Victoria Falls - The observation carriage, at the back, is open to the fresh air at the back and sides. I stand with the wind gently blowing my hair as the tracks stretch out before me. The plume of spray above the Victoria Falls becomes smaller as the 21 Rovos Rail carriages are pulled southwards.
In an age of dash and deadlines I am content to be travelling in this retro way, with three days to relax and simply do as I please. It seems deliciously indulgent not to have to plan anything, not to drive a car or worry about a thing, except when to have my first Tanqueray Gin and tonic in this elegant environment.
We had boarded our train – the Pride of Africa – from a red carpet, to the strains of lively music from African singers, at the quaint Victoria Falls Railway Station. Now, in a quiet lounge, with plush chairs in rich, tasteful fabrics, I settle down to gaze out of the window at the Zimbabwean bush. After recent rains the broad-leafed woodland is lush, with colourful flowers decorating the edges of the tracks.
Fellow passengers are chatting to one another, reading some of the leather-bound books that are available, or taking photographs of elephants, herds of zebra and impala grazing within view.
I raise my binoculars to check out white-backed vultures in a Leadwood tree. This sure beats a bumpy game drive at five in the morning.
One couple are playing backgammon and another Scrabble, as they sip tea and nibble on cucumber sandwiches, freshly baked cake and other delicacies. When did I last observe such leisurely pursuits?
I had wondered how Rovos Rail could claim to be “the most luxurious train in the world”, and suspected that it may be hyperbole or artistic licence. However, the cabins are surprisingly spacious for a train, smaller than a South African hotel room, but not unlike a Parisian one. They are sumptuously decorated in greens and gold.
Our cabin, the Deluxe Suite, has exquisite mahogany panels, a double bed, perfectly polished table with two padded chairs, a wardrobe and personal fridge. In a separate bathroom a shower jets ample hot water. To my delight, we are given canvas containers holding rooibos personal care products.
It is tempting to linger in this pleasant space, so I stack the many pillows and sit – with an unread book – as I look out of the windows and let my thoughts flow freely.
When the train stops at Dete station – on the edge of Hwange Game Reserve – scores of youngsters from the local village throng round the carriages, full of curiosity about this beautifully restored passenger train and hoping for a gift of some kind. I feel a little like the wealthy aristocrats of ancient Russia might have felt as they saw the less privileged outside their train, an enforced reality check.
Alighting from the train, I am met by people selling delightful and carefully made curios. They are warm, friendly and responsive to my questions about their wares. I board my carriage the proud owner of a wooden cheeseboard, with a striped mouse at its edge.
Each meal is an event. For dinner, ladies wear evening dresses while the men look dashing in their suits and ties. After drinks before lunch or dinner you may choose between a carriage of older design – with padded, bench-type seats – or a newer one that has tables with individual chairs. Both have heavy drapes at the windows, starched tablecloths and napkins, and designer white crockery. You may sit as you please, on your own, or join new friends.
As four-course menus are served, with wine pairings for each course, it is an excellent opportunity to learn more about wine from the knowledgeable waiters. Carefully selected, the wines are all top-quality and highly rated. No hearty fare here, this is gourmet cuisine and creatively presented.
Vegetarian options are concocted for me and some dishes are the envy of our table. It is not only the food and wine that are special, it is the leisurely pace at which meals unfold.
Each journey has an excursion for passengers willing to leave the cocoon. On this trip the train stops at a private railway station on a stud farm in Botswana. Full of bonhomie, we board Rovos-branded game vehicles to be driven through gloriously verdant bush to the cattle stalls, for a fascinating talk on stud farming. After a pleasant walk – where I collect a few wild flowers for our cabin – we enjoy coffee and a lavish spread, provided by the farmer’s wife, before returning to our train.
Every time we return to our berth, it has been discreetly tidied and supplies topped up by our personal hostess. At night, our shutters are closed, our turndown has been done and lights dimmed. It is romantic indeed. It takes me a while to get used to the occasional jerk of the carriage on the tracks and the momentum of the train, but I am eventually rocked to sleep.
There is great excitement as we reach Pretoria’s Capital Park, where the diesel engine that has brought us this far is replaced by Tiffany, the smallest of the steam locomotives in the Rovos collection. With a high-pitched whistle and a great huffing of steam, she eases forward – in all her glory – and is hitched to our carriages.
Guests, many watching closely from the observation carriage, spontaneously applaud and shout encouragement to her as we are drawn into the splendid precincts of the Rovos Private Railway Station. Rohan Vos – owner and visionary – is there to welcome each of us personally and shake our hands.
What a gracious end to a journey of grandeur and quietude. - Gillian McLaren, Saturday Star
If You Go...
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