As a leisure traveler the complaint I have with modern trains is that they speed by the landscape too fast and you can’t open the windows; on a Denver to Provo Amtrak trip I felt like I was in a hermetically sealed toothpaste tube of aluminum, glass, and air-conditioning.
Then I had the chance to board the vintage Rovos Rail from Cape Town to the capital (Pretoria) Pride of Africa run in South Africa. The 1950s era carriages travel the Old Karoo Pioneering Trail out of the Cape on a weekly 1,600 kilometer journey that travels no faster than 65kms per hour, and the windows can be thrown open to enjoy the grasslands and highveld scenery.
It was a welcoming red carpet VIP check-in at the downtown Rovos Rail lounge/waiting room in Cape Town. My luggage was whisked away as I was served chilled South African sparkling wines in the plush leather seating area.
Classical music before the classic journey.
Classical and pop tunes were played by a violinist and guitarist as other guests arrived and milled about to look at the vintage Rovos Rail photos and posters on the walls.
As snacks were served the owner of the rail line, Rohan Vos (Roan Boss) introduced us to our adventure with humor.
“The train is never on time but we get you to Pretoria sooner or later sometime this week,” joked the raw-boned and lanky Vos, who the staff called “The Boss” because of his pun-like surname. “We have half capacity today, with 36 passengers, so all have to drink twice as much booze,” continued Vos. “We don’t want to take any liquor or food back with us.”
I shook the rail baron’s hand and was shepherded across the street to Platform 23 at the Cape Town Station where 14 rail cars and an electric engine awaited us for the 48 hour journey; Rovos Rail has a total inventory of 95 carriages and five steam and nine electric engines and a few newer diesel engines.
All aboard at the Cape Town Station.
The privately owned Rovos Rail was established in 1989 and quickly became one of the world’s posh train adventures, with refurbished period paneled and mahogany trimmed coaches and five star cuisine; the Observation Car (caboose or Club Car) is from the 1930s. Everything on the train was green, even the patterned carpet and the silk Rovos tie I purchased from the onboard curio shop. Ties are necessary for men (but no jackets) for the evening meals in the forward dining coach.
If I wanted room service (which is an amazing 24 hours) I just hung a tag on a hook above my Deluxe Cheetah Suite (Car 420) door and left a checked form in the room and miraculously everything was taken care of; laundry and clothes pressing is free, but they need 24 hours. There is an intra-train intercom phone in the suite used by the blond haired Mart, the train manager, for announcements, but a chime works its way from car to car to announce that meal service is open.
The Cape to Capital route.
We are off with a lurch and we passed through the outskirts of Cape Town for the beautiful ride through The Great Karoo vastness of the Northern Cape, the largest South Africa province. Cecil John Rhodes was the richest man in the world during the Victorian Age and he lived in Cape Town and we followed the same rail bed built to his famous Kimberley diamond mine; his ultimate ambition was to construct a Cape to Cairo rail line, but it never materialized.
There were a few stops and restarts out of Cape Town to allow freight trains to fly by. We bridged the Tweedside and Tows River and then a black out through four tunnels in the first hours, one of which was 14 kilometers long, as we headed through the Hex River Pass and Valley to the town of Worcester.
Our first stop was around 6 p.m. at the historic Victorian era town of Matjiesfontain, which was founded in 1890 by a Mr. Logan as a refreshment stop, which seems to still be its only purpose. On the rail platform a small museum and nearby vintage rail cars attest to the outback town’s not-so-distant past. Most guests from the train never made it past the old Laird’s Bar next to the equally old Lord Milner Hotel. The only other lounge lizards were two photographers heading to Botswana to shoot photos of meerkats. I am certain Cecil J. Rhodes quaffed the suds in this unique watering hole siding. With a long blast of the horn, Rovos called us back to continue the journey.
The evening meal of Karoo Lamb saw a gathering of an eclectic mix of international passengers from the USA, Canada, Japan, Germany, the UK, and South Africa. Many of the young wait staff quit their dull urban jobs so that they too could enjoy the adventure of Rovos Rail.
