Dar es Salaam to Cape Town
As darkness falls over the bushveld, we seem far removed from the harsh, searing beauty of the barren landscape...
There’s something truly magical about stepping back in time and rediscovering the attraction of travelling sedately by luxury train, watching the ever-changing countryside slip by at a gentle pace while enjoying gourmet cuisine and fine wines.
Nearly 200 years after its invention, the train continues to provide one of the most satisfying modes of travel. Today, those in search of nostalgia for this golden age of travel can combine traditional charm and elegance with modern facilities and first-class service.
Thanks largely to the association with Agatha Christie, there has always been an aura of glamour, a hint of mystery about rail travel and the Queen of Crime’s “Murder on the Orient Express”, both the book and on film, have done much to increase the cachet of this mystery.
The same can be said for travellers to South Africa where you will find Rovos Rail’s now legendary ‘The Pride of Africa’ – said by many to be the most luxurious train in the world.
In a series of journeys lasting from 24 hours to 4 weeks, ‘The Pride of Africa’ links some of Africa’s greatest destinations from Cape Town, at the southernmost tip of the continent, to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, from scenic splendours as diverse as the game reserves of Mpumalanga to the Victoria Falls, from the desert landscapes in Namibia and the stark beauty of the Great Karoo, to the lush cane fields of KwaZulu-Natal and the spectacular Garden Route along the Cape south coast.
It was recently my good fortune to join an exclusive band of intrepid travellers when my wife Rosemary and I were invited to return to Dar es Salaam to experience Rovos Rail’s celebrated trans-African safari. This epic 14-day journey travels through Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa and is one of the most famous train journeys in the world.
Our journey began at Tazara Station, the bustling terminus for the Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority, where we were greeted with a Champagne and canapé reception, while musicians played soothing classical music in the background. This was the ideal time to meet our fellow passengers who would be joining us on our spectacular sojourn through Africa.
There was a sudden call for our indulgence as the Train Manager, Mart Marais welcomed the passengers with an introduction to her team and life onboard ‘The Pride of Africa’, the luxurious train that would be our home for the next 14 days. We were then ushered along the platform where the distinct green carriages of our train glistened in the resplendence of their livery.
At this point we were greeted by our charming hostess, Charmaine Minnaar who escorted us to our luxuriously-appointed Deluxe double suite, appropriately named ‘Assegaai’, the wooden spear or javelin pointed with iron and used as a weapon by the Zulu and other Nguni tribes of South Africa.
With a gentle jerk, the train starts to move out of the station on its journey into the vast interior of Africa. The skyline of Dar es Salaam fades into the background as we clack along the tracks and very soon we are accustomed to the now familiar rolling rhythm of ‘The Pride of Africa’, a train that has always held a very special place in our hearts.
Once we slipped the bonds of Dar es Salaam, we settled into our private cabin and watched Tanzania’s breathtaking scenery glide by. Liveried stewards ministered to our every need, as the train proceeded inland through the Selous Game Reserve, the largest in Africa.
After a quick shower we made our way to the Lounge Car, where Wesly Fleischer and Elliot Padi our ever-attentive, yet unobtrusive stewards welcomed us by name. On a large train this is a remarkable feat, but in common with our hostess, Charmaine Minnaar, we had travelled with them before on Rovos Rail’s Pretoria to Victoria Falls journey.
Deep sofas and wingback chairs make for an extremely comfortable car in which guests can relax for Afternoon Tea, or with a pre-dinner cocktail and canapés. As darkness falls over the bushveld, we seem far removed from the harsh, searing beauty of the barren landscape, with the occasional baobab tree etched against the day’s last rays of sunshine. Mellow lighting creates the romantic mood, the passengers themselves provide the elegant and sociable tone until the gong chimes for dinner, where we repair to one of the two Edwardian-style Dining Cars.
There’s an accent on fresh local ingredients and traditional dishes such as game are a house speciality. With starters such as Waterblommetjie Soup, followed by a mouth-watering choice between indigenous South African dishes such as Stuffed Ostrich Fillet with Blue Cheese and Vodka sauce, or Springbok Loin Medallions in red wine and ginger. The dessert menu offered an equally impressive selection with at least four puddings to choose from, and a particularly fine selection of local cheeses.
Our hunger satisfied, we head for the rear of the train to join our fellow passengers for drinks in the luxuriously-appointed Observation Car, where Wesly and Elliot once again attended to our every need. This most popular of cars seats 32 passengers, and includes a relaxing bar, enlarged windows and a unique open-air balcony, where guests can enjoy the breathtaking scenery while sipping a “sundowner” or simply marvel at the clarity of a million stars illuminating the night sky. This is the place to recapture the romance and atmosphere of a bygone era, when privileged travellers experienced the magic and mystery of Africa in a relaxed an elegant fashion.
At the end of the day while you are dining the mood transforms as your exclusive suite is turned into a cosy bedroom, with beds dressed with crisp cotton sheets – carefully turned down and ready to welcome you for the night. Our hostess, Charmaine would always go that extra mile to ensure our comfort and with a level of service that evolved into an elaborate ceremony of almost forgotten rituals. Every morning a full English breakfast is served in the Dining Cars with alternative dishes cooked to order as well as a mouthwatering breakfast buffet.
