Anthony Lambert, The Daily Telegraph, May 7, 2013
This opulently appointed hotel train operates seven different itineraries in southern Africa. The principal route is between Pretoria and Cape Town, over which there are at least three departures every month in each direction.
The idea of having a private family carriage or two was the starting point for Rohan Voss’s venture, which has remained a family business since the service began in 1989. The train of lavishly enhanced historic coaches was then hauled by Rovos Rail’s own steam locomotives, but the difficulty of operating them over long distances has prompted an acceptance of diesel and electric traction. Rovos Rail has good reason to claim that its largely wood-panelled train is “the most luxurious in the world”; the Royal Suites are certainly the most generously sized on any tourist train.
Most departures are from Rovos Rail’s 60-acre private station at Capital Park in Pretoria. The air-conditioned train carries a maximum of 72 passengers.
A sense of occasion is created by a champagne reception held before departure in the elegant lounge of the large, colonial-style station at Capital Park. Here the carriages and semi-retired steam locomotives are maintained, and for railway aficionados there is a small museum and semaphore signals to recall the heyday of South African Railways.
A mid-afternoon departure gives everyone time to get to know one another over high tea, served in the lounge and observation cars as the train rolls through the goldfields of the Witwatersrand. High tea might seem to imply a waiving of dinner, but a gong summons guests for a 7.30pm five-course meal with a different South African wine for each course – this is a journey on which you suspend weight-watching. The menu favours traditional dishes such as game, and fresh local ingredients are used wherever possible.
The border between the maize lands of western Transvaal and the Orange Free State is crossed during the night, the train running parallel to the Orange River as it heads for the diamond fields of Kimberley and an arrival after breakfast (see Highlights).
High tea is on the table around the time you reach the important railway junction and livestock centre of De Aar, and dinner is likely to distract attention from the village of Merriman, named after a son of Street, in Somerset, who became the last Prime Minister of Cape Colony before the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. During the night the train bowls through Beaufort West, the “Capital of the Karoo” and famous as the home of the young Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first successful heart transplant.
The stop next morning at Matjiesfontein is an extraordinary experience. The lonely settlement was founded by a Scottish railwayman, James Douglas Logan, who began his South African career carrying bags at Cape Town station before creating this oasis in the Karoo. He planted trees and built the Lord Milner Hotel, which is superbly preserved with original and antique furniture.
A London double-decker bus ferries visitors around the tidy streets to the various attractions, which include a collection of well-restored railway carriages, an 1893 Glasgow-built steam locomotive and a railway museum with signalling lever frame. Another museum contains all manner of bygones that Olive Schreiner, author of The Story of an African Farm, might have known when she was living in Matjiesfontein from 1890 to 1892. Given the quiet of Matjiesfontein, it’s hard to imagine that during the Boer War 10,000 soldiers were based here, with 20,000 horses on the surrounding land.
The train heads west, the peculiarity of Matjiesfontein becoming all the more pronounced as the desolation and size of the Karoo continues to unfold. Among the sage bushes and eucalyptus trees, any evidence of human habitation – rusting farming tools or a wind-vaned pump – is without a sign of life. As the barren Great Karoo morphs into the Little Karoo, the serrated grey mountains that divide it from the vineyards and orange groves of the coastal plain come into view. The Karoo finally comes to an end as the train weaves through the Hex River tunnels, from which the train emerges into the fertile Hex River Valley.
This lush country grows most of the table grapes as well as the varieties for South Africa’s wines. White Dutch-gabled houses stand among the vines at the end of long avenues in the country around Paarl, the largest town of the wine region, where Huguenot settlers established the first vineyards in the late 17th century. The Cape Flat dunes contoured by Atlantic winds give way to the green suburbs of Cape Town and the immensity of Table Mountain and its neighbouring peaks, sometimes skimmed by a thin layer of cloud known as the “tablecloth”. Journey’s end is Cape Town’s unremarkable modern station, slightly redeemed by South Africa’s first steam locomotive, built at Leith in Scotland in 1858 and now standing on a plinth in the concourse.
On the Pretoria-to-Cape Town route, it is the Big Hole at Kimberley and its Diamond Mine Museum that leave an indelible impression. The viewing platform, which juts out over the world’s biggest excavation, can induce vertigo as you gaze down 580ft to the turquoise water filling a hole that’s a mile in diameter. De Beers gave a huge sum to turn the Big Hole into a world-class tourist destination, and a film gives a factual account of the development of the mine from 1871 and the working conditions of the miners (also the theme of Wilbur Smith’s novel Men of Men).
On the “Namib Safari” itinerary, the highlights are the Fish River Canyon, comparable with the Grand Canyon, the Namib Desert, Etosha National Park and its celebrated wildlife – especially the endangered black rhinoceros – and the coastal town of Swakopmund.
On the Dar es Salaam journey, the game reserves, the Victoria Falls and the spectacular rail descent into the Rift Valley are among the high points between coasts.
The programme is based on itineraries lasting between three and nine days, but these can be combined to give longer journeys, such as a six-day tour from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. For 2014, a 28-day Cape Town-to-Cairo (and return) journey is planned.
The three-day itineraries cost from £1,030 in Pullman, the nine-day ones from £3,430. The 14-day international itinerary costs from £7,530. The cost of next year’s 28-day Cape-to-Cairo odyssey is £34,450.
There are three classes of sleeping-car accommodation. Royal Suites occupy half a carriage, with full bathroom and separate shower, either a permanent double bed or side-by-side twin beds, plus two armchairs. Deluxe Suites have a double bed or L-shaped twins, two chairs and an en suite shower room. Pullman Suites have a sofa-seat by day that converts to a double bed or upper and lower single berths, and an en suite shower room. All cabins have a writing desk, safe and bar fridge, and dressing gowns are provided.
Besides the sleeping cars, there are two 42-seat dining cars, a kitchen car, a smoking lounge and a non-smoking observation car at the end. For dinner in the elegant pre-1940 dining cars, a jacket and tie is a minimum requirement for men, and cocktail/evening dresses for women.
Warm clothes for cool evenings and mornings. Sunscreen and hat.
What to read
Train travel between Cape Town and Cairo is the subject of Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, published in 2002. One of the best-known and most enduring novels about pre-apartheid social structures is Alan Paton’s moving Cry, the Beloved Country, published in 1948, which sold more than 15 million copies before Paton’s death in 1988. His travel writing was collected in The Lost City of the Kalahari.
Nadine Gordimer was the first South African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature; her best-known novels include July’s People, A Guest of Honour and The Conservationist, which won the Booker Prize in 1974. J M Coetzee’s fictionalised account of his childhood in Cape Town was published as Boyhood.
What to watch beforehand
Zulu (1964), which launched the career of Michael Caine, remains an outstanding movie; it tells the story of the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift during the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country was made into a film by Zoltan Korda in 1951, starring a 24-year-old Sidney Poitier. The increasing doubts about apartheid of an Afrikaner schoolteacher are the theme of A Dry White Season (1989) starring Donald Sutherland, Susan Saradon and Janet Suzman. Red Dust (2004) tells various stories of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is also the theme of Country of my Skull (2004) starring Juliette Binoche as an Afrikaner journalist.
What to listen to en route
The music of the South African composer and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim brings together an appealing synthesis of traditional African songs, gospel, ragas and jazz. Among his soundtracks is the 1988 film Chocolat, set in Cameroon. The a cappella male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo achieved worldwide notice when they accompanied Paul Simon on Graceland. Miriam Makeba, nicknamed “Mama Africa”, also recorded with Paul Simon after she brought African music to world attention.