Rovos Rail recreates the golden age of travel on a journey where style matters more than speed
As I gaze out of the window an announcement on the PA system interrupts my thoughts. “This is your train manager speaking. We are running a little late due to a long stop and another train in front.”
There is no collective sigh or mutterings of discontent from my fellow passengers. In fact, nobody cares at all. It’s a good excuse for me to order another Six Dogs blue gin and watch the wonderful alchemy when it turns pale cerise as barman Alpheus pours in the tonic. I sip the end result and look out on a flock of fittingly pink flamingos as The Pride of Africa continues its leisurely passage through dramatic wide-open vistas of scrubby veldt where herds of wildebeest graze, fringed by rugged mountains. This is a train where the actual journey matters far more than punctuality or speed of travel.
I’d arrived in Johannesburg earlier in the week and spent a night in the leafy city of Pretoria, lined with purple jacaranda trees. The delightful Courtyard Hotel Arcadia, built around a lovingly restored early 20th century manor house, has a cosy club lounge and atmospheric rooms, which set the scene for the ensuing journey back in time.
Next morning, I was collected and taken to the once derelict railyard acquired by Rovos Rail in 1999. Today it is a memorable departure point, and after my luggage is whisked away by liveried porters, I’m free to look around the small museum on South African rail history manned by a former driver. Afterwards I move to the waiting room, which is more like a sumptuous country house hotel lounge. Champagne and drinks are served as waiters do the rounds with canapés.
An extra surprise comes with the arrival of dapper Rovos Rail owner Rohan Vos, who greets us personally and invites us on a tour around the yard and engine sheds, once again busy with a team of 440 staff working on locos and carriages in various stages of refurbishment and repair. A long-time railway enthusiast, he relates the story of how he originally wanted to restore a couple of carriages to take his wife and family on holiday. The red tape of hitching privately owned rolling stock to commercial engines made his initial dream unachievable. However, the authorities said if he started selling tickets to the public it could be done. He readily admits he was armed with more passion than knowledge at the time.
“We managed to side-step bankruptcy more than once,” he recalls. “I was inexperienced and had no idea just how expensive the trains would be to operate. We lost so much money in the early days and we knew nothing about hospitality.”
All that has certainly changed and it’s evident as we cross the platform to board the cream and green Rovos Rail train gleaming in the afternoon sun.
Vos runs through a few house rules which are pleasingly unconventional for anyone used to the regulations, and irritations, of regular trains.
“Please put away your phone, we are very fierce about that,” he says with a smile. “However, you are allowed to smoke, just make sure you don’t start any fires!”
The small band of smokers occupy a happy fug in the smoking carriage over the next few days, and elsewhere we all get to know each other with convivial chit-chat, enhanced by the slow pace of travel (the train averages 37mph) and unhampered by the constant checking of phones. It’s very refreshing and thoroughly in keeping with the atmosphere. My fellow passengers are an interesting and cosmopolitan bunch – couples, families and a few solos; some celebrating special occasions, others seasoned rail holiday passengers and all of them harbouring a desire to see South Africa in a different way.
A huge plus is only having to unpack once and waking up somewhere new each day. Travelling on mainline tracks you also get a glimpse of packed stations where the train attracts curious looks and pass through small villages beside the track, where children run over to wave. It’s heartening to learn Rovos has struck up an informal arrangement at some of the poorer settlements, where villagers collect rubbish from the train in return for leftover food.
Much of the time on board is spent wining and dining, and mealtimes are certainly stylish occasions in the pair of beautiful Edwardian-style restaurant cars with high-backed chairs and pristine table settings. Each night a gong heralds the main event – dinner. Passengers are encouraged to dress up and many wear evening gowns and black tie, although this is not obligatory. Needless to say, meals are accompanied by superb South African wines.
Back in the sleeping cars, there’s even a midnight mini feast of biscuits and nougat, a kettle filled with water for hot drinks or, depending on your nightcap of choice, a minibar personalised with your favourite tipples. Hardly any surprise I slept so well in the bed warmed by an electric blanket and topped with a duvet resembling a large fluffy cloud. The rhythmical sound of wheels is also hypnotically soporific.
Each day brings an excursion, such as charming town of Matjiesfontein, with its museum of old cars and railway carriages, and Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape Province. It was here the first South African diamond was discovered in 1867, leading to the frantic rush to uncover more gems. The open-air museum of authentic relocated buildings recreates the atmosphere of the day. The sheer scale of the operation is brought to life gazing into the 700ft chasm of Big Hole, the largest-ever hand-dug mine which yielded some of the world’s largest stones and made the De Beers name famous worldwide.
The landscape changes as we near Cape Town where the train is flanked by vineyards and Dutch-style homes. All too soon we reach the end of the line and reluctantly disembark. I’m sure I’m not the only one that wishes there had been more hold-ups along the way, and I could have stayed for longer on a train that stirs the imagination.
Great Rail Journeys offers a 16-night South African Adventure tour from £6,695 for departures in October and November 2020. The price includes a fully inclusive nine-night rail journey, hotel accommodation in Pretoria and Cape Town with most meals, excursions and flights. For more details call + 44 (0)1904 527 180 or visit www.greatrail.com.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of Rovos Rail