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South African Splendor on Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa

20 Apr
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Rovos Rail guests await their train at Rovos Rail’s private Capitol Park Station.  IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy

By the time we arrive at Rovos Rail‘s private station in Pretoria, my colleague, Rachel Hardy and I are both brimming with excitement. We are about to embark on a 3-day journey to Cape Town on one of the world’s most luxurious trains: Pride of Africa. We are here to discover if this train, on our World’s Top 25® Trains list for decades, is still up to snuff ahead of IRT’s special group trip on Rovos Rail in November, 2019. By the time we arrive in Cape Town, we have decided that the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

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Rachel Hardy and Angela Walker with a Rovos Rail hostess. IRT Photo.

The check-in process is a breeze. Rovos Rail hostesses greet us with champagne and juice as our luggage is whisked away by friendly porters. We are ushered inside the beautiful old station to relax and enjoy the view through the stately French doors. Gently swaying palm trees line the platform, and beyond, the famous Rovos Rail train cars fill the tracks as far as the eye can see.

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Rovos Rail porter smiles as he loads luggage on our train. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

A short time later, Rovos Rail’s visionary and idiosyncratic owner, Rohan Vos, summons interested guests for a tour of the grounds. (Mr. Vos began Rovos Rail in 1989 against almost insurmountable odds. His story – Rovos Rail’s story – is fascinating and could fill an entire book. It is only fitting that ‘Rovos’ is a portmanteau of his first and last names!)

The station — abuzz with the activity of more than 400 Rovos Rail employees – sprawls over 60 acres. From the sales offices to the kitchens to the maintenance platforms – where we watch carriages being transformed from dusty old shells into sleek, green Pride of Africa cars – Rovos employees in a variety of green uniforms hurry to and fro, painting, welding, sawing, hauling, cleaning and doing all other manner of task.

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Rovos Rail employees at the station. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

A variety of animals (goats, emu, ostrich, donkeys and cows) hover around the periphery and impart a distinctly Old World air to the scene. Also on the station grounds: a small museum with Rovos memorabilia going back 20 years, a lovely gift shop and storage facilities.

Mr. Vos leads us to the locomotive depot, where he describes the painstaking restorations his team has accomplished over the years. He also explains the train’s bogies and braking system in some detail – a real treat for rail fans – before shepherding us back to the station for our departure.

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Rohan Vos gives a behind-the-scenes tour before departure. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

By now, we’ve come to appreciate Mr. Vos’s hands-on approach – so no one is surprised when he himself delivers the welcome speech and explains the rules of life on board. One point he particularly stresses: mobile phones and computers are prohibited in public areas.  He wants this to be a social occasion, and, as he explains, cell phones are the modern day adversary of good conversation.

He suggests we put our electronics in our safe and forget about them for a few days – a challenge for us, and surely some other guests. We settle with putting our cells on ‘Airplane Mode’ so we can continue to (discreetly) use our phone cameras without guilt.

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Rachel gets a visit from the dining staff and chef. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Mr. Vos invites each of us aboard by name, and our hostesses greet us and show us to our cabins. Rachel and I each have a Deluxe cabin to ourselves. Mine is laid out with two L-shaped twin beds (a configuration that is slowly being phased out in favor of side-by-side twin beds with an aisle in between), while Rachel has a large double bed.

In each of our cabins is a table with two chairs, a large wardrobe with safe, ample storage space for luggage under bed and overhead, and a spacious bathroom with sink, toilet, and shower.

Large picture windows – some of which open to let in the breeze – run the length of our cabins.

 

(In addition to Deluxe Cabins, which clock in around 118 square feet, the train offers Pullman Cabins (diminutive but doable at 76 sq. ft.) and enormous Royal Suites, which are 172 sq. ft. and feature a larger bathroom with deep claw foot bathtub and large living area.)

