* This article first appeared here in the Saturday Citizen
The train’s stopping gently woke me. Stirring from the comfort of my bed I pulled down the blind and was greeted by a cool Karoo breeze. In the safety of my carriage a layer of blankets kept me warm, and above a blanket of stars kept me enthralled. After a few minutes the train began to move again and I bid goodnight to the country sky that glimmered so gloriously above.
Reflecting on the uniqueness of train-travel, author Alain de Botton notes that “the silence that reigns inside while the wheels beat in rhythm against the rails outside, the dreaminess fostered by the noise and the view from the windows, a dreaminess in which we seem to stand outside our normal selves and have access to thoughts and memories that may not arise in more settled circumstances”. There’s a rather contagious peace and charm to be caught in long-distance train travel, as deadlines cease, and technology is replaced by the presence of an endlessly inviting landscape.
I’ve travelled on enough rail journeys overseas to know what a uniquely enjoyable experience it is, but sadly tourist train-travel is not often associated with South Africa. Discovering that Rovos Rail, dubbed one of the most luxurious trains in the world, was actually on my doorstep, I knew it was a bucket list journey that I was eager to take. A wait of five months for the trip only served to heighten my anticipation.
The journey was part of my 36thbirthday celebration and I was thrilled to discover that for Rovos it would be only two month’s short of their 30thanniversary. Almost three decades ago Rohan Vos and his team took their maiden journey across the country, and thankfully, overcoming all manner of challenges on route, they are still enthralling passengers from around the globe with this world-class offering.
Rovos offers several journeys from its stately home-base of Capital Park in Pretoria. Cape Town, Durban, and Victoria Falls are all different options – even an astounding 14-day journey to Dar es Salaam if the purse allows. My 1600km journey would take me between two of the country’s capitals; the first towered over by the Union Buildings and the second by the iconic Table Mountain.
Within a minute of arrival at Capital Park you know you’re in for something special. A short walk down the red carpet and you’re greeted with a glass of bubbly and your luggage is quickly taken care of. The station is a grand building, opulently but tastefully styled. Brief tours of the workshop and museum are offered to those interested, and after a word of welcome from Rohan himself, you’re ushered on board and introduced to your carriage.
Each of the four Rovos trains can accommodate up to 72 people and has a lounge car, one or two dining cars, a smoking lounge and a glass-ended open balcony observation car at the end. There are three suite options for guests: the Pullman suites sized at 7m2, the Deluxe suites at 10m2 metres and then the spacious Royal suites at 16m2. All have twin or double bed options, en-suite bathrooms and naturally, the Royal suites feature Victorian claw foot bathtubs.
Stepping into the train and indeed your cabin, is being transported into both the luxury and elegance of a bygone era in train travel. The cabin is spacious; enough room for your bed, as well as a desk and reclining chair and of course your bathroom with surprisingly roomy shower. From the minute you board the train your every need is taken care of with an unrivaled personal hospitality.
Life on Board
Dining is a grand affair. Suits and ties are required attire for the gentlemen and you can choose to dine in either the 1920s period-piece carriage with teak pillars or a slightly more modern 1930s model with large windows offering panoramic views of the changing landscape. Lunch and dinner are four-course meals perfectly paired with some of the premium wines on board.
For a growing wine aficionado, I could hardly contain my delight arriving at the bar to discover some of South Africa’s top wines available. Naturally, there is also a healthy cocktail, gin and spirits menu, accompanied by snacks through the day. At any point during the day you can also use the phone in your carriage to order something from the bar. Although the trip financially falls into the luxury bracket, remember that it’s an all-inclusive service.
Two excursions are offered on route to Cape Town or the reverse journey towards Pretoria. First is a stop at Kimberley, the home of diamonds in South Africa. Being my first visit to the mining town I relished the opportunity to learn more of its sparkling story. An impressive tourist center provides all the information needed and offers a view of the great ‘Big Hole’. The second excursion is the Sunday stop at Matjesfontein. This is a unique Victorian town that seemingly rises out of the desert. A walk through it is a worthwhile trip down memory lane – just pay attention to the train’s departing whistle.
Gazing out of the window at the vast and varied sun-soaked landscape one is reminded of the extent of our land. Since the train hardly tops 60km an hour, the images that fly by your window don’t pass without giving you the opportunity to entertain your curiosity. From highveld horizons broken by mine landfills you move through barren Karoo deserts and then finally reach the flourishing Cape Winelands.
You’ll spot ostriches gathered under acacia trees escaping the searing heat, children eagerly splashing about the edges of farm dams and kilometers of sun-streaked countryside. The African spirit always has, and always will, express itself in a thousand places and a million people.
The Rovos story is a unique and inspiring one. What began as a personal passion project – a dream for a private carriage for the Vos family to use for their South African holidays – now offers unforgettable journeys through the beloved country. Happy 30thbirthday Rovos and here’s to another 30 years of being woken to up star-streaked country skies.
* Throughout the off-season South Africans and other SADC residents can take advantage of a 50% off offer. These go quickly so make sure to book in advance for this unmissable bucket-list African experience. More details are available here.