Rohan Vos is a septuagenarian South African, and CEO of Rovos Rail. He has the swagger and charisma associated with Britain’s Sir Richard Branson. Branson’s dream was to revolutionize travel and, the Vos vision saw the one-time car salesman launch, in 1989, a railway network that he unashamedly calls, “The Most Luxurious Train in The World.”
We were intrigued by the prospect of a train trek from Cape Town, South Africa to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe with a one day stop off in Pretoria, the factory and train yard hub of the Vos rail empire.
Right from the get--go Rovos Rail cast a spell over us. At Cape Town boarding the train--no less than 21 carriages--was an exercise in being pampered and petted as if visiting royalty. Rovos Rail have their own reception building replete with lush sofas, a violin and guitar musical duo, and a raft of champagne flutes.
Once on the train we had to marvel at what Vos has done to revive the glory of colonial African travel. His 360 personnel workforce have pulled apart and lovingly restored a series of carriages so that fine brass fixtures set off mahogany paneling, and the total ambiance is about catering to every whim.
Cabins have a spacious double bed, four windows, a writing table and an adjoining mini-space with toilet and shower. The air--conditioning system can be adjusted by an in--room monitor and an ever attentive female butler saw to it that our “space” was prepped as if ready for a military inspection.
Meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner- not forgetting afternoon tea) were served in three dining cars. One could sit as a two--some or join up to make a four. The service was very good. Indeed, on our first leg--Cape Town to Pretoria--our sommelier, Michela Harrison was first class. She was personable, swift and poured a generous measure.
Rovos Rail journeys, are all-inclusive so wine, indeed every imaginable concoction, is part and parcel of the overall cost. There is no annoyance of having to produce a credit card. With each meal the dining car workforce have a “chosen” wine to pair up with their menu selection. Rohan Vos is passionate about things South African so don’t look for a New Zealand or French or Californian wine on his list.
“The Pride of Africa” (our train name) had 33 South African varieties. Penny really liked a red called “Warwick Trilogy”-- “…perfumed…earthy and provocative.” We both enthused over a Rose that despite its French sounding name-- “Pierre Jourdan Tranqville”--was indubitably South African.
At the back of our “Pride of Africa” was an open--air observation car. Vos, ever the innovator and architectural wizard, based his design on the caboose balcony designed for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s when he traversed the United States and used a train setting as his pulpit and podium.
On our journey’s first leg we had two stops. The first was at Matjiesfontein, a quaint little village with an antique automobile museum. Quite fun to see the open air Daimler used by a visiting monarch (King George VI) in 1947. On his arm is a youthful, daughter Elizabeth. Now as Queen Elizabeth she is the sovereign head of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Our second stop was at Kimberley for an arranged tour of the Diamond Mine Museum. When nicely situated on an opulent train with every available amenity clambering up and down a mine shaft did not feature on our to do list.
During the Pretoria to Victoria Falls section of the trek the train switched from electric to diesel power as it crossed the border and entered Zimbabwe. The one designated halt was an afternoon tour of the Hwange National Park. While we have all seen, on innumerable PBS nature programs, elephants enjoying a bath and shower at a water hole to see it in real life is something special. A bonus was to see a mother prop up her weeks old baby whose center of equilibrium was not what it should be! An evening camp fire, courtesy of Rovos Rail, “served up” a gorgeous blood red sunset framed by the distinctive calls of maurading jackals.
Plane travel--mostly--does not lend itself to tête-a-têtes. Train travel does. We met on “The Pride of Africa” an Afrikaner retired female lawyer who knew the various legal entities who had been involved in the trials surrounding the tragic shooting death of Oscar Pistorius’s girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Then we chatted with a successful Welsh businessman called Rob Thompson. He read in the Sunday Times that Gipsy Moth IV, the famous yacht that Sir Francis Chichester sailed single--handedly round the world (1966/1967), was headed to the scrap yard. He and partners came together, rescued it and now--refitted and resurrected—the boat serves as a training vessel for teenager’s eager to be a modern--day Chichester.
It was American actress “Bette” Davis who was said to have uttered the iconic words, “Fasten your seatbelts. It is going to be a bumpy ride.” Her rubric might fit in with a complete accounting of Rovos Rail. With a train gauge of only 3’6” the carriages do not have an especially broad base so there is, in motion, a degree of shuddering and shaking. While we never saw anyone take a dive the occasional train jolts metaphorically kept all passengers on their toes!
From Pretoria to Victoria Falls the train stopped at sidings in the “small hours” and that made for an easier transition into the Land of Nod. Perhaps the best recipe for “shut eye” was advanced by Rohan Vos. He recommended a “tipple” last thing at night served up in the bar adjoining the observation cor.
We had high expectations for our Cape Town to Victoria Falls trip…and they were met. Rovos Rail is a testament to a South African entrepreneur who loves what he does. He personally greeted us at Cape Town and Pretoria and commented that not everyone has an adult sized toy train set to be at the center of their life.
WANT TO GO THERE?
We would strongly recommend a direct connection with Rovos. They will arrange a series of “link” tour guide people who are adept at taking the kinks out of what can be tortured travel!
For everything going on in all of South Africa’s game parks check in with www.echoafricasafaris.com.
Scott A.G.M. Crawford is a professor emeritus at Eastern Illinois University and a freelance writer who lives in Charleston.