After a cheerful briefing from our hostess, Louwrene, and a visit from the dining supervisor and chef to inquire about dietary requirements, we set off to explore the public cars at the rear of the train.

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Rachel and guests enjoying the observation car before dinner. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

We first encounter the smoking car, which is entirely enclosed in glass and surprisingly devoid of bad smells. (Smoking is also allowed within the confines of your cabin.)

Next, we find a quiet, comfortable lounge car with couches and armchairs, which quickly becomes the ‘go-to’ spot for guests looking to read and nap after lunch. A small gift shop is tucked in one corner.

The last car on the train is by far the most special: it is divided between a traditional counter bar with stools, a lounge area with banquette seating (our favorite place for playing the many board games available), and, best of all, an open-air observation platform with bench seating, accessed through a sliding glass door.

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Rovos Rail open-air observation car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

As we are making our rounds, the train manager, Joe Mathala, greets us enthusiastically and strikes up a conversation about his long and storied career with Rovos. He quickly rattles off the other Rovos trains currently in service – where they are now, where they are headed, what time they will arrive – and regales us with behind-the-scenes tales.

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Joe Mathala, train manager, made us feel at home. Pictured here with guests at lunch in the dining car. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The South African sun sets rapidly over the increasingly rural landscape, and we retreat to our cabins to dress for dinner. On Rovos Rail, dinner is a formal affair. Jacket and tie for men and cocktail attire for women are required, at a minimum, and everyone happily obliges.

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Angela in the Victorian-style diner. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

The dining car is a 1920s-style Victorian beauty with teak pillars, shuttered windows with tasseled drapes, romantic, soft lighting, and beautifully-set tables with crisp white dining cloths, china, and crystal. Red anthurium flowers add a natural adornment to each table.

The service is excellent; we are well-attended by four able dining staff who bounce back and forth from the kitchen car to the tables, serving, pouring and clearing, all with a smile.  Joe is also ever-present, assisting his staff while still managing to mingle with the guests.

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Alpheus, our sever, pours wine at dinner. IRT Photo by Rachel M. Hardy.

Throughout the journey, the prix fixe menus – four courses expertly paired with South African wines – highlight local specialties, including fresh seafood, ostrich fillet, and Bobotie (spiced mince beef oven-baked with a layer of egg custard). Rachel, a vegetarian, also gave the culinary team five stars for inventiveness and flavor.

We loved the desserts, especially the decadent Koeksister (in Afrikaans, “fat sister”) – fried dough soaking in sweet, drippy grease – paired with a traditional South Africa melktart, dusted with cinnamon.

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My cozy bed, laden with gifts from Rovos Rail, turned down for the night. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

After dinner, we retreat to our cabins to find gifts from Rovos Rail arranged on our turned-down beds: crystal glasses to keep, bottles of champagne, and chocolates. (As if we needed more food!)  The gentle rocking of the train lulled me to sleep as soon as I hit the pillow.

 

Stayed tuned for part two of our Rovos Rail report, which will be published within the next week. Subscribe to our blog here.

Or, if you are ready to book your own Rovos Rail adventure, call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is a 20-year veteran of The Society of International Railway Travelers, and has been on many of our World’s Top 25® Trains. She is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Operations.  Rachel M. Hardy is a luxury travel advisor and VP, Sales & Marketing, for the Society of IRT. Both are based in our Louisville, KY headquarters. They have just returned from a month-long study tour examining trains, hotels and experiences in Europe and South Africa.

 

IRT On Tour: VSOE Grand Suites, Rovos Rail, Shongololo Express, more

8 Mar
Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

IRT’s Angela Walker and Rachel Hardy are about to embark on a three-week
learning tour spanning two continents to investigate the newest developments in
luxury rail travel.

We checked in with them while they were furiously packing to ask: What about your upcoming study tour has you most excited?

Angela: I am eager to experience Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa after helping IRT travelers take the train for many years – especially knowing how beloved it is by past guests. I especially look forward to meals in the beautiful dining cars and watching the scenery roll by from the open-air observation deck.

