A giant locomotive, weighing in at 32 tons, sucking in fire and belching steam, pulls into the departure platform of Capital Park – the private Rovos Rail station in Pretoria – hauling behind it 20 gleaming coaches. The engine was built in Glasgow in 1949, my birth year, which is the reason for this once-in-a-lifetime birthday splurge. Soon the whistle blows and it’s all aboard. My husband Jock and I are about to have our four-day dream journey to Victoria Falls come true.
A far cry from the days of six in a cabin on school tours
The wood panelling of our suite, named after the distinguished Sir Herbert Baker, glows under Edwardian-style lights. The carpet is plush, and there are comfortable chairs, a table and ample wardrobe space. At night the large day sofa doubles as a generous bed piled with pillows to dream on. On the bed is a chocolate treat, and a welcoming note that includes the expected weather forecast for the following day.
The dream accommodation continues to the en suite bathroom, with its black and white floor tiles, shower, polished basin and mahogany loo seat. A far cry from the days of six in a cabin on school tours, armed with padkos.
Slowly, an electric engine draws the train out of the station, while the steam engine retires. “Sadly, the use of steam locomotives is a thing of the past,” says Rohan Vos, owner of Rovos Rail. “Water and coal facilities have been scrapped along the lines.”
He explains to the assembled passengers how he acquires coaches. “I send my teams out to find them no matter what state they are in. Derelict, vandalised, destroyed by fire. We strip them, remove the floors and the rust, then wood panelling made from West African mahogany is installed, the paint workshop gets to work, and in just ten days the coach is reborn to join our Rovos stable.”
Rovos Rail has been a 30-year journey for this man, and one needing much courage and passion to make happen. But indeed it has, with Rovos Rail not only known as the Pride of Africa but recognised internationally as one of the most luxurious trains in the world.
Suddenly the train jerks, stops, goes, stops. We’re anxious to get going but remember Rohan’s words at the station, “We will leave at about 10-ish and will reach Musina anytime from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5am or somewhere around there. The schedules are sent to try us. In Zimbabwe, we make better progress. They don’t always have signals there as they often don’t have electricity.” But what’s the hurry? Relax and go with the flow is all we need to get used to. So we slip into the rhythm of the train, loosen up with drinks in the lounge, socialise with fellow passengers and make new friends.
Dining is a first-class affair
Half an hour before lunch I visit the kitchen, curious to meet the team who produces the four-course meals Rovos is renowned for. The kitchen is hot, cramped and narrow but five people are happily at work. Darius Masilo the head chef is beaming, Sarah Mabunda is deep in suds washing up. “We love our jobs here,” says second-in-command Joyce Baloyi. “The space is tight, but we are like family and work so well together.” I leave in haste lest I upset the baking bread rolls.
Today we begin our meal in the tranquil dining room with a leek and ricotta tartlet with Black Forest ham served with honey mustard vinaigrette and paired with a splendid South African Chardonnay. Each course that follows is likewise matched with a superb local wine.
Aboard Rovos, it’s the very best of life in the slow lane. After lunch relax, tea at 4.30 pm, drinks anytime you wish, and dinner when you hear the dinner gong at precisely 7.30 pm. Then, dining is an elegant affair, and guests are asked to dress accordingly. It seems the women are more than happy to get all dressed up, but not so some of the men, who I hear grumbling a bit about jackets and ties. But in the end, they all clean up splendidly.
The dining car is meticulously restored using traditional furnishings and period decor to recreate the ornamental style of the 1920s Art Deco period. Fluted teak pillars flank each table set with startlingly white tablecloths. Silverware is placed with precision, cut glasses sparkle, and we wine and dine like royalty. Best of all is that everyone adheres to Rohan’s request back at the station, “Please keep cellphones out of public places. Let us rather engage in scintillating conversation and drinking our seriously good South African wines.”
