We pulled up to the train well after dark on a Tuesday, dusty, tired and sunburned, but happy. The reason we were late: A two-ton elephant – who was out for an evening stroll on the main road out of the game reserve – had blocked our exit for a good 20 minutes. This was but one of the highlights of the afternoon’s Nambiti excursion, a three-hour game drive in which we also saw giraffes loping through the grass within meters of our Jeep, lions lounging on a distant hillside, and a family of hippos frolicking in a mud pool.
As we approached the train, we could barely make out the immaculately dressed staff waiting outside with champagne and hot towels in the faint glow of the lights. Their polished uniforms and broad smiles stood in stark contrast to our dirty clothes and worn-out faces, but the drinks and friendly banter soon restored our good cheer. We all had a good laugh while re-telling the story of the elephant encounter, then headed inside to clean up for dinner.
This sort of thrilling off-train activity followed by a warm onboard reception is typical of Rovos Rail, one of the most luxe train experiences in the world. Game drives, wine tasting, cultural excursions, golf, and city tours are combined with exquisite food, matchless service and old-world ambiance that’s meant to evoke a bygone era.
The day had been long and we were tired — in addition to the afternoon game drive we had taken a morning tour of some of KwaZulu-Natal’s famous Zulu battlefields and the fantastic Spion Kop Lodge — but we rallied, because dinner was yet to come. Dinners on Rovos are grand affairs with fine china, pristine linens, award-winning food and wine, and guests dressed to the nines.
As my companion and I retired to our room to get dressed, we did a carefully choreographed dance to ensure that we didn’t step on each other — or stub our toes — while navigating the tiny but gorgeously decorated cabin. I put on my navy lace dress and silver heels in one corner while she put on her slacks and blazer in another. We passed each other carefully in search of jewelry, hairspray and other assorted amenities stashed in various closets and cubbyholes.
It helps to travel on Rovos with someone you’re very close to, as the cabins – which sport exotic African place names such as Zanzibar and Delagoa – are cramped but well laid-out, managing to encompass a double bed (or two twin beds, in our case), a table, a closet, and a surprisingly large bathroom with shiny brass fittings. Clever storage nooks are tucked into walls and under beds, and all sorts of supplies are provided: hair dryers, toiletries, stationery, slippers — even goggles to protect your eyes if you want to have a bug-free experience when you lean out the window to see the view. We even discovered a fold-down bunk bed, which would have come in handy if we had had a child, but that would have been pushing the limits of closeness!
Soon we heard the gracious chimes that reminded us that dinner was imminent, and we made our way to the dining car. The mahogany-lined corridors smelled faintly of wood polish and whisky, and the swaying of the moving train — combined with the earlier champagne — made us a little unsteady on our feet.
Passing through the lounge, the staff stood at attention to greet us by name. When we emerged into the swank dining room we nodded hellos to the dozen or so other couples and groups sharing the train, then selected a table by a friendly pair we had met earlier. It goes without saying that we would have had a window seat no matter which table we chose.
The crowd was a mix of well-heeled Chinese, British, Argentinean, French and South African tourists, all very worldly, and with endless tales to tell. Dinner passed by in a blur of laughter, wine, and story-swapping in between bites of filet mignon, bobotie and malva pudding. Stuffed to the gills, we then moved the party to the bar car at the end of the train, and took periodic breaks in the open-air observation car to watch the stars and get a breath of fresh air.
After retiring for the night we got jostled around a bit as the train continued its northward journey, but by midnight we came to a full stop. Mercifully, this allowed for a much deeper night’s sleep, which we were sorely in need of after a full and exhausting day of activities.
The previous day had not been as taxing — the morning was spent on board, ascending the “land of 1000 hills” outside Durban. This three-hour uphill journey afforded views of green mountains, stunning vistas, ramshackle townships, and craggy rock formations. Sitting in the bar car sipping mimosas while peering out the windows, we waved at groups of uniform-clad children who used the tracks as a shortcut to and from school.
At the summit the terrain leveled out, and we disembarked at noon at Winterton for an afternoon tour of Ardmore ceramics studio. This intriguing place is no ordinary gallery selling run-of-the-mill pieces — it employs a stable of 60 or so local artisans of various ethnicities who create quirky, whimsical pieces that defy convention and depict distinctly South African themes and images. Ardmore’s artists have won numerous awards and have exhibited widely in South Africa and around the world. We had the pleasure of being able to wander through the various rooms and watch the artists at work throwing, glazing, sculpting and painting each unique piece.
Back onboard we were left to our own devices for a couple of hours before dinner. Literally, we jumped on our electronic devices, taking of advantage of the fact that we were in an area with decent 3G service. Rovos doesn’t allow electronic devices in public areas (in order to maintain its old-world atmosphere), so you’re limited to web-surfing in your room when the local signal permits (there’s no wi-fi, TV or radio either). Though cutting the electronic cord seemed hard for some of the other guests — I spied a few phones in the bar car — I found it quite refreshing to not be tethered to the constant demands of e-mail and Twitter. Staff will allow you to use your phone to take photos outside of your room, however, as long as you don’t segue into phone calls and Instagram posting while you’re at it.
On the third and final day of our journey, we did spend quite a few hours online, biding our time as the Pride of Africa chugged its way from the Drakenstein, across the highveld, past the mining town of Balfour and towards our final destination, Pretoria. The terrain morphed from hills to flat fields of maize, and finally, endless suburban tracts where kids rode bikes in cul-de-sacs and nondescript industrial parks blended together in a dull haze.
A slight feeling of claustrophobia began to set in, as the narrow corridors and tiny rooms started to close in, and the wide open spaces just beyond the windows beckoned. This was the only downside of Rovos for me, though it didn’t seem to bother most of the others — in fact one couple happily announced that this was their seventh Rovos journey. If they had survived the 4800-km, 15-day Cape Town-to-Dar es Salaam trip, surely I could withstand a few more hours on a three-day, 700-km journey, I reasoned.
Unfortunately the train was held up just outside Capital Park Station, the private Pretoria station that Rovos calls home. When we finally entered the station around 4pm, we were treated to a display of one of the antique steam engines, which added a bit of levity to an otherwise long and sluggish day. Rovos doesn’t use steam locomotives on its regular journeys (water and coal facilities are rapidly disappearing in South Africa), instead opting for efficient yet unspectacular diesel or electric units. However the passenger cars are all restored colonial-era masterpieces.
At last we disembarked for the final time, and said our last goodbyes to the wonderful staff and fellow passengers as we exited through the elegant station. Porters dressed in crisp green duds brought our luggage to the curb as we exchanged e-mail addresses with our new-found friends and vowed to send photos to each other.
Back out in the modern world I reveled in the space and sunshine, and stretched my arms to the sky for the first time in hours. Though I wouldn’t miss the tight physical confines of the train, I would miss the amazing hospitality, the matchless excursions, and the lingering air of romance and mystery that had enveloped me for the better part of three days.
Rovos offers luxury train journeys all over South Africa, as well as trips to Victoria Falls, Namibia, Dar es Salaam and private charters. For pricing and dates, visit www.Rovos.com.