“Look!” I cried, “ostrich!” But by the time my husband looked up, and by the time I’d grabbed my camera, the ostriches were gone. So my husband didn’t believe me. “You’re imagining things again,” he said, referencing a trip to California and my desperate desire to see both sea otters and whales. It took another 24 hours before I finally snapped an ostrich, and he believed me.
I’ve always loved the idea of train travel, growing up on a farm near the railway line, watching the trains whisking passengers to the cities north and south of us. I’ve loved the mystery of the journey and the destination, and when we’re travelling, we often try to travel by train. So on a trip to South Africa, we discovered there was a classic route from Pretoria in the High Veld, down to Cape Town on the Atlantic Ocean. We could have taken a regular passenger train, or the luxurious and pricy Blue Train. But we chose Rovos Rail. An old, still luxurious train in the tradition of the great train journeys, Rovos Rail takes over two days and nights to make the journey, making its way leisurely through the amazing countryside of South Africa.
We left from the private Rovos station at Pretoria, where passengers were checked in at the large, comfortable departure lounge, treated with champagne as we admired the original steam train. The President of the company welcomed us, then one by one we were called to board.
We were in the simplest, least expensive of cabins, but in all other ways enjoyed the same experiences as the other passengers: the exhilaration of standing on the viewing deck watching Africa go by, meeting the other passengers keen on trains or travel or both; the elegant high tea served each afternoon in the observation car, with its large windows, comfortable armchairs, and stunning vistas. Wherever I was on the train, I was spell-bound by the view through the windows. The landscape changed constantly, from the flat plains to deserts to rivers and mountains. I couldn’t read, or doze in our cabin. I stared transfixed out the window, loving the barren scenery, excited at those first ostriches I’d seen on our trip, thrilled to capture some springboks on my camera. There was no doubt that we were looking out at Africa, and it was thrilling to me.
A highlight of the trip was eating dinner in the dining car. Each evening after freshening up in our cabins – and perhaps indulging in the champagne in the mini-bar as the sun set outside – chimes would ring (a staff member with a xylophone) outside our doors, calling us to dinner. Feeling as if we were on the Orient Express and sure to bump into Hercule Poirot, the men arrived in their jackets and ties and the ladies dressed up in their best (travel hardy) finery. And as the train made its way through the expanse of South Africa, we were served a delicious meal and some really excellent local wines. (I’ve read the occasional bad review of the food, but we had no problems with it, in fact, I was surprised how good it was coming from such a tiny kitchen.) Intimate tables for two allowed for romance, and tables of four meant that we were sure to meet some new friends.
Our train left on Friday afternoon. On Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast in the dining car, and after the train slowed to pass the lake full of 20,000 flamingoes, we arrived in Kimberley. A tour of the Big Hole was arranged, a fascinating look at the beginning of South Africa’s diamond industry, and entry into the vault to see diamonds of all shapes and sizes. Much to my husband’s relief, I showed little interest in the diamond stores where we could buy some glittery treats. I’ve always said I’d rather travel than have diamonds (not being able to afford both), and our trip on Rovos Rail was living proof of this.
By Sunday morning a cold storm had blown through, with temperatures plummeting and the old train’s draughty corridors becoming chilly, though the rooms and public areas remained well heated. So we decided to waive the option to take a 5 km walk across the Karoo (the dry desert plains) before arriving in Matjiesfontein, and stayed on the train eating a late, lazy breakfast. We did disembark though to explore Matjiesfontein, a tiny village set in the midst of the Karoo that was once a popular resort. We felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere.
The train then made its way down to Cape Town. The journey through the winelands revealed a startling beauty I had not expected in South Africa – the tips of the mountains tinged with new overnight snow, the vines lush and green, full of promise of depth of colour, full body, and plummy flavours. A final lunch in the dining car, a final champagne in the observation car. As we made our way into Cape Town, we realised we were re-entering the real world. All too often the worst part of towns are on the train tracks, and our train made its way through the townships and slums of the poorest parts of Cape Town. I felt uncomfortable then, standing on a luxury train holding my last glass of bubbly, watching groups of children playing in the dirt outside tin shacks. But I remembered my early years on a farm not far from the main trunk line, and I remembered what a thrill it was to connect with people on a train, to wonder where they’d come from and where they were going, to wonder if they saw us. So I waved at the children. Excited, they jumped up and down and waved back, grinning and laughing with me.
Note: We plan to take Rovos Rail on the Pretoria – Victoria Falls route sometime in the future.