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It is the year 1985. Rohan and Anthea Vos board a train en route to the Magaliesberg. Little do they know that this would be the precursor to the most extraordinary and opulent means of train travel in South Africa and Africa, Rovos Rail.
When the opportunity to travel on The Most Luxurious Train in The World presented itself, I was faced with the dilemma of who to take along on this journey. The decision was simplified by the fact that my daughter had never been on a train and at eleven years old, to travel in true style would make for everlasting memories.
Another predicament was which of the seven journeys would we pick? Cape Town to Victoria Falls, the Durban Safari or the very popular Dar Es Salaam expedition? Pretoria to Cape Town sounded like a logical choice as we reside in the Mother City.
We set off from Cape Town International Airport to board our Airlink flight. The Avro RJ85 is ready and waiting to transport us to Wonderboom National Airport in Pretoria and after a short taxi on the runway, we are up in the air. The food on board is delicious and the chocolate mousse is especially tasty. We walk off the plane straight into the airport building, where our suitcases are already on the conveyer belt. No queues, just convenience.
For travelers departing from Wonderboom National Airport, there is a dedicated Airlink business class lounge with the most delectable treats, a wide variety of beverages and free Wi-Fi. Here you can relax in an air-conditioned environment before jetting off to Cape Town.
Rovos Rail’s Iris Anderson had arranged for a transfer from the airport to Rovos Rail Station in Capital Park, Pretoria. At the station, we are met with a hearty welcome and as we sip on champagne and apple juice, our luggage gets whisked away and tagged only to re-appear in our room on board the train. The Rovos Rail Station is the arrival or departure point for all guests and takes you back to an era of stateliness.
The steam locomotive pulls into the station ahead of the shiny green train, snaking its 400 metres past excited travelers. The 36 suites accommodate a maximum of 72 guests and chugging along at a top speed of 37 miles per hour ensures that you can take in the spectacular scenery. The steam locomotive is only used in and around the area of Rovos Rail station as the use of steam has become increasingly difficult over the years. For the journey, diesel or electric locomotives are used, reducing the carbon footprint substantially.
Rohan Vos talks us through the formalities of what to expect on board the train and calls each traveler by name to join their host / hostess who will escort you to your room. Being personally identified adds to the grandiose style that is part of the proceedings. Looking after us for the duration of our stay is the effervescent Zodwa Ndlovu and no task is too much trouble for her.
We depart Rovos Rail Station at 3 o’clock to start our 994 mile journey to Cape Town. Our domicile is Fitzpatrick, a Deluxe suite named after the intrepid traveler Sir Percy Fitzpatrick of Jock of the Bushveld fame. Sized at 108 sq. ft., it accommodates two passengers in either twin or double beds. The luxurious sleeper coaches have been refurbished and remodeled and the wood paneling throughout the suite creates an aura of grandeur.
There is a lounge area and an en-suite bathroom with a shower. Fitted with the modern conveniences of hot showers, hair dryers, shaver plugs, a heating / cooling air conditioner and a personal safe for valuables, you will feel right at home. A bar fridge filled with beverages of your choice, doubles up as a writing surface and the two chairs make for comfortable seating. A special feature on Rovos Rail is that the windows can be fully opened. Do take care when sticking your head out to breathe in the fresh African air; wear the goggles provided to shield your eyes.
After relaxing in our suite, it is time for High Tea. A tasty array of eats is on offer in the lounge area and if you don’t have a sweet tooth, there are some savory choices. A vast selection of teas, coffees or whichever other tipple might tickle your fancy is available and prudently served by Lewis Jonga.
It is so fascinating to meet fellow passengers that we lose track of time and before we know it, it is time for dinner. A gong signals the dinner and lunch service, set out in the dining cars. The dress for days on the train is smart casual while for dinner you can don your fancy attire and men are kindly requested to wear a jacket and tie. The dining cars bear testament to the bygone era of Colonial elegance where the finery of the diners is complemented by the starched white tablecloths and silver service.
The food, oh the food; it is simply sublime! The chefs are clearly passionate about their trade as the fare coming out of the kitchen is incredible! With a minimum of two chefs on board, we were fortunate to have three on our journey, taking exemplary car of our culinary desires. Chefs Refilwe Raseroka, Sarah Serumula and Leon Koch ensure that the variety of meals have a South African element while not skimping on the exquisiteness of what you are presented with in a sitting.
For dinner, we are served by Bianca Engelbrecht and Tharize Henrico while the barman ensures that our glasses are kept filled. The menu consists of four courses: Grilled queen scallops with lemon-scented hollandaise sauce for starters, Slow roasted Karoo lamb shank served deboned, with mashed potatoes, a green bean parcel and mushrooms for main course, a cheese platter with Boland camembert style cheese with a blue vein, served with melon preserve, chives and rosemary infused savory shortbread and for dessert there is Cape brandy pudding served with cinnamon cream. For every course, there is a wine pairing and after dinner, you can enjoy a selection of teas or Kenyan Coffee. Should you feel peckish at any stage during your trip, you can call on your host/hostess who will arrange for something to be whipped up by the chefs during the 24 hour room service.
