A journey back in time – Rovos Train South Africa
by Marion Smith
The puritanical ride of the spic-and-span African tracks
“quick darling come and look at these goggles what could they possibly be for?” We both stood in our Deluxe suite on board what has been dubbed the most luxurious train in the world trying to ascertain what two people would do with a single set of goggles.
Within minutes our hostess Celine arrived to give us a run down of our room and its contents and explained the goggles were to prevent bugs landing in our eyes should we choose to stick our head out of the moving train and feel the warm African air on our face.
A journey on the Pride of Africa – the name of the train – is a much a journey into a grand colonial past as it is a geographical one. The rooms are furnished with fine furniture, wall to wall of a shiny wooden interior, and a bath room with victorian taps in the shower. Your every need is catered for, from bath robes and slippers, to a miniature kettle with an array of tea and coffee to choose from. During turn down we were surprised to find that Celine had taken the time to complete a small weather card for the following day so that we knew what to expect in terms of temperature for our off the train excursions.
In keeping with the nostalgic atmosphere, guests are encouraged to only use their cell phones and laptops in the privacy of their rooms. There are no televisions on board either, one can enjoy playing a board game or just sitting back in the lounge and enjoy chatting to the other guests. Meal times are set and dinner is a 5 star affair with formal attire being worn.
Yes, you can drink to much wine, my Fiancé and I learned very quickly to smile and say “no thank you” as the waitron approached with yet another bottle of Cape wine saying to us “ this is best coupled with the duck that you are eating:” Each course comes with a recommended wine and while wine coupled with the correct food gives the perfect touch to ones palete, it does become a little bit difficult to stand up on a moving train and walk back to your coach while trying to look poised.
We had set out on a three day journey from Durban to Pretoria. The first question on anyones lips was “ how could it possibly take three days to travel this distance” well its quite easy. There is no rush. In keeping with the Victorian era the train does not travel faster than 60km per hour. It stops so that everyone can disembark and enjoy the various excursions.
When we pulled out of Durban station we rushed to the observation car on the train where one can sit outside and listen to the sound of the train on the tracks and smell the warm, humid air that KZN is so well known for. After a while the novelty wears off as your ears start to ring and we moved inside to the lounge to enjoy the air conditioned environment while drinking the first of many amarula’s .
The train travels in a north westerly direction towards Pietermaritzburg. We enjoyed lunch in the dinning car while the train traversed the spectacular Valley of a Thousand hills. The first stop was at Lions River Station where we disembarked and went to visit the Ardmore Ceramics gallery. Fee Halsted moved to Ardmore Farm where she met Bonnie Ntshalintshali who was unable to work due to her polio they developed an instinctive working synergy and under Fee’s mentorship , Bonnies natural creative skills as an artist blossomed. Five years later, in 1990, Fee and Bonnie were jointly awarded the prestigious Standard Bank Young artist award, the first such artistic partnership ever to be recognised. We walked around the farm and enjoyed listening to the stories about the different artists and their areas of expertise. The afternoon ended with tea out on the lawns over looking the river that runs through the farm.
Day two saw us wake up full of energy eager to see what the day would produce. We were not disappointed. Early arrival at the dinning cart meant that we could eat some of the very tasty figs that were layed out for breakfast. We made our way to Ladysmith station where we disembarked, our shuttle bus was waiting for us and drove us to the Foothills of the Drakensburg. We arrived at Spionkop Lodge where owner and Historian, Raymond Heron welcomed us. He lead us to the lookout point where we could see the Tugela river flowing in the distance.
After our photo moment we where seated under some indigenous thorn trees where Raymond conveys the story of what he has dubbed “The South Africa War” . We hung onto every word feeling as enthusiastic as Raymond about our heritage. For a brief moment I was taken back to the history lessons at school that I so enjoyed. We then proceeded down to the lodge where we could amble around and enjoy the tranquility of the lodge and its surroundings. History lesson over, we traveled back to the train to indulge in our four course meal for lunch. We are served roast duck breast with galette and fresh ribbon vegetables as the main meal and finish off with baby pears poached in a sweet red – wine reduction served with vanilla -bean ice cream and mint garnish.
After such a scrumptious affair the temptation to retire to our room and lye down was great. After some freshening up we joined everyone else and disembarked at Elandslaagte Station where we were met by game rangers ready to whisk us off to Nambiti Game reserve, a private Big Five bush retreat set on 20,000 acres of malaria free bush veld. We spent three hours driving around in pursuit of the ever evasive lions. They were eventually spotted by our game ranger at a distance. Next on the list was the Rhino, heading in the opposite direction we encountered the oldest elephant bull in the reserve, he was walking down the road in front of us and adamant that he was not moving. The slow movement of the vehicle allowed us opportunity to revel in the magnificent African sunset and take some beautiful pictures. We never got to see the rhino but did see hippos peering out of the dam, plentiful specifies of buck and my favourite the giraffe and zebra. Exhausted we returned to the train to be met by the staff with hot face clothes and champagne and orange juice.
Dinner that night was seared springbok lion with port and black cherry demi-glace set on stir fried vegetables and a creamy Parmesan cauliflower mash. Stomachs full and lots to speak about, the guests gathered in the observation lounge for drinks. The night was enjoyed by all and slowly people retired to their rooms.
Next morning we open our eyes and realise that this was our final day aboard, we quickly opened the shutters and enjoyed the crisp morning air. A day cannot start for me without a cup of coffee. I chose the Kenyan coffee and my zealous fiancé made me a cup. We sat together and savoured the moment wishing it would last forever.
Nothing lasts forever as we suddenly realise when we heard the chimes moving down the passage reminding us that it was breakfast time. We found our favourite table in the dinning car and sat down and enjoyed breakfast. The train departed Voortuitsig and continued Northwest across the Highveld towards Balfor and then on to Heidelberg. After lunch we started packing our bags, the final scuffle to ensure we have everyone’s contact details and Facebook names. Then in great anticipation we stood on the observation deck to see the steam locomotive named Shaun attached to pull us into the private Rovos Station in Pretoria. We had arrived at our destination. I was slow in leaving the station to get to the Gautrain so while I waited for our Uber to collect us we had the privilege to meet Rohan Vos, what a warm hearted gentleman he was. We were extremely happy that we got to meet the man with so much vision and passion. What a memorable experience it had been. With hugs and waves goodbye to new found friends the glamour and old world charm had come to an end. The experience will forever stay high on my list of favourite adventures.
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