Rovos Rail – a journey to a bygone era

There is a phrase that I love that embodies the reason I travel…

Life is a journey not a destination

..and for me this is never truer than when travelling by rail. There is a connection you make with the environment when you travel by rail that you miss when you are travelling by plane or even when driving. Rail travel affords you the luxury to sit back, relax and quite literally watch the world go by – a rare opportunity to be ‘totally present’ in this fast-paced modern life.

In September I planned a long overdue visit to South Africa with my partner to share with him my passion for this amazing country, and what better way to do this than to travel by rail. I was lucky enough to be able to include a journey on Rovos Rail in my itinerary and in fact the only dates available were the last 2 nights of our trip. At first this felt a little hectic but I realised this was the perfect ending to our trip…a leisurely journey across the breadth of South Africa!

Rovos Rail is lauded as ‘The most luxurious train in the World’ which is quite a statement and there was only one way to find out, so we headed to Cape Town station to find out.

Our journey began in the private Rovos Rail lounge where we were greeted by a team of smartly dressed staff, our bags were deposited and with the offer of a glass of bubbles declined (it was a little too early even for me!) we settled into a large comfortable sofa and ordered some coffee. The added touch of the live string duet added to the feeling that we really were embarking on a luxurious journey.

Another lovely touch was the presence of the owner and founder of Rovos Rail, Mr Rohan Vos, who personally welcomed the group and gave a safety briefing. Cabin by cabin we were all called up to walk over to the main station with our host where we would see the train for the first time.

After a short walk across the car park and the main concourse we headed to our platform where we saw the train for the first time. Unlike some other train journeys in the world, and even in South Africa, all the carriages on Rovos Rail are original vintage stock that have been lovingly restored. Even if you are not a train geek you can not fail to be impressed by the shining deep green carriages that stretch the length of the platform.

Once on board our host showed us to our Deluxe Suite, the middle class of three suites on offer on the train. With a double bed, a seating area with two chairs and an en suite shower room and toilet we had everything we needed for the two-night journey ahead. They really had thought of everything, including a lovely branded washbag (each!) with a variety of Africology products and even some safety goggles should you wish to stick your head out the window!!

Once settled in it was time to sit back and relax as we pulled out of Cape Town.

The train is a fully inclusive product with everything included bar a few exceptions such as French Champagne, Cigars, Gift shop purchases and off train phone calls. Each suite is supplied with a selection of reading material including a souvenir Rovos magazine detailing the history of the train, postcards to send off to loved ones, excursion information and a full timed schedule; every detail had been thought of so It was time to start to switch off and let the ‘train’ take care of us.

Next on the schedule was lunch served in the dining cars located at the centre of the train. Each carriage is slightly different in style with one having lots of carved wooden pillars, but the layout is the same with tables for 2 on one side and tables for 4 on the other. It is free seating so you can sit anywhere (The only reserved tables were for groups), however many couples opted to share a table to socialise with other passengers. Fear not, if like my partner the idea of socialising with strangers fills you with dread then you can sit at a table for 2. The menu at both lunch and dinner is a 4 course set menu with paired wines suggested but you can select a different wine from the extensive wine list, including a rather lovely Cap Classique from La Lude in Franschhoek (a vineyard we had visited only a few days earlier!).

The food was superb showcasing some excellent South African cuisine including some game meat such as Ostrich and Kudu. You certainly won’t go hungry on Rovos with our next feed already scheduled in with Afternoon Tea in the observation car and then the formal dinner in the evening – once again in the dining car.

Even as a lover of train travel, I had this slight fear of cabin fever from being ‘trapped’ on a train for 3 days and 2 nights, but I needn’t have worried. The itinerary is carefully curated so that each day is broken up into bite size pieces, not only by the meals but by the daily excursions leaving little windows of opportunity to take in the ever changing scenery or simply finish that book you haven’t had time to get to.

The excursions were a great opportunity to stretch your legs and take in a little bit of culture and history in places you probably would never have visited under your own steam. Matjiesfontein is like stepping back in time, a Victorian village that lays dormant until the train pulls in and you are met by a local town crier who acts as your guide – first on a vintage London bus (5 mins) and then on foot.

Once back on board with a gin & tonic in hand we watched the sun set over the Klein Karoo through the open windows of our suite and contemplated life and how lucky we are. Dinner is a more formal affair and guests are encouraged to dress for the occasion with men having to wear a jacket and tie. Laundry on board is included so we were able to have our shirts pressed before dinner…a saving grace as they had been at the bottom of my suitcase for the last week!

Following a superb dinner many guests retired to the observation or lounge car for a nightcap, but for me it was time for bed. The steward discreetly prepares your suite for night-time whilst you are being wined and dined and so we returned to find the bed turned down and the shutters pulled up ready for our first night’s sleep on-board Rovos.

There are several aspects of overnight train travel that raise flags with many of us – will I sleep well is one of them…that along with …what are the toilets like? Having prepared myself with earplugs and an eye mask I did have a reasonable nights sleep despite occasionally waking due to the train braking or taking a turn in the tracks. You don’t need to worry if you forgot your ear plugs because the train staff will gladly provide some for you. What better way to start the day than with a lovely hot shower…and on Rovos it’s no exception, the ensuite was perfect – even for me at 6ft 4″! Just be sure to use the shower mat and hold the handrail for those unexpected jolts as the train rocks and rolls on its merry way.

A new day on the train starts with a sumptuous breakfast offering both fruit and continental as well as a hot a la carte selection…and time to think about how you wish to spend your Rovos moments today.

Rovos Rail gives the perfect opportunity for each guest to luxuriate in the moment in a variety of ways, but for me the best was to recline on the bed In my suite with all the windows open watching the ever changing tapestry of the South African landscape. Before you know it there is the now familiar sound of the gong as the staff alert you to the next opportunity to eat. This time it’s lunch!

Now old hands at all things Rovos we head along to the dining car to get our table for 2 and have the realisation that we only have 24 hrs left on the train, but don’t worry because as a 2 night trip that still means you get to do everything again!

All good things come to an end and this particular journey ended at Capital Park station, the private Rovos Rail station in Pretoria. The station is like a museum piece and offers one last opportunity to learn more about this incredible private railway company including a selection of vintage engines…before departing on the next adventure.

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by Jonathan Green

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