A good night’s sleep on the move beckons for Peter Ellegard as he lets the train take the strain on the world’s most luxurious railway, Rovos Rail..
Having endured a daily four-hour rail commute for 17 years on the then worst train line in Britain (nicknamed the ‘Cattle Truck Line’), I have always hankered after a more luxurious train experience.
Despite my commuting hell I enjoy rail travel, watching the scenery pass like an ever-changing kaleidoscope. So I jumped at the offer of a trip aboard the Rovos Rail train from Durban to Pretoria, with two nights in my own deluxe cabin and a huge bed.
Luxury rail journeys operate all over the world. Named after the visionary who founded it 30 years ago and who still greets passengers at its terminus in South Africa’s capital, Rovos Rail is a cut above the rest.
The company styles itself as the world’s most luxurious train and its Bentley-green carriages are emblazoned with the slogan, Pride of Africa. Neither is an idle boast. Everything about the train, from the elegant carriages to its attentive staff and fine cuisine, is exquisite.
There are four full train sets, each comprising up to 22 carriages and carrying 72 passengers. Mart Marais, the train manager on my journey, talks me through the layout as we chat at the sumptuously furnished bar, gently clattering through the KwaZulu-Natal countryside. Trains can be shortened so that five rail journeys can operate at any one time. On mine, there are just 27 of us in 11 carriages, pampered by 15 staff.
THE HISTORY. The Rovos Rail story began when entrepreneur Rohan Vos bought several carriages at an auction of old railway stock in 1985. The original intention to restore them as a private family rail caravan ran out of steam because of high costs. However, when South African Railways gave Vos permission to run a train and sell tickets, the plan to operate vintage train tours for fare-paying passengers was born.
The first journey, with just four fare-paying passengers, family and press took place in 1989. After nearly hitting the buffers in 1993 when bankruptcy was narrowly averted, the operation has gone from strength to strength – save for a devastating tragedy in 2010, when 17 carriages of one train derailed just outside Pretoria, leaving three dead and many injured.
Over the years, Vos has collected and restored old railway carriages and steam locomotives like a model railway enthusiast reliving his youth. Except that his collection is no miniature attic train set. These are beautiful, full-size works of art, with wonderful hard-wood panelling and the attention of a stately cruise liner from yesteryear.
The steam locomotives, named after his four children, mother, wife and dog, sadly no longer pull the carriages on the state-run railway lines, because water and coaling facilities have disappeared. Instead, SAR-provided diesel or electric locos haul the trains beyond Rovos Rail’s colonial-style Pretoria station, where they are swapped to or from one of the historic steam engines. On my trip, Marjorie – built in Scotland in 1953 and named after Rohan’s mother – was to pull our train in to its final stop, although sadly I didn’t get to experience that due to a tight travel schedule.
The next stage of my trip was the three-day Durban Safari, which can also begin in Pretoria. Other journeys include another three-day tour, from Pretoria to Cape Town, a three-night journey between Pretoria and Victoria Falls or a longer six-day Cape Town-Victoria Falls option. Venturing beyond South Africa, a nine-day Namibia Safari trip operates between Pretoria and Swakopmund, while an epic 15-day Cape Town-Dar es Salaam tour travels through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania. All can be taken in either direction.
GOLF TOUR. For golfers, there are two dedicated, nine-day golf rail journeys that also cater for non-players. The Golf Safari starts and ends in Pretoria, while the African Golf Collage operates both ways between Cape Town and Pretoria.
On the Golf Safari, five rounds are played as the train heads to Sun City and on to Durban before looping through KwaZulu-Natal via the coast to the southern edge of the Kruger National Park and back to Pretoria, with golf bags transported to the different courses.
First stop is the sprawling Sun City resort. There, golfers tee off on either the desert-style Lost City Course, where the 13th green is edged by a crocodile pit filled with alarmingly large Nile crocodiles (I resisted the temptation to retrieve my lost tee shot when I played there once), or the parkland Gary Player Country Club layout, home to the European Tour and Sunshine Tour-sanctioned Nedbank Golf Challenge. Non-golfers enjoy a game drive in the neighbouring Pilanesberg Game Reserve and time in Sun City.
Day four takes golfers to Champagne Sports Resort, in the foothills of the majestic Drakensberg Mountains. The course, which I have previously played, serves up breath-taking views of the towering peaks. Non-golfers tour the nearby Boer War battlefields. Golf at Durban Country Club follows the next day, with a city tour as the alternative.
Crossing into Swaziland, golfers play the scenic Royal Swazi Sun course, while non-golfers enjoy another game drive followed by shopping. Final golfing stop is Leopard Creek, bordering Kruger Park; where resident buck, giraffe and hippo are among the wildlife on the course. Other passengers take a game drive in the Kruger.
