See life on the side of the tracks with Rovos Rail

Posted by Emma Odendaal on 8 August 2014

Why choose an antiquated form of transport that turns a two-hour flight into a two-day meander? Because it’s the finest window seat you’ll ever have.

Rovos Rail

Deluxe Suite on Rovos Rail. Photo by Cameron Ewart-Smith

A cup of tea sloshed next to me on a dark wood desk that had been polished to a sheen. The carriage surged forwards with a jolt and a shudder. Through the window were bare vineyards. Just beyond them, peaks decked in snow. Two days earlier I had boarded Rovos Rail at its private station in Capital Park just outside Pretoria. I now sat deep in a leather couch nibbling a cucumber sandwich as the 22-carriage train cut a sluggish, serpentine path through the Hex River Valley bound for Cape Town. We’d covered nearly 1 600 kilometres and I’d realised that whoever said that trains go clickety-clack was sorely mistaken (at least in a South African context); a series of rumbles and jerks interrupted by the shrieking sound of steel against steel is more apt.

Many a storyteller has jumped to the clichés of clickety-clacks and the romance of a bygone era. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Rovos is indeed romantic. Stepping aboard onto the emerald carpets is stepping into a golden age before cellphones and computers. It’s as though the clock hands have become fixed somewhere in the 1920s; teak pillars stretch from the floor arching up towards the ceiling, heavy drapes frame the windows, starched white napkins perch on bespoke porcelain crockery and crystal glasses catch the warm light from lamps. You get funny looks if you wear scruffy old jeans and women wear evening dresses to dinner.

rovos rail, hex valley

Rovos Rail goes through the Hex River Valley. Photo by Cameron Ewart-Smith

But to describe train travel as simply ‘romantic’ is missing out on its real quintessence. It’s too easy to become enraptured by the nostalgia of a grand hotel on wheels. It’s too easy to be trapped in the cliché. You see, on this train there’s a window seat to the world that few know exists. Many have sat in this very place and looked beyond the Champagne flutes in their hands and silver platters weighed heavy with biltong. But did they really see?

I did see. Some things I didn’t want to see. I saw kids begging beside littered tracks, silently hoping they wouldn’t stop outside my berth as they moved from one end of the train to the other. I saw the greedy excitement of Kimberley sales assistants as they pulled out trays glistening with diamonds that danced in their eyes. I saw Emperor’s Palace in all its ostentatiousness, abandoned stations and derelict townships, women bathing in buckets. But I also saw the things I wanted to see – the sun peeping over the horizon, turning Karoo landscapes from honey to caramel, and flocks of flamingos painting the sky pink. South Africa in its proudest, sacrosanct moments.

I’m not sure whether other passengers have looked through the window and seen South Africa in its beautiful, conflicted state. But for me, opening the shutters had bared a world of haves and have-nots. I’d seen the best and worst of our country.

Time made this possible. On board everything slows down to a gentle, steady tempo. The pace of the travel forces you to sit and watch the sun set, because there’s nothing else to do. There’s nowhere you have to be. There are excursions – tours of Kimberley’s Big Hole and the restored Victorian town of Matjiesfontein are included on the journey – but everything about Rovos is contemplative, from the time taken to serve a four-course dinner to sitting in the observation car savouring the last drop of Chardonnay over deep conversations until the wee hours of the morning. Unlike the modern world we live in, where life is always hurried, frenetic – an instant world of snapshots, likes, tweets – you have time to look out the window and contemplate South Africa and drink in what you see.

Everyone has their reason for putting Rovos on their bucket lists. For some, it’s simply about experiencing the train billed as the world’s most luxurious. For others, it’s about the clickety-clacks and the romance of old. Or you could see it as an opportunity to check out of life for 48 hours with no pressure to be anywhere else or with anyone else. And if you take the time to have a cup of tea and look out that window, you may see South Africa too.

Heaven forbid we don’t slow down, stop to look at these things on the side of the road, the good and the bad. Heaven forbid we don’t savour every last drop of Chardonnay.

rovos rail

Rovos Rail’s plush interior. Photo by Cameron Ewart-Smith.


How Rovos Rail began

Rovos was born when businessman Rohan Vos created a sort of moving holiday home for his family in the form of a few private carriages. He quickly realised the magnitude of the maintenance and running costs of a personal hotel on wheels, and turned it into a business venture. In 1989, Spoornet (South African Railways) eventually gave him the go-ahead to use its lines in the then Eastern Transvaal for a four-night Lowveld experience, and two years later the Cape Town to Pretoria route was added to the schedule.

Many traditions have remained since the first train left Pretoria (then powered exclusively by steam). Rohan continues to send off almost every train, shaking the hand of each person who boards. Those who’ve been a guest before are treated as old friends.

What to expect on Rovos Rail

Rovos has the largest overnight berths in the world – hence its claim to being the planet’s most luxurious train – small by hotel standards, but capacious for a train. Three en-suite options are available on all routes. Each Pullman Suite (seven square metres) has a double bed that folds into a seat by day, while the Deluxe Suites (11 square metres) contain a double bed, two armchairs and a small desk. Royal Suites (16 square metres) each take up half a carriage and feature a Victorian claw-foot bathtub. There are never more than 72 guests and each is assigned a host or hostess.

Various routes are offered, the most popular being Pretoria to Victoria Falls (two nights) and Cape Town to Dar es Salaam (13 nights). We did the two-night route between Pretoria and Cape Town.

Costs from R14 300 a person sharing for full board plus excursions.

This story by Emma Odendaal first appeared in the April 2014 edition of Getaway Magazine.

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