Rovos Rail – “The most luxurious train in the world”
By Matt Bracken
The distance between Cape Town and Pretoria is 907 miles – 2 hours by plane 30,000 feet in the air, 18 hours by car on the “wrong” side of the road, or, 48 hours by train aboard Rovos Rail, “the most luxurious train in the world”.
I awoke in the Owners Villa at the Cape Cadogan Boutique Hotel on Kloof Street in Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa. A red minivan taxi picks me up and we drive ten minutes to No 1 Adderley Street, the private rail station of Rovos Rail. White gloves open my taxi door, a sensuous violinist and dapper guitar player serenade me, champagne is flowing, and fellow passengers straight from the board game Clue gather in anticipation of the journey. Rohan Vos, the debonair owner of Rovos Rail, greeted us with a welcome talk and simple instructions for the adventure ahead, “enjoy the ambiance and practice some serious drinking”. The mood was set, and after my third glass of bubbly it was time to board the “Pride of Africa”.
Elsa, my charming suite hostess, introduced me to my spacious quarters. Luscious dark cherry wood walls, green patterned carpeting, large double bed, a table and two comfortable chairs, a large bathroom with good sized shower, a tea and coffee station and a mini-bar stocked with water and champagne, a nice size closet, full length mirror, hairdryer, dressing gown, and two huge windows that opened. Rovos travels at maximum 40 miles per hour and is the only luxury train in the world that has windows that open, for me, this had tremendous appeal! It’s hard to imagine a more romantic setting than this cozy suite surrounded by breathtaking scenery and feeling the vibration of the tracks, but I was alone so I ventured to the bar at the back of the train in the Observation Car.
Built in 1933, the Observation Car is a relaxed lounge filled with plush couches and chairs that you sink into, big windows and a small bar with view divine. The far back of the carriage is an open-air balcony, a nice place to inhale the fresh air and watch the tracks as they stretch forever in the distance. Standing in the warm breeze I witness the scenery change from the beaches, bars, buildings and markets of Cape Town, to rolling green pastures dotted with cows, wheat fields stacked with freshly bailed hay, farmsteads and waving children, purple jacaranda trees and miles of grape vines, cherry orchards and the jagged snow-capped Peaks of the Hex River Mountains.
It was time for lunch. Built in 1911, the dining car is teak pillared Victorian elegance. Me being a solo traveler on this moving romance novel on wheels I was paired at the table with fellow solo traveler Klaus, the German glider pilot on his way to the famous thermals of Namibia to reclaim his distance world record. Klaus made for delightful company and the food was fabulous and the service so attentive and kind, the sun streamed through the window above us and we stared at the moveable feast of scenery as the conversation flowed like South African wine. One of Mr. Vos’s aims for the train is “to restore the lost art of conversation”. The train by its nature is slow travel and “forces” one to relax; with no TV, internet facilities, radio or newspapers, it’s not a difficult thing to accomplish.
The first of two stops for the train is the small Karoo town of Matjiesfontein. There is a museum right at the train station filled with Karoo and Matjiesfontein history – Victorian dresses, pianos, cameras, kitchen ware, pictures of the Queen and a shelf of Ball mason jars from Muncie, Indiana. It’s only a two hour stop so leave time for the Lord Milner Hotel across the street for a pint or two at the historic wooden bar. Named after British imperialist Lord Milner, the grand hotel’s wooden floors creak under eclectic toes, and resident historian Jon gives tours of the grounds, impersonates Nelson Mandela, and sings Elvis while playing a vintage stand-up piano very very well.
I say my goodbyes, take a couple photos, and head back to my suite on the train. We move again and timeless happiness continues. I take a shower with excellent water pressure and put on my Rovos robe and slippers and pour a drink and sit gazing out the window pondering life’s what ifs. I dress for dinner, blue blazer and brown tie with brown shirt from a Kloof Street second hand store. Dinner is decadent, romantic, delicious and divine, a feast of local flavors and South African wines flowing freely, courses are consumed with oohs and aahs, couples are celebrating anniversaries under candlelight, and the chef shyly strolls through during crème brulee to indebted applause. After dinner drinks are enjoyed in the lounge, the volume is up with tales of distant lands and pours of light brown are served happily until the last guest says, “well!” and slowly stands.
It’s best to retire to your suite by 11:00pm because the train stops for the night at about 11:30 so passengers can sleep without the rumbling and vibrating of the rails, but falling asleep to the rumbling and vibrating of the rails is simply magical.
I sleep in, from my bed the huge window is at my feet, I gaze at the scenery and revel in the thought that I have nothing to do except relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. I made coffee and wrote with a pencil as a warm breeze guided my thoughts and the train took me where it goes and I was enjoying the ride. I made another pot of coffee and continued to ponder while looking at ostrich, steenbok, sheep and vast open space while inhaling the therapeutic Karoo air.
The second stop on the itinerary is the historic diamond town of Kimberley. Kimberley is the capital of the Northern Cape and after the great Diamond Rush of 1871, the town became the world’s largest producer of diamonds. Cecil Rhodes started De Beers Consolidated Mining Company here, to this day its headquarters is in town and the sight of the annual meeting of investors. The “Big Hole” is the world’s largest hand-dug hole and the Kimberley Mine Museum tells the story of diamonds. Passengers are met at the Kimberley train station (one of Africa’s most beautiful) by a former miner and taken on a private tour of the “Big Hole” and the museum which includes the Diamond Vault, housing some unbelievable gems including the famous 616: named for its carat size, it’s the largest uncut octahedron (eight equilateral triangles) diamond in the world.
Back on the train we roll by a lake full of flamingoes as the sun begins to set. Dinner is another festive event, the outfits are glorious and everyone seems to be toasting a special event in their lives. The after dinner drinks are flowing once again as conversations and card games are enjoyed in the lounge and the night air is crisp on the balcony. Back in my suite I open the window and lay on the bed and think of the next time I will be aboard Rovos, and who it will be with.
The morning comes and the scenery begins to change from the vast expanses of the Karoo to the shopping malls, apartments, highways and people of Johannesburg. We slowly pull into Capital Station in Pretoria, Rovos’ private station. I reluctantly disembark this fantasy portal.
Rovos Rail is a unique, luxurious, and relaxing travel experience. I have pictures and stories from two interesting stops, have seen diverse and spectacular South African terrain, relaxed completely, feasted on standing ovation cuisine, drank wine from vines we just passed, been catered to by ever-present but subtle staff, and met fascinating people. Rovos has many different routes of various lengths; the two-day trip between Cape Town and Pretoria runs both directions and is a memorable compliment to a southern Africa safari itinerary. This journey I hope to do many times, I will also try the other routes, the Garden Route, or the Golf Route, or the Safari Route, or, definitely someday, Cape Town to Cairo!