Travelling by train reminds us that it’s about the journey, as much as the destination. Today most travel is dictated by ease and convenience, with travellers opting for the quickest way to cover the distance, usually by plane or car. Yet luxury train travel remains revered for the pure indulgence that it offers.
There’s an undeniable romance to train travel, as you watch 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, through desert landscapes, past mountain ranges and untamed plains that teemed with wildlife - from the Cape all the way to Cairo, was the dream of the time.
We can boast two of the world’s most luxurious trains as our very own; The Blue Train and Rovos Rail, both holding pride of place next to the likes of the Maharajas’ Express and the Trans-Siberian Express with their flawless reputations as the most authentic trains in the world. Also, the Orient Express made famous by Agatha Christie in Murder She Wrote, which still runs the legendary route from Paris to Istanbul.
The Blue Train was born in the 1920s with two original trains, known then as the Union Limited and the Union Express, which meandered 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 of today.
"How soon my body had adjusted to the rhythmic rocking of the train on the tracks – a soothing sound that I longed for, once my journey had reached its end."
A carriage-by-carriage refurbishment in the 70s and modernisation from steam to electricity in the 90s, redefined The Blue Train as luxurious modern travel, as it gained a reputation as a five-star hotel-on-wheels and 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, and has recently added a route to Hoedspruit, which includes a visit to the Kruger National Park. They offer Luxury and De Luxe suites, each with a personal butler and all the modern touches you’d expect from a top hotel.
The history of Rovos Rail started over 27 years ago when Rohan Vos bought a coach or two with the intention of restoring and hitching them to South African Railway trains for family holidays. From here, Rohan Vos bought locomotives and engines that would be lovingly restored and named after his children. 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, Rovos Rail has flourished.
I took the trip from Cape Town to 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 minibars, wood panelling with windows and shutters that open to 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 100 kilometres or more, Rovos has a policy of travelling at 60 kilometres 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.
The 1 600 kilometre journey between Cape Town and Pretoria takes you past lonely windmills surrounded by sheep in the fields, through the beautiful barren Karoo. 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 penultimate African train journey.
There’s a rule on board, no cellphones, 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 gentlemen and a cocktail dress for the ladies, which adds a dimension of splendour to an already extraordinary experience.
Back on the observation deck 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 my journey had reached its end.
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 three-star rating, which may suit more South African’s pockets.
They are starting with three set itineraries. The Southern Cross is a 15-day journey that offers insight into virtually every well-known destination in South Africa. It starts in Cape Town, traversing the Winelands, Hermanus, Knysna, Oudtshoorn, Graaff-Reinet, Kimberley, and Bloemfontein. Then onto the Spioenkop 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 the historical towns of Lüderitz, Kolmanskop and Keetmanshoop ghost town. There’s a stay in Sossusvlei, surrounded by the dramatic dunes of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, before making your way to 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.
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 on board 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.
Tickets can be booked online:
The Blue Train: www.bluetrain.co.za
Rovos Rail: www.rovos.com
Shongololo Express: www.shongololo.com
Should you wish to book one of the luxury trains entirely for yourself or a group, the option of a private charter is available. Don’t forget to look out for the South African summer specials!