My article on ‘The Sheer Indulgence of Rovos Rail’s Durban Safari’ for Air Namibia’s Flamingo Inflight Magazine is out, so if you’re flying any of their routes you may come across it.
As T.S. Eliot so rightly said, it’s the journey not the arrival that matters.
The train departs the Durban Station by 10 am and there’s hushed excitement as we settle into our suites and begin to soak up the romance of a bygone era that is time onboard the World’s Most Luxurious Train.
As soon as we’re out of the city there’s a change to the landscape, which turns from urban sprawl to emerald green hills scattered with rural homes and the occasional settlement. At one point we travel through a tunnel and emerge to a tall waterfall tumbling down the rock face. Those of us gathered on the observation deck let out a spontaneous wow and rush to photograph it, no need though as the train driver predicts our want and slows down for long enough for us to appreciate the natural wonder.
This is one of many inspiring moments we will share as we take in the start of the Durban Safari. A delicious silver service lunch is enjoyed in the dining cart en route to Lions River Station and from the window the KwaZulu Natal world opens up to us.
A beautiful province and Rovos Rail’s three-day journey is routed through some of the best of it. A subtropical region of lush and well-watered valleys found just inland from the warm Indian Ocean, it offers a mix of rich culture, history and tradition matched only by the dramatic Drakensberg mountain range. There are game reserves stocked with wildlife, indigenous forests and some really impressive rivers, even during the current time of drought.
Our first excursion is not scheduled. We visit the Nelson Mandela Capture Site wherein 1962 police waved down a car on a lonely country road and at the wheel was Nelson Mandela posing as a chauffeur. The arrest would ultimately see him spend those 27 years in prison. Today this site is marked by an impressive sculpture that through an optical illusion from a distance has the 50 steel poles of varying heights merge to form an image of Mandela’s face. It’s an iconic and moving visit.
From there we continue to Ardmore Ceramics, world-renowned for their international sort after surreal and exuberant sculptures that celebrate our endangered species and offer a blend of animals and art in their imaginatively moulded bowls, t-pots, platters, fabrics and collections. Established by Fée Halsted and Bonnie Ntshalintsha, over the years artists have been trained and encouraged to express their spirit and imagination. After the tour and tea, I cannot help but indulge in a purchase.
The next morning brings an early start with a Battlefields tour of Spionkop by renowned raconteur Ray Herron, who expertly talks us through the history of the country and area, with most emphasis on the Anglo Boer War. Goosebumps and emotion fill the group as his words bring to life the events of a battle and war that influenced the future. If history doesn’t interest you, the option of a game drive in the nearby reserve is available.
Saved as a highlight, after lunch and a rest, that afternoon we disembark at Elandslaagte for a game drive in the Nambiti Private Game Reserve. What a sight it is to come into the station and see the 4×4 safari vehicles waiting to take out us in search of game. Our three hours are richly rewarded, including a touch of much-needed rain on the dry land, elephant, wildebeest, frolicking hippo, giraffe, zebra, loads of antelope and stunningly moody skies.
That night after yet another decadently wonderful dinner, I climb into bed and am instantly rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the train on the tracks, knowing that I will wake to the last day spent entirely on board, soaking up the spoils and savouring every moment, which is exactly what I do.
Rovos Rail was started over 27 years ago when visionary 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 lovingly restored and today the substantial service operates under the watchful eye of a family whose heart and passion have gone into creating an impeccable world-renowned service.
Onboard the cabins are aptly named after South African fauna, flora, historic greats and Southern African cities, mine is called Baobab, which pleases me. There are three types of accommodations available, the Pullman Suites, larger Deluxe suites and Royal Suites that have a bath. All are air-conditioned, have mini-bars, beautiful mahogany wood panelled walls, windows and shutters that open to the passing views, en-suite bathrooms and surprisingly, loads of storage space. There’s even an in-house laundry and ironing service on offer, as well as 24-hour room service – although I doubt you’ll be hungry.
With just 22 people on board (the max is 72) during my trip, the dining cart, lounge and bar area is always partly free as guests share their time between the luxury of their cabins and the communal areas, some reading, others playing cards, many chatting like old friends. There are 13 attentive and charming staff members to look after us, each one impeccably professional always near to offer assistance or service, yet allowing the privacy to simply relax into the journey.
There’s a rule on board, no cell phones, iPads or Laptops in public areas, only in your cabin. You’re invited to dress for dinner, a jacket and tie for the gentleman and a cocktail dress for the ladies, which add a dimension of splendour to an already extraordinary experience. Once onboard absolutely everything is included; the beautifully prepared meals, endless drinks and fine wine as well as off-train excursions.
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. Back on the observation deck as my luxury trip comes to an end, I began to understand that travel is essentially about the journey.
On arrival in Pretoria, Rohan Vos himself is there to offer us a hand down the ramp and onto the welcoming red carpet. He personally thanks each one of us for travelling with Rovos, enquires how we enjoyed the experience, carries luggage and makes it clear how Rovos Rail became the Pride of Africa.
For accommodation in Durban, I recommend the one and only Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga. They can also arrange transfers between the train and or airport for you.
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. 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. See more at https://www.rovos.com/.
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