The African Golf Collage journey follows the same route in reverse, from Pretoria to Durban with golf at Leopard Creek and Durban Country Club’s Beachwood course, skirting Lesotho after traversing a pass through the Drakensbergs. It then continues on to Durban via Port Elizabeth for golf at Humewood Golf Club, and Garden Route gateway George, where golfers tee off at Ernie Els’ Oubaai course and a course at the top-rated Fancourt resort.
There was no golf on this part of my journey, but I was playing courses along the KwaZulu-Natal coast beforehand and afterwards, so I was content to enjoy the train and excursions.
ALL-INCLUSIVE. After boarding in Durban, I quickly slipped into the train’s routine. Once I had unpacked in my spacious, air-conditioned suite – complete with en-suite bathroom including full-size shower – I joined my fellow travellers for sandwiches, canapés and a huge choice of drinks if you didn’t want the proffered Champagne.
Rovos trains are all-inclusive, so you can have whatever you want, whenever you want; a dedicated host is on-hand 24 hours a day, summoned by the telephone in your suite.
The open-air balcony at the back of the intimate observation car gives wonderful views and makes for convivial chat. The other passengers included a young South African Airways pilot and her husband, a group of English golfers heading to Victoria Falls and another English group en route to join the Queen Mary in Cape Town.
Almost immediately after leaving Durban, the train snakes along sinuous tracks through the gloriously scenic Valley of 1000 Hills, locals grinning and waving at you as it passes under bridges or through stations.
Meals are announced by a gong, and everyone heads to the ornate dining car, where seating is open at tables of two or four. Lunch and dinner are both four-course affairs, each course served with selected South African red or white wines or one of your own choice.
The food was divine. Favourite dishes include the sweet potato and lychee soup with peanut butter cream; grilled Cape rock lobster tails; a seafood papardelle of salmon, calamari, prawns and green lip mussels; and sweets of panna cotta with butterscotch sauce and cinnamon-flavoured pineapple carpaccio. Not forgetting the superb assortment of cheeses.
Before dinner one day, I visit the kitchen and marvel at how the two female chefs and two ‘vegetable ladies’ can produce such amazing creations in such a cramped, constantly-rocking space. Head chef Sarah Serumula, a 20-year Rovos veteran who started as a vegetable lady, says dishes cover traditional South African plates such as bobotie (curried mince pie), ostrich and kudu, and international fare like lamb shank.
Excursions are the highlights of the journey. We did three: Lions River Station to visit the Ardmore Ceramics Gallery and watch local Zulu artists hard at work; a battlefields tour at Spionkop (the site of one of the most futile and bloody battles of the Boer Wars); and a game drive at the Nambiti Reserve .
TALES OF THE LAND. The Spionkop battle involved three giants of history – Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi and General Louis Botha, later South Africa’s first prime minister. Looking out across the Tugela River and plains, historian Raymond Heron chillingly retold the dramatic events that unfolded on the slopes of Spionkop in January 1900.
In fact, the Kop end of Liverpool’s Anfield stadium is named after Spionkop, in tribute to the many soldiers from Lancashire regiments who died in the battle.
The game drive was also impressive. I enjoyed an afternoon tour in the Nambiti reserve, which yielded close-up encounters with kudu, buffalo, lions, giraffe and white rhino; a fitting finale to the trip.
After each excursion, the staff welcomed us back with cold towels and glasses of Champagne and wine. As for the nights on the train, I slept like a baby. Each night it pulled up at a quiet station or in a rural siding at around 11pm, so by the time I got to bed after the obligatory nightcap it had stopped moving. It only travels at night to make up for delays and our train kept good time.
I still take the Fenchurch Street line from time to time to attend functions and meetings in London. If only I could have my Rovos Rail bed whenever I do.
Good to know
Rovos Rail operates from its headquarters in Pretoria, close to Johannesburg, which is served by direct flights from London Heathrow, but also runs trains from Durban and Cape Town.
The nine-day Golf Safari, starting and ending at the Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria, operates four times a year. Remaining dates for 2015 are 8-16 October and 19-27 November.
The African Golf Collage also lasts nine days and has a golfing and non-golfing itinerary, operating from Pretoria to Cape Town and in reverse. Future dates for 2015 are 5-13 November (Pretoria-Cape Town) and 16-24 November (Cape Town-Pretoria).
BOOK YOUR ROVOS RAIL HOLIDAY AND EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SPECIAL
Rovos Rail golf journeys can be booked through Great Golf Holidays www.greatgolfholidays.net where you can book direct with Rovos Rail or through an affiliated Tour Operator.