Dressing for dinner is expected on Rovos Rail - the most luxurious train railway in Africa - and the food is worth the effort. Everything about this train is exquisite so why not take a short trip from Cape Town to Pretoria with Carrie Hampton, to find out just how luxurious it is.
As soon as I heard the violin playing on Cape Town station and I stepped off the grey concrete platform onto a red carpet, I knew my trip on Rovos Rail would be one to remember.
I was only going from Cape Town to Pretoria
, normally an overnight journey, but on Rovos Rail it takes a leisurely two and a half days of comfort, elegance and utter decadence. Once aboard, absolutely everything, including champagne, is complimentary.
More Spacious Than Any Other Train
Your ever-vigilant cabin attendant tidies up after you to the point where I could not find anything I had left lying around. You might imagine that in a railway carriage there would not be room to lose a great number of things, but Rovos Rail have a maximum of three cabins per carriage and only two in the Royal carriages.
It is for this reason that they can safely call this the most luxurious train railway in the world, offering more space than any competitor
. 'The train is an expression of my own taste,' says owner Rohan Vos, 'I am very tall so I wanted everything to be roomy from the King size beds to the claw-foot full length baths in the Royal Suites.
The attention to detail is quite astounding from the exquisitely presented food to origami with a bedspread which was folded and rolled into two rose bud shapes with a bottle of champagne and some chocolates nestling in it. The staff were charm itself and the atmosphere totally relaxed with none of the pomposity that luxury sometimes brings out in people.
The journey took us through Cape Town and into the neighbouring lush valleys and rocky mountains of the Cape Winelands
, where during lunch, we sipped a creamy wooded Backsberg Chardonnay, just one of the fine wines from the extensive range.
By late afternoon we had crossed the mountain ranges and entered the vast semi-arid plateau called the Karoo
, famous for its lamb which was naturally on the menu that night. We stopped at the British flag-flying village of Matjiesfontein where the entire one-street town is a National Monument. It was a renowned Victorian health resort where those suffering from lung complaints found respite in the clear dry air.
It was also a station for British troops during the Boer War
and now the beautiful buildings have been restored to allow visitors overnight stays in garden suites, cottages and large creaking rooms in the grand Lord Milner Hotel.
Dress for Dinner
The train departed Matjiesfontein on the sound of the dinner gong, the attraction of which ensured nobody was left behind. Ties are available to those gentlemen that had forgotten and a jacket is expected. This ceremonial dressing for dinner is what makes the whole experience feel special and the chef, creating masterpieces in the cramped kitchen
, rises to the occasion with edible works of art.
Travelling on Rovos Rail is like stepping in and out of a time warp with an ambience of an early twentieth century Englishman's club, with modern comforts and current topics of conversation.
Rohan Vos (thus the name Rovos
) made his fortune in the motor spares industry and in 1988 bought and restored a few vintage railway carriages and a steam locomotive with the idea of running a private little train around the countryside for his family holidays.
When he discovered the costs involved in towing his hotel on wheels
he complained to South African Railways who suggested that he sell tickets. With no experience in trains or tourism he did just that but found that it cost him more in the long run.
He now has a private station in Pretoria with room for his 60 carriages (split into 3 trains) and numerous diesel and steam locomotives
all of which have a full and fascinating history. 'Tiffany' No 349 Class 6 locomotive, was built in 1893 and is now the oldest operating steam locomotive in the world.
I began to realise that Rohan Vos is passionate about accumulating bits of old trains. He is just a bigger boy with bigger toys than most and as he pointed out, they are much more expensive to play with. He guided me around
the wooden skeleton of what was once and will again be a carriage, and I trod on rotting floorboards and shattered glass as I followed him through an old dining car.
Amongst his 170 staff are a team of workmen that can transform a hopeless old wreck into a classic Mahogany-panelled sleeping car
in just 6 weeks. With meticulous restoration they are outfitted in thirties-style with dark woods and heavy rich fabrics evoking pre-war colonial glamour.
Steam Train Railway Sets Winelands Alight
All carriages are pulled by a steam locomotive
at some point during their journey, but Vos has been banned from using them around Cape Town because the cinders set a series of fires ablaze all across the winelands, of which he was blissfully unaware.
The trains operate in either direction from Cape Town to Pretoria with the option to continue to Victoria Falls
. From Pretoria to Komatipoort with a transfer to Kruger Game Park. From Cape Town along the garden route to Knysna and once a year from Cape Town all the way to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.
A full stomach, wine, brandy and the soporific rhythm of the train helps to put you to sleep but occasional stops and starts during the night do not. It usually takes a couple of nights to feel totally relaxed
while your bedroom moves, so it is worth staying on to Victoria Falls.
There are no televisions, radios or newspapers and only an emergency mobile phone as Vos wants to revive the art of conversation
. At times I found myself too lazy to do more than read a book and nibble on the constant supply of nuts and chocolates.
World's Largest Hole Full Of Diamonds
The second day's stop was at Kimberly to look at the worlds largest hand-dug hole and to marvel at the size of the diamonds found there. We lunched at the colonial Kimberly Club where Cecil Rhodes dreamed of a railway from Cape to Cairo and all of Africa under British rule, but I just wanted to get back to our luxurious temporary home and sit in air-conditioned comfort while the heat blazed outside.
The city showed its face by mid-morning on the third day as we skirted Johannesburg and headed towards the administrative capital city of Pretoria.
By this time we were being pulled by steam and as we entered Vos's brand new Edwardian-style station
, the engine was chugging, smoke was puffing, white-gloved porters were waiting and Rohan stood elegantly on the flagged platform where a table offered yet more refreshments. We disembarked as if in a film set, reluctant to get off the most luxurious train railway in the world.
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Copyright © 2002 Carrie Hampton