The Rovos Rail Train: Luxury On Board from Pretoria to Cape Town
Posted on 5th December 2018 at 19:22
There is an indefinable romance about train journeys, and African rail journeys are no exception. Rovos Rail may not be the most historic train company, having been started by Rohan Vos in 1989 in Pretoria, but it’s nonetheless one of the greats, bringing nostalgic luxury travel to tourists and locals alike.
There are five Rovos Rail routes, available in either direction and taking in must-see sights of Southern Africa. They are: Pretoria to Cape Town; Pretoria to Durban; Pretoria to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe; Cape town to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Pretoria to Swakopmund, Namibia.
All of them marry adventure travel with gracious comfort. Your only trouble is deciding which to take. (And that conundrum is only going to get harder in 2019, when another Africa train route opens up in July, following the historic copper trail from Dar Es Salaam to Angola via Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.)
I chose Pretoria to Cape Town: a 1,600km journey spanning a considerable chunk of the length of South Africa. Here are my top destinations along the route.
1. Big Hole Kimberley
The first was the Big Hole. The Hole’s location - Kimberley - is a name that’s synonymous with diamond exploration, and indeed the gems are the reason for this spectacular sunken turquoise lake’s existence. It’s now one of the top South Africa destinations. Also known as the Open Mine, the Big Hole, excavated from 1871, is one of the largest man-made holes in South Africa. By the time mining ended there in 1914, it had yielded the De Beers mining company nearly 3,000 kg of diamonds. Next to the Big Hole itself is the Kimberley Diamond Museum, featuring ancestral houses and mock diamond diggings: fascinating glimpses into the lives of those involved in the South African diamond industry.
2. Great Karoo
Back on the train, from the majestic Big Hole, the Great Karoo comes into view: vast plains of semi-desert, dotted here and there with windmills. The scale is sobering. Looking out at the arid scrubland, it’s hard to believe this region was once a seabed. Now, there is a kind of magic about the huge vistas and the dust eddies. Bar the occasional drinking spot or tented camp, its miles unfold unsullied by human presence. This is what it means to get away from it all.
Next comes the Klein Karoo, studded with succulents. It still feels like a frontier, but the mountains are greener and terrain more hospitable. We stop at the Victorian village of Matjiesfontein, an oasis of green, with quaint streets and a courthouse dating from 1879. The village, on the edge of the Klein Karoo, was founded as a staging post by railwayman James Douglas Logan. The Lord Milner Hotel - a soldiers’ hospital during the Boer War, when the town was a British military HQ - looks down imperiously over it all; the whole place is like stepping through a window into another time and place. It’s fascinating and not a little perplexing finding yourself suddenly in Victorian England.
4. Cape Winelands
The train’s penultimate stop is the Cape Winelands, with their rich vegetation and sublime mountain views. This area and its towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl, have become synonymous with great wine and are top South Africa wine destinations. It’s hard to believe that any wine produced in scenery like this wouldn’t taste good, and my instinct is proved correct. The area grows chardonnay, chenin blanc, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, and turns them into world-class wines that we have the opportunity to taste on board as an accompaniment to Rovos’s seasonal, locally sourced food. We dress for dinner, of course.
5. Cape Town
The final stop of my African rail journey is in Cape Town, one of the world’s great cities. Does any city have a more stunning natural setting? It has to be a contender, nestled at the foot of Table Mountain, backed by winelands and fringed by azure surf. We visit the Castle of Good Hope, built by the Dutch East India Company in 1666. It’s a heritage site with its own national monument badge as a historic landmark. Cape Town has always been stunning since its foundation, but in recent years it’s been enjoying something of a renaissance, with exciting new buildings and cultural destinations such as Zeitz MoCAA on the scene.
At the end of the journey, it was a wrench to leave the starched linen and wood panelling of my Rovos Rail suite, the mahogany seats and white tablecloths of the candlelit dining car, and the attentive service of the staff. Watching Africa unfold through the windows of a Rovos train is an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind experience. I can’t wait to try some of the other Rovos Rail routes. South Africa travel doesn’t get any better.
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