ForMyrtleRyanatrainjourneyisoneofthemostevocative formsoftravel.Recentlysheboardedwhathasbeencalled themostluxurioustrainintheworld,RovosRail’sThePrideof Africa
WOULD James Bond be on board? The sauve, sophisticated British agent would certainly have fitted in perfectly on the elegant train making its journey from Vi c t or i a F a l l s t o P r e t or i a . Was t hat Agatha Christie, perched demurely in the observation coach doing what she did best – observing fellow passengers to see whether they had the potential to commit murder?
Such romantic notions aside, nothing brings those who are travelling and those whose feet are firmly rooted in the place of their birth, together for a fleeting moment more closely than a railway track. It is a bond forged by those first iron horses which have never lost their thrill.
As we trundled along, cars hooted, children and grownups waved, and one small boy raced alongside us on an adjoining track, keeping a cracking pace until he stumbled and tumbled head over heels. It must have been painful but, rising smoothly to his feet, he grinned to show that that brief, adventurous encounter had been worth the grazes and bruises.
No doubt they realised this was a train with a difference, but I wondered whether they realised in just what luxury we were travelling. The sense of goodwill, rather than jealousy, which unfolds along a track between the haves and have-nots has always amazed me. If the roles were reversed, I often wonder if I would be so charitable.
The tone for our journey was set at Victoria Falls where, rather than a grimy, cavernous railway station, passengers encountered their mode of transport for the next three days on a charming siding alongside the Victoria Falls Hotel. Here the traditional welcoming red carpet was laid beneath flowering trees and blue skies, instead of steel and girders. The suites were the last word in sumptuous living, combining old-world charm with modern emphasis on comfort. So, while the carriages retained the highly polished wood of a bygone era, they were a far train whistle from the compartments I remember travelling in as a child, in which six people were crammed.
Rovos Rail carriages have only three or four suites each, so spaciousness is the word. My bed was enormous and faced the windows, so I could watch the world flash by while propped up against the pillows should I have so desired. Alternatively I could sit comfortably in an armchair in front of a writing desk/table and pretend to write some notes, or wiggle my toes on the plush carpet while pinching myself to see if this was not some figment of my imagination.
Each window has the famous Springbok head, the symbol of the old South African Railways, etched into the glass – another reminder of the days when most families did not own a car, but travelled to their holiday destination by train.
What did not feature was the nighttime trek down a draughty corridor, to reach the rather tacky toilets where, o n c e y o u h a d mana g e d t o f i n a l l y position your bottom amid the train’s swaying, your nether regions were subjected to a blast of wind coming up off the tracks. Modern-day passengers are spared such indignities. Toilet facilities are en suite, and rather than a quick lick and promise in the hand-basins of compartments of old, passengers can pop into their own fancy shower cubicle.
They are invited to fill a list requesting what they would like stocked in their compartment’s bar fridge. Air-conditioning adds to creature comforts. What impressed me was that each huge bed has two small, fluffy duvets so circumventing the potential for an argument when hubby wants it off and wife wants it up to her chin. Even marital sleeping bliss has been considered! There’s even a set of goggles for those who want to hang enthusiastically out of the window without getting grit in their eyes.
The man who founded the Rovos e mpi r e , R o h a n Vo s , i s t o b e c o mmended for rescuing several carriages and the odd steam engine from the ignominious fate of landing in some deserted marshalling yard at the end of a long working career. Now, once more, people have the chance to sample the romance of rail travel.
I would have been content to let the entire journey unfold from my suite, but other public areas beckoned. First I lingered for a while in the passage outside the suites, recalling how men often used this narrow space as an opportunity to squeeze past a comely woman, then headed for the observation lounge car, where Barney Barnato and Cecil John Rhodes were just leaving amid a discussion of their latest diamond findings…
Here passengers can prop up the bar, sit on sofas or chairs, tuck into the constant array of snacks (and rich cakes for afternoon tea) and boast to each other about other train journeys. All agreed, though, on this train they felt they had died and been transported to a train enthusiasts’ heaven. Some were not even sure of their itinerary. For them just being able to undertake such a journey was sufficient – the nuts and bolts (or grease and oil) were of no consequence. For many the highlight came when, for a short while, we were linked to a steam engine for the final journey into Pretoria.
As proof of the international travellers’ stamp of approval, we had a large group of Swedes on board, as well as people from Australia, Portugal, the UK and France.
My f avourite spot, redolent with atmosphere, was an open carriage that forms part of the observation lounge, dating back about 80 years, at the rear of the train. On its slatted wooden benches I could savour the warm breeze on my face, smell the dust and flowering trees, while every so often the pungent smell of dung reminded me – in case the thorn trees and bushveld through which we were passing were not enough – that this was Africa… surely the most evocative continent for such a journey.
