It was wet and cold spring weather in the UK, but in Pretoria it was a perfect, warm autumn day when Anna Hyman and friends drove into the grounds of Capital Park station.
How many railway stations are there that have their own animal sanctuary, to say nothing of a laundry, museum and colonial style building with waiting room? But this is no ordinary railway station, this is Capital Park.
Capital Park, the headquarters of Rovos Rail, is where passengers gather for the start of journeys of discovery travelling in the lap of luxury on beautifully restored trains of a bygone age. Even the 'waiting-room' oozed comfort and style with its elegant furnishings, trays of sparkling wine and nibbles.
The birth of Rovos
Rohan Voss, owner of Rovos Rail, had long been obsessed with things mechanical. But it was a train trip in 1985 that lit his flame of passion for trains. From purchasing a few coaches the next purchase was to be a locomotive that had to be completely rebuilt. A year later he was granted a licence to travel the tracks and his dream of using a train as a family caravan was realised. Not content with family holidays, in 1989 the first 'business' trip was made. In spite of several ups and downs the business has grown and today Rovos trains adds more than a touch of bygone glamour to the South African railway scene.
In the engine sheds locomotives and carriages are restored and repaired to gleaming perfection to make up trains complete with suites, lounge, dining and observation cars, kitchen, laundry room and staff quarters.
On the beautifully maintained 60 acre site is a sanctuary for waifs and strays of the animal kingdom – a mini safari park – where rescued animals such as impala, duikers, besbok, pigs, donkeys, goats, ostriches and a feral dog live out their lives with the wild birds who drop in for free hand outs. A careful eye has to be kept on the ostriches – they'll eat anything they can get their beaks on, once resulting in the unfortunate incident with the laundry room keys (they were recovered a few days later)!
The Pride of Africa
With due ceremony and pomp we were escorted on board the Pride of Africa and shown to our wood-panelled suites – a living room by day converting into a bedroom at night with en suite shower room.
We were off on a trip that was to take us some 3712kms to our destination - Cape Town.
Very early next morning there were taps on our doors. Well-wrapped up against a chill dawn we were soon on the road for the Kruger National Park. We hadn't even entered the park when we spotted hippos lumbering through the waters of the Crocodile River. As we were entering the park Nelson, our nature guide for the drive, stopped the vehicle and pointed to a tree. His well-trained eyes had noticed a leopard resting high on a branch. It takes, he told me, three years to train a nature guide. No wonder we hadn't seen it.
As Nelson drove he regaled us with information about his beloved animals; such as – you can tell a 'right-handed' elephant from a 'left-handed' one by the amount of wear on the tusks; and an impala can be identified by the 'letter M' on its bottom.
Somebody saw a baboon, but Nelson identified it as a termite mound!
Gradually we got better at spotting animals but it was once again Nelson who saw the lions. Try as we might we could not see them, they blended perfectly into the long grass. Nelson took several deep breaths, cupped his mouth and made a deep, low, whooping sound. We saw them then as they reared up to see what and where the intruder was.
The train took us briefly out of South Africa so we could dip toes into the small, mountain kingdom of Swaziland. It was something of a disaster. There had been a serious hold up on the tracks and by the time we reached the Mhkaya Game Refuge (a noted refuge for rhino) it was night. We saw no wildlife on that trip, but for me that ride was one of the most magical. For overhead, completely unspoilt by light pollution, was the southern hemisphere black velvet night sky brilliantly studded with stars and my first ever sight of the dreamy Milky Way.
Hluhluwe Game Reserve
It was another chilly early morning start for the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. This park too is noted for its black and white rhinos and sure enough we had only driven a mile or so before coming across a large white rhino sleeping peacefully just a couple of feet from the track. This particular game reserve is rated as being one of South Africa's most beautiful and as we drove up into the hills with the early morning mist rising from the Hluhluwe river I could see why.
However, my four friends were to see another side of this idyllic animal reserve proving that the animals really are left to fend for themselves and that the wardens do not go round once a day providing meals on wheels, as one guest thought.
Somehow I had become separated from my gang when we got into the jeeps and when we met up a few hours later they told me of how they had come across a female giraffe frantically trying to protect her dead baby from circling, menacing hyenas. They found the scene distressing. I on the other hand had been happily cooing over more fortunate giraffes, zebras, antelopes, and the sleeping rhino.
Addo Elephant Park
Elephants really do roam the Addo Elephant Park – lots of them - about 450 at the last count, along with many other animals including dung beetles. As if to illustrate how important all the creatures are on the reserve road signs indicate that dung beetles have the right of way over vehicles. We saw several elephant herds but it was one lone eight year old male that kept our cameras clicking the most. He was thirsty and kept us entertained for ages at the water hole at Carol's Rest.
Cities, Ostriches and Caves
But we saw more than animal reserves as we had many opportunities to get off our travelling hotel and stretch our legs.
Amongst the stop-overs was an evening and tour round Durban, an attractive city on a sheltered bay with four miles of beach, once South Africa's busiest port. We were also taken to Bloemfontein, the Judicial Capital of South Africa, a charming little city with some really attractive old buildings. It is known as the city of roses and must be a picture in the summer when the bushes are in full bloom.
