As far as Travel Bucket Lists go, Rovos Rail is surely at the very top of thousands of lists around the world, as it has been on mine for years.
So, when I was invited to hop aboard for a weekend of train travel from Pretoria to Cape Town, you surely must know how quick I was to answer in the affirmative!
To be able to tick off this incredible trip of dreams off my Bucket List was truly a dream come true and today’s post will take show you exactly why a trip aboard Rovos Rail should remain firmly at the top of every Travel Bucket List.
But let’s go back slightly to the start of my Bucket List weekend which began with a Hot Air Balloon Ride, took a detour via the Cradle of Humankind and landed me on the platform at Capital Park Station in Pretoria (well, after a few wrong turns in our rental and then a rather slow Uber driver, but fortunately we didn’t miss the train! My stress levels were going through the roof on that trip)
So, after catching our breath, calming our racing hearts and sitting down with a glass bubbles to listen to a welcome by founder of Rovos, Rohan Vos, we had just enough time to snap a few photos of the beautiful locomotive, the smartly attired porters and the luxurious waiting area, before it was time to find out the name of our suite and follow our hostess to our carriage…
Stepping aboard Rovos Rail is an immediate step into a bygone era of travel…
Once on board time slows down, technology is put to one side, rest is prioritised, and the trip begins it’s leisurely pace.
Our suite, Spioenkop, was the one located closest to the end of the train and the observation cart. We were show to our suite and found all our luggage already waiting for us, along with a bottle of bubbles and few other treats.
Our room was compact, yet comfortable, with space for a queen sized bed on one side, a small writing desk, 2 chairs, a small cupboard, storage space for our bags and an en-suite toilet, basin and shower.
Before we could settle in for an afternoon snooze, there was time to orientate ourselves. Our first port of call was the observation deck located very near our suite, after which we headed in the opposite direction to find out what else to expect on board the most luxurious train in the world!
As we walked along the length of the train it slowly started to move out of the station and our excitement levels rose as we embarked on this journey of a lifetime…
We set about unpacking our clothes and sending off our formal wear for pressing. As I mentioned, this experience takes you back to the bygone era of travel where you dress for dinner, we needed to ensure we looked the part for the first evening meal – a Black Tie occasion!
The next morning we woke to the most incredible change in scenery. The previous afternoon the scenery had not been much to mention as we weaved our way through the metropolitan train tracks of Pretoria and it’s outlying areas, but, after our first night’s sleep (a few hours moving, a few at standstill), we discovered we were well into the interior of South Africa.
We lowered the shutters and made a cup of tea to enjoy in bed while watching the African savanna sail past our window!
After breakfast the train started to slow and we quickly headed to the windows alongside the passageway, keen to catch a glimpse of the large dam they had announced we would be passing soon. Little did we know just how impressive this dam would be!
More than just a large body of water in the dry, barren landscape of the Northern Cape – Kamfers Dam is home to hundreds of thousands of flamingoes!!!
From a way off we could start to see that there were a few about… and as we got closer we started to get a sense of the scale. It was incredible!!! My only wish is that we might have been able to stop a while and get closer for some better photos. But these will suffice…
About Kamfer’s Dam
Kamfer’s Dam is a privately owned wetland located on the northern outskirts of Kimberley. It is one of only 4 breeding sites for the Lesser Flamingo, smaller and paler than its’ contemporaries. September and October are the best months to see flamingos, although they are present year round. There is no cost to visit the dam.
After this spectacular scene it was time to roll into Kimberley, the first of two stops on our route from Pretoria to Cape Town. This was to be my first ever visit to the historical town of Kimberley and I was keen to see the main attraction – the Big Hole. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a private shuttle would be collecting all of the passengers on board and taking us to the Diamond Museum and the Big Hole!
About The Big Hole
Once a flat-topped hill, The Big Hole is today a gaping hole measuring 215 metres deep, with a surface area of 17 hectares and a perimeter of 1.6 kilometres. What makes this more fascinating is that it is an entirely man-made structure: the largest hand-dug excavation in the world.
We first watched a short video explaining the history of diamond mining in the area when in 1866 a man called Erasmus Jacobs found a shiny pebble on the banks of the Orange River. After it was sold in London as a 21.25 carat diamond for £500, a diamond rush ensued and miners arrived in their thousands from around the world. The hill disappeared in a flurry of prospection, as picks and shovels yielded 2 722 kilograms of diamonds.
After the video we visited the lookout point of the Big Hole itself, and then headed underground to experience what a diamond mine is actually like. The real deal mines reach a depth of 1097 metres but this one was probably only 20m!
Our short visit ended with a walk through the exhibition centre, and the chance to purchase diamonds (unfortunately not on our shopping list!) followed by a meander through the life-size museum – a replica of the old prospecting town of Kimberley which I found fascinating!
If there’s anything that defines Rovos Rail it’s the service. Above and beyond everything else – the luxury, the quality, the unique experience – it was the service and the smiles of the staff that set Rovos apart, and once again we were greeted by a line up of friendly staff serving glasses of bubbly. Rovos Rail certainly know how to celebrate and it was with another glass of bubbles in our hand that we stepped back on board our 5-star hotel with a difference!
Adventuring around in the dust and heat certainly made us appreciate the coolly air-conditioned rooms and we caught our breath and freshened up before heading down to the dining cart for lunch, silver service style…
So many times I hear of women planning a holiday that requires months of dieting beforehand in order to fit into a swimsuit or look good in a bikini… Fortunately Rovos Rail has nothing of the sort. This 5 star hotel has no beaches or pools to parade around, so if you’d been planning a diet before or during this trip I would advise against it. There is no point!
The food and wine aboard Rovos Rail is meant to be savoured and enjoyed – every morsel.