Our journey continued through Tanzania until we reached the border at Tunduma and Nakonde, where the Zambian authorities briefly joined the train to complete the border formalities. We were now more or less midway between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi – Africa’s two Great Rift Valley lakes, so a stop was scheduled at Kasama Station where we disembarked for an excursion to the spectacular Chisimba Falls. After a pleasant ramble down to the rock pools at the base of the Falls, we returned to the train for the descent into the heart of Zambia.
Shortly after breakfast near Lusaka Station on day 5, the train passed slowly over the 13 spans of the Kafue Railway Bridge, a 427 metre-long steel girder truss bridge supported on concrete piers, while guests made their way to the Lounge Car for one of Nicholas Southey’s captivating slide-illustrated lectures. Nicholas was the on-board historian and his daily lectures always provided a fascinating insight into the political, social and economic conditions of the countries through which the train travelled.
The following day we arrived at Livingstone, the historic Zambian border town and popular tourism centre for the Victoria Falls where we disembarked for an excursion before returning to the train to enter Zimbabwe. The train left in the late afternoon and stopped for a while on the famous Victoria Falls Bridge, where ‘The Pride of Africa’ hung suspended 128 metres above the precipitous second gorge of the Falls.
Thanks to the goodwill of the driver of our locomotive, I was invited to join him on the footplate for the crossing of the gorge and to the dismay of the Zimbabwean border officials, I took full advantage of my position on the front of the train to take some splendid photographs of the cascading Falls.
Having crossed the border we were now in Victoria Falls, a picturesque little town on the southern bank of the mighty Zambezi River. The pretty colonial station with its palm trees and flowering bougainvillea provides and oasis of calm amid the arid brown landscape of Zimbabwe in winter. From the platform it is a short walk to The Victoria Falls Hotel, one of Africa’s great institutions where we were greeted by a troupe of African dancers and would be spending the next 2 days.
The first sight from the verandah is always an experience to behold – clouds of spray billowing from the Victoria Falls can be seen down the length of the second gorge, and is usually the first indication any traveller has that they are approaching the world’s most spectacular waterfalls.
“Mosi-oa-Tunya”, or “The Smoke that Thunders”, was how the local Makololo people described it – and early explorers were equally spellbound. “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”, wrote Dr David Livingstone when, in 1855, he became the first European to explore the area around the Falls, and renamed them in honour of the British Queen.
That evening we joined our fellow guests on a sunset cruise along the Zambezi River where we saw numerous hippo, elephants, cattle egrets and even crocodile catching the last rays of sunshine in the shallows, before returning to our room for a sound night’s sleep lulled by the distant roar of the Victoria Falls.
Following a leisurely breakfast on the terrace, we bid farewell to our friends in the nearby curio market and rejoined the train for the onward journey to Plumtree, where we crossed the border into Botswana at Gaborone. The following day we disembarked for transfer by coach to the Madikwe Game Reserve for a 2 night stay at the exclusive TAU Game Lodge, where we had our second but certainly not our last encounter with wild animals.
After four exciting game drives and 3 days in the wilderness, guests returned to the train at Zeerust in South Africa, for the onward journey to Pretoria, where we stopped at Capital Park, Rovos Rail’s historic and recently refurbished private station. Upon our arrival at the station passengers were greeted on the platform by Rohan Vos, Managing Director and founder of Rovos Rail, who took great pride in showing us around his station, the marshalling yard and the gleaming locomotives being painstakingly restored. Following a mouth-watering lunch at Capital Park, guests were taken on a tour of Pretoria before returning to the train for the onward journey towards Cape Town.
Shortly after breakfast the following day we passed Kamfers Dam, one of the few perennial wetlands in the Northern Cape which supports the largest resident population of Lesser Flamingo in southern Africa, with an estimated 60,000 individuals.
As we arrived in Kimberley, our train entered one of the most atmospheric railway stations of the journey.
Our itinerary here included a visit to the Open Mine and Diamond Museum, and the famous ‘Big Hole’ – the world’s largest man-made excavation. Upon our return to the train we were cordially invited to a farewell Masquerade Ball and Cocktail Party in the Observation Car, hosted by the Train Manager, Mart Marais and her team, for this was the last night of our sojourn through
Africa, and a jolly good time was had by all!
The following day we travelled across the strangely haunting barren landscape of the Great Karoo into Matjiesfontein, where we disembarked for a leisurely tour of this entirely Victorian village in an old London bus, visiting the impressive museum on the platform, the motorcar and railway carriage museum, and the quaint Laird’s Arms Bar at The Lord Milner Hotel.
On leaving Matjiesfontein, we continued our journey south, passing through Tweedside and Touws River, where we reached the first of four very long tunnels that took us through the mountains of the Hex River Valley to Worcester, the largest wine producing town in South Africa.
At the end of the day, as ‘The Pride of Africa’ pulled into Platform 23 at Cape Town Station the atmosphere on the train was positively sullen, for this was the end of our adventure. Reluctantly we step down onto the platform to bid farewell to our fellow passengers and the Rovos Rail crew who had strived so hard to make our journey such an unforgettable experience.
Small wonder, 200 years after its invention, the train continues to provide one of the most satisfying modes of travel, where the highest standards of service and gracious living encapsulate the refinement and elegance of yesteryear.
- Peter Holthusen