We love old trains and find them wonderfully romantic, especially those left behind by the British in different parts of the world. But what we love most of all, are the luxury trains splendidly restored with all mod cons. So we booked ourselves a romantic trip, to travel from Capetown to Pretoria on Rovos Rail, arguably the most meticulously refurbished train among those chugging across the world today.
Rumours had preceded our decision and we had heard that Rovos is undoubtedly the most luxurious conveyance in the world. Each cabin they said was supposedly larger than a hotel room. It was even said that you had your own butler but finally we shared our steward with the occupants of the two adjacent compartments.
Reaching the Cape Town train station, we walked towards the Rovos Rail sign and have our luggage collected in a trice, only to reappear later in our cabin. We are then escorted to the train in regal style by one of the many Rovos staff, on a red carpet carrying a tall glass of cool South African champagne.
No sooner had we mounted the six steps to our carriage, when we are caught up in the frenzy which has erupted on board. The mad dash to the observation car out at the back as it was almost 11 oíclock, the magic hour of our departure. The car looks like an expedition truck with its hard benches and railing, and everyone is assembled in the last carriage for the special viewing of the receding Cape town skyline. Itís the start of our epic 1600 km. journey north following an old pioneering trail carved out of the African bush, with a cool glass of champagne in hand and a lot of laughter all round!
The observation car is the hub of the train where tales of travel and gossip are exchanged. Introducing ourselves to one another we find we are a group of newly weds, couples celebrating golden anniversaries, train buffs, perennial travellers and others who never before journeyed on trains and is a dream come true. A large part of the world is represented, with Americans, Koreans, Dutch, Japanese, and a larger than usual collection of Brits. But the singular thread binding us all is that we share in the enthusiasm of the experience.
Over lunch the train chugs through some of the most renowned vineyards in the world , through the Hex River Valley and Worcester. We are served South African Bobotie and are offered a large selection of some of the best South African wines. Not really that knowledgeable about wines, we find a personal favourite named Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc (1998 Estate-Somerset West). We admire the superb Victorian restoration of the dining car with its ten teak pillars giving equal importance to the ever changing scenery outside. Coaches have both numbers and were built in 1924.In 1986 it was found in a derelict state parked in a siding in Alberton before being acquired by Rovos Rail and restored to its pre-War glory.
With all that good food and wine in us, we need a quick lie-down, so we amble off to our huge mahogany-panelled compartment, which takes up one-third of the carriage. There are three proper windows which boast of wonderfully antique louvres that work. The bed is enormous and luxuriously comfortable. Plus we have an air-conditioned en-suite bath and toilet, with every imaginable trimming and comfort.
We are woken up by an announcement that we are about to stop for two hours at Matjesfontein, a quaint village planted in the middle of the wilderness. In the old days, twice in 24 hours, the railway train used to stop when it went up to the diamond and gold fields. Hen the passengers would alight to take their breakfast,then, back they came on the 6pm run for their tea stop.
To accommodate these travellers the charming Hotel Milner with old world, cast-iron decoration was built. Later according to history, with the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, it soon became a sanatorium for army officers, later being turned into staff headquarters where generals stopped for mealsOver the years it feel into disuse, but the Hotel Milner with its quaint pub still stands today and you can continue to dine there on salmon mousse and other old world delicacies.
Our second stop is to visit the world famous diamond mine of Kimberly. The town is approached by a grand Victorian style railway station, iron girders encasing glass over the platform, again recalling a by-gone age. Here we are fed lunch at the famous Kimberly Club haunted by the photographs and ghosts of the diamond barons who had made their fortunes from the mines. Legend has it that Cecil Rhodes accumulated his vast wealth here from the diamond trade. But now for over a century it too has become a ghost town.
We are glad to climb back on board and leave the dry and hot Karoo, to return to the air-conditioned Rovos train. The heat made us order some liquid refreshment,so we wondered if the tiny tab lying on the desk marked- Room Service. Would it work? We placed it on a hook outside on the door frame, place the small tab on it and wait. Within minutes there is a knock and we both blurt- Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc, 1998. A bottle appears before we can relatch the door, thatís service!
The next morning the scenery has changed dramatically as we are chugging towards the skyscrapers of Johannesburg, the largest and most notorious city in sub-Saharan Africa. In the old days, this was the great goldfields of Witwatersrand turned today into the commercial and financial hub of the country. We stop in a small suburban station where our diesel engine is exchanged for two vintage steam locomotives.
Any stop makes a great photo op, so the passengers rally around the newly arrived steam models, photographing each other and the drivers in the quaint locomotives. For the rest of the journey we are assigned goggles to block of any possible soot,but we love it as it reminds of the old trains in India.
At last at noon we arrive at Capital Park. the grand and private Rovos railway station just north of Pretoria. Sadly its time to leave, so we collect our baggage and wave goodbye to the delicious South African champagne.
For bookings: Rovos Rail, Head Office P.O.Box 2837, Pretoria, 0001, RSA Tel: 27-12 323 6052/3/4 Fax 27-12 323 0843 Web: www.rovos.co.za