Rovos Rail Pride of Africa train journey, South Africa: 'The most luxurious train in the world'

The Pride of Africa is the self-styled 'most luxurious train in the world'.
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The Pride of Africa is the self-styled 'most luxurious train in the world'.

It is 2pm on a typically sunny, South African day, and the 35 passengers on the Rovos Rail journey from Pretoria to Cape Town are gathered expectantly in the colonial-style waiting room at historic Capital Park station.

They sip cocktails, nibble canapes, exchange names and national origins. They are from South Africa, Angola, Slovenia, Germany, Britain, the US, the United Arab Emirates, and Australia.

In fact, no fewer than 13 Australians have bought tickets to travel on this, "The Pride of Africa", the self-styled "Most Luxurious Train in the World." 

There is no rush to get going, to grab a good seat. Check-in may be early afternoon on Friday, but arrival in Cape Town, about 1700 kilometres away, is not scheduled until 6pm on Sunday. 

At least, that's the plan, says general manager Damian Sadie, adding cheerfully, "I have to warn you, though, that the train is not always on time.

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The observation lounge. 

"We'll do our best to get you there some time in the next six months … (pause for laughter), … but we can be delayed by breakdowns, faulty points, copper-cable thieves and dead animals on the track."

Little wonder then that the stylish, sophisticated Rovos Rail brochure approvingly quotes the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: "A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving."

To travel the Rovos train, to enter its luxury cabins, is to step back into an age of elegance, of opulence, of going slowly but, more importantly, travelling comfortably and sensually. Indeed, some modern conveniences and comforts are discouraged, says Sadie with a smile.

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"People ask if there's Wi-Fi on board, and if they will be able to use their mobile phones. We have to explain, well, no there isn't. And, no, you won't, except perhaps, in Kimberley," – the first of two scheduled stops.

"The great things about this trip are the delicious food, the fine wines, the unforgettable sights, the making of new friends, and so on … we don't want the enjoyment of these to be spoiled by people talking loudly on mobile phones.

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The Pride of Africa passes wildlife. 

"They are, in my opinion, a modern abomination. Indeed, if spotted they will be seized and auctioned off at the end of the trip." The passengers laugh. He must be joking. Then again, possibly not. Oh, and by the way, there is no television, either.

There is, however, a library, relevant fiction and racy non-fiction, available on loan, and a slow-passing parade of mountains, flatlands, towns and tunnels (one is 13.5 kilometres long).

These can be enjoyed, day and night, from the comfort of one's cabin, the lounge/bar, or the open observation car at the rear of the train. Bliss!

For me, the leisurely Rovos train trip is part of an unforgettable, 12-day southern African experience "tailor-made" by the Sydney-based Bill Peach Journeys.

The company – inspired by the successful TV current affairs presenter and tourism pioneer who died in August 2013, aged 78 – specialises in organising "private, personalised, independent experiences" for individual or small-group travellers.

My extended trip had begun the same morning, with a fascinating, guided exploration of the Johannesburg township of Soweto, with particular reference to the former president and creator of modern South Africa, the late Nelson Mandela. 

And it will be followed after arrival in Cape Town by a couple of days exploring the city and its spectacular coastline, before flying on to further adventures in two other African countries, Botswana and Zambia. 

At each location, the accommodation will be exclusive, the food fine, the guides informed and imaginative, the experience memorable.

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A deluxe suite.

Meanwhile, back at Capital Park there is still time to check out the old steam trains, marvel at the extensive model railway display in the museum and chat to long-time employees, before it is time to climb aboard, and be escorted to a deluxe suite by my hostess.

Throughout the train, the suites are fitted out in Rhodesian teak and pine, and the decorations are all very classy, comfy – the fulfilment of boyhood and girlhood dreams of the many, old railway enthusiasts on board.

The cabin may not have  Wi-Fi or a television set, but there is a huge, heated bed, overhead luggage rack, spacious bathroom, period prints showing women paddling in pools at the top of the Victoria Falls (in the dryish season) and a phone for calling the hostess.

Soon, we are on our way, presumably out of the "Jacaranda City" of Pretoria, now watched over by a massive statue of Mandela, south via Johannesburg, towards the goldfields of the Witwatersrand to… but wait, we seem to be going backwards!

It's true. We really are going backwards, the train manager, Joe Mathala, confirms, explaining that, basically, the Rovos trains must always give way to "regular" trains. "This afternoon, there's some chaos on the network, so we have to, well, back off and wait."

Mathala, who has worked for Rovos for more than 30 years, pulls out his route plan, a copy of which must be lodged with and approved by railway authorities before each departure.

It shows in minute-by-minute detail, planned locomotive and crew changes over the course of the trip to Cape Town, with a list of estimated arrival and departure times to and from no fewer than 146 stops and stations on the way.

They have evocative, enticing names such as Modder River, the site in 1899 of a famous Anglo-Boer War battle, Wilde Beeste, Orange River, Springbok and Three Sisters – if we get that far. 

No worries. Within a couple of hours  we're rattling and rolling along, striking southwards at speeds of up to 60km/h, seemingly travelling back in time. It is not always a smooth ride, and the attention of passengers is drawn to a warning notice on the train.

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Spacious bathrooms are part of the comfortable travel ethos on Pride of Africa.

"The track over which we travel is inconsistently maintained," it reads. "If you are a light sleeper and wake up at night imagining the train is travelling at high speed, be assured it is the state of track below creating that impression."

Typically, dinner is taken in the dining car from 7.30pm. The dress code is formal, the menu wildly imaginative and served with a wide selection of top quality, mostly South African red and white wines.

