The Rovos Rail Experience

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Rovos Rail with The Africa Safari Co.

The world is blessed with many luxury rail journeys. Whether it is in Australia crossing the country from coast to coast on board “Indian Pacific” or through the harsh Australian desert on board “The Ghan”, through the Canadian Rockies onboard “The Rocky Mountaineer” or traversing the European cities onboard “The Orient Express”, there are so many great journeys to experience.

In Africa, Rovos Rail is a trademark name around the world, renowned for luxury on rails, travelling in a bygone era surrounded by rich railway history and rollingstock. The owner, Mr Rohan Vos, a beloved railway enthusiast, in 1985 had the original intention to hook four carriages that he purchased onto an existing South African Railways train as a family caravan. However, the costs were proving to be a very extravagant exercise. As time went on, Mr Vos decided to pursue his own challenge to operate his own train with a locomotive and seven carriages with family, friends and travelling media, which his dream came through in 1989, heading for the Eastern Transvaal in South Africa. By 1991, Rovos Rail was operating between Cape Town & Pretoria and in 2020; the Rovos Rail brand has grown to a very extensive network throughout Africa, operating a weekly service between Cape Town & Pretoria, to Victoria Falls, seasonal journeys from Cape Town to Dar El Salaam in Tanzania, and into the harsh desolate conditions of Namibia.

The train in itself is a luxury experience, with all-inclusive dining, meals and accommodation onboard. There are three styles of ensuite suites available, ranging from the Pullman Suite, the Deluxe Suite, or travelling in complete luxury in the Royal Suite with a massive 20m square space, including a bath in the ensuite. All cabins regardless of size have a private ensuite, bed configuration either as two singles or a double bed; a refrigerator to stock beers, wines and any beverages of your choice as well as split-system heating and cooling. There are drop-down windows with lockable blinds so that guests can see out the window of ever changing scenery along the journey.

The train itself is made up of 36 guest sleeping cabins, a central dining car and two lounge cars towards the rear of the train. A feature of Rovos Rail is an observation platform that you can sit outside on the verandah and enjoying the passing landscape whilst enjoying a Gin & Tonic or Amarula on Ice at Sundowners – truly the African flair and style onboard.

Now the dining experience is a very intimate and formal occasion. While breakfast can be at your leisure in the morning prior to the morning off-train tour activity, lunch is after at a set time given by your porter. Dinner is quite different. It is required and as part of the condition of travel to dress in formal-wear for the occasion. What I mean by formal is not in your best Logies or End of School formal wear, however dressed elegantly. Gentlemen must wear a jacket with a collared shirt and tie, while Ladies are expected to be elegantly dressed as well. There is no need to be concerned about appearance of your clothes prior to arrival as the porters onboard can press clothes in their designated service van prior to dinner. The porter does need to have these clothes immediately after boarding so there is plenty of time to have them ready.

The departure point of Rovos Rail in South Africa is at Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa. It is located approximately 53km from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport, in Capital Park. The railway station features the administration, and maintenance and servicing facilities for all of their rollingstock and locomotives. As guests arrive, the first sight that you see is a red carpet with porters waiting, staff behind a check-in desk and a glass of champagne upon arrival.

The large communal lounge inside the station offers guests a light lunch, and other drinks during the check-in procedure who are encouraged to arrive well before the scheduled departure time to enjoy the ambience and atmosphere. There is also a Railway Museum on the same grounds which are open for all departing guests. There is over 100 years of South African Railways history housed in the museum, and is a must-see for any avid railway enthusiast and keen historian.

Prior to departure on our 1,600km journey to Cape Town, the Train Manager introduces the on-board train staff to the travelling guests, explaining the safety features, the afternoon’s schedule and an overview of Rovos Rail and the station we were currently in. Then each guest is called out and introduced to their porter and escorted to the cabin onboard the train. Once inside, you are escorted to your each uniquely named room after Wilderness Game.

Shortly after 3pm we made our departure from the Rovos Rail station to enter the main railway network. We only moved a short distance where we then stopped watching the world go by with passing electric suburban trains and underneath a busy motorway on the bridge we were parked. Signalling issues were causing our entrance onto the network, however no one seemed to mind in the rear two lounge cars as guests introduced themselves and conversations were created of where they were from and where they had been in Africa so far.

We eventually departed and made our way through the suburbs of Johannesburg and past OR Tambo International Airport and into the darkness and were later advised that the train was currently running 3 hours late and we had only travelled 30 kilometres ! The Train Manager was not too concerned as it was only 600 kilometres to Kimberley and 12 hours to do it in. The train has what they called ‘padding’ into the schedule which means in the event of late running, there is recovery time built into the schedule so that train can get back on-time.

The evening dinner experience commenced with the pre-dinner drinks in the lounge car and then sat for the first course at 7.00pm. Our group, were all looking fantastic and extremely elegant in their respective gowns and suits which made the experience even more memorable.

After dinner, the train arrived at Germiston, which is the last suburban station on the Johannesburg railway network, where locomotives were exchanged for South African Railway electric engines. Prior to this, the train had departed from Pretoria with two-electric Rovos Rail liveried engines that an only operates in the Johannesburg suburban network. There are seven engine changes throughout the journey as the train traverses various electric voltages and Provinces and have their own engines.