The dining coach, built in 1924, was a l l g l e a mi n g w o o d e n p i l l a r s a n d curlicues, snowy table-cloths, heavy solid silver cutlery and crystal glasses. No wonder guests felt motivated to don their glad rags when the sun set, to comply with the strict dining code
What came out of the galley was fit for royalty. I cannot understand why my clothes shrunk during the journey – but perhaps a peek at some of the items on the menu can explain this: black sesame-crusted kingklip in a light curry sauce; asparagus risotto on a bed of baby spinach; an array of speciality c h e f ’s s a l a ds ; s moked s a l mon a n d potato rosti with caviar dressing; chilled cucumber and coconut soup; seared ostrich fillet with rizone pasta and vegetables; caponata of vegetables with p a p a r d e l l e r i b b o n n o o d l e s ; s weet potato, lamb and hanepoot bredie; artichoke hearts; prawn and lemon grass salad; medallion beef fillet with sweet potato and green pea mousse; poached salmon; an array of desserts to make a dieter weep in frustration – and the wine list was mind-boggling.
All this meant I could hardly find room for breakfast, though every morning I would pop along to the dining coach just to sample some fresh fruit… oh, and maybe a smoothie; perhaps a croissant; and gosh that omelette sounds superb. Restraint flew out of the window.
After dinner, when most had retired to either the smoking club lounge or the bar, I raced for my suite so I could hop into bed and let the swaying motion of the train lull me to sleep.
One morning we stopped in the middle of the bush in Botswana. Alighting, passengers were transported to a local cattle ranch/game reserve, where the owners told us all about the family’s history of farming with brahmin cattle in that country. As though we were not getting enough food on board the train, they also served us koeksisters and other typical South African treats while sitting overlooking a dam.
One of the highlights of this more than 1 600km journey was travelling through part of Hwange Game Reserve in Zimbabwe as dusk fell. Most of the passengers had retired to their cabins to get dressed for dinner and I was alone on the open carriage.
Suddenly there was a protesting trumpeting, punctuated by squeals. A small herd of elephant – simply dark shapes in the dim light – close to the train, and obviously outraged at this invasion of their space, were making their displeasure known.
I could imagine such a trip undertaken 100 years ago when the countryside would have teemed with wild animals and the train perhaps brought to a halt by a huge herd of elephants blocking the track.
The road eventually exits at Gouda, a settlement built originally on the farm Gouda, which became the railhead for Porterville and was known as Porterville Road in the early years.
A short distance from Gouda is Saron, a mission station started in 1848, by Heinrich Kulpman of the Rhenish Mission Society. He bought the farm Leeuwenklip.
In 1929, Saron was proclaimed a town and in 1945, the Dutch Reformed Church took control of the mission. In 1950, the church was forced to give up control of Saron. After visiting the Gouda hotel, a typical quaint village hotel, which must be able to relate many interesting stories, we departed on the tar for about 5km to the turnoff to Moorreesburg.
Back on the gravel, the trip through to Moorreesburg is fairly easy going through farmlands, back on to a short patch of tar entering the small town then a right turn at the sports fields and back onto gravel headed for a T-junction and right to Koringberg.
Again the only pedestrians we encountered were a small herd of cattle and again a magnificent Cape cobra. This time it was a brilliant bronze colour.
Koringberg nestles under a fairly large mountain with views across to Piketberg and the Sandveld.
From Koringberg we headed again on small gravel roads between farms. Care must be taken to keep gates closed after passing through. We followed the railway line down to Moravia, another mission station, where we photographed a tiny church with the Piketberg mountains as a backdrop.
Back on the tar and on the R399 from De Hoek to Velddrift, we again took a right turn up Kapteins Kloof and a drove up a huge fertile valley between high mountains. Here at the foot of the Piketberg mountains, farmers grow grapes, oranges, buchu and rooibos. About 8km towards the end of the valley lies Banghoek Nature Reserve, presenting fine walks and sightings of rock art. The road winds up and tops out in a pass offering spectacular views across the Sandveld towards Redlinghuys and Elands Bay on the coast.
Redlinghuys is situated on the banks of Verlorenvlei, a bird watcher’s paradise where more than 232 species of bird have been identified.
The gravel continues to the small coastal town of Elands Bay, famous for its fishing factories and crayfish, as well as a mecca for surfers.
Our final route took us along the coast on the gravel service road for the Sishen Saldahna railway line.
Here we were lucky to see one of the longest trains in the world returning to Sishen. It was about 10km in length and had nine huge units pulling and pushing the giant ore-carrying trucks.
Once in Velddrift we headed straight for the Riviera Hotel where, on more than one occasion, I have indulged in its excellent buffet, especially the seafood spread.
Aft er a s uf f i ci ent l unch we headed home in a tearing south easter via Hopefield and Malmesbury. Altogether we had covered 512km with about 80% on gravel roads, through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the Boland and sandveld.
Now the tyres are run in and ready for the next adventure into the Northern Cape.