We were meant to call into an ostrich farm at Oudtshoorn (ostriches were, and still are, big business in South Africa for their feathers, meat, eggs and skin) but there was heavy, heavy rain and instead we diverted to the Kango Caves, some 20km from Oudtshoorn. The caves, which actually stretch for three kilometres, were discovered in 1780. They are truly impressive, but we were sorry not to see the ostriches with their beautiful large eyes fringed with amazingly long lashes.
The train buffs on board the Pride of Africa were in their element at George (named after George III of England). The town, known as the gateway to the Garden Route, is also home to a Transport Museum with an impressive array of steam locomotives and model railways. We had dinner that night that night at the Fancourt Golf Estate – George is also noted for its golf courses – to give some of our hardworking train crew a night off. And lovers of pottery were bowled over by the exquisite and exciting pieces of work on display at Ardmore.
Featherbed Nature Reserve
Another excursion was made to Knysna (the K is silent) not far from George. We departed the John Benn Jetty at Knysna Quays on the John Benn cruiser crossing the lagoon to the western promontory of the Heads. Here we boarded a 4by4 and trailer that took us up through the Reserve. The guided ride through the forest would have been idyllic had the driving rain held off.
Our final visit before disembarking was to Worcester and the KWV brandy distillery, the largest of its kind in the world, and large enough to accommodate 120 copper Woudberg pot stills. The excellent tour includes an audiovisual presentation, a demonstration of barrel making, visits to the distillation room and maturation cellars and a brandy tasting.
Back on board
We so admired our hardworking train crew. Charmaine, my stewardess, not only kept my suite in perfect order and also had to cope with me periodically losing things. By day she turned it into a tidy living room and by night my cosy bedroom. If it was a chilly night she included an electric blanket on the bed. Bless her one night when I was having a wardrobe malfunction she was all set to lend me her favourite brooch.
Apart from a hair dryer the accommodation also included a safe, a fridge – filled with our chosen favourites, hospitality tray with kettle, cookies and nibbles plus nice toiletries and other useful items like sun cream and mosquito repellent.
But their duties didn't end with the suites there was the open bar to be looked after, morning coffee and afternoon tea to be served. And when guests returned from excursions there the crew were standing beside the train serving glasses of fizz or whatever was appropriate to welcome us back on board.
Mealtimes were special too, all impeccably served. Following a breakfast as substantial as wished came lunch. Lunch was four courses, each course accompanied by a suitable wine. Afternoon tea of sandwiches and cakes was provided in the lounge or observation cars, followed by a dinner (a more formal occasion – black tie if wished) of four more courses of deliciousness again with selected wines. How the two chefs and their three lady assistants managed to create meals to such a standard in a tiny galley kitchen that rocked and swayed as it moved over points and tracks was a wonder to us.
The cuisine ranged from International to South African dishes. It was one of the latter that went a long way to disprove the theory that I don't eat very much. The lunchtime starter that day was an individual ramekin of Bobotie (a mild spicy minced beef dish under a savoury custard). I raved about it so much I was offered a second helping, and I am ashamed to say also accepted a third!
Also not to be forgotten was our Train Manager's deputy and the two ever smiling on-board maintenance men and our two laundry ladies.
All of the crew worked so hard but the most gold stars had to go to Mart, our Train Manager. Her responsibility for several of the 12 years she has been with Rovos is to supervise getting the train from A to B, along with the welfare of 23 or 24 staff members, to say nothing of the 57 or so passengers. When the train is moving, she told me, she is doesn't sleep. Her favourite trip - Dar es Salaam run.
Our journey on the Pride of Africa had taken us through the most amazing countryside and scenery. We had seen the rolling hills of the Natal Midlands; the Drakensberg Mountains; we had headed through the vast farmlands of the Free State and Cape Province and the arid Karoo; we had eaten lunch as the Pride of Africa descended the spectacular Montagu Pass; we had had glimpses of oceans and the beautiful coastal Garden Route; seen animals roaming free and had seen sunsets so stunning they made us rush for the observation car with our cameras.
Many of us were close to tears as we said goodbye to our splendid train crew as they all lined up to wave us farewell at Cape Town station. Our next adventure was about to begin – they were taking the more direct route back to Pretoria.
Our South Africa holiday including Rovos Rail was booked by the splendid 2by2Holidays who went out of their way to make sure everything was perfect for us and exactly what we wanted.
Rovos Rail offers the opportunity to travel aboard a luxury train from a bygone era. Step abroad this elegant train and be transported in style to Cape Town or Pretoria- travelling over 1,000 miles through some of South Africa's most spectacular scenery.
2by2Holidays are offering Foody Travellers a very special discount on the direct journey from Pretoria/Cape Town or Cape Town/Pretoria (full-board, two-night trip) for £895pp in a Pullman suite or £1345pp in a Deluxe suite, equating to a massive 12.5% discount off usual rate. 50% single supplement applies. It is valid for departures up to and including 30 September 2013.
This special, train only rate, does not include flights, transfers or pre/post accommodation which can be quoted for separately.
Please go to our Recipe column for the family favourite Bobotie recipe of Claire Farley of 2by2holidays.