Catching a slow train through South Africa with Great Rail Journeys
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The opulent Pride of Africa recreates the golden age of travel
not often that the owner of a railway company comes out to greet passengers as
they get ready to board. Indeed, if such a thing happened in the UK they would
probably be subjected to a catalogue of gripes about slow running trains,
cancellations, over-crowded carriages and more.
one glimpse of the gleaming livery of Pride of Africa, further enhanced by the
fact waiters are pouring refills of sparkling wine and serving canapés, gives
you a pretty good idea that this is no ordinary train and Rohan Vos is highly
unlikely to ever be faced with disgruntled passengers. In fact, we later
delight in the fact that occasional delays and a timetable that doesn’t necessarily
run like clockwork are among the numerous delights and quirks of Rovos Rail.
don high vis jackets and follow Rohan around the
Pretoria rail yard that lay derelict until the man with big dreams and a
passion for rail travel breathed new life into it. His infectious enthusiasm is
contagious as he tells us the story of the company that recently celebrated its
30th anniversary. He first came up with the notion of restoring a couple of old
railway carriages to take is family on holiday, but quickly found out that
hitching privately owned rolling stock to commercial engines wasn’t possible.
Undeterred, he started selling a few tickets to get around the red tape. Fast
forward to today, and Rovos Rail now employs more than 400 staff, owns one of
the largest collections of vintage railway carriages in the world and offers trips
in South Africa and beyond.
Pride of Africa pulls out of the station, with Rohan waving from the platform,
the personal attention to detail continues on board. Our luggage, collected
earlier by smart liveried porters, is waiting for us in our en-suite sleeping
carriage where we’re greeted by our personal hostess and members of the Rovos
team. On arrival Busi enquires about our favourite drinks and sets about
configuring the minibar with our preferred tipples – including proper bottles
of spirits, rather than fiddly miniatures - which are replenished as needed.
Meanwhile, we are exclaiming over the level of amenities, from a complimentary
toiletry bag packed with all kinds of things including lotion, sunscreen,
insect repellent and ear plugs. That said, I came to love the soporific
clackety-clack of the wheels at night.
night, and indeed every night, a gong heralds the evening meal and we make our
way to the beautiful dining cars, with their wooden pillars, tasselled
curtains, sparkling cutlery and monogrammed plates. Passengers are encouraged
to dress for dinner and it feels appropriate in these wonderful surroundings.
Many women wear long or cocktail dresses with men resplendent in black tie. The
food and wine, South African naturally, is sublime. The scene has the decadent
and retro atmosphere of an Agatha Christie novel (minus a murder of course!).
day the focus is on sights outside the windows as our journey takes us ever
onwards to Cape Town, passing rural villages where waving children line the
track, sweeping plains with grazing wildebeest, rugged purple mountains, lush
wetlands filled with flamingos and verdant wine estates. Sunsets are particular
spectacular and most of us gather in the observation car at the back of the
train, also conveniently housing the bar, and before heading to the outdoor
viewing carriage to watch the blood red sun dip
over the ever-changing horizon.
day brings an excursion. We disembark at Kimberley, the capital of the Northern
Cape Province. It was here the first South African diamond was discovered by
accident in 1867 when a young led picked up a surprisingly shiny ‘pebble’
beside a river. This led to the frenzied rush and the world’s largest diamond
mine, the cavernous 700ft pit known as Big Hole. Dug entirely by men, it
yielded some of the world’s biggest diamonds which made the De Beers name
famous around the world. Today you can gaze into the mine and walk around a
reconstruction of Kimberley’s 19th century mining settlement where
original buildings, including a church, shops and homes, have been relocated.
Afterwards we enter a guarded vault filled with more than 35,000 glittering
morning we alight at the charming town of Matjiesfontein, with its museum of
old cars and railway carriages and quaint shops. As always, we are welcomed
back aboard with cold towels and a glass of fizz before the Pride of Africa
rolls on through the dramatically changing landscape; occasionally stopping due
to a hold-up ahead. There is really no need for the train manager to apologise,
even though he does. Passengers simply carry on reading and chatting in the
lounge car, order another cocktail in the bar or, depending on the time of day,
enjoy afternoon tea. Meanwhile, smokers can retire to the fug of the smoking
night we return to our sleeping compartment to
find the toasty beds warmed by electric blankets and topped by the biggest
cloud-like duvets I’ve ever seen. On the table is a kettle with freshly boiled
water for tea or coffee, biscuits and other treats.
smoking is allowed in the well sectioned off area, the main irritant of
modern-day train travel - the omnipresent mobile phone and being an enforced
eavesdropper to loud and often tedious exchanges - is not. And what a
refreshing change it is. Convivial conversations flow and friendships are
formed as the Pride of Africa continues its stately journey at an average speed
of 37mph. That said, as I gaze out of the window at wildebeest, take another
sip of distinctive Six Dogs gin which wondrously turns from blue to pink when
the tonic is poured, it would be very tempting to call someone and say “I’m on
the train”. This really is a journey worth talking about.
Great Rail Journeys offers a 16-night South African Adventure tour from £9,390 departing November 2020, and from £6,795 for departures in May, October and November 2021. The price includes a fully-inclusive nine-night rail journey, hotel accommodation in Pretoria and Cape Town with most meals, excursions and flights. For more information call 01904 527 180.
Travel Advisor recommends Great
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