The International Writers Magazine: Best World Train Journeys
The Most luxurious train in the world
Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger
I love old trains especially those splendidly restored with all mod cons. And so I jumped at the chance to travel from Capetown to Pretoria on Rovos Rail, perhaps the most meticulously refurbished train in existence.
Rumours had preceded my decision. I had heard that Rovos is undoubtedly the most luxurious conveyance in the world. Your cabin is supposedly larger than a hotel room. It was even said that you had your own butler (as it turned out I had to share my steward with the occupants of the two adjacent compartments).
In the Capetown train station, I gravitate into the orbit of Rovos Rail and have my luggage whipped away only to reappear later in my cabin. I too am escorted to the train in regal style by one of the many Rovos staff flitting about…on a red carpet carrying a tall glass of cool South African champagne.
No sooner had I mounted the six steps to my carriage, when I am caught up in the frenzy on board. The mad dash to the back observation car has started for it was almost 11 o’clock, the magic hour of our departure. Built with an open balcony which resembles an expedition truck (hard benches and railing), all passengers are assembled in the last carriage for the special viewing of the receding Capetown skyline. We are about to begin our 1600 km. journey north following an old pioneering trail carved out of the African bush, with a cool glass of champagne in hand.
||The observation car is the hub of the train where tales of travel and gossip are exchanged. We are a group of newly weds and couples celebrating golden anniversaries, train buffs, perennial travellers and others who never before journeyed on trains and for whom this is a dream of a lifetime. There are Americans, Koreans, Dutch, Japanese, and a larger than usual collection of Brits. But even the most sophisticated among us share in the enthusiasm of this experience.
Over lunch our path takes us through some of the most famous vineyards in the world , through the Hex River Valley and Worcester. We eat South African Bobotie and are offered a large selection of some of the best South African wines. Among these I find my own personal favourite --- Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc (1998 Estate-Somerset West). But I am too busy examining the superb Victorian restoration of the dining car with its ten teak pillars to notice the ever changing scenery. Coaches have both numbers and names and this was Coach No.195 known as ‘Shangani’. Built in 1924, it was found in 1986 in a derelict state parked in a siding in Alberton before being acquired by Rovos Rail and restored to its pre-War glory.
Surely it is now time for a lie-down and so I amble off to my huge mahogany-panelled compartment (which takes up one-third of the carriage, although I later discover that the royal suites are actually considerably bigger and occupy half the carriage). There are three proper windows which, to my delight, open when you learn to maneuver the louvres. Day and night configurations of the huge bed are identical, absolutely perfect for me, since I often like to do my sightseeing horizontally. Nor is there any need of stealthy runs down the corridor (carpeted and panelled of course ) to the lavatories. I am the proud possessor of an air-conditioned en-suite with every imaginable trimming and comfort. And, for that midnight thirst, there is a complimentary mini bar stocked with liquid refreshments of all shapes and sizes including that wonderful cool champagne served earlier.
|My siesta is cut short by an announcement that we are about to stop for two hours at Matjesfontein, a quaint village planted in the middle of the wilderness. 200 empty miles from anywhere, it possesses however quite a noble history. Twice in 24 hours the railway train used to sweep by, mornings when the Cape train went up to the diamond and gold fields, when the passengers would alight here to take their breakfast. Then, back they came on the 6pm run for a half-an-hour’s tea stop.
To accommodate the travellers the charming Hotel Milner was constructed with a lavish amount of cast-iron decoration. Completed at 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 meals. At the turn of the century, alas, the world’s priorities changed and health resorts such as Matjisfontein soon fell out of favour. The new seaside resorts now much in vogue were reached by different roads and only milk trains made their stops here. But the Hotel Milner with its delightful pub still stands today and you can continue to dine here on salmon mousse and other delicacies. The royal suite, we were informed, was even occupied by Mrs. Thatcher and husband on holiday.
Once back on the Rovos, the next eighteen hours pass in a delirium of good food, sparkling wine and sleep. The momentum is interrupted only by a second stop to visit the diamond mine of Kimberly. The town is approached by a fine Victorian railway station, iron girders encasing glass over the platform, again recalling a by-gone age. Here we lunch at the famous Kimberly Club haunted by the photographs and ghosts of the diamond barons who had made their fortunes from the mines during the Belle Epoque. Cecil Rhodes accumulated his vast wealth here from the diamond trade. But for over a century it too has been a backwater.
||Besieged during the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, it was here that the famous Black Watch Regiment suffered so intensively at the hands of the Boers, unable to advance or retreat in the intense heat. The show-piece, of-course, is the Big Hole, the largest man-made excavation in the world, where millions of tons of ore were removed by the world’s fortune hunters seeking to make a handsome profit.
How very welcoming to leave the dry and hot Karoo to return once again to the delights of the cool Rovos train. In need of some liquid refreshment, I spy a tiny tab lying on the desk marked- Room Service. Would it work? I find a hook outside on the door frame, place the small tab on it and wait. Within minutes there is a knock. I ask for a glass of my Vergelegen Sauvignon Blanc, 1998. A bottle appears before I am able to relatch the door. The next hours of sight seeing are done in my favourite reclining position, sipping the cool wine and munching Carya nuts, a local variant of pecans.
|The next morning over breakfast the scenery has changed dramatically. We are now leaving the Orange Free State towards the skyscrapers of Johannesburg, the largest and most notorious city in sub-Saharan Africa. In former days, of-course, it was the scene of the great goldfields of Witwatersrand. Today the commercial and financial centre of the country , it is also its heart and soul. We stop only briefly, not in the capital, but in a small suburban station. Here we exchange our diesel engine for two vintage steam locomotives with which we will make the rest of the journey.
It is a festive stop and 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 (against any possible soot). How dramatic to arrive steam hauled!
At last at noon we arrive at Capital Park. the fancifully restored private Rovos railway station just north of Pretoria. We alight, identify our baggage and…just one last time, drink yet another glass of that delightful South African champagne.
INFORMATION IF YOU GO:
Rovos Rail, Head Office P.O.Box 2837, Pretoria, 0001, RSA
Tel: 27-12 323 6052/3/4
Fax 27-12 323 0843
The 48 hour 1600 km journey between Cape Town and Pretoria (or Pretoria-Capetown), with off-train excursions in Kimberley and Matjiesfonstein in a Pullman is $1700, in deluxe or royal suite $2300 and $3400 respectively in double occupancy, all meals and alcohol included.
**Hoping to restart once Covid restrictions are lifted later in 2021 - but you will need to be vaccinated.
© Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger Feb 2011 (RIP 2021)