Rovos Rail runs trips from two to 14 nights through Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. A few important matters to keep in mind before booking: Men are required to wear a jacket and tie to dinner, and trains don’t have Wi-Fi, radios or televisions. You are asked to use mobile phones and laptops only in your suite, and reception is generally poor, so don’t expect to catch up on any work. More: rovos.com. A competitor to Rovos, Blue Train, is a less expensive, less formal alternative, although routes are more limited; bluetrain.co.za. travelling connoisseur. She started travelling by Rovos Rail when her husband was too ill to fly between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and has made the journey about 55 times since 1995. “I’ve never gotten to the other end and wanted to get off,” she says.
The game drive at Hwange and a brief stroll at a market in Botswana are the only excursions on our route (longer itineraries include more outings), but the balance of our trip unwinds quietly: reading, chatting and watching wildebeest flicker past in the savanna. We are served three meals a day in the dining car, with its tufted greenleather chairs and silver cutlery. For dinner, men wear jackets and ties, while most women don dresses. Though courses such as traditional kudu stew and grilled butternut squash underwhelm, I find solace in a procession of fine South African wines and the nightly cheese courses. One night, Rovos general manager Joe Mathala entertains us with tales of hunting for fuel during regional shortages and other misadventures. Murder on the Orient Express it isn’t, but as close as I’m likely to get.
In January, Vos bought another train, South Africa’s three-star Shongololo Express, which was in financial distress, because he didn’t want to see it fold. He is refurbishing it and planning new itineraries, including a 15day South Africa trip from Pretoria to Cape Town, with stops along the way in the country’s wine region and the colonial-era diamond mine in Kimberly. But doubling down on railway tourism in southern Africa is a risky bet these days as governments cut back on infrastructure budgets, including those meant to fund track repairs.
Still, Rovos bookings are filling up into 2017, for trips that range from about $US1000 ($1352) a person for a two-night trip in South Africa to more than $US20,000 for the best berth on the 14-night trip from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam. Vos contemplates how much more time and money he wants to invest in his rail empire as the economies he relies on for support crumble around him.
“What does one do? Keep growing?” he says at the Rovos Rail station in Pretoria while clambering into one of the dilapidated carriages of his new Shongololo Express. Workers are excising rusty patches soon to be covered with dark-wood panelling. “It’s a question I need to figure out between me and a bottle of rum,” he says.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL