I rode a train in Africa

All aboard Rovos Rail for a taste of colo­nial el­e­gance

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - ALEXANDRA WEXLER

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-

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