Riding the Rails in Luxury in South Africa and Zimbabwe
When I visited Thailand in 2005, I quickly learned why the country is called “The Land of Smiles,” as everywhere I went, locals greeted me with a large smile. Thailand, however, may have a strong competitor in the hospitality arena after my recent trip to South Africa. Whether we were in metropolitan cities such as Cape Town or Johannesburg or in remote areas such as Oudtshoorn or Madikwe, South Africans display an infectious warmth and welcoming approach that will make any American feel at home instantly. And nowhere is this kindness more evident than on a trip aboard Rovos Rail – “The Most Luxurious Train in the World.”
In 1985, visionary Rohan Vos initially planned to purchase a few historic train coaches at auction and then hitch them to a South African Railways (SAR) train as a family caravan. He purchased several coaches, which were taken to the Railway Preservation Society to be restored to their original glamour. However, Vos realized that working with the SAR was going to be difficult, so he decided to go solo and purchased a 1938 locomotive. He launched his first train ride in 1989 with four paying passengers. Since then, great improvements have been made to provide a luxurious experience, however, the stunning woodwork, wingback chairs and deep sofas that encourage interaction transport you back in time to the early 1900s. While walking around, you almost think that Lady Mary from “Downton Abbey” will be seen relaxing and reading a book in the Observation Lounge.
Rovos Rail offers several different itineraries in the southern portion of Africa, ranging from 48-hour trips to 15-day ones. Nine-day golf excursions have been recently popular, and private charters are available for business trips, weddings or a quick 12-hour experience. My husband and I booked the four-day journey from Pretoria, South Africa to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I had always wanted to see the majestic Victoria Falls, so arriving by Rovos Rail was the perfect answer. We flew in the night before from Cape Town and stayed at the Fire and Ice Menlyn hotel. The next morning, a car transfer arranged by Rovos Rail took us to the private Capital Park train station. What was originally a 19-acre SAR property in disrepair has been renovated and expanded to 60 acres by Rovos. The colonial-style red railway station and elegant lounge is an early indicator of the luxury we would experience the next four days.
Our reservation representative, Regardo Lewis, greeted us outside the station to confirm our information. Attentive porters in green uniforms listened in so that they could place nametags on our luggage. Another employee handed us a glass of sparkling wine and encouraged us to relax inside on one of the couches or outside on the terrace. While waiting, you can visit the onsite museum or go aboard a historic steam engine to take photos. (The steam engine trains have been retired over the years for more efficient trains.)
Vos actively engaged with all passengers and called out everyone’s name when it was their time to board, giving special attention to repeat travelers. The 20-carriage train is limited to a maximum of 72 guests, so our suite was extremely large – occupying a third of a railcar and complete with an oversized bed and private bathroom. Our hostess, Busi, stopped by to ensure all luggage was present and to explain how everything in the room worked. She also wrote down our “bar requirements” and offered to take care of laundry and pressing needs. Since hostesses take care of a few couples, you feel as though you have a private butler during your journey. Once we departed, we lowered the windows to see the sights and spotted an ostrich running along the train. (All suites are air conditioned, too.)
Meals aboard are nothing less than a five-star experience, rivaling the best resorts in the world, and each meal is preceded by a staff member quietly traversing the entire car with a chime to alert you that it’s time to eat. At our initial meal, we were served four courses, with South African wine pairings for the first three courses, followed by Kahlua with dessert. I was not the only passenger who needed a nap after this extravagant meal and ample wine. The service is incredible, and we noticed that the same staff members who served us lunch would not only serve dinner but also handle bartending duties in the Observation Lounge at night. Merrick, Cameron and Herman quickly took notice of what types of food and cocktails Paul and I preferred and took care of us the rest of the trip.
In addition to the opulence, what makes Rovos Rail unique is that the layout – two lounges, a bar and common seating areas – encourages you to meet other passengers. We met couples from the United Kingdom, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. After dinner the first night, we quickly became friends with two couples from the U.K., who we laughed with until the late hours, and for our second night, we dined with a couple from California and learned he was the mayor of Malibu.One of our favorite activities aboard was relaxing at the open-air observation deck and watch the world go by. Along the way, we traveled by impoverished neighborhoods – tin houses with no plumbing – yet as we passed every house, kids and adults alike would run outside and wave and smile at us. Waving, smiling and blowing kisses back created a special kinship, yet a reminder of how fortunate we are.
When we crossed the border into Zimbabwe, staff members handled all visa paperwork and passport approvals, an arduous process that thankfully passengers are not burdened with – instead we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast and prepared for a game drive in Hwange National Park. Groups of eight guests are transported in covered vehicles with a private guide, and within minutes we saw a cheetah, followed by elephants, giraffes, water buffalos and zebras. After the three-hour drive, Rovos Rail set up a beautiful cocktail area for “sundowners,” a nightly tradition for South Africans. It was amazing to watch the sunset, while enjoying a gin and tonic in the middle of the bush. Of course, as we boarded back the train, Herman stood at attention in a tuxedo with flutes of Champagne.
The last night is the more formal night, with staff in black tie, and we were given red rose boutonnières to wear. Turndown service included chocolates, more Champagne and rose petals.
At the end of the journey, it was hard to say goodbye to the staff and fellow passengers. Luckily, a few of our new friends were also staying at our hotel in Zimbabwe for a few days so that we could continue our journey together.
After checking in to the elegant Victoria Falls Safari Club, we enjoyed a quick swim in the chilled pool before having sundowners overlooking the watering hole. While the sister property, the Safari Lodge, has been there for over 20 years, the newer Safari Club offers more modern design and a bit more privacy, due to its location and limited number of guests. The resort is extremely quiet and a large breakfast is included. Dinner can be enjoyed at the onsite Makuwa-Kuwa restaurant or Boma, which features local dishes and African dancing and singing.
Each guest is assigned a personal butler who handles all excursions, while the entire staff memorized our names. They amazingly remembered what activities we had planned, and would check in each evening to see how we enjoyed our day. When a porter noticed that Paul’s leather bag had a broken strap, he took it into the tiny town and somehow found someone to fix it, at no cost.
Spend a day at the incredible Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world and twice as high as Niagara Falls at 355 feet. The noise of Victoria Falls can be heard from a distance of 24 miles, while the spray and mist from the falling water can be seen from a distance of over 30 miles. We walked through rainforests and to several lookout points, which allow for nerve-racking proximity to the edge. Thankfully, the hotel encouraged us to rent ponchos – not for rain but for the overwhelming spray the falls produce. For a different perspective, we took a helicopter ride above the falls, which was amazing.
The following morning was an early one – I saw more sunrises than I can remember on this trip – as we booked a 6 a.m. “Bush Walk” with a guide who (with rifle in hand just in case) explained the various topography of the bush from grasslands to rocky terrain. He explained the enormous impact elephants have on their environment, and we followed tracks from zebras, giraffes and other animals. At the hotel, we also witnessed an unusual vulture feeding, and gained new respect for vultures and how they help control disease by eating dead animals.
We also took a six-hour game drive through the Stanley & Livingstone Private Game Reserve, which included a bush dinner at the end. We saw the rare black rhino, giraffes, buffalo and more, but the highlight was having a sundowner by a lake and having four large elephants invite themselves to our get-together. While their size was a bit frightening, it was exciting to see them so up-close and in their natural environment. I95