‘Train travel reminds that it is about the journey, as much as the destination.
There’s an undeniable romance to train travel, watching the world go by to the rhythmic sound of the tracks. It speaks of a bygone era when great trains forged forward into new frontiers, harnessing steam to link Africa’s south to north, past mountain ranges, through desert landscapes and untamed plains that teemed with wildlife. From the Cape all the way to Cairo, was the dream of the time.
Today it is true that most travel is dictated by ease and convenience, with most opting for the quickest way to cover the distance, usually by plane or by car. Yet luxury train travel remains revered for the pure indulgence that it offers.
Two of the world’s most luxurious trains are South African, the Blue Train and Rovos Rail both holding pride of place next to the likes of the Maharaja and Siberian Express with their flawless reputations as the most authentic trains in the world. Also the Orient Express, made famous by Agatha Christy in Murder She Wrote and still running the legendary route from Paris to Istanbul.
The Blue Train
The Blue Train was born in the 1920s with two original trains known then as the Union Limited and the Union Express, meandering their way as far as the Great African Railway would allow at the time, to the bridge across the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls. The trains were later reincarnated to their distinctive royal blue and cream shades that are so recognisable today.
A carriage-by-carriage refurbishment in the 70s and modernisation from steam to electricity in the 90s, defined the Blue Train as luxurious modern travel, and it gained a reputation as a 5 star hotel-on-wheel and is the pride of the country’s National railways, having hosted Kings, Queens, celebrities and dignitaries for decades.
Today the Blue Train offers weekly overnight trips between Pretoria and Cape Town, or in reverse, and has recently added a route to Hoedspruit, which includes a visit to the Kruger National Park. They offer Luxury and De Luxe suites and each comes with a personal butler and all the modern touches you’d expect of a top hotel.
The history of Rovos Rail starts over 27 years ago when Rohan Vos bought a coach or two with the intention of restoring them and hitching them to South African Railway trains for family holidays. From here it was locomotives and engines that would be lovingly restored and named after his children and today, under the watchful eye of a family whose heart and passion have gone into creating an impeccable service appropriately named, The Pride of Africa.
Onboard the cabins are all aptly named after South African fauna, flora and greats such as Shaka Zulu and Nelson Mandela. I took the trip between Cape Town and Pretoria in an opulent Royal Suite with a huge double bed and electric blanket to ward off the Karoo winter chill and was indulged from start to finish.
There are three types of accommodation available, Pullman, Deluxe and Royal suites. All are air-conditioned, have mini-bars, wood panelling with windows and shutters that open to the endless views, en-suite bathrooms and loads of storage space. There’s even an in-house laundry and ironing service on offer.
Unlike other trains that travel at 100km or more, Rovos has a policy of travelling at 60km per hour. This leisurely pace brings the beauty of the passing landscape to life; that and the occasional stops and driver changes. The observation car and its open-air balcony at the back of the train is undoubtedly the most popular spot to be, whilst the train moves forward.
The 1600km journey between Cape Town and Pretoria takes you through the beautiful barren Karoo, past lonely windmills surrounded by sheep in the fields. On this journey there are stops at the Victorian village Matjiesfontein and an afternoon in Kimberley for a city tour.
Other routes on offer with Rovos are extended journeys to Victoria Falls, their increasingly popular Durban Safari route that includes game drives, battlefields and lessons in the history of the Zulu people and even a retreat to Dar es Salaam, the pen ultimate African train journey.
There’s a rule on-board, no cell phones, iPads or Laptops in public areas, only in your cabin. You dress for dinner on both Rovos and the Blue Train. That’s a jacket and tie for the gentleman and cocktail dress for ladies, which adds a dimension of splendor to an already extraordinary experience.
Adding to their fold, Rovos Rail recently acquired the Shongololo Express and is upgrading it to a new era of travel, at a more affordable 3 star rating which may suit more South Africans pockets.
They are starting with three set itineraries. The Southern Cross, a 15 day journey that offers insight into virtually every well known destination in South Africa. Starting in Cape Town, traversing the Winelands, before Hermanus, Knysna, Oudtshoorn, Graaff Reinet, Kimberley and Bloemfontein. Then on the Spionkop battlefields, Hluhluwe game reserve and the Kingdom of Swaziland, ending with the Kruger Park and Panoramic Route.
Their 12 day Dune Express starts in Pretoria and winds its way towards the coast of Namibia, with stops in Kimberley, Upington, the Fish River Canyon and historical towns of Lüderitz, Kolmanskop and Keetmanshoop ghost town. There’s a stay in Sossusvlei, surrounded by the dramatic dunes of the Namib-Naukluft Park, before making your way to the Etosha National Park and back to the seaside town of Swakopmund.
The third itinerary is the grand 15 day Good Hope, which is offered with or without golf and crosses the country, visiting all major attractions from North to South, and East to West.
On the Shongololo Express there are two types of accommodation, the Gold Cabins and the larger Emerald Cabins. As it stands the rate is not fully inclusive, so lunches and beverages are not included in the ticket price, but this is something that is likely to change in the future. ‘One of our goals is to restore the reputation of the Shongo so that it’s a trusted product in the industry’ – says Brenda Vos of Rovos Rail.
Back on the observation deck on Rovos as my luxury trip came to an end, I began to understand that travel is essentially about the journey and there is no finer way to appreciate it than aboard one of the world’s most luxurious trains.
How soon my body had adjusted to the rhythmic rocking of the train on the tracks – a soothing sound that I longed for, once reluctantly disembarked.
Royal Livingstone Express.
Should you like a taste of luxury train living without the overnight, the Royal Livingstone Express allows you to escape on a late afternoon train journey amidst the Zambian Bushveld. Departing from the Bushtracks Station, the steam locomotive shunts onto the Cape to Cairo Mainline, towards the Victoria Falls Bridge, where you stop for the sunset. Dinner and drinks are served onboard as you head back to town. You may want to combine this with a night or two at the Royal Livingstone Victoria Falls Zambia Hotel by Anantara.
Bookings can be made for the Blue Train at http://www.bluetrain.co.za/, for Rovos Rail at https://www.rovos.com and for the Shongolo Express at http://www.shongololo.com/, both are offered on a fully inclusive of all meals, beverages and excursions basis. Should you wish to book one of the luxury trains entirely for yourself or your group, the option of a private charter is available.
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