The romance of train travel is alive and well in South Africa and beyond and luxurious trains transport guests through spectacular landscapes, with regular stops along the way to visit the key sights. As much as South African road trips are synonymous with the country’s big skies, wide-open roads and conveniently placed ‘padstals’ that burst with homemade confectionary and freshly picked produce, there’s an even better way to explore this diverse and beautiful country, and that’s by luxury rail.
Surrender control of the wheel for time spent relaxing to the beat of the tracks as you meander through the land with Rovos Rail – one of the world’s most famous luxury trains – stopping for select excursions that bring insight into the areas you visit. Depending on the route you choose, here are ten of the highlights of luxury train travel in South Africa with Rovos Rail.
1. Step back in time in Matjiesfontein, Karoo
In the picturesque village of Matjiesfontein about 300km north of Cape Town, step into a bygone era in a place where little has changed over the past 100 years. The town was founded by charismatic James Logan in 1890. He bought a farm, built a grand house and set up a small refreshment hotel and rest stop for the passengers of the Cape Governments Railways.
Today the attractions are the iconic Lord Milner Hotel, manicured gardens, a large reservoir swimming pool, a tearoom and a collection of impressive museums. You’ll enjoy a tour in the London Red Bus; it takes about five minutes to go around the village. Make sure to spend time in the museum under the station, which is packed with artifacts and interesting stories from the South African Anglo Boer War. You may hear tales of ‘Tommy’ – the ghost of a wounded British soldier who has been said to visit the town on occasion. Have a drink at the Laird’s Arms and if you’re lucky John the Entertainer may play you something on the honkytonk piano.
2. Sparkle in Kimberley – the Diamond City, Northern Cape
Rich in history and home to the first electric street light in the Southern Hemisphere, Kimberley in the Northern Cape is fondly referred to as the Diamond City. Your time here will start with a visit to the Big Hole mine complex, where you’ll have the opportunity to absorb the magnitude of the world’s largest (reputedly) man-made excavation.
From the time the Big Hole’s first diamond was discovered, thousands of claims popped up as would-be miners rushed from their respective corners of the world to try and make their millions. With digging commencing in 1871, the once lonely hilltop soon saw millions of tons of ore removed as hopeful diggers rummaged hundreds of meters underground. The Big Hole is also home to the Diamond Museum, which shows how diamonds are transformed from a rough cut to the exquisite engagement ring in a jeweller’s window.
3. Visit the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, KwaZulu-Natal
If time is on your side when arriving in Howick in KwaZulu-Natal, you’ll be taken to visit the Nelson Mandela Capture Site. In 1962 police waved down a car on a lonely country road. At the wheel was Nelson Mandela, posing as chauffeur David Motsamayi. The arrest would lead to a succession of court cases that would ultimately see Mandela spend 27 years in prison.
Today this site is marked by a museum and a striking sculpture. From a distance, by optical illusion, fifty steel poles of varying heights form an image of Mandela’s face. It’s a moving and iconic representation and you’ll want to find exactly the right spot for a photo.
4. Enjoy unrestrained imaginings at Ardmore Ceramics, KwaZulu-Natal
Ardmore Ceramics are internationally renowned for their surreal and exuberant sculptures. Their work celebrates South Africa’s endangered species and offers a blend of animals and art in imaginatively moulded bowls, teapots, platters, fabrics and collections. Established by Fée Halsted and Bonnie Ntshalintshali, Ardmore Ceramics has over the years trained and encouraged local artists to express their spirit and imagination.
Today, Ardmore Ceramics tells a story that goes far deeper than simple pottery; rather, it has become a story about the Zulu people, and their sense of rhythm, colour, dance and song. You’ll have tea after your tour and the opportunity to take in the views across the surrounding rolling hills, as well as to consider a purchase or two in the shop.
5. Learn lessons from the frontline at Spionkop Battlefields, KwaZulu-Natal
Stop in the historic KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields for a lesson in the events of the renowned Spionkop battle with expert and raconteur Ray Herron. Ray will talk you through the history of the area, with emphasis on the Anglo Boer War and the influence the conflict had on the country’s future.
The Spionkop battlefield is also famous for another reason. It was here that three extraordinary men, who would one day influence the course of world history, crossed paths. They were Louis Botha (the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa), Winston Churchill and Red Cross ambulance volunteer, Mahatma Gandhi.
