With its warm wooden interior, this refurbished vintage coach maintains its original, hypnotic charm. And with its crystal wine glasses and silverware glistening in the soft evening light, it’s no wonder I feel like I’m in a scene from a classic James Bond film.
A murmur of foreign accents floats through the room. There are only 36 guests on this two-day journey (attended to by 19 members of staff), but we come from all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the US, the UK, the United Arab Emirates and, of course, South Africa.
Just a few hours ago, we arrived at Capital Park, the repair and maintenance depot in Pretoria that is also headquarters for Rovos Rail. It was here that some of the more adventurous in our group of mostly first-time travellers jumped onto the tracks to take better photographs of the vintage locomotives.
Meanwhile, others (myself included) escaped the blistering late summer heat by staying inside to sip on sparkling wine and admire the memorabilia from journeys of yesteryear.
It was also here that Rohan Vos, who founded the company in 1989 and still attends most of the departures, gave us a briefing before shaking our hands and bidding us farewell.
“We have no wi-fi on-board,” he explained with a playful smile. “We try to keep the train as a quiet zone where you can concentrate on the more important pastimes of good conversation and serious drinking.”
So never mind the rushing about that must be going on behind the scenes with the tuxedoed waiters bringing out the food promptly and plated to perfection. Without my smartphone to distract me, all I have to do is sit back and savour the moment.
On tonight’s menu is slow-roasted Karoo lamb shank with mashed potatoes, a green bean parcel, and mushrooms. It’s just one of four courses, each of which is paired with rare wines and liqueurs to give us an opportunity to appreciate a variety of cuisines.
Rovos Rail has the largest overnight berths in the world and, much like at dinner, there’s not much to do in the suite besides relax and enjoy.
Even with air-conditioning, it’s nice to open the window and breathe in the freshness of the countryside before returning to a night-time novel or a delicious afternoon nap.
And even though there’s no reason to leave the train, where one could lie in bed and watch the world go by forever, the stopovers bring us to places where time seems to stand still.
First is Kimberley in the Northern Cape, South Africa’s largest but least populated province. To learn about the diamond rush of 1871, we visit The Big Hole (the largest man-made excavation in the world) and The Diamond Museum, where we get up close with the precious gems first formed 53 million years ago and, through volcanic eruptions, brought to the surface from 200km underground.
The next day we’re in the quaint Victorian village of Matjiesfontein in the Western Cape. It’s a crisp and cloudless Sunday morning, ideal for a casual stroll through town. I start with a walk up the creaky stairs to the spooky attic of the Lord Milner Hotel – it was used as a military hospital during the Anglo-Boer War – and understand why many believe it to be haunted.
Less scary is a visit to the Transport Museum to admire its classic cars. It’s here that I squeeze my way through an old train, with its cramped carriages and communal ablution facilities. Doing so makes me grateful that en-suite bathrooms come standard for all passengers on Rovos Rail.
Back on the train, the journey continues to Cape Town. Once we pass through a series of tunnels that turn day into night, the majestic mountains take over from the dry Karoo, with vineyards so close I can almost reach out and touch them.
The passengers gather for a final afternoon tea in the observation car at the back of the train, that has an open-air balcony. A British man sips his coffee and completes a crossword puzzle while the Australian, whose moustache would make an envious hipster weep, is ordering another beer from the bar. His wife smiles, takes a bite of her cucumber sandwich, and washes it down with a G&T.
As the scene changes again, the abandoned and crumbling train stations give way to newer ones, where smiling children run alongside the tracks and confused adults stare at us with puzzled looks, as if we’re strangers from another world.
Perhaps a hundred years from now, people will look back and feel the same way about our frenzied ways. In the meantime, it’s nice to know that Rovos Rail will keep the best things in life exactly as they are.
- Eugene Yiga was a guest of Rovos Rail.
- Call + 27 (0) 12 315 8242, e-mail [email protected], or see www.rovosrail.com.
Rovos Rail journeys, which can be combined, include the two-day Pretoria to Cape Town (from R16 230); the three-day Durban Safari (from R16 230); three-night adventure to Victoria Falls (from R 21 250); the nine-day Namibia Safari (from R53 950); and a 15-day epic journey through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, ending in Dar es Salaam (from $11 850).
All prices are per person sharing and valid until September 30. Prices include all accommodation, meals and excursions as well as beverages, including alcohol, while on board. (Refilling your mini-bar simply requires you to fill out a form and you can even specify your favourite drinks when making a booking.) The train also has complimentary laundry facilities.
There are many configurations to combine the 42- or 72-bed train with other entertaining products. Within reason and subject to availability, the chartered train can go wherever there is a railway line in southern Africa. There is also an events train, which can accommodate up to 250 guests but does not have sleeping facilities and is thus only suitable for daytime journeys of 12 hours or less.
You must have valid passports and applicable visas for cross-border trips. Anti-malarial medicine and a yellow fever vaccination certificate may be relevant for some countries. Because the track over which the train travels is inconsistently maintained, you may be awoken at night with the false impression that the train is travelling at high speed, even though it averages only 45km/h. If you’re a light sleeper or suffer from motion sickness, bring appropriate medication. Or just do as the train manager suggests and “take your after-dinner tipple seriously”.