South Africa By Rail
Travelling by train through South Africa in a beautifully restored carriage makes for an extraordinary journey.
Thirty years ago, Rohan Vos, a South African who made his money from auto parts, started buying old train engines and carriages, restoring them to former golden-age glories. A latecomer to the world of trains, Vos resurrected his first locomotive into the luxury class in 1986 and was hooked. Now, his luxury train company, Rovos Rail, offers four trains, the oldest, Tiffany, dating back to 1894.
Setting off from Pretoria or Cape Town, Durban or Victoria Falls, trains traverse five African countries: 3,568 miles of interminable savannah; numerous termite mounds; scattered inselbergs (rocky outcrops); big skies; far horizons; rivers; and lots of waving children. And it’s platinum, five-star, high-carat, flawless diamond service on a single-gauge track all the way.
With over 50 staff on board, from chauffeurs to chefs, security guards to onboard doctors and even a resident historian, this is a railway trip in a league of its own. The 12-square-metre Royal Suites come with clawfoot Victorian bathtubs and a minibar with ‘survival drinks’ such as MCC (Méthode Cap Classique) Champagne. Each passenger is given a pair of plastic goggles, so you can stick your head out of the train (tunnels and thornveld permitting).
All visas and border formalities are taken care of. On the way, stop off for a tour of the Kimberley diamond mines; a night at the Victoria Falls Hotel, dating back to 1904 (sleeved collared shirts and closed shoes under chandeliers amid colonial kitsch in the formal Livingstone dining room); two nights full board and four game drives at the excellent Tau Game Lodge and Spa in the Madikwe Game Reserve; and one at the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania.
The route takes in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia before arriving at Tazara railway station in Dar es Salaam. The last or first (you can do the trip either way) stretch is over the famous and scenic Chinese-built Uhuru freedom line created to take Zambian goods without entering white-rule countries.
The Rovos Pride of Africa is a moveable feast. Guests are summoned to dine by a mini-xylophone (the gong has been retired).
You dress up for the privilege of reliving the bygone days and bygone dinners. Four-course meals are served in the Pride of Africa’s beautifully restored cherry-panelled, teakwood-pillared Belle Époque restaurant with its singing cut-crystal wine glasses, bone china, starched linen napery, solid-silver cutlery and tassel-tied curtains.
But the wildlife is really the thing. Because you are guaranteed to get up close and personal to most of the ‘big five’ and much of Africa’s incredible fauna.
There is no radio or television on board and no wifi or laptops. Travelling companions are the main onboard entertainment when the low and high veldt and baobab forests pall. Conversation flows and stories are swapped as you cross rivers and travel through miombo woodland and heartwood thickets, crossing rivers and climbing the Great Rift Valley. Friendships are forged. A trip of a lifetime shared. And trades description debated.
There is much to learn en route: such as that the currency of Botswana is ‘pula’. That David Livingstone was found dead kneeling in prayer by his camp-bed. That one ostrich egg can make the equivalent of a 28-egg omelette. And a group of square-lipped rhinos is called a crash. It’s a dazzle of zebras. A journey of giraffes. A flamboyance of flamingos. A bloat of hippos. A committee of vultures. A parade — not a herd — of elephants.
You learn a lot of collective nouns on a luxury train hotel safari through Africa. But what do you call a group of well-heeled, adventure travellers? A Rovos sounds about right.