6. Go on safari in Nambiti Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Disembark at Elandslaagte for a 4×4 game drive in the private Nambiti Conservancy Game Reserve – 20,000 acres of malaria-free bushveld, which is home to the Big Five. Here you’ll find incredible biodiversity with acacia trees, savannah regions, thornveld and extensive grasslands. With the chance to see elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo, as well as wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, loads of antelope and stunningly moody skies, your drive is bound to reward with good sightings. This expansive reserve is one of the few in Africa with the space and habitat required for species to display their natural behaviours; herbivores roam in large herds as they would have done for centuries.
7. Tee off at a top-notch golf course
Step out of your compartment and onto the platform to be whisked away to your tee off. Rovos Rail’s golf safaris – one of the most popular highlights of luxury train travel in South Africa – have been designed to please the discerning player. Games can be booked at Sun City in the hills of the Pilanesberg, in the foothills of the imposing Drakensberg Mountains on the 18-hole Champagne Sports Resort, and in Durban at the Country Club. Other optional golf courses include the Royal Swazi, and Leopard Creek near the Kruger National Park.
In each case all the player has to do is focus on the game, as the train crew ensures your comfortable transfer, book your times and have refreshments waiting on your return. Each course will challenge the novice and delight the proficient player, and that’s before you take in the surroundings.
8. Explore caves and Ostrich Palaces in Oudtshoorn, Little Karoo
Located at the heart of the Little Karoo valley is the town of Oudtshoorn, an area famed for its illustrious ostrich farms (known as Ostrich Palaces) and feather industry. During the 19th century ostrich feathers were highly sought after by affluent Europeans and North Americans and it was during this period that Oudtshoorn grew to be a big exporter of the lavish plumes.
The town is flanked by the majestic Swartberg Mountains to the north and the picturesque Outeniqua Mountains to the south. The Cango Caves, located just a short drive away from the town and nestled within a limestone ridge parallel to the Swartberg Mountains, are a natural underground wonder comprised of towering hallways and the finest dripstone caverns.
9. Take a break in Bloemfontein – The City of Roses, Free State
The city of Bloemfontein is located between Johannesburg and Cape Town and offers an oasis to weary travellers. Too often overlooked by tourists, Bloemfontein radiates a peaceful ethos. Known locally as ‘the city of roses’, thousands of rose bushes line the streets and a floral scent lingers in the air from the more than 4,000 rose bushes in the gardens of Kings Park.
Drive up to Naval Hill, a small nature reserve that provides the perfect vantage point from which to view the city. West of Naval Hill in Hamilton Park is the Orchid House, which boasts the largest collection of orchids in the world. There’s also a statue of Nelson Mandela that watches over the city.
10. Travel on board the Pride of Africa
The story of luxury train travel in South Africa with Rovos Rail began almost three decades ago. 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 there, locomotives and engines would be lovingly acquired and rebuilt under the watchful eye of a family whose heart and passion have gone into creating an impeccable service, aptly named the Pride of Africa.
Whichever route you decide to take, you’ll be indulged from the moment of arrival until you reluctantly disembark. Accommodation is offered in Pullman, Deluxe and Royal suites; all are air-conditioned, have mini-bars, wood panelling, windows and shutters that open to the endless views, en-suite bathrooms and loads of storage space.
The focus remains on a journey of relaxation and indulgence. You’ll enjoy red carpet treatment, hot scented towels and a champagne welcome back to the train after every outing.
The Essential Details
For Rovos Rail reservations contact firstname.lastname@example.org and do have a look at their website for more info https://www.rovos.com. All rates are fully inclusive of meals, endless beverages and excursions. The Durban Safari departure dates are specific, but excursions may change slightly as times cannot be guaranteed. Rovos is very open about ‘never being on time’ and same day flights are not recommended. The trip is offered in reverse and operates during the Summer months.
Other routes on offer with Rovos are extended journeys to Victoria Falls and their passage to Dar es Salaam, which has to be the penultimate African train journey. You can also charter the train for private groups.
This list of the wonderful things you can do from Rovos Rail in South Africa was compiled by me for The Big Bus – and that’s before you head north to see the mighty Victoria Falls and tropical Dar es Salaam.