I’ll also be testing out Rovos Rail’s new sister train – Shongololo Express – on an
in-depth 15-day tour of South Africa.

The Pride of Africa has been a World’s Top 25 Train since the beginning, and
Shongololo Express may be awarded this elite honor after we’ve tested it. Stay tuned!

Grand Suite 'Venice' on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.

Grand Suite ‘Venice’ on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.

Rachel: I can’t wait to see the three brand-new, super-exclusive Grand Suites on
the Venice Simplon-Orient- Express. I’ll be among a very small group to see the
Suites on their inaugural trip from Venice to London. Pictures and full report to
follow.

I’m also excited to test out the services of our great travel partners who are arranging crucial trip elements — in Europe and in South Africa — such as VIP Meet & Greet airport transfers, private guided sightseeing, unique dining and more.

Angela and I will also be visiting a host of 5-star Virtuoso properties:

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Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg

Cape Town-
Cape Grace Hotel
Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel

Johannesburg-

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Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice.

Saxon Hotel
Fairlawns Hotel

London-
The Milestone Hotel

Venice-
Belmond Hotel Cipriani
Baglioni Hotel Luna

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Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

Check in with Angela and Rachel on IRT’s Facebook page for updates throughout their travels, and look out for posts on IRT’s Track 25 blog after they return in mid-April.

If you have burning questions for them about any of the trains or
hotels they’ll be visiting, e-mail IRT’s main inbox at:
tourdesk@irtsociety.com. They’ll do their best to get an answer for you!

Ready to book your own luxury rail adventure?

Call us at 1-800-478-4881 (1-502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada) or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Angela Walker is Vice President, Operations and a luxury travel advisor. This is her 2oth year with The Society of International Railway Travelers. Read all about Angela here.  Rachel Hardy, Vice President, Sales & Marketing and luxury travel advisor is celebrating her 3rd anniversary with IRT. Read all about Rachel here. 

Murder on the Orient Express: Stunning Outside, Blah Inside

4 Dec
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Our phones are ringing off the hook.

Much of it’s due to the film remake of Agatha Christie’s 1934 who-done-it, “Murder on the Orient Express.” It opened in U.S. theaters Nov. 10.

The movie has been thoroughly reviewed by the general press, with major critics less than thrilled. If I were still a newspaper critic (which I was in a past life), I’d begin by saying it’s too long by at least 15-20 minutes.

The film is brilliant when the train exterior is center stage in the “mountains of Eastern Europe” (It was, in fact, shot entirely at a film studio outside London).

IRT Travelers on the VSOE.

IRT Travelers on the Train of Kings, the King of Trains.

Pulled by a magnificent steam engine, the train is bathed in blue and white moonlight, with the camera soaring down one mountain peak and up another, as if carried by an eagle (or a drone).

The film’s Orient Express glides around mountains, beset by flashing lightning bursts and menacing clouds, clinging precariously to cliffs, seemingly thousands of feet above steep gorges.

These panoramic scenes show luxury trains at their best—as almost otherworldly experiences, whose train-window views are incomparable and life-changing.

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Taking the perfect photo on the Belmond Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform — another of our World’s Top 25 Trains. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

But inside—and unlike the real luxury trains we represent —the movie Orient Express falls flat. There’s hardly any fancy furniture or gleaming brass; no discernible marquetry. The cutlery looks utilitarian; the china and crystal are uninspiring.

While there are some Art Deco accents—vaguely “Lalique-ish” sconces resembling ice sculptures adorn the movie-train walls; along with convincingly retro luggage racks—the overall color scheme ranges from dull tweed to brown.

Conversely, you can’t beat the star-studded cast. Convincingly dressed in period costume, with Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” in the background, they are brash, mysterious, gaudy, sexy — and thoroughly awash in “guilty” looks.

