Rovos Rail claims that its “Pride of Africa” train which operates between Cape Town in South Africa to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania is the most luxurious train in the world. A claim that I cannot dispute even though I have not travelled on any of the other trains in the world which also claim to be luxurious. For this journey the train was chartered by Noble-Caledonia so all the 62 passengers had booked with this company, a favourite of mine for many years. Rovos is a combination of the name and surname of the owner of the company Mr Rohan Vos and he is very much at the forefront of the operation together with other members of his family.
Our train comprised 21 carriages which included three lounges, one with the open air Observation Car, two dining cars, kitchen car, staff car, guards van, and accommodation for the train manager, the assistant train manager, the guest liaison (I’m not sure what he did) and the doctor and his wife. There were also two small smoking compartments, not required by any of the passengers on this journey. The accommodation comprised three different types: the Pullman, the de Luxe and the Royal, the latter taking up half a carriage and included a bath; I ask you, a BATH, on a train!! A friend of mine, who had done this journey a few years ago, had advised me to request a compartment, sorry, a suite, near the Observation Car which I did, and which I got which meant I spent most of the journey sitting outside admiring the views. It did, however, mean that I had to walk along six carriages to get to the dining car in the middle of the train. Not always easy as the train rocked and rolled quite a bit. So rather than have breakfast and four course meals for both lunch and dinner I preferred to skip lunch and just have a sandwich at tea time, if we were on board at the time. All drinks were included, both at the bar and in the dining cars, so it was very pleasant to enjoy a G&T served in the Observation Car by the ever cheerful and efficient train staff.
After leaving Cape Town our journey took us initially through a fertile area of vineyards and fruit orchards but later became dry scrubland and rocky desert. This was the Karoo, an area both high and exceptionally dry which offered solace to Victorian sufferers of tuberculosis. We stopped at Matjesfontein, a small town where an old red Routemaster London bus, a number 12, took us 200 yards to the motor museum and the local hotel which was used as a military hospital during the Anglo Boer war in 1899.
Due to our locomotive breaking down at Beaufort West, the largest town in the Karoo, our itinerary changed on Day 4 and, instead of visiting Kimberley we went by minibus to the Karoo National Park where we spotted hartebeest (a type of antelope), zebra and baboons. The ground was really dry and arid and I was surprised that the animals found anything to eat. Even more surprising is that sheep farming has become the main economic activity of the area despite the dryness of the land. Champagne (?) and cold towels (it had been very hot) greeted us on our return to the train and this was to be the norm when we returned from excursions.
We reached Pretoria, the administrative and diplomatic capital of South Africa, by coach rather than on the train due to an ongoing delay with the locomotive. Our city tour took us to the monolithic Voortrekker Monument and to a central park where there was a huge statue of Nelson Mandela. Mr Vos has his locomotive and carriage workshop in a private station in Pretoria and he was on hand to show us around. We were due to have lunch on the platform but this turned out to be dinner in the garden, a very pleasant candlight affair. At this station our train acquired the addition of a second food carriage, we were evidently eating a lot, and water. In fact water was added to the train at several stations we stopped at en route in addition to fuel for the locomotives.
Next day we were to pack a small overnight bag, provided by the company, for our two night stay at Madikwe Game Reserve. We were there in time to go out for a late afternoon game drive in jeeps and were lucky enough to see a lot of wildlife: impala, rhino, wildebeest, zebra, elephant and hartebeest. Dinner was roast eland, a type of antelope! Next morning we had a wake up call at 5.30 a.m. for another game drive. This time we stopped by a small pride of lions. They seemed very used to the jeeps and we could almost have touched them (but obviously didn’t!) as they sauntered past the vehicles. Then the highlight of the morning, three cheetahs lying on a concrete track by the perimeter fence of the reserve. The rangers (the guides) had to obey strict rules and only two vehicles were allowed at a time to approach the animals and the other vehicles were on “standby” to wait their turn. After lunch back at the lodge there was time for a swim in the small pool from which one could see the animals going down to the river to drink. We had another game drive in the late afternoon and again early next morning. On the afternoon outing we stopped for sundowners; the rangers producing cool boxes and wine, beer and there was a run on the gin & tonics! Any passing wildlife would have been scared away by noise we made. On the last morning’s drive there was great excitement as we drove off the track and through a shrubby area to see two cheetahs which had only just killed a young zebra. One of the vehicles had actually witnessed the chase, though not the kill itself. We were very near but the cheetahs paid no attention to us.