On the first night, for example, we dine on grilled, queen scallops, with lemon-scented hollandaise sauce. These are followed by slow-roasted Karoo lamb shank served deboned with mashed potatoes, a green bean parcel and mushrooms. Fish or vegetarian options are available.

The dessert is Boland camembert-style cheese with a blue vein, served with melon preserve with chives and rosemary-infused savoury shortbread, completed with Cape brandy pudding served with cinnamon cream. So, who counts calories on a 52-hour train ride?

Day two breaks chilly, but bright. At first glance we appear to be in the middle of nowhere. There is excitement soon after breakfast, at the sight of a flock of more than 20,000 sleek, lesser flamingos that cover a large, shallow lake like a shocking pink blanket.

Barely 15 minutes later Pride of Africa arrives, pretty much on time, at the immaculate, elegant railway station in Kimberley, the "diamond capital of the world", for the first of two "activity" stops on the long way south.

A short, bus ride away is the city's biggest attraction, The Big Hole, Diamond & Destiny museum, appropriately supported by the biggest name in the history of diamond mining, De Beers. 

Guide Veronica proudly explains how a century and a half ago the site of the Big Hole was a featureless, flat-topped hill; how the discovery of diamonds in the 1870s prompted an invasion of thousands of prospectors "armed with no more than picks, shovels and hope".

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The welcoming station lounge.  

By the time the rush  ended  about 40 years later, the prospectors had mined  about 2700 kilograms of diamonds and created the largest, hand-excavated hole in the world.

What remains today is a massive crater, 214 metres deep and 1.6 kilometres in circumference. Looking into the dizzily deep hole from a modern viewing platform, Veronica points out the place where a dog fell in last year.

"It took six days, and some 40,000 rand (about NZ$4960)  to rescue him," she says. "As no owner came forward, the dog was named Kimberlite and kept by its police rescuer."

Elsewhere on the site, visitors can go underground into one of the many mine shafts; learn more about the creation, cutting and commercial exploitation of diamonds in a series of high-tech displays; and explore the Old Mining Town and the lives of some of its inhabitants.

Period buildings, some relocated, include a church built in Europe and shipped to Kimberley; a funeral director's offering "coffins without fittings" for 37 shillings; offices of the Diamond News paper and a Boxing Academy created by one of the city's wealthiest mining magnates, Barney Barnato.

There's also a pub called The Australian Arms, allegedly established by, or dedicated to, a gentleman called Stafford Parker. It still serves beer and cheap eats, though, sadly, they all seem to be South African.

It is soon time to return to our own piece of history, our own fine wining and dining restaurant on wheels. According to our manager Joe, Pride of Africa is bang on schedule as it continues into the night, tracking through the semi-desert region known as the "Karoo".

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Kitchen staff on Rovos Rail. 

Shortly after breakfast, on the third and final day, there is another scheduled stop, to explore the quaint, historic settlement of Matjiesfontein.

It is preceded, by another, quick stop – seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but officially at a place called Whitehill Siding – to set down guests who wish to walk the final five kilometres into the village alongside the railway line.

One suspects that, like mobile phones and televisions, the idea of installing a high-tech, potentially sweaty gymnasium on such an elegant, timeless train would be regarded as an anathema. But, starved of exercise, perhaps, a dozen guests reorganise breakfast and give it a go.

In truth, there was not much to see on what was, as much as anything, a short, leg-stretching exercise. But Matjiesfontein is a little gem.

It owes its existence to Jimmy Logan, a sickly Scotsman working for Cape Government Railways, who arrived in the late 19th century and discovered the climate beneficial to his health and, cannily, his wealth.

He stayed, and over the years transformed a wood-and-iron siding, where he provided meals for railway passengers, into a thriving village of ornate buildings, wide roads, lit by London cast-iron lamps and boasting modern sewerage and an electricity supply.

Today, the village boasts a red London bus, post office, coffee shop, a church, a historic graveyard, two remarkable museums, devoted to transport and to the exciting life and times of long-time inhabitant Marie Rawdon, and a splendid, old colonial hotel.

During the Boer War, when the village hosted  about 12,000 British troops, the Lord Milner l was transformed into a military hospital, and its tower used as a look-out post. Today, the village looks and feels friendly, but also slightly ghostly, like a place time forgot. 

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The pillared dining car. 

From Matjiesfontein, there are still several hours of luxury travel, spent skirting the spectacular Hex River mountains, swinging through beautiful valleys lined with vineyards, and navigating four tunnels.

Like opening one's shuttered, cabin window, while in a crowded station, poking one's head out of the window to see the view in a tunnel is not advisable. 

Eventually, near Paarl, passengers receive their first, distant views of Cape Town's most famous feature, Table Mountain. Sadly, we're coming to the end of the line.

Not long after the last afternoon tea is consumed, the train comes to a halt at platform 24 in Cape Town station, at 6.10pm. The train is just 10 minutes late; minutes probably spent while a freelance photographer organised pictures of himself running behind the train.

Like him, the time travellers on the Pride of Africa come away with spectacular images, dozens of new friends and unforgettable memories. Now, where did I put that mobile phone?

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

billpeachjourneys.com.au

rovosrail.com

southafrica.net

GETTING THERE 

Singapore Airlines fly from New Zealand to Johannesburg via Singapore, Cathay Pacific fly to Johannesburg via Hong Kong and Qantas fly to Johannesburg via Sydney. See qantas.comcathaypacific.com; singaporeair.com.

TOURING THERE

The featured journey is part of a collection of tours that Bill Peach Journeys has created for independent travellers. The 12-day tour has daily departures through 2015-16, priced from NZ$13,900 a person twin share. In 2016 there will also be a group departure of this tour. 

The writer was a guest of Bill Peach Journeys

- Traveller.com.au

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