The Dining Carriage.
Each evening a new wine vintage was introduced to us, or how about a shot of the famous South Africa KMV Brandy? The Rovos Rail rate includes three outstanding meals daily and all alcohol and other beverages, 24 hour room service and bar facilities, plus sightseeing excursions with certified tour guides, entrance fees to places like the Kimberley mine, which would be on our next stop the next day.
Across the Great Karoo in the Northern Cape.
I must describe the wide-open landscape of the Great Karoo. One third of all land in South Africa is located in the Northern Cape province, but it only has two percent of the total population. Rovos Rail is really the only way into the rural and remote vastness that sweeps past us with its treeless and pristine beauty. An occasional corn or sunflower field announced that there are farms and grazing in the area, but the spreads are so huge rarely is seen the homesteads. Kimberley is the capital of the Northern Cape with a population of 250,000; many young people are leaving the province for better opportunities in the bigger cities.
The Observation Lounge.
The best spot on the train for watching the Great Karoo buttes and mesas and khaki colored grasslands and prairies and plains and crop fields roll by was the Observation Car, where snacks like biltong (dried beef jerky) and pretzels and nuts and hot canapés and sandwiches and cocktails were steadily served by the bartender. (Hey Rohan, we are all drinking as fast as we can!)
The Smoking Lounge.
The wide windows made the moving panorama fill the carriage with splendid light. Smokers lit up cigars on the open deck at the back of the car or in the special smoking compartment just forward.
Huge hard bound books about African wildlife were spread around the Observation Car, including Rovos Rail’s own Journey’s Magazine (they also have a print newsletter that is most informative).
The rebuilt spacious Edwardian period sleeper coaches had modern amenities with en-suite bathroom with shower and sink with original fittings, hair dryer and shaver plugs; the bar/fridge is constantly stocked with water, beverages and snacks at no additional charge. The 172 square feet Royal Suite has a private lounge, with shower and Victorian bath. My 118 square feet Deluxe Suite had twin beds with black tile bathroom. The 76 square feet Pullman Suites had a shower and one up and one down bunk bed or one double bed. There are 44 beds on board with four suites per sleeper car; each suite has a writing desk, heat and air-conditioning, and personal safe. You can only use your computer or cell phone within the suites. I unlocked and slid down the four green shutters and then dropped down the etched impala windows for the Great Karoo’s great fresh air (Rovos provides goggles so you can stick your head out the window) as we clickity-clacked along under 60kms an hour. I was in a different era.
A typical Deluxe Suite.
The Big Hole
Kimberley, Capital of the Northern Cape.
The biggest man made excavation during the Victorian age was the Big Hole of Kimberley that followed a volcanic diamond pipe deep into the earth. We boarded a comfortable tour bus to get to the Big Hole and the Diamond and Mine Museum. A bridge works spanned a lip of the Big Hole and we peered down into the murky waters where diamonds are still believed to be found. The hole has not been worked since before WWI.
The Big Hole still holds diamonds.
This is the spot where Cecil J. Rhodes made a substantial portion of his wealth, but he also owned gold mines around Johannesburg. He was so rich that the British Crown was afraid of his financial power, but he did set up the perpetual Rhodes scholarship fund at Oxford.
Kimberley is named after a famous miner in the area, but the DeBeers diamond syndicate is named for the DeBeers family who originally owned the magma dome of diamonds, who sold their holdings for a measly 5,000 Guineas in the 1870s. The first diamond stone was actually found by a young herd boy along the river bank in what is today’s Kimberley. Only two people can own diamonds in South Africa, even today, they are either a certified diamond miner or a certified diamond broker. Others are arrested if possessing an uncut diamond.
It took over 30 years to fill the 3 ore cars with diamonds.
