The difference could not have been brought home more forcefully. Arriving (incorrectly) at Pretoria’s Central station to board the Rovos Rail bound for Cape Town, the turmoil of the city’s main transport hub gave us visions of a more colourful African train experience; passengers piled on the roof, livestock running riot and no fresh water for days on end.
Thankfully though, a few phone calls and a five-minute drive later had us pulling into where we should have been all along; the leafy Capital park station, home to Rovos Rail.
The magic of Rovos starts from the second you step into the station. Luggage is whisked away, champagne is offered and a plate of salmon sandwiches (no crusts, mind you) appears from nowhere. A few introductory words, and a chance to admire the engines later, and you’re on-board and chugging away with owner Rohan Vos waving farewell from the platform. It’s a send off that’s as olde-worlde and timeless as the engines pulling the 20-odd coaches of the refurbished Edwardian-era train.
From Capital Park station your destination could be anywhere from the Cape to Kruger, Durban to Dar Es Salaam.
Rovos runs a selection of fascinating journeys throughout the year, lasting anywhere from 24 hours to 14 days. If money is no object the annual trip all the way through Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania has to count as one of the continent’s great journeys; passing Kruger bushveld, the Victoria Falls and traversing through the magnificent Selous Game Reserve. At $8900 per person it’s probably not within everybody’s reach, but there are a range of other journeys that offer an intoxicating taste of the ‘pride of Africa’.
The most popular is the thrice-weekly trip between Pretoria and Cape Town; the ‘Old Pioneering Trail’. Leaving Capital Park every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday it’s certainly not the cheapest way to get from Gauteng to the coast, but for a taste of what real travel used to be like it’s an unbeatable experience.
Boasting “the most spacious train suites in the world”, the five-star compartments are roomy and luxurious, with the carriages’ rich wood panelling, traditional furnishings and period décor transporting you back in time as well as to your destination.
Johannesburg's unattractive outskirts
About the only downside to the journey to Cape Town is the first few hours out of Pretoria where the train chugs through the unattractive outskirts of Johannesburg, so it’s best to retreat to your suite, order in a G&T or three and wait for the Karoo to unfold the next morning.
And unfold it most certainly does. By the time the gentle swaying of the train rocks you awake the next morning, the flat plains of the North-West have unfolded. With the city of gold far behind, the city of diamonds is the train’s next destination.
The first off-train excursion (all included in your fare to Cape Town) is to the small Northern Cape town of Kimberley. The town may be known chiefly for its ‘Big Hole’; the site of the pipe of diamonds in Kimberlite rock that turned prospectors into overnight millionaires and established the fortune of Cecil John Rhodes, but it is also a town rich in history.
Barney Barnato and Rhodes are household names here, and a stroll through the refurbished Kimberley Mine Museum brings this history to life. From Boer war sieges and hard-living miners working their claims to the diamond barons who turned the fledgling industry into a global empire it’s a fascinating look at the town that shaped the future of South Africa, then faded into relative obscurity.
Explore your hotel on wheels
Back on board, the only full day on the train is the perfect opportunity to explore your hotel on wheels. In addition to the Lounge and Smoking carriages, the Observation Car at the back of the train is the best place to spend your days; whiling away the hours with a book or magazine, tucking into afternoon tea or enjoying an evening sundowner as the landscape unfolds in front of you.
As the sun sets over the northern reaches of the Karoo most passengers retire to their suites, varying from the smaller (and more affordable) Pullman to the expansive ‘Royal Suite’, which even boasts a free-standing Victorian bath! Regardless, they have all been thoughtfully laid out, ensuring there’s no contortionist yoga required to use the bathroom or get ready for dinner.
And you simply have to get dressed for dinner... with fine wines and superb cuisine served in the beautifully restored dining car, Rovos guests are asked to “dress accordingly”, with jacket and tie a minimum and black tie preferred for the more formal second night of the journey.
A taste of South Africa on-board
Food on-board is superb, with the chefs conjuring an impressive array of dishes showcasing the best of what South Africa has to offer. Waterblommetjie Soup, pan-fried Karoo Lamb chops, Springbok loin and traditional South African Bobotie are all on offer to show off local cuisine to the many overseas tourists on board. Your choice from the wide selection of top-notch South African wines are all included in your fare.
If you don’t over-indulge in late-night liqueurs on the observation deck, an early start the next morning is a must to stretch your legs as the train grinds to a halt in the middle of the Karoo, a few kilometres outside the historic town of Matjiesfontein, allowing energetic travellers to walk the last few kays into town. After 36 hours of over-indulgence is a great way to work up an appetite for lunch, which is served as the train wends its way through the stunning Hex River Valley.
Heading through the Hex
By the time the train reaches the scenic pass into the Hex the smart passengers have already packed their bags and have headed straight for the observation car to enjoy what is without doubt the most stunning section of the journey.
Whether it’s an autumn patchwork of red hued vines, or the new shoots of spring growth promising grapes to come, the winelands beneath the Hex and Dutoitskloof mountains make for a dramatic end to one of the continent’s most memorable train journeys. A sharp left round the Nuwepoort Pass and a downhill run to Cape Town and it’s all over.
And just when you thought the personal service had come to an end, Rohan Vos appears - as if by magic - to welcome the train to Cape Town’s Platform 24. 48 hours, 1500 kilometres and countless G&Ts later the pride of Africa proves itself to be the only way to travel in style from Jozi to the Mother City.
Visit rovos.co.za to find out more about Rovos Rail. Fares start from R12 000 for the journey from Pretoria to Cape Town. Fares include off-train excursions, all gourmet meals as well as all drinks, so although the price is steep Rovos does offer good value-for-money for that once-in-a-lifetime special occasion.
Richard Holmes travelled as a guest of Rovos Rail.