* This article first appeared in The Kenyan Traveller
Although it was only the second morning of the trip, already the procedure was muscle memory. After a lazy yawn or two, I’d pick up the telephone alongside my bed and order a glass of Le Lude MCC.
“Certainly Mr Ruttenberg, that’ll be right over.”
Moments later there’d be a knock on the door and the steward would bring over the bubbly. While this may seem unusual for a five-star hotel, this experience had one rather important difference… I was not sitting in a stationary hotel room, but a moving carriage, traversing the African countryside on a luxury train.
Glancing out the large window alongside my bed, glass of bubbly in hand, I was quickly reminded of this, as kilometers of countryside slowly reeled past.
For over 30 years Rovos Rail has been offering guests the opportunity to explore Africa by rail. What this family-owned company has achieved is nothing short of remarkable, overcoming all odds to establish a world-renowned private railway, often touted as the ‘most luxurious train in the world’.
Journeys being or end at Capital Park, Rovos Rail’s headquarters in Pretoria. The 60-acre property includes the repair and maintenance depot, a model-railway display, and a museum. Most notably is the graceful station house where guests wait in anticipation for the journey to begin. Reclining on a leather sofa, outwardly I was cool, calm, and collected, but inwardly I was a six-year-old child on Christmas morning – giddy with anticipation.
Owner Rohan Vos calls us to attention and casts a stately figure (appropriate as the station is a mere three kilometers as the crow flies from the Union Buildings) as he begins his speech. I had goosebumps as he began: “It gives my family and I great pleasure to welcome you onboard Rovos Rail…”
So starts the journey and we’re escorted to our suites. There are three options for guests: the Pullman suites sized at 7m2, the Deluxe suites at 10m2, and then the spacious Royal suites at 16m2. These remodelled sleeper coaches are wood-panelled, sporting a luxurious experience of a bygone era. My Deluxe Suite featured its own lounge area with a writing desk and then en suite bathroom with shower, toilet, and basin.
In the train’s dining carriages, I revelled in the elegance of fine china and glassware, accompanied by crisp linen and silver. This is perfectly paired with the formal dress code for evening dining, making sure every evening is a fabulously formal affair.
At the rear of the train, you’ll find an observation car with a bar and large windows, including a glass-ended open balcony at the end. Many an hour were spent here gazing out at the changing views, and in engaging conversations with other guests. By the second day of the journey, the barman already knew my drinks of choice, readily providing them as my glass approached empty; a sensitive and intuitive service that would continue for the entire trip. There’s also a lounge car, one or two dining cars depending on the journey, and a smoking lounge.
There’s something undeniably alluring about train travel – knowing that the country is secretly intersected by rail lines and that you’d be travelling along these routes taking you to places you’d otherwise not have seen.
I have to admit, that on the rare chance when I take a couple days’ vacation, desperately needing a break from the frenzy of modern life, I’m often my own worst enemy cramming in every possible activity often leaves me even more exhausted. This is where the appeal of train travel is so enticing. There’s very little one can do, or where one can go.
Rather there’s the invitation to sit back and unwind in unparalleled style. Nothing is rushed – including the train, which only reaches a maximum of 60km/h giving enough time to fully appreciate the journey and the scenery that passes by.
One of Rovos’ many enticing points is that once you’re onboard the experience is all-inclusive. Often all-inclusive stays include one or two ‘house wines’, but with Rovos I was delighted to find that many of my favourite premium South African wines featured on the wine list and were available at any point. Many a glass of Hamilton Russell Chardonnay kept me company, as I stared peacefully at the constantly changing scenery.
Considered by many to be Rovos’ crowning glory, is the incomparable five-day journey to Victoria Falls. Also departing from Pretoria, heads northwards, crossing into either Zimbabwe or Botswana. Each Rovos journey includes optional excursions, and as the journey usually travels alongside Hwange National Park, the trip wouldn’t be complete without a game drive in the park.
At the journey’s end, you can stand where David Livingstone once stood and staring at the majestic natural wonder exclaim as he did, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” A fitting end to one of Africa’s most desirable bucket list experiences.