I rode a train in Africa
All aboard Rovos Rail for a taste of colonial elegance
Mahogany panelling, fine brass fixtures and a doting butler are perks you might expect from a luxury hotel. I find them all in my cabin on Rovos Rail, the train I ride across 2000km of southern Africa. For four days and three nights, I watch the African countryside slip past as the 20coach Rovos carries me from Zimbabwe’s side of Victoria Falls to South Africa’s capital of Pretoria. The landscape seems to change every time I look out the window. One minute it is the vast plains of Zimbabwean grassland, then another, the industrial city of Bulawayo. In South Africa, I watch the sun set over velvety green mountains.
Ever since I saw Meryl Streep, en route to Nairobi, pop out of a train car to scold Robert Redford for putting his elephant tusks dangerously close to her crates of Limoges china — in the 1985 film Out of Africa — I’ve dreamt of my own elegant train ride through the continent. Of course, the film takes place a century ago, and when I make it onto an African train, this past January, the handsome big-game hunter and crates of porcelain are absent. But much of the trip is just as I have imagined.
Founded in 1989, Rovos has restored much of African train travel’s erstwhile glory, using an extensive but increasingly neglected network of colonial railways that can still spirit travellers from Table Mountain in Cape Town north about 5600km to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s teeming Indian Ocean port. Rail enthusiasts consider a journey on one of the company’s four trains among the most indulgent trips in the world, along with the likes of the Venice Simplon Orient Express.
But even on that fabled train, which typically runs from Paris to Istanbul and Istanbul to Venice in five days, you share a bathroom (aside from some hotel overnights, of course). The least expensive berth on Rovos, however, includes an ensuite loo with a shower, while the most expensive have claw-foot tubs. In my middle-of-the-range Deluxe Suite, I stretch out across a double bed that fills just half of the quarters. It is appointed with polished woods, fresh flowers and champagne. Even the bathroom, with its art deco-style black-and-white floor tiles, looks like a set piece from colonial times.
Rohan Vos, Rovos Rail’s 70-year-old founder and chief executive, made a fortune selling car parts in South Africa before turning an idea for a family-holiday train car — like a camper van but much cooler, I think — into a business venture. “The interior design was very much my own because it was going to be a family caravan,” says Vos when we meet in Pretoria. Instead, he decided to build up an entire rail line. Vos also designed an observation car at the back of each train that is partially open-air so passengers can sit outdoors while watching the villages and wild bush roll by. He says the idea was inspired by the caboose balcony from which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered campaign speeches as he crisscrossed the US in the 1930s.
The morning after I board in Victoria Falls, along with about 60 or passengers, we stop at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and hop into game vehicles. We haven’t lumbered away from the tracks for more than 10 minutes before we spot a cheetah. We snap a storm of pictures as the world’s fastest land mammal graciously poses on a termite mound in the misty morning light. Sightings of buffalo, zebra and lions follow, before we stop for tea, served around a campfire in the middle of the bush. Then we reboard the train and continue south.
My fellow passengers skew towards retirees, hailing overwhelmingly from Britain, with contingents from Sweden, the US, New Zealand and South Africa. Few have come solely for Rovos; most have woven the train ride into longer safari itineraries. South African Diana Buchanan isn’t on my trip, but she’s a Rovos and train-