“If you need your garments pressed or your shoes buffed, just put them aside for me,” says Ilse, our assigned butler. We’ve just stepped aboard the Rovos Rail – a train that has been dubbed the most luxurious in the world – for a three-day journey from Pretoria to Durban. Ilse’s has already walked us through our spacious bedroom, with en-suite bathroom, and warmly assured us that she is there to meet our every need, even if it should be at 2am. Excited, I jump onto the king-sized bed and wonder at the ever-changing views presented in the window. We rumble through the outskirts of Pretoria, past Germiston’s derelict buildings, into Mpumalanga’s rain-kissed farmlands.
I’d packed my fanciest dresses, Adam packed his smartest suits; we boarded a kulula flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, caught the Gautrain to Pretoria and made our way to the Rovos station. As soon as we stepped aboard we were transported into an older world. Our journey would comprise of ever-changing scenery, 4-course meals, excursions to battle fields and game reserves, and an endless supply of the Cape’s finest wines. It was enough to put anyone in a very good humour.
During our first lunch in the dining carriage, I recalled a review left by a former Rovos guest. It was a sterling account, but he had one complaint: too much wine. I quickly discover that every course of every four-course meal– lunch and dinner – is served with a delicious recommended wine. “Would you like a glass of Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc?” asks our suited waitron ceremoniously as he serves Potato Galette with fresh ribbon vegetables. “Yes, please,” I respond for the third time.
A Journey back in Time
A ride on Pride of Africa– the name of our train – is as much a journey into a grand colonial past as it is a geographical one. Guests are urged to gather in the dining area for scheduled meals, cell phone and laptop use in public areas is very much frowned upon and the dress code for dinner is formal. The 5-star service coupled with interior touches of dark woods, leather couches, bottle-green carpets and portraits of the hinterland, make you feel a bit like Cecil John Rhodes on a mission of discovery. The most unbelievable part is that despite the historic feel of the train, the Rovos story is a mere 26 years old.
Rohan Vos, founder and owner of Rovos Rail, initially bought a few coaches at an auction in Witbank with the intention of hitching them to a South African Railways train as a family caravan. His humble intentions were soon replaced by a bigger vision that has seen Rovos Rail grow into a luxury rail business attracting travellers from all over the world. As a family-run operation, Rovos owns a fleet of nine electric locomotives, five diesel locomotives, a Douglas Dakota DC3 aircraft used for private charters, three 5-star guesthouses in Cape Town and the railway station in Pretoria that comes with a locomotive museum. Routes on offer include: Cape Town to Pretoria, Pretoria to the Victoria Falls, Pretoria to Namibia, and the ultimate 15-day journey – Cape Town to Dar es Salaam.
With a few hours to spare before the next meal, we troop to the most popular spot on board, the observation deck at the back of the train. From here, I feel the wind in my face, and watch as the world whirls by. In the distance cumulonimbus clouds build up over an open field, and a man walks on a rural road and jumps for joy as we puff past.
Dinner is signalled at 19:30 by the ringing of chimes. I am dressed to the nines and ready for the evening’s feast. The dining carriage is transformed into something that resembles the first-class lounge on the Titanic. Candles flicker, the finest silverware is on display and everyone is looking positively dashing in tuxedos and evening gowns. Pears cooked in red wine and black pepper are washed down with Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon, and pan-fried line fish is chased with a swirl of Lourensford Viognier. We chatter softly among ourselves and conclude the evening with chocolate mousse and a vanilla macaroon.
Game Drives and Battlefields
The train gently drums us to sleep on the way to KwaZulu-Natal. Eight hours later we wake up to a lush countryside dotted with mountaintops. Danny, a game-ranger at the Nambiti Private Game Reserve, meets us at the side of the track for a three-hour game drive. He is a man of few words and promptly motors, at impressive speed, over puddles and dirt tracks in pursuit of a lion sighting. He succeeds when a great lioness shaves past the vehicle with a cold yellow glare. The air is crisp and the vegetation apple green. We spot buffalo, a secretary bird and, unexpectedly, a seated giraffe busy regurgitating his food. A lump of grass moves rapidly down and up his long throat. All the locals, including animals, seem delighted by the previous night’s rain. On return to the train, staff members welcome us to a brunch spread set for royalty. Lobster, cheeses, gourmet salads and wines are served, and the train proceeds – at 60 kilometres per hour – to the Ladysmith station.
