By Lark Ellen Gould
You don’t have to be a rail enthusiast to appreciate the fin de siècle experience to be had on a Rovos Rail ride through the savannahs of Africa. The trip will be had in lovingly restored 1920s style Pullman steam trains and the ride will be anything but ordinary.
The company is the dream child of one Rohan Vos a South African who always had a passion for trains and started putting his energy where his passions lie in 1985, beginning with a train auction and a chance to create his own rail company from a coach or two and a will for preservation. His vision saw the light of day in April 1989. Rovos Rail launched with one train of 13 carriages once a month from Cape Town to the Kruger National Park.
Today the company is still headed by its original owner and visionary but manages to take in a lot more territory on its journeys. Regular routes include Pretoria to Cape Town (the most popular, but possibly the least interesting in scenery), Pretoria to Durban (the least popular but most interesting in scenery) and Pretoria to Victoria Falls and back in easy two-night sojourns that include stops for game drives and excursions to unusual crafts spots.
But a big seller these days is the Cape Town to Dar es Salam route that takes two weeks and travels through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania. Starting in Cape Town, guests go through the historic village of Matjiesfontein, the diamond town of Kimberley and the capital city of Pretoria, and then head for a two-night stay at the Madikwe Game Reserve. The train then passes through Botswana into Zimbabwe where guests overnight at the Victoria Falls Hotel. After crossing the mighty Zambezi, the train travels northeast through Zambia where guests can have a bush walk at Chisimba Falls. The train continues the climb towards the Zambian/Tanzanian border, almost the midpoint between Africa’s two Great Rift Valley lakes. Descending into the Rift Valley the scenery winds through the tunnels, switchbacks and viaducts of the escarpment. On the last day, the train passes through the Selous Game Reserve – the largest on the continent and a true vision of Africa’s timelessness – before the busy arrival in Dar es Salaam. Upcoming departures are scheduled for June 30 – July 13 (CT/Dar), July 16 – July 29 (Dar/CT); and September 29 – October 12 (CT/Dar); October 15-28 (Dar/CT).
“The scenery is just so beautiful on these excursions and it really offers a rare vision of Africa through an experience that is not to be had any other way,” says David Patrick, marketing director for North America. With the popularity of the Cape Town to Dar es Salam excursion, Rovos Rail is launching a Cape Town to Cairo product in 2014 that will last nearly a month and include segues to the Ngrongoro Crater, Zanzibar and Lake Nassar.
The nights onboard are not inexpensive. The Cape Town to Dar trip runs nearly $3,960 per person, double. But the all-inclusive rates are as much about the train as they are about the trip. Each compartment is an air-conditioned suite with an en-suite bathroom, restored to its initial glory and carefully preserving the detail while modernizing all the amenities. Configurations run in Pullman Suites, Deluxe Suites and Royal Suites.
There are observation cars, smoking lounges, non-smoking lounges, two non-smoking 42-seat dining lounges and plenty of time for formal dinners with wine pairing, high tea, and comfortable daily repast. This is the kind of train where dinners in tuxes are not uncommon. In maintaining the spirit of travel of a bygone era, there are no radios or television sets on board and the use of mobile phones and laptops are confined to the suites.
Shorter three-night journeys start at $1,726 per person, double. The 28-day Cairo to Cape Town trip will start at $8,200 per person, double. Special golfing safaris between Pretoria and Sun City start at $4,800 per person, double.
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