Three ore cars near the big pit testify to the amount of diamonds taken from the pipe; discoveries over the years filled the cars. We were taken underground to the museum, which housed replicas of the world’s most famous diamonds, such as the Hope and the Taylor-Burton diamonds. A special security area was unlocked so we could view the real diamonds on display, courtesy of DeBeers; photos were not allowed of the prescious stones. Muralramas showed the history of the mine and the miners and tycoons, along with original tools and digging implements.
Topside, a Victorian village was reconstructed, with many of the original buildings of the era; a short walking tour takes me back to the past. I envisioned Cecil J. Rhodes handing out his cigars, one stogie for each diamond, tobacco seemed more precious than the raw stones back then.
Kimberley in days gone by.
As Rovos Rail rolled out of the famous diamond fields we were delighted with a view of thousands of flamingos in a shallow lake just outside Kimberley, one of the few nesting areas in all of Africa for the fashionable birds. After gathering in the Midway Lounge guests enjoyed the last evening meal of Rock Lobster under candlelight and circa 1924 ceiling paddle fans. That evening we passed through Bloemhof and Leeudoringstad en route to Klerksdorp – true Afrikaner named towns (dorp means small village in Afrikan). Even though Rovos is a private train, the engineers are employed by the government, for insurance purposes; there are two engineers on each train, working eight hour shifts.
South Africa Rock Lobster.
I was surprised that I slept soundly on the rocking and creaking train, but there was a zen quality to the constant motion. The next morning we continued towards Pretoria through Krugersdorp, and the edge of Johannesburg. The daily weather card in my Suite stated perfect weather ahead.
The Midway Lounge.
Within the environs of Johannesburg the cable thieves had stolen about 750 meters of the high voltage copper electrical line that propelled our train; a steam engine was called in from Pretoria and hooked to the back of the train to pull us in reverse around Joburg and into the Rovos Capital Park Station in Pretoria. The Boss was right, we were not on time — about two hours late — but we did finally arrive in the Capital.
We must not have drunk all the booze onboard because we were served more sparkling wine as we disembarked, and Rohan Vos was there to greet us. I told him I did my part to assure no booze was brought back.
VIP service even at the end of the line.
If you have time visit the Rovos Rail train yards at their headquarters at the 60 acre Capital Park Station, which encompasses a museum, offices that once were the hub of the old steam locomotives of the Transvaal era, and the colonial-style rail station. You can watch the maintenance and renovation of carriages in the vast locomotive sheds and inspection pits.
Rovos Rail also offers accommodations at its St. James Manor, The Seaforth, and the St. James Homestead near Cape Town in the historic fishing village of Kelk Bay, which is full of restaurants, period homes, and views across False Bay and the Indian Ocean.
In 2012 Rovos Rail is running a month long rail, plane, and cruise journey from the Cape to Cairo, with stops at historical game reserves along the way. The tour goes through Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, with the train ending in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. There will be a stop at Victoria Falls, then flight tours to Zanzibar and then the vintage planes follow the Nile to Egypt with stops in the Serengeti, Uganda, Khartoum, Abu Simbel, Aswan, and Luxor. This magnificent adventure travels a distance of 10,700kms or 6,600 miles.
Rovos Rail at Victoria Falls.
Other Rovos Rail journeys include new routes to Durban; a 9-day Golf Safari which also accommodates non golfers; a 7-day Namibia journey; a 9-day African Collage which includes a trip through Kruger National Park; and a 14-day trip to Dar es Salaam, that includes a scheduled stop at Victoria Falls via Botswana. Also enquire about private charters for your family, friends, and colleagues on the newly built Rovos Rail Events Train for up to 250 guests, suitable for daytime trips.
Get VIP trip and train planning with African Travel Inc. at www.africantravelinc.com which set up my superb experience with Rovos Rail. With African Travel Inc.’s 35 years of experience in Africa you are assured the best in all aspects of your safari and rail adventures, or contact a travel agent that works closely with the tour operator.
Feature by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine; photos by the author and courtesy of Rovos Rail.