The evening continued in the lounge car, with further conversation with fellow guests and enjoying a night-cap before retiring for the night.

During the night, the train had travelled south-west through the goldfield regions of Witwatersrand, as well as crossing the Vaal River and passing Kamfers Dam where Flamingos can be seen in search of Algae and is a breeding ground for them.

Arriving at Kimberley station, I gauged such a sense of Railway and Mining history upon disembarking from the steps of the Rovos Rail carriages onto the platform. There is a railway museum within the station comprising of more South African Railway history, as well as a static display of a steam locomotive on the platform.

Guests are ushered into two mini-buses where a guide and driver is waiting to take us all to the Kimberley Diamond Mine for a guided tour on the history as well as visual tour of Big Hole. For those that have been to Sovereign Hill in Ballarat Victoria, one can relate to the similarity of the gold-mine historic style similarity, with old shops and villages dating back to the 1870’s.

In 1867, diamonds had first been found in the region and in 1871 triggered a Diamond Rush. A 20 minute video presentation is shown to provide an overview of the history, revealing that 2722kg of diamonds were found during digging until the mine was closed in 1914. The tour then views the Big Hole, as well as a small elevator ride underground to view the tunnels, mine-shafts and view a diamond display. There is also the opportunity to purchase diamonds and other souvenirs prior to re-boarding Rovos Rail.

The afternoon commences with lunch served upon departure from Kimberley. A lavish four course lunch is served with a variety of wines to blend in with the meal. Here the landscape continues to change as the train now travels towards De Aar where the greener landscape and vegetation starts to transform into the semi-desert region of South Africa called the Karoo. Extending for a distance of approximately 400,000 sq. kms, and once an inland sea, the Karoo offers vast plains, arid desert landscape, rolling mountains, in an area with very little rainfall. There is so much exploring to do through the Karoo which can be a self-driving holiday in itself.

At De Aar, it is the junction of the main railway line north to Namibia, one of the harshest land countries within Africa with its sand dunes in the Namib Desert, the Skeleton Coast, Damaraland and the Etosha National Park in the far north. Rovos Rail operates a seasonal journey to these highlights of Namibia ending at Walvis Bay.

The afternoon was enjoyed in the rear observation carriage enjoying the desert landscape as the sun started to set, and being in a desert environment, the temperature began to drop quite quickly. The dinner experience was enjoyed with after dinner drinks in the lounge again with an early night planned for the next day ahead.

Sunday morning an early breakfast is available for guests who would like to disembark from Rovos Rail approximately 5km away from Matijiesfontein, and walk alongside the railway line and take in the Little Karoo Mountain landscape. The little village of Matijiesfontein is approx. 240km from Cape Town, is full of history of the Cape Government Railways dating back in 1890. One of the buildings built back then was a hotel and village for travellers along the railway line. Today the Lord Milner Hotel is still open as well as a number of small shops and a railway museum in an exceptional backdrop. There is also an old London double-decker bus that operates a very short and entertaining town tour.

The railway line now starts the scenic part of the journey through to Cape Town. Heading towards Touws River and following the Escarpment in the Hex River Valley. The pass through the The Matroosberg Mountain, with a peak of 2250m, involves four tunnels, the shortest being just under a kilometre, and the longest being 13.5km. Windows are required to be closed while the train passes through the tunnels. This part journey is an ever changing view of mountains, vineyards, fields and small villages as the train descends its way through the pass and down the mountain.

Once through the pass, the train reaches the outskirts of the Cape Town at regional community township of Worcester. As the train journey continues, the city sights of the world renowned Table Mountain can be seen in the distance, as well as the sights of Table Bay.

The sense of excitement builds as Rovos Rail approaches the main railway station and the presence of Table Mountain overseeing the city of Cape Town is evident, as such a gracious natural wonder of the world. Smaller mountains called Lion’s Head and Battery Point are dwarfed in comparison to provide such a picture perfect postcard moment. As the train approaches the railway station, guests are asked to provide their transfer company details for the Train Manager to re-confirm our arrival time, as well as guest’s luggage ready for the Train Porters to transfer on the guests behalf. As the train arrives, guests are asked to wait until it is safe to disembark and then ushered by the guest’s porter to the lounge on the platform where the guest’s transfers are waiting to take them to their respective hotels.

The experience on Rovos Rail was nothing short of amazing, with such a high end of service and an extremely personal attention to detail. The off-train tours are great to experience the local attractions and natural scenery as well as the hospitality and service we experienced on board.

Cape Town offers so many activities and sights to see, including Table Mountain, The Waterfront, scenic drives though Camps Bay through to Hout Bay and Cape Point, spending time in the Vineyards of Stellenbosch and Fraanschoek, or seeing where Nelson Mandela spent his time in prison on Robben Island. No matter the interest, there is something in Cape Town to suit everyone. The Africa Safari Co. can provide assistance and advice for packages to incorporate the Cape Town experience with a Rovos Rail journey to and from Pretoria in South Africa.

References:
• Rovos Rail Journeys Magazine
• Rovos Rail Website
• Wikipedia – definitions of the Karoo
• Matijiesfontein website

Tour Date: July 2018
Host: Jules

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