swaying berth you can see darkly dressed figures warming themselves by open fires at the Karoo's tiny railway stations, passed silently and slowly in the night.

With the dawn come the end of the Karoo and the scenic highpoint, a sight that explains why the Dutch and Huguenot settlers who came from Europe 300 years ago stayed.

Washed with the rosy, purple hues of dawn, the Hex River Mountains rise against a smooth, blue sky. Mists of gossamer hang motionless in the valleys dotted with whitewashed farmsteads built with the clean curves of a style now called "Cape Dutch." Around them, the fertile green land is neatly appointed with vineyards and orchards.

The Hex River Valley, which is seen at dusk if one takes a northbound Blue Train, is the foyer to South Africa's wine-growing region, whose vintages, many say, compare with the world's best.

After a short while, the flat-topped "Table Mountain" heralds the approach of Cape Town, a jewel of a city set between a striking mountain and the chilly southern Atlantic. To South Africans, this is the "mother city," because here in 1652 the Dutch entrepreneur and adventurer Jan Van Riebeeck launched the white man's sojourn in this country with his tiny, seaside settlement.

And so, the Blue Train's journey ends where it all began.