There was a short drive to the border with Botswana where we went through passport control and then on to rejoin our train at Gabarone. At this point we were at last allowed by the local authorities to have Rovos Rail’s own locomotives (two of them) to pull the train and which at last put an end to the delays and breakdowns. Then followed what was called days “at leisure” where we stayed all day (and night of course…) on the train. Time passed with lectures by the on board historian from South Africa who gave some very interesting and very well presented talks on a range of subjects. After the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe we travelled non stop, well sort of non stop, across Zimbabwe until reaching Victoria Falls the next day. Here our overnight bags, with their smart Rovos Rail logo, came into service again as we were to stay overnight at the Victoria Falls Hotel. This elegant hotel, dating back to colonial days and set in acres of well tended gardens, has its own station, or rather railway line, and we walked a short distance from our train to our welcome drink on the lawn. A superb buffet lunch at the Jungle Restaurant was accompanied by a Caribbean type band. In the evening we enjoyed a cruise on the river, mercifully not too near the falls themselves! But cameras were busy as we spotted hippos in the water. Optional excursions the next day included helicopter rides over the falls with more photo opportunities. January was not the best time of year to see the falls in full flow as it was the dry season, but nevertheless they were pretty impressive. In the afternoon we were back on our train for a short distance before stopping on the bridge spanning the gorge marking the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia where we got off to take photos. There was a bungee jump area, one adventure I would never do but I might have been tempted by the zip wire across the gorge. Luckily, in a way, there was no time for that as the train was ready to move on.
At our briefing in Cape Town before we boarded the train Mr Vos had told us that on a scale of 1 to 10 the state of the rail tracks in Zambia was minus 3. Very badly built and even more badly maintained. We laughed at the time. However, the scenery made up for the bumpy ride and I spent a lot of time in the Observation Car as we passed woods and fields, mainly with maize growing and many small villages where children appeared from nowhere to shout, scream, wave and run along the tracks after the train. One day we left the train for a 45 minute drive to see Chisimba Falls, almost more impressive than Victoria Falls as there was much more water flowing and one could walk along paths to various viewpoints at different levels where the water cascaded over rocks. On returning to the coaches it was to find the train crew had set up a table with drinks: beer, wine, bubbles, G&T and nibbles! This was one of the great pleasures of this journey, unexpected extras. Our overnight bags at the game reserve and Victoria Falls hotel were gifts for us to take home.
One evening we had two stops, to leave Zambia and to cross into Tanzania, the fifth and last country on this amazing journey. Here we were to visit Selous, the largest Game Reserve in Africa. At 55,000 sq. kms there would be no way we would see it all and as we arrived at 12.30 and it was very hot I was convinced all the wildlife would be hiding somewhere in the shade. Ten vehicles, with their roofs open were waiting for us having driven from Arusha, a long drive from near the Serengeti. I was wrong about the wildlife, it was actually quite a profitable afternoon from the point of view of sightings. We spotted, or rather our drivers spotted, giraffe, warthogs, zebra, impala, wildebeest, a couple of elephants and at least six lions lolling in the shade. After a couple of hours we drove to a lake and, lo and behold, there was a tent and the train crew with a table and beer, wine, bubbles, G&T and snacks! I could get used to this…
After 14 days on the train, including two nights at Madiqwe and one night at Victoria Falls, we arrived at Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, our journey’s end. We had covered 3568 miles across five countries. In South Africa we had eight locomotive drivers, from Gabarone in Botswana we had two Rovos Rails own locomotives with three of their own drivers working in shifts plus one technician. On the whole journey we had 15 pilots! Yes, honestly, we had pilots on the train. Not all at the same time. They (presumably) were there to assist the drivers with information about bridges, about passing places on the single tracks and heaven knows what other hazards the driver might encounter. The train manager had to fork out tips to station masters, to border officials, to garbage collectors and to others to ensure a smooth running of the entire enterprise, all amounting to a massive US$ 4000.
After a short stay in Dar-es-Salaam, or Dar as the locals call it, it was home again.
What a journey this had been. Rovos Rail operates several other train journeys across sub Saharan Africa but undoubtedly Pride of Africa is the most luxurious train in the world.