A South African Safari

Across the Karoo by Rail
By John Manton
  |  Gorp.com
Page 2 of 4   |  
Lookout point along the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.
Lookout point along the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.

As the train pulled out of Cape Town, Table Mountain was shrouded in white clouds—the legendary "table cloth." We explored our new rolling home and soon understood why monarchs, rajahs, sultans and potentates of old liked to travel by train.

Rovos Rail is the brainchild of a visionary South African who scoured the scrap yards, backyards and museums for Edwardian rolling stock and totally refurbished each unit to its original splendor, at the same time installing every conceivable modern luxury and convenience. Our individually air-conditioned compartment, appropriately named Stanley, had a queen bed, writing table, two easy chairs, a dressing table and a small refrigerator. In addition to toilet and hand basin, the en-suite bathroom boasted a walk-in shower, a sumptuous array of fresh white towels and luxury toiletries. The attendant assigned to us was never in sight, was always seconds away when called, and never failed to straighten up the room when we left.

Dining was another memorable experience. In the wood-paneled Edwardian Club Car, crisp white linen cloths, fine china, crystal and fresh flowers were on every table, complementing the truly excellent food and wines.

Service was impeccable. In between meals, two lounge cars beckoned deep armchairs, writing tables, books, magazines and a tiny shop and bar/kitchen service to ensure total comfort. (The well known Blue Train was refurbished recently at considerable expense to the South African government, which owns and runs it. With competition like Rovos Rail to worry about, it's no wonder.)

The Karoo, the great flat central plain, unfolded outside our window. Cattle and sheep graze here as they did in the early days, supporting the Voor trekkers (pioneers) who first settled this land. Water holes, pumped by windmills, punctuate a landscape still shaking off the southern winter and acquiring a carpet of spring-fresh green.

The train stopped to take on water and we were encouraged to walk through small historic towns. In Kimberley, we visited the famous diamond mine, its museum, and Cecil Rhodes' house. The world-renowned De Beers Company is still headquartered here. Our train fare included these excursions, and lunch at the Kimberley Club.

Being pulled in traditional manner by a pair of steam engines restored by Rovos Rail, we arrived in Pretoria after 48 hours of grand travel. This is not the end of the train's journey, only ours. Rovos Rail regularly goes on to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and once a year, all the way to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, on the Indian Ocean.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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