With his trademark tie and starched collared shirt, Rohan Vos, the patriarch of the family that redefined luxury train travel, inspects the steam locomotive. He is looking intently at the colour of the liquid being expelled from the sump, the way a great chef examines the cooking liquor from the thigh of a chicken.
It's a feast on wheels... not only a feast of fabulous food, but a feast of experiences as well.
He has an ironed, white handkerchief in his hand to wipe away any soot. Willem, one of only five remaining steam locomotive drivers, has the story of his long and hot life etched into the wrinkles on his face. His is a toughness not often seen today. A pack of cigarettes is in his top pocket. I wonder what he must think of us namby-pamby sorts who climb into his domain and are so bewildered by this great and powerful machine. It is hard to guess his age as the ravages of heat and cigarettes have taken their toll but he may be a similar age to Rohan Vos, the silver-haired enthusiast that turned a passion for restoring trains into a tourism business that lives up to its motto: The Most Luxurious Trains in the World.
It's easy to get all fired-up over the romance of steam
Although steam locomotives still conjure the most romantic memories of grand tours and adventure, today it comes at too great an environmental cost to be viable. The fire risk alone, especially in the tinder-dry Highveld, means the steam locomotive needs to be followed by a fire truck. Then there's the issue of the volume and availability of water, not to mention coal emissions. Seeing and climbing into the fired-up engine at Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria, where all Rovos Rail journeys start and terminate is one of many highlights of such an experience.
More often than not Rohan Vos is there either to bid his guests farewell or to welcome them back. This hands-on approach filters down to a superb attention to detail that even the most junior of staff seems to embrace.
If it's bang for your buck you're after, rather take a stay-cation and leave the plummeting Rand to attract in-bound visitors.
Although it comes at a premium price, there is so much value for a South African seeking a long weekend away and encouraged digital detox that taking the Rovos Rail is a no brainer.
We all need children like this
And, if the ticket is simply too rich for your budget, become an ace Tupperware salesperson and win one of their incentive journeys. It was interesting to see such a diverse group on board with us, many for whom, I guess, this was their first luxury train journey.
Another party, a group of five travelling from Germany to celebrate a matriarch's 80-something birthday, stuck to themselves initially. However, with the help of a Japanese woman, so taken by wanderlust and the guidebooks she produces and that she travels the globe, conversation flowed freely.
Michael and Angela, an older couple from Somerset County in England were charming travelling companions who chatted with the fluency and elegance that comes from having lived interesting lives. Their trip had been gifted by their children. Another twosome, he a rail enthusiast and she an adrenaline junkie, planned their trip in such a way as to invest the bulk of their budget in the Rovos train journey and then stay in B&B's for the remainder of the journey.
Service with a smile... always.
Departing Pretoria on a Friday morning, lunch is served in the Edwardian dining coach as the Drakensberg ranges comes into focus while afternoon tea, as elegant and sumptuous as one might hope for, is served as the train climbs to Majuba Hill - the first of the Anglo Boer War battlefields we encounter.
We had taken this three-day Durban Safari some seven years previously when the route was a little different but what I found most interesting about this journey was not the visit to a game lodge at Nabiti Private Reserve, wonderful as it was, but the connections to the Anglo Boer war, the culmination of which was an arresting talk given by Raymond Herron, overlooking Spionkop - the site of that war's bloodiest, and most futile battles, near Ladysmith.
It's a superb experience more than simply a train... a feast o wheels
Don't think of the Rovos Rail as a way of getting from points A to B. Rather consider it as a moving feast where superb cuisine, comfort and service form the backbone of your adventure.
Many people ask me how Rovos Rail compares with The Blue Train and, indeed other great trains such as The Venice-Simplon Orient Express and the Eastern and Orient Express. The main difference between the experiences within South Africa is that The Blue Train is a modern train with cushioning and air-conditioning that creates a smooth, insulated experience. The Venice-Simplon Orient Express, however, shares its vintage feel with The Rovos Rail. The compartments are tiny and I found not having private toilets and no shower facilities on board unacceptable. The Eastern & Orient Express has the benefit of en suite bathrooms but Rovos Rail differs by not only having meaningfully larger compartments but an all-inclusive fare. Alcoholic beverages are billed separately on board the Orient-Express trains and laundry, albeit it a limited, complimentary service on Rovos, is not available elsewhere.
The biggest benefit from my perspective about Rovos Rail is that beds are always ready for a nap and this detail makes for a more comfortable travel experience. And, speaking of beds, the fact that Rovos Rail stops for a number of hours at night to allow passengers to get the best possible rest while on board, is an important boon.
Watching the world go by...
I get the feeling that Vos thinks of each of his guests as members of his family. So complete and considered is each guests' needs that you will also end the experience feeling you've been better cared for than at most other hotels. Our train manager the unflappable and incomparable Daphne Mabala (I've witnessed her in action during a crisis on a previous journey) visits each guest with particular dining needs with the chef as the train departs and Rovos Rail staff will literally hold your hand from the moment you embark until you have been collected at your destination.
What about paying people to clean up a bit?
But no amount of luxury or care on board can change the fact, also true for trips I've taken in Europe and the Asia, that the poorest of people live near the railway lines. While the natural beauty of parts of the journey is breathtaking the neglect is equally so. As a South African, I felt ashamed as we entered Durban station and saw the mountains of litter along the sides of the tracks. Everyone sitting with us in the open-air observation car at the end of the train commented about it. One guest even remarked that in a land with such high unemployment the government should pay people to clean up. I have to agree.
After each excursion, we are welcomed back on board with warm or chilled towels and glasses of sherry or champagne and the red carpet. After a visit to Ardmore Ceramics in Howick, for example, tea, coffee and cakes are set out. At every opportunity, on excursions and on board, there is someone offering you something to eat and drink. And, just when you think the largess can't get any better, there is a beautifully wrapped gift of Amarula liqueur and engraved crystal glasses as a memento of the trip.
The next time you're considering a getaway, also consider all the costs (time and efforts among them) and this ticket price is much more affordable than you ever imagined.
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