Filled to the brim, we make our way to our suite where our bed has been turned down. After a warm shower, we retire for the night in our luxurious dwelling. We each have our own duvet covered with the silkiest percale linen and three pillows per person. It takes some getting used to fall asleep on a moving train, but once you’re in dreamland, you don’t feel the motion. For travelers with sensitive hearing, I suggest the complimentary ear plugs available on board.
An incredible sunrise heralds the breaking day and we head to breakfast, which is a veritable feast. Fruit, cereal, pastries, hot breakfast of your choice, here the ‘most important meal of the day’ can be enjoyed while watching the scenery unfold from your vantage point.
Today we are visiting Kimberley, a historic town where mining was all the rage in the mid 1800’s and is home to one of the greatest man-made attractions, The Big Hole. The Big Hole has a surface of 42 acres and is 462 metres wide. From mid-July 1871 to 1914, it is believed that 50,000 miners dug the hole with picks and shovels, yielding close to 2,722 kilograms of diamonds. Here you can purchase a shiny memento to remind you of your visit.
Once back at the train, we are greeted by the friendly Rovos Rail staff who presents us with cool refresher towels, champagne, orange and apple juice while traversing the red carpet. We are advised to go straight to lunch, which again is out of this world. Hearts of palm served with grilled aubergine with a sweet chilli and coriander dressing for starters, Balsamic and lemon-marinated slices of ostrich fillet served on a potato, beetroot, walnut and watercress salad for main course, a cheese platter with Duo of Huguenot and Amabutho cheddar served with sundried tomato chilli and black pepper savory jam, fresh grapes, almonds and warm baguette and for dessert there is Seasonal fruit salad with shortbread and mascarpone cream. You do not want to be on a diet when travelling on Rovos Rail!
With no phones allowed in public areas – yes, you have to talk to one another! you can release your inner technophile in the privacy of your suite. There is no WiFi on board, so make sure you have enough data to make contact with your loved ones or brag-post on social media.
We linger so long at High Tea that the sun is starting to set over the escarpment. A quick change of attire and we are ready for dinner. Tonight is a special night as it’s the last supper on board. Even the staff have taken it up a notch in outfit and I mistake the very ostentatious tuxedo-clad Tshepo Letoaba for James Bond.
We dine on sweet potato and lychee soup with peanut butter cream and a savory crouton for starters, main course is Grilled Cape Rock Lobster Tails with a haricot flavored bisque cream, Mediterranean vegetables and lemon rice, a cheese platter with Dalewood Mushroom Brie served with fig relish, rocket leaves and luxury melba toast and for dessert there is Dark chocolate fondant with fresh seasonal berries and vanilla bean ice-cream. To conclude the evening, celebratory cocktails are served in the observation car.
Time to wind down and get some sleep. I awake at 3:39 in the morning with a bright light in our suite. Is it morning already? No, there is the most magnificent electric storm and rain pelting against the windows.
It is Day 3 and as we meander through the desolate Karoo, we enjoy another delicious breakfast. We are heading for Matjiesfontein and the train manager, Adam Bentley, has instructed the train driver to stop the train 3 miles prior to our arrival at Matjiesfontein station. This is so that the fitness fanatics can get their ‘fix’ with some exercise as they walk the rest of the way to Matjiesfontein. As we reach Matjiesfontein station, we disembark the train to stretch our legs, take in the scenery and visit the historical buildings.
The train departs for our final destination, Cape Town via the picturesque winelands while we enjoy a hearty lunch. On the menu is Traditional South African Bobotie – a gently spiced beef mince dish oven-baked with a layer of savory egg custard – served warm with fruit chutney and an apricot, julienne pepper and kiwi fruit salad topped with almonds as a starter. For main course is the delicious Garlic and lemon grilled prawn skewer on a green salad with a julienne of peppers, mange tout and cucumber drizzled with coriander and ginger dressing. The cheese platter has Drunken Pecorino with a salad of wild leaves and thin slivers of apple garnished with chives and dressed with a lemon and olive oil vinaigrette served with a dark seeded roll. Dessert is South African melktert (milk tart) – a sweet pastry crust with a creamy milk filling and a dusting of cinnamon – served with a small syrup coated doughnut known locally as a Koeksister.
As we walk back to our suite, a very pleasant fragrance fills the passage. I pop my head into the room to see what smells so nice. It’s Zodwa, going about her daily routine. ‘What are you doing’? I enquired. ‘I’m polishing the walls’, she replies. Just a tiny part of the five-star service you will experience on Rovos Rail. Definitely a tick off the bucket list. For more information about the journeys, trains, excursions and history of Rovos Rail, visit www.rovos.com
(Views expressed are the author’s own). Thank you to Rovos Rail for hosting us.
Airlink – the Regional Feeder Airline, offers a wide network of regional and domestic flights within southern Africa and operates as a franchisee to SAA
Route Specific Information: Direct scheduled flights between Pretoria – Wonderboom National airport and Cape Town.
Connectivity: Through our alliance with SAA travelers connect conveniently with SAA, their Partner airlines and other carriers throughout Southern Africa and the world.
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Flight Bookings: Online, booking agent or SAA Central Reservations on +27 11 978 1111.