Day one of the Pretoria to Vic Falls journey takes us northwards past Bela-Bela (Warmbaths,) Modimolle (Nylstroom) that was once thought by early settlers to be the source of the Nile, and Naboomspruit, where children call out and wave as we pass tired, red-bricked railway houses resting in the shade of huge jacarandas. Polokwane (Pietersburg) is unnoticed as we are all engaging in scintillating conversation and deep into the seriously good wines. Unaware, we cross the Tropic of Capricorn in the dark, rocked to sleep by the clicks and clacks and various other train noises of the night.
On day two we arrive at the Beitbridge border post. A knock on the cabin door reveals immigration staff asking to see that “the face of every guest corresponds with the passport.” Fortunately, they do, and we rumble across the railway bridge over the Zambezi River that, yes, is indeed green. Outside, countless Zimbabweans, laden with goods bought in Musina, are returning to Zimbabwe on foot, and it’s complicated explaining their bleak situation to the international visitors on board.
From here Rovos Rail’s mighty diesel locomotives will draw our carriages for the remaining 560 kilometres of our journey. We try stretch our legs at the station but it turns out to be scorching hot, so instead we cool off in the comfort of our suite.
By midday, Bulawayo’s industrial area is behind us, and it’s hot and humid. We gather in the lounge and observation car, and watch the thickets of trees flash by, some so close we wince as branches scrape the perfect paintwork. Our travelling companions are particularly excited to see gigantic baobab trees (Adansonia digitata). They insist that the marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) is an Amarula tree. A perfect excuse for Amarula on ice.
It’s positively steamy on day three. Smouldering grey clouds congregate pile upon pile. We stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere, as a herdsman and his dogs chivvy cows over the tracks. People begin to gather, and friendly banter and curious stares are exchanged. A man understands my limited isiXhosa, and we begin to sing Shosholoza, a song about going forward on a train, well known to the Zimbabwean migrant mine workers.
The kids howl with laughter. A waiting woman is having the hem of her dress altered by two tailors who squat at her feet. We wave as our train departs northwards and theirs arrives to take them south. Here is a bush station. No buildings, no platform, no signals. “This is Africa,” we tell our perplexed new friends.
As good as it gets
Now we advance into Zimbabwe on one of the world’s longest stretches of straight railway line, measuring 114 kilometres. The rails simply disappear into the hazy horizon. Thickets give way to plains scattered with game. Loping giraffes create a frenzy among the group from Finland. The Americans look for lions while the locals on board enjoy frosty lagers.
At Kennedy Siding the train stops and we disembark. A gathering of women displays colourful tablecloths, handbags, musical instruments, a beaded this and that, exactly what the discerning traveller does not require to add to bulging luggage. But add it they do. Land Rovers await with guides from The Hide Safari outfit to take Rovos guests on a game drive in Hwange National Park.
Thanks to good rains, open grasslands are verdant, waterholes are full, grazing zebras and herds of wildebeest are relaxed and photogenic. A small breeding herd of elephants with calves emerges from the long grass, trunks held high, ears spread wide. “Make way!” they trumpet. We do. At that, the massive cloud above us bursts. Knowing the value of African rain, we love every moment.
Sundowners follow under the great camel thorn trees (Vachellia erioloba) as we marvel at a gold-plated African sunset. Chilled cloths for dirty hands are offered as we are welcomed back on board, and we ease off down the track into the dusk. This is as good as it gets.
Finally the falls
The feeling of disappointment on our fourth and final day of the journey is lightened by the hype and excitement of disembarking at Victoria Falls Station. Drums beat while athletic Shona dancers dressed in skins sing, leap and stamp their feet, and luggage is efficiently whisked off the train and deposited in front of the grand old dame of Zimbabwe, the Victoria Falls Hotel.
The staff of Rovos take their leave of us, and for them, it’s all-hands-on-deck for the turn-around journey of the Pride of Africa. More real-life dreaming for lucky travellers.
Pictures Jock McKenzie and Marjo Louw