Next up is a lecture at Spioen Kop, the site of one of the deadliest battles fought during the second Anglo-Boer War. After an hour-long shuttle transfer from the Ladysmith Station to the foothills of the Drakensberg, we arrive at the top of Alice Hill. Raymond Heron, an avid historian and owner of the Spionkop Lodge, welcomes us and leads the way to a lookout point. The Tugela River flows far below through a vast valley flanked by the site in question, Spioen Kop. The air is heavy, the plants hardy and I imagine that it was just like this in 1900 when the battle was fought.
We sit down under a thorn tree and the lecture begins. “The Khoisan and the Khoikhoi were the only people indigenous to South Africa,” he starts, “everyone else came from other parts of the world.” Raymond deems it important to paint a full picture of South Africa’s history, before delving into the battle. Like children entranced by a bedtime story, we listen as Raymond tells of Shaka Zulu’s powerful Zulu Kingdom in the early 1800’s and how the Great Trek between 1830 and 1840 is arguably one of the most incredible journeys undertaken by modern man. He touches on the 1886 discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand, “It was the greatest goldfield found in the history of mankind,” he says. Accordingly, this discovery, coupled with the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 eventually contributed to the breakout of the Anglo-Boer Wars: 1880- 1881 and 1899 – 1902.
“The Brits thought that the second war would be over in a matter of weeks,” explains Raymond, “but it raged on for three years and became Britain’s most costly war at the time.” 430 000 British troops were sent to fight 69 000 Boers. The Spioen Kop Battle is one of a number of devastating battles that took place in KwaZulu-Natal during that time. Today, military academies and travellers from around the world come to study and visit these famous sites. The Battle of Spioen Kop led to the death of 332 soldiers – British, Boer, Black and Indian – and the ironic part is that there was no clear victor. Raymond concludes, “The Anglo-Boer War should really be called the South African War.” After the lecture, I look out over the valley to the top of Spioen Kop and think about the fragility of humankind.
The Final Stretch
That evening, spirits are high on the train after a day of adventure. Everyone has saved their most glamourous garments for last. Guests gather in the observation lounge for pre-dinner drinks. The absence of technology has had the desirable outcome – guests are mingling, talking and becoming friends. Dinner is another sumptuous affair that starts with carrot and coconut soup, followed by seared loin of springbok, and finished with Amaretto flambéed bananas topped with chocolate and vanilla ice cream. After dinner, a group of us gathers on the observation deck in an attempt to draw out the evening for as long as possible. In the distance, smoke bellows from a factory and summer rain spits onto the railway. There’s more champagne, more whiskey and lots of talk about children, adventures and local history. Gently, the train rocks its way to the Midlands.
I wake up to a view of what looks like the English countryside. Cows graze in generous meadows, rivers flow beneath stone bridges and pink flower-faces poke out from green thickets. Known for being an artists’ haven, the Midlands is like a scene out of The Hobbit. It’s our final day on the train and, suitably, our last excursion takes us to the Ardmore Ceramics Studio, an award-winning and internationally renowned business that offers a modern platform for traditional Zulu clay work. Founder and owner, Fée Halsted, welcomes us at her Midlands estate and walks us through her gallery and studio. Hundreds of colourful sculptures fill the room: an ape’s head, a Zulu man riding a fish, gigantic pots decorated in lizards, four-legged teapots. Fée explains how she works closely with Zulu artists from nearby communities, offering free training, direction, materials and a guaranteed market for their works. According to Fée, 30% of profits made from sold artwork goes directly to the sculptor and painter. We snack on Fée’s homemade carrot cake, before making our way back to the train for the final stretch to Durban.
Our closing lunch is an irresistible affair of sautéed artichokes and mushrooms for starters, roasted duck breast on a warm salad for mains and cinnamon-flavoured pineapple Carpaccio with lemon sorbet for dessert. The train steams past Pietermaritzburg’s Victorian station, onto the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Colourful villages are dispersed on steep hills and children shriek and wave jubilantly as we pass. The glamour, adventure and old-world elegance of the Rovos Rail sadly come to an end when we pull into the Durban Station and soon, fleeting views, exchanged waves and heart-to-hearts with newfound friends, become happy memories to cherish for a lifetime.
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