Sir Winston Churchill spent a short time in South Africa as a "klein koerant skyrwertjie", or "a little bit of a newspaperman", reporting on the Anglo-Boer War. He later said: "My tastes are simple. I am satisfied with the very best." One imagines, then, that he would have loved "the most luxurious train journey in the world", Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa. As most do; even at well over $1,000 (Dh3,672) a day, excluding flights.
The train travels opulently and exclusively between Cape Town in South Africa and Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, covering 5,742 kilometres in 15 days and passing up the spine of Africa, through Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. It takes in Pretoria, the Kimberley diamond mine, the highly rated Tau Game Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve on the Botswanan border, Victoria Falls and its 1904 hotel, Lusaka, the Selous Game Reserve and the Great Rift Valley.
Like Churchill, fellow Englishman Michael Merten is addicted to luxury. And Rovos. He was one of 46 passengers recently on board.
“I like to pose elegantly and dress for dinner. The train deserves it. I like being pampered,” he says. “In the hands of Mr Vos, I can park my brain, such as it is, and relax. In Rovos, I am in heaven.”
The romance of rail travel
Rohan Vos, who made his money through automotive parts, started Rovos Rail in 1989, buying up abandoned engines and carriages from scrapyards. The historic trains have all been lovingly done up, and the bygone glories and romance of rail travel have been reinstated. Many of the salubrious train’s jungle-green and ivory coaches and cabins were restored in Witbank, where soldier-hack Churchill hid after escaping jail in Pretoria.
“The train is an institution,” says Nicholas Schofield, Pride of Africa’s resident historian, tour guide and lecturer. “And a great social leveller. Friendships are formed in the dining saloon, bar, lounges, wingback chairs and on the observation deck.” In 25 years, Schofield has clocked up “450,000km of clackety-clack”.
The train also has an on-board doctor and a hair stylist, Craig Geater. “I tell guests not to book me in Zambia. It’s a bit wobbly. And switchbacks can play havoc with your fringe. And ears,” he says. In addition, The Pride offers 24/7 laundry, maid service, air conditioning and en-suite showers. And its 12 square metre royal suites even boast expansive clawfoot bathtubs.
Tasmanian Christine Bell travels on her own, she tells me. “I’ve done The Ghan, Indian Pacific and Machu Picchu. The Bejiing-Moscow Tsar’s Gold Train was special. The Pride is up there. I loved the under-bridge walk at Victoria Falls. It’s worth every buck of hard earned. It’s an experience, or perhaps series of experiences – social, historical, geographical and culinary.”
After canapes and chamber music, Vos personally waves our 31 coaches off from Platform 23 of Cape Town’s Mother City station. The collective age on board is upwards of 3,000, with 16 nationalities represented. The guest list includes a South African nougat mogul, a honeymooning Japanese professor of accountancy and his new bride, an Argentinian doctor, a Swiss Air Ambulance nurse, a Titanic heiress and two Russian lawyers who are personal friends of the mayor of Moscow. As well as a British lord and lady now resident in Switzerland.
The quarter-of-a-mile long train stops at Pretoria for a tour of the city, where we all pose under a giant Nelson Mandela statue in front of government buildings. There is a quick tour of the Rovos workshops and a sit-down lunch on the platform. Next stop is two nights and four game drives at the malaria-free Tau Game Lodge & Spa. From the breakfast terrace, we watch an elephant bathing; the crocodiles, meanwhile, watch the human buffet breakfast. On our dawn and dusk drives, we learn that you can make a 28-egg omelette from one ostrich egg and that a group of zebras is called a dazzle.
On board, "the big five" are often sighted in the shape of dozing Swedes, snoring Austrians, cat-napping Italians, power-napping Americans and languid Brits.
Once we pass through the vineyards and Hex Valley, we reach the far horizons of the great Karoo desert, the "land of thirst". We get off at the former tuberculosis sanatorium town of Matjiesfontein, where we have an eight-minute tour in a 1968 London double-decker bus and the opportunity to admire the location of South Africa's first flushing toilet.
Whiling the day away
Everyone does their own thing on board – reading, snoozing or watching the track roll away. The landscape varies little. There's scrub then more scrub, so you begin to look forward to a bridge, or inselbergs, lone hills in the middle of flat nothing. You are supplied with goggles if you want to stick your head out of the window. Children wave at the train all along the line. It is an occasion when the Pride of Africa passes.
The most dramatic topography is encountered on the last few days, when we join the scenic Chinese-built Tazara line. Between Makambako (“place of the bulls”) and Mimba (“place of the elephants”), the train drops more than 1,000 metres through matted jungle. And suddenly, Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains appear.
One night is spent at the famed Victoria Falls Hotel. Guests can go on a sunset Zambezi river cruise (in our case, in the pouring rain) and have the option of walking the length of the Falls, bungee-jumping off the bridge (111 metres in three seconds) or passing over in a helicopter.
'Elegant and inelegant conversation is encouraged'
We are served three meals a day featuring the very best South African food, presented by liveried waiters in the refurbed cherry-panelled, teakwood pillared Belle Époque-style restaurant, with cut crystal glasses, starched linen napery, solid silver cutlery and tassel-tied curtains. Menus include traditional South African bobotie; spiced beef mince oven-baked with a layer of savoury egg custard served with peppadew; kiwi fruit and banana chutney; melktert – a sweet pastry crust with a dusting of cinnamon served with fruit coulis; and a small syrup-coated South African doughnut known as a koeksister. For the more experimental, there is also ostrich, crocodile tails and springbok. For dinner, tie and jackets are compulsory for gentlemen, tiaras and national costume optional for the ladies. The Japanese bride arrives one night in a kimono. She receives a standing ovation. As does the dessert.
Allan Richards runs a timber business in Eden, New South Wales, Australia, with his Kiwi wife, Jan. “We like train journeys because we can become part of the furniture. You meet a diverse mix of fellow passengers and staff and create some linkage. Usually humorously. Elegant and inelegant conversation is encouraged. There’s no radio, TV or Wi-Fi. You make your own entertainment, seeing parts of Africa you’d never see in any other way in such comfort.”
The Pride of Africa should be on everyone’s bucket list. At least three passengers on board had been on it before. Luxury is addictive. And Churchill knew you shouldn’t ever settle for anything less than the best.