But there isn’t much for them to do when Poirot’s not grilling them, aside from glancing suspiciously at one another. Mostly, they just look bored. (C’mon, folks, have some fun. You’re on a luxury train!)

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Ecuador’s Tren Crucero also boasts a rear, outdoor viewing platform. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

And as far as accuracy goes, I’m dubious. In my 35 years of working in the luxury train world, I’ve never heard of a rear, open platform* on the original Orient Express in any of its iterations, as it’s shown in the film. (Please email me if you know otherwise.).

So go see “Murder on the Orient Express.” The “outdoor” train scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

But don’t commit the crime of not trying out a luxury train for yourself.

Check our list of The World’s Top 25 Trains, then  email us, or give us a call: (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

*We at IRT love open, outdoor platforms. Among our “World’s Top 25 Trains®,” open-air platforms are available on Rovos Rail’s “The Pride of Africa,” the “Belmond Royal Scotsman,” the Bangkok-Singapore “Eastern & Oriental Express” (also a Belmond train), the “Rocky Mountaineer” in Canada, Peru’s “Belmond Andean Explorer” and “Belmond Hiram Bingham” and Ecuador’s “Tren Crucero.”

 

IRT’s Angela Walker S. Africa- Bound in Search of Travel Gold

3 Mar

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As I write this, IRT’s Vice President Angela Walker is aboard a South African Airways jet, luxuriating in business class. She arrives Saturday, and she’ll be whisked away in her private limo and taken to her deluxe hotel.  Her goal: scout out the country’s best air, hotels, restaurants, safaris, gardens and tours.

Why now?

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Angela Walker, IRT Vice President, enjoys dinner on a World’s Top 25 Train.

Angela’s laying the groundwork for the Society of International Railway Travelers’ 13-day tour to South Africa, which will include 3 nights in Cape Town, Rovos Rail‘s fabulous “African Collage” luxury rail extravaganza, and one night in Johannesburg. Our trip will be January 19 – Feb. 1, 2018. We will offer a 3-night safari extension.

“This will give me lots of ideas for planning the perfect pre- and post-tour hotels, dining and activities for our guests,” Angela says.

Angela will be forging relationships with the best travel partners in the region — relationships crucial to our guests’ travel satisfaction. (Click here to see her travel map to date.)

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She’ll stay in such five-star hotels as Johannesburg’s Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa as well as Cape Town’s Taj and the One&Only. She’ll test out a day in the Winelands and have lunch at the fabulous La Residence.  She also has an appointment at Belmond’s magnificent Mount Nelson.

She’ll spend time at Singita luxury safari camp in Kruger National Park, visit Cape Point, and even enjoy a Penguin’s Lunch (can’t wait to find out what that is!).

She’s scheduled to visit Cape Town’s elegant Ellerman House and tour its art collection.

“Since I am a huge animal lover, I am most looking forward to spotting game on safari in Kruger National Park. And seeing the penguins – my favorite animal – on my way to Cape Point.

“Then there’s the Winelands, the fabulous hotels, special meals and visits – it will be an incredible trip.”

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When she returns home — and hopefully, if she has time while she’s traveling — she’ll report her findings here (on Track 25), and on Facebook and Twitter.

A few other highlights from Angela’s itinerary:

Angela is one of nine agents — out of 120 applicants — chosen to participate in the exclusive travel study tour by Virtuoso, our luxury travel consortium. It’s a well-deserved honor, and we couldn’t be happier for her.

To get on the early-bird, first notification list about our January, 2018 group tour featuring Rovos Rail‘s African Collage, click here. Or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725.

 

IRT’s Angela Walker Honored With Dream Africa Study Tour

22 Dec
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Elephants are just one of the myriad species Angela will spot on her South Africa adventure.  IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Great news for IRT — and for all of our guests heading to South Africa!

Our own Angela Walker travels to South Africa this March, where she’ll enjoy some of the country’s best hotels, restaurants, safaris, gardens, tours — plus round-trip air on South African Airways. It’s all part of our grand design to serve you better.

