Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 22, 2017
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I prescribe... Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa

While we were in South Africa, my partner Nicki and I took a two-day, 1500-kilometre train trip from Cape Town to Pretoria. Aboard Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa we escaped into the cultured elegance of one of the most luxurious trains in the world.

Businessman Rohan Vos first thought of using restored rail cars in the mid-'80s. He had originally planned to run a private little train around the countryside for himself and his family. He managed to secure a contract with South African (SA) Railways that would allow him to travel anywhere in South Africa for a fixed charge per kilometre. But, when he discovered that the costs involved in towing this hotel on wheels were beyond his private means, SA Railways suggested he sell tickets and Rovos Rail (tel: 631-858-1270; fax: 631- 858-1279; www.rovos.co.za) was born.

For the next few years he scoured the countryside for old coaches and locomotives, rescuing them from scrapyards or purchasing them from the railways and individuals who had converted them into restaurants and residences. The locomotives and coaches were meticulously restored at a private railroad station in Pretoria.

Although Rovos Rail started off with an appealingly historic steam-powered train in 1989, over the past few years it has become increasingly difficult to operate steam locomotives as the required coal and water facilities have been gradually taken down all over the country. Today, the train is drawn by diesel or electric locomotives, except around Pretoria.

Getting Hitched
When we arrived at Cape Town station at 10am, we were met by charming, immaculately dressed personnel who efficiently took care of the luggage and escorted passengers to the platform. Rohan Vos was on hand to personally greet guests, and a musical duo set the mood as travellers indulged in delicate sandwiches, orange juice and champagne. The elaborate welcome reflects a standard of care and attention to detail that endures throughout the trip.

Close to departure time we climbed aboard and were shown to our suite. It was like stepping into a time warp the compartment had the ambiance of an early 20th-century gentlemen's club with all the modern comforts. Each suite has been rebuilt to blend traditional woods and fixtures with modern conveniences, like hidden mini bars and roomy bathrooms. The '20s- and '30s-style furnishings reflect the era in which the carriages were built and the mahogany panelling recalls the colonial glamour and elegance of prewar travel. The carriages have been converted to include only two or three large suites, about 120 to 170 square feet each.

Esther, our delightful attendant, described the amenities. The suites have twin or double beds, a lounge area with two upholstered chairs, a writing desk, a compact refrigerator, a closet with full-length mirrors and air-conditioning. There is either a three- or four-piece bathroom and bigger suites having a Victorian claw-foot bathtub and separate showers. The original fittings have been combined to accommodate hot showers, hair dryers and plugs for electric shavers. Guests are invited to complete a fridge card to indicate beverage preferences for the trip.

Lapping Up Luxury
The train pulled out of Cape Town station as we settled in. Soon, a brass gong sounded, announcing lunch. The dining cars, two opulently restored carriages, truly transported us back to another time. The more formal carriage, dating back to 1911, displayed fluted-peak pillars and arches, mahogany tables and tassel-tied draperies, which combined to create an Edwardian ambiance. In the 1935 dining car, formerly a restaurant in Johannesburg, plush booths, mahogany panelling and square chrome-fitted ceiling lights ensconced diners in subtle Art Deco style. Fresh flowers, Rovos Rail china and old mismatched silverware dressed the white-clothed tables.

An enthusiastic team of chefs was responsible for ensuring that every diner's needs were catered to, and meticulous planning went into creating the menus. Unlike many great trains of the world, travellers are aboard the Pride of Africa for several days at a time and require a much wider selection of meals. There is an accent on fresh local ingredients and traditional South African fare. Every morning we could enjoy a full breakfast with dishes cooked to order, or a selection of cold meats, croissants, pastries, fresh fruit, yogurts, cereals and preserves at the breakfast buffet. Lunch and dinner included an appetizer, a choice of fish, meat or vegetarian dishes followed by tempting desserts, and were complemented by a selection of excellent South African wines.

