The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE -

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: A com­peti­tor to Rovos, Blue Train, is a less ex­pen­sive, less for­mal al­ter­na­tive, al­though routes are more limited; blue­ 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.


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