Royal rail

ForMyrtleRyana­train­jour­ney­iso­ne­ofthe­moste­voca­tive form­sof­t­ravel.Re­centlyshe­board­ed­whathas­been­called the­mostlux­u­ri­ous­train­inthe­world,RovosRail’sThePrideof Africa

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PROPERTY -

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.

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