 

After lunch we chose to head to the observation car along with a few of our fellow guests. The car's mahogany bar and lamp-lit booths with leather, cane and rattan furniture were popular during colonial times. The atmosphere was ideal for relaxing and meeting other travellers from around the world. Fortunately there were no televisions, radios or newspapers to interfere with the peace and tranquillity of the journey.

The other passengers ranged from honeymooners, to adult families, to employed vacationers like us, to retirees. It was a wonderful congenial group, representing a diversity of cultures. We were amazed at how quickly we mingled and enjoyed each other's company. We spent time on the open-air platform at the back of the observation car, marvelling at the spectacular wine lands of the western Cape. Travelling at 60 kilometres an hour, Nicki and I enjoyed a drink and communed with the landscape as the wind rushed through our hair.

Blast From The Past
At about 4pm the train arrived in the legendary Victorian railway village of Matjiesfontein, now listed as a national monument. We had ample time to stroll in the warm afternoon sun past the elegant Hotel Milner, the post office and other restored buildings. The museums were small and unique. The Marie Rawdon Museum houses a vast collection of Victoriana and a few remarkable surprises. In the Transport Museum we were amused to come across a Mini just like the one I owned as a medical student. I could not believe how little protection we had while driving, being only a foot off the ground with paper-thin doors and no seatbelts!

We were back aboard the train as darkness fell, and the soft lighting brought a different charm and sophistication to the journey. Dinner was an elegant, formal affair and did justice to the setting. As with all the meals aboard the train, it was unhurried, allowing us to fully savour the pleasures and sense of escapism of speeding through the countryside. Before retiring, we enjoyed coffee, after-dinner drinks and conversation in the observation car. The day ended with the hypnotic pleasure of a comfortable bed and the gentle, rhythmic swaying of the train which lulled us into sleep.

After breakfast on day two, the train arrived in Kimberley, the most important city in South Africa's diamond history. To this day, De Beers Consolidated Diamond Mines still holds its annual general meeting there. Our off-train excursion included lunch at the select Kimberley Club, followed by an interesting tour of the world-renowned mine and a carefully constructed display of historical memorabilia.

Shortly after the train pulled out of Kimberley we were lucky enough to witness a spectacular scene a huge flock of pink flamingos wading in a pond close to the train and silhouetted against the setting sun as they flew off to a quieter area.

By dinner on the second night it seemed as if we'd known our fellow guests for ages. The splendid meal was only enhanced by the camaraderie of our group chatting happily. The next morning, however, the view from the dining car during breakfast was a bit of a shock. All too soon we had reached the hustle and bustle of Witwatersrand, a 160-kilometre crescent of gold-bearing land that has been mined since 1886, bringing tremendous wealth to South Africa. The sense of history and escape was definitely over.

Full Steam Ahead
About an hour from Pretoria the train stopped to change locomotives. The diesel engine was detached and we all watched as the steam locomotive arrived, huffing and puffing, as it took its rightful place at the head of the train. Her name was Brenda. Though she was built in the early 1900s, she stood in all her splendour, gleaming in the sunlight. We all climbed aboard to ooh and aah and take plenty of pictures. Back in our suite we sat back to enjoy the last leg of our trip, with Brenda in charge. There's just something about steam locomotives!

At about noon the train arrived in Capital Park, Rovos Rail's private station in Pretoria. It is here that the locomotives and carriages are refurbished and maintained, but the pièce de resistance is indisputably the station itself. As old stations in South Africa were being replaced, Rovos Rail transported the salvaged materials to Capital Park and reconstructed a magnificent station. The attention to detail here was as apparent as in all other areas of the Rovos Rail operation.

Just as Rohan Vos had been on the station in Cape Town to see us off, there he was on the platform in Capital Park to welcome us back. It was time to say goodbye to the strangers we'd met in Cape Town who had become friends by Pretoria. All too soon those 48 hours of pampered luxury and of being in another world had come to an end.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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