Tag Archives: Rovos Rail

Rovos: Club-Like Comfort from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam

1 Sep

Society CEO Owen Hardy and member David Cowley, spruced up for the final dinner before arrival in Dar es Salaam, share a drink at the outdoor platform in the rear lounge car. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy

(Continued from Part 1)

While the Eastern & Oriental Express or the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express probably win the top awards for utter beauty, Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa is more like a comfortable London club.

That’s where we spent some of the best moments of our recent Cape Town – Dar es Salaam “Owners’ Choice” group tour last month. (To read my first installment, click here.)

Interiors, constructed in Rovos’ Capital Park headquarters in Pretoria, are outfitted in dark, varnished Rhodesian teak, with polished brass, thick carpeting and, in the diners, gleaming silver, crystal and cutlery.

King size bed in Rovos Rail Deluxe Suite. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Our deluxe suite was spacious and tastefully appointed, with all the standard amenities – shampoo, conditioner, fine soap, shoe mitt, etc. — one would expect of a five-star hotel.  We loved it: it was the biggest compartment we have experienced. And if we were delighted, our IRT guests in the Royal Suite, with its two armchairs and full-sized Victorian porcelain bathtub, were thrilled with their half-a-train-car accommodation.

Our first day on the train commenced as so many would thereafter: with leisure spent in the privacy of our cabin, followed by a visit down to the rear lounge car to enjoy its over-sized outdoor section. Soon afterwards, we heard the mellifluous sound of chimes,  rung by a Rovos Rail staff member walking the length of the train, signaling that lunch was being served.

Meals on Rovos Rail are grand affairs. Lunch and dinner typically include four courses.

Cheese course is served at lunch and dinner. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Following a starter is the main course, which could be fish, lamb, beef or, more exotically: springbok (tastes like steak) or ostrich (also tastes like steak). Imaginative vegetarian options also are available. Next comes a cheese course, followed by dessert and coffee or tea.

Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc

Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc

A word of warning about meals: each course is paired with an excellent South African wine. On our trip, wine stewards Gareth van Wyk and Michael van Rooyen enthusiastically described their wines’ provenance and taste characteristics.

But while sometimes one wine will work for two courses, many times each course will be paired with a different wine, including, at dessert, a liqueur such as Kahlua or Frangelico, or one of the many fine South African dessert wines.

If you’re like me, you’ll want to try them all, but the cumulative effect can be debilitating. And don’t forget: there are many all-train days, when your natural tendency will be to move following the meal to one of the two lounges, where more (“free”) wine and spirits are flowing. So pace yourself.

Fidgety types might wonder what one does all day on a train. On the Pride of Africa, the list of possibilities is long – and each passenger seems to develop his own routine and favorite perch.

In our case, the most serious photographers hung out at the rear. In fact, they rarely left their privileged positions.

Waving children

Children love trains everywhere – including Africa. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

(So don’t be afraid to speak up and request equal time. There’s nothing better than viewing an African sunset from that vantage point. And whole villages seem to empty their children beside the tracks to wave to the train people rattling by. Waving back, one can’t help but feel a bit like visiting royalty.)

Other people liked the indoor section of the lounge, with its sumptuous cakes and finger sandwiches during afternoon tea, or the ready drinks from the bar, available anytime.

Still others liked the front lounge and the services of Nicholas Schofield, the train historian, who delivered five lectures, each about an hour, on African history, politics and culture in his singular, breathless style, which makes him impossible not to enjoy.

Unlike many on-board academics, who seem to hide in their cabins between lectures, the ever-chipper Mr. Schofield makes himself available to all. Arrive early to get the best seats; double-check timings daily because they are subject to change.

Looking out a Rovos Rail window.

IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy enjoys her favorite pasttime: looking out her compartment window. IRT photo by Owen Hardy

Another option is to visit hairdresser Craig Geater’s salon – included in your fare. After almost 3 weeks in Africa, I definitely was ready for a haircut and beard trim, which Craig expertly provided in his tiny quarters. But be reasonable in your expectations. You’re in a moving, sometimes jolting train, after all, so don’t ask for a shave with a straight-edge razor. No one wants an impromptu performance of Sweeney Todd. But it was a blast to be rolling along, Tanzania’s gorges and mountains rolling by, while Craig trimmed our hair.

Finally, if you’re the quieter type, you might prefer simply sitting in your private room, looking out of one of the multiple windows, as did IRT travelers Sam and Betty Nuckolls. Sipping their Jack Daniels, they happily watched Africa unfurl as if they had a front-row seat at an old-fashioned Cinerama movie theatre.

All in all, it’s a great way to travel.

