As the train pulls out of the station, and its tentative, sluggish chugs become confident clickety-clacks, it occurs to me that I have quite possibly made a terrible mistake.
I don’t like trains. This is due mainly to my desire to get to any destination in the quickest way possible — and also to an unfortunate propensity for motion sickness.
Yet somehow, charmed by a friend’s enthusiasm for locomotives, I have committed to spending the next 48 hours en route from Cape Town to Pretoria aboard Rovos Rail.
Luckily, before I can even begin to calculate the likelihood of a successful leap to the tracks, I make the acquaintance of Adam, our onboard sommelier, in the lounge car. He astutely suggests that my train trepidation might respond favorably to a glass of pinotage from a stellar South African winery.
Adam is not wrong. As the warmth of the wine runs through me, I sink back into a plush armchair and glance out the window in time to see the iconic Table Mountain recede in the distance as we begin cutting a serpentine path toward the lush, mountain-flanked vineyards of Paarl, one of South Africa’s premier wine regions.
Maybe this antiquated form of transport does have something to offer, after all.
Rovos Rail is a beautiful anachronism: an authentically refurbished Edwardian-style train designed to take guests back in time as it meanders through some of South Africa’s least-seen but most spectacular countryside, complete with excursions to two of the country’s historical highlights. And although the journey may seem slow to some — the trip from Cape Town to Pretoria takes only two hours by plane but two days via Rovos Rail — guests aboard the company’s flagship train, the Pride of Africa, are more than happy to trade haste for history. After all, it’s not every day that one gets to ride a time machine on tracks.
In operation since 1989, Rovos Rail has always been more about the journey than the destination. Owner Rohan Vos has translated a lifelong passion for the lost art of train travel into a railway company that aims to provide guests with a luxurious locomotive journey that, in the company’s words, recaptures “the romance and atmosphere of a bygone era” of travel. To that end, Vos has visited scrap yards and salvaged train coaches dating from as far back as the 1920s. And it is in those exquisitely restored “rescues” that guests travel across the country (or the continent; Rovos’s longest trip is a 34-day voyage from Cape Town to Cairo). Trains are limited to 20 carriages and no more than 72 guests on each journey.
A few hours into the trip, we gather with other passengers in the antique observation car; its large windows and open-air balcony provide the perfect vantage point from which to view the majestic Hex River Mountains. Among the highest in the Western Cape, the peaks are peppered with fynbos, a type of shrublike, flowering vegetation native to South Africa. Because this is one of the country’s best fruit-growing regions, however, the mountains’ lower reaches have been planted with vineyards and fruit trees vying for sunlight and space.
Time for tea
Our interest in the scenery is momentarily replaced with a hankering for scones as tea is set out in the adjacent lounge car. “Don’t you feel like you’ve stepped into a scene from that Agatha Christie classic, Murder on the Orient Express?” asks a well-read guest, taking another sip of his tea while eyeing a slice of cheesecake.