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Angela Walker, IRT Vice President, enjoys dinner on India’s Maharajas’ Express. IRT Photo

Our Virtuoso luxury consortium chose Angela, IRT’s Vice President and senior luxury travel advisor, for one of just nine spots — out of 120 applicants — to participate in this exclusive study tour for luxury travel advisors, sponsored by South African Tourism.

It’s a huge honor for Angela and our agency.

“I’m excited and flattered to be chosen,” Angela said. “South Africa’s always been on my travel wish list. And of course this will give me lots of ideas for planning the perfect pre- and post-tour hotels, dining and activities for our guests on Society of IRT’s January, 2018 journey to South Africa.”

But it’s also great for you, because Angela will be sampling the very best of South Africa, expanding her travel knowledge and experience to yet another continent. She will be forging relationships with the best travel partners in the region — relationships crucial to your travel satisfaction. (Click here to see her travel map to date.)

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The One and Only, Cape Town, S. Africa

She’ll stay in such five-star hotels as Johannesburg’s Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa and Cape Town’s Taj and the One & Only. She’ll test out a day in the Winelands and have lunch at the fabulous La Residence.

She’ll spend time at a luxury safari camp, visit Cape Point and even enjoy a Penguin’s Lunch (can’t wait to find out what that is!).

She’s scheduled to visit Cape Town’s elegant Ellerman House and tour its art collection.

“Since I am a huge animal lover, I am most looking forward to spotting game on safari in Kruger National Park. And seeing the penguins – my favorite animal – on my way to Cape Point.

“Then there’s the Winelands, the fabulous hotels, special meals and visits – it will be an incredible trip.”

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The 12-room Leeu House is an exclusive and private five-star destination located in the scenic Franschhoek Valley. Angela will check it out — and discover if this is right for IRT clients.

When she returns home, she’ll report her findings here in Track 25. And then she will start designing our Rovos Rail African Collage program for South Africa for January, 2018.

Want to get on the early-bird, first notification list about “Angela’s Africa?” Click here. Or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725.

Here’s a partial listing of some of the things Angela will do and see (itinerary subject to change):

Again, to get on the early-bird, first notification list about January, 2018 “Angela’s Africa” tour, click here. Or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725.

IRT’s Eleanor Hardy ‘Stars’ in New York Times Travel Section

30 Nov
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Left to right: Society of IRT President Eleanor Flagler Hardy with IRT travelers Esther S. Müller-Meyre, of Scherzingen, Switzerland, and Ron Fischer, of Arlington, VA. They stand before Ireland’s Belmond Grand Hibernian, whose “maiden voyage” the IRT Society chartered. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“Traveling by train is a fabulous way to see any country unfold,” Society of International Railway Travelers President Eleanor Hardy tells The New York Times’ travel writer Shivani Vora.

Look for the story’s print version to appear this Sunday, Dec. 4, in the Times Travel section.

The Times shared four of Mrs. Hardy tips: Pick the right train, make sure it matches your budget, pack light and plan wisely.

Her fifth tip — book with an experienced travel advisor — didn’t make the cut. But it’s important nonetheless:

“If you value your time and you want the best value, and the right cabin on the right train — not to mention your piece of mind — book your rail journey with an experienced rail specialist.

“We’ve worked with some of our suppliers for over three decades. They know us. They trust us. That’s especially important when the unexpected happens,” Mrs. Hardy said.

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Society President Eleanor Hardy appeared on cover of the Society’s 2011 tour catalogue. Mrs. Hardy is dining aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.                 IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Mrs. Hardy cites VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian and the Rocky Mountaineer as ideal for families with young children. She recommends Golden Eagle’s 21-day Beijing-Moscow Silk Road and Rovos Rail’s 15-day Cape Town-Dar es Salaam tours for a longer, more relaxed rail trip.