And so we did!
We really did!
Every meal was an affair to remember. Expect exquisite crystal glassware, special silverware, monogrammed crockery and crisply pressed white linen napkins, not to mention the food! And the extensive South African wine list. We didn’t hold back, and every indulgent mouthful was totally worth it! Yes, you come for the Rovos Rail experience of sailing past the most iconic African landscapes, but you’ll come back for the dining experience!
As the heat of the day rose and the four course lunch settled in stomachs up and down the train, we decided to forego the afternoon snooze that we were so tempted to enjoy and head down to the observation deck to see if we might get it all to ourselves. And our plan worked!
We were able to enjoy an hour or so of uninterrupted alone time on the back of the train, peacefully observing the farmlands, the desert, the track… even managing to catch a glimpse of the Oranje River as we whizzed by.
To add to the glamour of the moment we were able to enjoy it all with plentiful gin & tonics to hand from the conveniently located bar a few steps away!
Before we knew it, it was time for tea!
Yes high tea is served every afternoon in the observation car and the lounge – cucumber sandwiches, salmon sandwiches, scones with marscapone cream, cheesecake, chocolate mousse cake. Seriously, don’t even both with that diet! This is not the time!
Almost 24 hours into our trip, we had started to make friends with our fellow travellers, Australians, British, Indians, Americans and a smattering of South Africans. As we all weaved our way through the arid landscape of the Karoo we joined them all to enjoy sundowners on the back of the train.
Watching the sky change colour from light orange to bright orange and then the sun sink beneath the horizon and change the landscape to a soft pinky blue was possibly one of my proudest moments as a South African – I just burst with the incredible joy of the moment, sharing this African sunset with people who’d never been witness to one before… and I realised just how incredible it is to be able to live here, in Africa. WHAT A PLACE!
After getting caught up in the beauty of the evening settling around us into darkness we suddenly realised it was a few mins past the dinner bell… and we hadn’t even got changed yet into our finery!
A mad flurry ensued as we both tried to make ourselves presentable for the final evening meal…
The atmosphere in the dining cart carried through the train as we tried to speedily make our way along the narrow passages. Fortunately we weren’t too late and made it to our seats before the starters were served.
After dinner, a surprise from the staff, but I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say you’ll be grateful that there is already a designated driver at the helm 😉
After an even better night’s rest we decided to set our alarm to catch the sunrise the following day and so we woke to see the sky reverse the sunset colours we’d seen the night before…
As tempting as it was to just roll over and leave the blinds closed, I’m so grateful for this opportunity. Watching the sunrise is simply something that I ever do in my everyday life, but I find myself on holiday often choosing to rise with it instead of sleeping in. This might seem the opposite of what you would expect from someone on holiday, but what I find is that not only is a good way to avoid the crowds (not necessary on this occasion), but it’s also a great way to soak in the experience you find yourself enjoying, a chance to really appreciate the place you find yourself in and a moment of meditation and deep gratitude.
I wish I had more sunrise moments exactly like this!
Around 8am the train once again came to a halt, but we were about 5km from our destination of Matjiesfontein. The reason? The chance to get off and get walking – to burn off all the calories perhaps?
We were up, so decided to delay breakfast and get some exercise and fresh morning air. Of course a walk is always a wonderful way to see a place (second possibly to a train trip!), and so it was a lovely way to get closer to the Karoo – the windmills and koppies, wild flowers and tumbleweeds.
Our second stop of the trip was the tiny town of Matjiesfontein.
We’ve visited Matjiesfontein twice before (read those posts here and here – quite fascinating to see how my blog, photography and son have grown!!), but this time I wanted to go a bit deeper – to get off the main road, the get inside the museum, to find a few spots I hadn’t found before. And so I did!
Matjiesfontein is an old Karoo town that was a popular train stop during the last century. Today it is not more than a one street town with a hotel, 2 museums, a post office and coffee shop. Founded in 1884 by James Douglas Logan it is well known for its beautiful historical buildings and was declared a National Historic Monument in 1970 after restoration.
After a short meander around Matjiesfontein it was time to hop back on board for breakfast before we starting to make our way down to the Cape…
And it really was “down” to the Cape as this stretch of the journey suddenly saw us entering a 14km tunnel, and then another, and another until finally were were no longer surrounded by the vast, flat plains of the Karoo, but by the towering mountains and green valleys of the Hex River Valley.
We enjoyed another 5-star lunch overlooking the most incredible views – even spotting a sprinkling of late snow on the top of the Matroosberg.
The train made it’s way via Worcester and then swung a right through the Slanghoek Valley and around past Wellington and Paarl.
Signs of Spring were everywhere – from the bright blue skies to the fruit orchards in blossom and the wild flowers turning the fields from green to orange. There were even some bright yellow canola fields in flower to add to the array of colours from our window.
Finally we spotted more and more signs of the city. Train tracks converged, shipping containers piled high, weekend workers made their way home via commuter trains.
Table Mountain came into view, and, as exciting as it was to be home and snuggle our babies once more, it was also with sadness that we realised this was the end of the track!
It was time to say goodbye to the incredible experience that was Rovos Rail. Our dream trip had come to a halt – but not before we picked up our copy of Rovos’ Journeys magazine to find out which of their trips we should be adding right back at the top of our Travel Bucket List, because once is not enough!
I fell in love with train travel on this trip and now I can’t wait to plan another train holiday. The Maharajas Express across India looks like a great option. I would love to experience India this way and the route takes you via some of the most incredible Indian landmarks.
To help me relive this dream trip I made this short video of our Rovos Rail experience. You might enjoy it to as a summary of this blog post!
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Words, Images & Video: Kathryn Rossiter