140 Rovos Rail

1930s Rail Travel for the Leisured Elite
by Elizabeth Willoughby

If you’re thinking Orient Express, forget it. Think bigger, better and slower. Rovos Rail boasts the most luxurious trains in the world: The Pride of Africa

Rain, rain, go away – I've just arrived at the Capital Park Station in Pretoria, South Africa for a 1,600-kilometre train ride to Cape Town. I've been two weeks in Africa so far – sunny, hot, dry southern Africa – and now the heavens have opened the gates. The parking lot puddles are pools already. I quickly slip through the doors of the station house and enter the grand salon of a century-old novel. What weather?

A warm room of deep reds, greens and beiges, sofas, chairs and soft lighting are comfortably arranged to welcome guests as they arrive. The elegant living room's four sets of French doors open onto a slick tile patio built around a shallow pond centrepiece.

As people fill thick sofas and rattan chairs, canapés and champagne are served and guests mingle until a vintage German Henschel locomotive emerges at the patio's edge. It bursts steam, blows a whistle and the distinct coal-fired smell of a 1920s train station falls upon us. It's time to board the train, whose cars have been refurbished to their original era: a time when transport was part of the journey.

025 Rovos Rail

I'm assigned to one of two cabins in the last 22-metre-long sleeper carriage. I walk along a narrow, carpeted corridor with windows brushing one shoulder and gleaming wooden walls the other until I see my name on a door plate. I slide open the door and step into my sitting room: two upholstered chairs on either side of a table that hides a mini-fridge that is waiting for me to order my stock preferences. To the left is a surprisingly large full bathroom. To the right is my bed, which takes up the entire two-metre width of the room, tempting me to leap into its thick duvet and pillows. I resist.

The warm mahogany walls and doors, forest green carpet, antique-style lamps and pictures of the Belle Epoque give the suite an authentic feel. Were there a gramophone, I'd have wound it and put on a Duke Ellington disc record. Instead, as the train pulls out, I lower the slatted wooden shades and open the windows that line the outer wall. I feel I should wave a white handkerchief and cry out, "Oh pray! How I wish you were coming, Philip," or something equally EM Forster-ish.

A hostess arrives to demonstrate the technicalities of the suite, explain which tag to hang outside the door for the particular service required, advise that no cell phones or laptops should leave the suite since they don't belong in this period, and note our schedule: 4 o'clock is cake and 6 o'clock canapés in the Observation Car; at 7:30, a formal dress dinner will be served in the Dining Car. I want to say, "'Tis too much! By far too much. I do not deserve it," but again restrain myself since Jane Austen was a century too early.

From my sitting room, I watch scenes of Johannesburg pass by: factories, businesses and shanty towns. I close the shutters at train stations when platforms, overflowing with people, are adjacent to my window, then reopen them when we're moving again. The earth dries and the ski clears. The terrain becomes barren fields with an occasional household. I grow tired of talking to myself. "My dear Miss Bennet, let me persuade you to take a turn about the Observation Car. I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude." This time, I don't stop myself.

055 Rovos Rail

Just beyond the smoking lounge, with its stout leather couches and bookshelves, is another lounge – that of the Observation Car. I get a glass of dry, deep-bodied Cabernet-Sauvignon at the bar. It's wonderful, but it's served in a crystal glass and I remain at the bar stool for fear of dropping it. I am dressed for the occasion – walking in high heels on a jerky, slow-moving train might be challenge enough. Plus, there is enough light-coloured clothing in the lounge to raise the stakes of any spillage of red wine. Another guest orders fruit juice. The bartender raises an eyebrow. "I'll have wine next time," says the guest. "I certainly hope so, sir," says the bartender.

In time, I feel brave enough to leave the counter, picking up some biltong (dried meat) from a tray as I pass by sofas on my way to the covered deck outside. Cake has also been served, but I decide to wait for the canapés. Everyone is engaged in conversation. I somehow become involved in one about journeys.

The landscape has turned to grassy fields and the train slows to a crawl as we come alongside a lake. I see why. Thousands of pink flamingos are gathered in the shallow waters, just as Mr Winterbottom, the train manager, had promised. We're lucky – the last time Mr Winterbottom made that promise, there were only about four birds wading there, he says, which cast his credibility into serious doubt.

While I'm changing into my evening dress, the melodic notes of – a xylophone? – pass my suite, announcing dinner. The Dining Car is a showcase for the leisured elite of the Edwardian era. Eight long cars away from me, most of the tables are filled by the time I arrive, but I dine with a British couple who arrive even later. Fun conversation takes us through a four-course gourmet meal, glasses of various fine wines, the cheeses and biscuits that follow and, eventually, nightcaps in the Observation Car, which, through good fortune, is situated close to my suite. Happily, breakfast will be served until 10 o'clock tomorrow. As I climb into my cosy bed at last, I mumble, "It was three in the morning when Philip left the realms of common sense. He was so weary with travelling that he had fallen asleep in the train." And so did I.

030 Rovos Rail

Pretoria to Cape Town and The Pride of Africa

South African businessman Rohan Vos has spent over 20 years restoring vintage carriages into Belle Époque dining cars, lounge cars and suites, and expanding the Rovos Rail train journeys beyond South Africa's borders to such destinations as Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, Swakopmund in Namibia and Cairo in Egypt. He restored the original running gear of the early to mid-20th-century trains that provide for the slow and leisured trips that cross the continent.

There are other companies that provide train travel with first class facilities, but Rovos Rail has something unique: atmosphere. The modernities are selective and hidden so as not to detract from the Edwardian period that Vos has created so deliberately.

In line with first class travel is Rovos Rail's cuisine. Taking advantage of South Africa's excellent beef, game, fresh seafood and produce, onboard chefs are able to offer daily changing menus. Guests choose from three main courses each lunch and dinner, such as grilled Cape rock lobster tails with saffron mash and lemon butter sauce, braised kingklip with mashed potatoes, garlic and zucchini, or simply a four-cheese cappelloni on wilted greens. The sensible portions allow guests to enjoy each of the dinner's four courses comfortably. The wine list is personally selected by Anthea Vos, Rohan's wife, who provides an exceptional selection beautifully suited to the dishes.

The luxury doesn't stop there. Vos has built wealth and history not only into the trains, but into the schedule as well. En route to Cape Town, the train stops at Kimberly for a prearranged 2.5-hour tour of the Big Hole – the world's largest manmade diamond excavation from the mid-1800s – and the diamond museum, where one can learn the history of the Big Hole and see a display of rough and cut diamonds of various sizes and colours in the vault.

130 Kimberley

The next day, it stops at Marjiesfontein, a historic town that Jimmy Logan, an enterprising young Scotsman, turned into a Victorian health and holiday resort for the rich and famous of the late 1800s. Today it's a tiny town of restored public buildings, museums, cafes, restaurants and homes, many offering accommodation.

After that, the scene changes to mountain ranges and vineyards until the train pulls into downtown Cape Town nestled below Table Mountain. Here, guests step off the train and back into real time, back into the 21st century and waiting taxis, yet somehow the mind is still swaying to a different rhythm – the one picked up on the Pride of Africa.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2009

This article was published at © 2009 and with permission at Global Writes 2010

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