For those not worried about pinching pennies, she recommends Europe’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Belmond Royal Scotsman and the Eastern & Oriental Express in Southeast Asia.

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Taking the perfect photo on the Belmond Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Mrs. Hardy’s rail travel luggage recommendations? “Take no more than one small roller bag and one small backpack per person,” she says.

Finally, avoid the three mistakes “rookie” rail travelers make:

  • Confirm the station from which your train departs (many cities have several);
  • Buy your rail ticket before you leave home (they sell out fast); and
  • Allow plenty of time before and after your rail trip, so you’ll have ample time to make your connections.

“Flights can be delayed…trains can be late,” she tells the Times. “And you don’t want to be ruining your relaxing time on the train worrying about making your flight.”

• • •

For more information or to book a trip, call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725; email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

IRT On Luxury Safari

3 Jun

If you’re planning an adventure on Africa’s Rovos Rail or the Blue Train – two of our World’s Top 25 Trains® – don’t make the trek without adding a safari extension for some up-close animal encounters.

That’s our conclusion after our recent study tour to East Africa with one of the world’s top safari partners — Micato.

Read on for highlights!

          An elephant family on its daily march to the swamps in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.                     IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Scene 1:
Trundling along in Kenya’s dramatic Laikipia Conservancy, our guide stops suddenly to admire a giant male elephant with enormous tusks playing in the river below, splashing and spouting.

         A mother and her cubs watch us with casual curiosity in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.              IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The elephant swims across the river, lumbering through a pod of dangerous hippos. He trumpets angrily, seeming to scream, “Let me pass!” The hippos scatter.

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Wildebeests leap across our path in the Serengeti. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Scene 2:
Quietly approaching a female lion in our Land Rover, we admire her from about 20 feet away. She looks at us placidly, and then, deciding us worthy, she pads into the woods and returns — with her two-month-old cubs.

Scene 3:
Perched on a road in the middle of the Serengeti, we witness an incredible sight: the beginning of the great migration — 1-2 million wildebeests and about 600,000 zebra and other hooved animals —heading north to grassier, wetter Masaai Mara. The roaring wildebeests cross single-file in front of us.

Scene 4:
Lying in our luxurious tents, we listen, enchanted, to the sounds of nature all around us: weaver birds flitting and chirping, hyenas crunching the bones of their prey, the honk of a hippo in the river right outside our tent, the seemingly thousands of birds waking us in the morning.

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A rainbow comes out over Amboseli National Park during our nightly “sundowner,” where our guides serve us drinks and snacks atop a lookout point. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

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          A Maasai welcome for IRT’s Rachel Hardy as we step off our bush plan and into the                        Maasai Mara Reserve. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

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Giraffes in Serengeti National Park. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

For both of us, traveling together made everything extra special: seeing our lodgings for the first time, admiring the beauty of the zebras (Rachel’s favorite) and spying our first family of elephants (my favorites!).

We hadn’t gotten to spend so much time together in years!

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We loved what our guide called the “little five hundred.” A sampling of the feathered little five hundred: top left: guinea fowl, center left: mating crowned cranes, bottom left: weaver bird, center:                          malachite kingfisher, top right: saddle-billed stork, bottom right: ostrich.                                IRT Photos by Eleanor & Rachel Hardy.

 

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We loved visiting a Maasai village in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Here, the women prepare to greet us with a traditional song and dance. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Interested in joining one of our South or East African departures? Space fills up early and quickly for journeys on Rovos Rail & the Blue Train – and of course for all the prime safari camps. Call us: (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Email us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com Or vist our web site: http://www.irtsociety.com

Eleanor Hardy, IRT President & co-owner, and Rachel Hardy, IRT’s newest travel associate, were honored to be invited to join Micato’s study safari in Kenya & Tanzania. Many warm thanks to Micato owners Jane & Felix Pinto and the entire Micato team!

 

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