Jul 8, 2020
Though leisure travelers tend to explore Africa’s natural spoils on four-wheel drives, some of the most sublime experiences often occur by rail. Rovos Rail, hailed as the most luxurious train on the Continent, leads the charge by blending the classic grandeur of yesteryear’s train journeys with modern-day comforts. Having just celebrated 30 years in operation, the South Africa-based train company traverses the wondrous Southern region of the continent with journeys ranging from two-day to two-week multinational experiences which span South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. The “Pride of Africa” shall re-introduce its service in September with enhanced COVID-19 safety practices, and is ready to prove that train travel is still today’s most sumptuous form of transport.
What started as a passion project for locomotive enthusiast Rohan Vos in the late 80’s has blossomed into Africa’s most prestigious rail company. The family-run operation owns a fleet of four vintage trains, which have been painstakingly re-modeled to harken to a bygone era of early 20th Century travel. Each hunter-green-painted vessel shuttles up to 72 passengers through Southern Africa’s vast and varied landscapes, trundling no swifter than 60 km/h on any given route.
Inside, wood paneling and furnishings, antique lights and assorted vintage seating set the elegant tone on-board. All trains include a dining car, a lounge car, a smoker’s lounge, and a spacious, open-air observatory car in the rear, a prime locale from which to relish sunsets over the terrain.
All Rovos guests enjoy stately sleeping quarters, which include en-suite bathrooms, lounge space, and double or twin beds. Paintings depicting South African history adorn the wood-paneled walls of each air-conditioned suite, which come in three categories. Standard Pullman Suites’ main quarters morphs from sofa couch lounges during the day into bedrooms after evening turn-down service; Deluxe Suites have more room and standalone sitting areas; and the Royal Suites are the most spacious, with Victorian bathtubs in the light-filled bathrooms. The latter two suite categories have stocked mini-fridges, and all suites include generous boxes of snacks and treats and amenity kits.
The dining cars, for many, might be Rovos Rail’s pièce de résistance. A few of the remodeled dining quarters feature a series of carved, roof-propping wooden columns and arches complemented by plush green button-leather seating. Breakfast and lunch are served here (a daily afternoon tea occurs in the lounge), but it’s dinnertime where the venue becomes a glamorous affair. Future guests should be sure to pack their finest threads for the formal, four course evening meals, where delights like lamb chops with stuffed aubergine and plump grilled Cape Rock lobster tails with haricot-flavored bisque cream are served under candlelight. The accompanying wine list features all South African selections, ranging from Chenin Blanc and Pinotage to Merlot and sparkling varieties.
The most popular route is the two-day, 1,000-mile journey from Pretoria to Cape Town—where grasslands transform into semi-arid desert and mountainous landscapes—but there are several great possibilities. Within South Africa are a three-day Durban safari and a unique golf safari route, both of which include a daytime game drive for Big Five animal-spotting opportunities.
Further afield, the nine-day Pretoria-Namibia route promises some of Africa’s most dramatic natural sights, from stops at the Fish River Canyon (the world’s second largest canyon) to the otherworldly sand dunes of Sossusvlei. Perhaps the ultimate journey is the Cape Town-Dar es Salaam route, a 15-day odyssey which traverses five countries: the experience includes overnight lodge stays, safari walks, and other thrilling activities.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
In order to maintain the peaceful, nostalgic ambience on-board, Rovos Rail prohibits cell phone calls and laptops in public spaces. There is no WiFi onboard, and cell phone reception tends to be poor in the more isolated areas of the itineraries. Flexibility for one’s post-train plans are necessary as scheduled train stop timings often suffer severe delays due to South Africa's chronic network rail issues.
BEYOND THE TRAIN
If a city is one’s destination after the train service, allot some time to explore South Africa’s urban offerings.
Cape Town, for instance, is arguably the most beautiful city on Earth—cable car ascents to the iconic Table Mountain, scenic hikes along Lion’s Head or riding along one of the globe’s greatest coastal drives (Chapman’s Peak) are solid choices to make the most of it. For shopping, the sprawling V&A Waterfront along the waterfront hosts the brand names, while the quirky, multi-faceted Old Biscuit Mill is where one can find boutique brands as well as superb restaurants.
Edgy Johannesburg is debatably the most style-conscious city in South Africa. Soak in the artsy atmosphere of the Maboneng neighborhood and its world-class collection of street art, and where fashion boutiques and new bars seem to pop-up every month. Sandton City is a must for any serious fashion enthusiast, comprising hundreds of stores ranging from local boutiques to world-renowned luxury brands such as Prada and Jimmy Choo. Culturally, museums here are both top-notch and soul-stirring, especially the Apartheid Museum and the Soweto-based Hector Peterson Museum which shed light on the country’s tumultuous past.
Rovos Rail journeys are expected to resume service in September 2020.
As the current pandemic might exist for some time, Rovos Rail will enforce new measures for passenger and staff safety for all routes: masks must be worn in public areas; mealtimes with be staggered for social distancing; sanitization dispensers and alcohol wipes will be stocked in common areas and suites; and guests and staff will undergo daily temperature checks.
Browse our special edit below to inspire your journey.