(For up-to-date price and date info, click here: Rovos Rail Cape Town – Dar es Salaam)

Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa” is A True Home Away from Home

11 Aug

The Pride of Africa on the bridge over the Zambezi River between Zambia and Tanzania.  Society of IRT photo by O. Hardy

At the end of our recent Cape Town-Dar es Salaam Rovos Rail trip, they made us leave the train. We could have cried.

For two weeks, we pampered passengers had become almost infantile in our utter dependence and sloth. Coddled and cuddled, we’d adopted Rovos’ Pride of Africa luxury train as our home away from home.

But Rovos’ version of home is tons better than the stationary variety. Consider the following, all included in the fare: laundry service, hair salon, drinks 24 hours a day (alcoholic and otherwise), ample breakfasts, extraordinary four-course lunches and dinners with great South African wines.

Add to that afternoon tea with delicious sandwiches and cakes, and two lounge cars which don’t close until the last guest drags back to his compartment.

Then add in huge suites with king-size beds, ample storage space, mini-bar stocked with complimentary liquor, beer, wine and whatever else is on board, private shower, toilet and sink, and – best of all – windows that open.

IRT Traveler John Friedmann stands at the back of the rear lounge car. Society of IRT photo by O. Hardy

That last point is vital. Photographers have a field day on the Pride of Africa, what with all the windows that fully slide down, plus the gigantic open-air platform at the end of the rear lounge car. Even if you don’t use a camera, the wind-in-the-face connection you get with the African countryside, animals and people is immediate and palpable.

Laundresses ironing in utility car. Society of IRT photo by O. Hardy

Rovos staff, meanwhile, are charming, hard-working and competent. On our trip, that was true of the laundry ladies, ironing away in a forward utility car. It was true of our two expert wine stewards, Gareth and Michael, as well as the dining car servers and cabin attendants and the engineer.

It was true of Train Manager Daphne Mabala, to whose usual duties were added the tasks of negotiating the tour past a freight derailment, late schedules and, most of all, dealing with an unseasonable freeze which knocked out the water lines on 19 of 21 cars. She also worked with us to make sure anybody who wanted them got rides in the engine’s cab in Zambia and Tanzania – a trip highlight for many members of The Society of International Railway Travelers.

Bianca Vos, railway enthusiast. Society of IRT photo by O. Hardy

And it was true of Bianca Vos, 27, daughter of founding father Rohan Vos. Ms. Vos spent a sleepless night working with Ms. Mabala on the water problem. She also mingled with guests, helped manage off-train tours and worked one of the two dining cars bussing tables, fetching coffee and serving food. No hothouse flower, Ms. Vos is a credit to her old man.

The 14-day Cape-Dar trip is Rovos Rail’s most ambitious all-rail itinerary, covering a third of the African continent, 3,568 miles on the rails.  It may be the most ambitious and most comfortable cross-continent rail trek in the world run by any company.

Rovos Rail’s crowning feature: widows that open.             Society of IRT photo by E. Hardy

It is not as long as the Trans-Siberian Express (6,600 miles). But this trip takes in major portions of South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania, while touching on parts of Botswana and Zimbabwe. There are major off-train excursions, including a two-night visit to South Africa’s Tau Game Lodge, an overnight stop at Victoria Falls and others. (More about those in a separate post)

But it’s the Pride of Africa itself that passengers write home about. As one of our guests, Mohamed Elguindy of Florida said when we were returning from Tau to the train: “We’re coming home.”

For a photo retrospective of the Society of International Railway Traveler’s July, 2011 Cape Town-Dar es Salaam tour, please click here.  If you joined us on this trip, or you’ve been before, what’s your favorite memory?

Part 2: Life on Board Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa.

South Africa’s New Speedster: Gautrain

11 Aug

South Africa’s new “Gautrain” is fast, clean, comfortable and on time.

That’s what I learned following my test run of the service a few weeks ago, just prior to joining IRT’s Cape Town – Dar es Salaam Rovos Rail tour.

My trip was from Johannesburg O.R. Tambo Airport to shopping and tourist mecca Sandton City.

It’s easy to buy a Gautrain ticket. And once aboard, I found Gautrain staff to be friendly and helpful.  Security – always a concern in South Africa – was reassuringly visible, both inside the trains and at the stations.

Gautrain opened its doors in June 2010, just in time for the South Africa-hosted FIFA World Cup. The Gautrain’s 12.5-mile route is largely underground and on viaducts. It reaches speeds of up to 100 mph. The Bombardier-designed passenger cars are sleek and comfortable.

The project has not been without controversy, however. The system cost a whopping $4 billion to build; my one-way ticket, at about $18, is far out of the price range of most locals.

Also, the train was built to the North American standard gauge – 4’8 ½”, which is incompatible with South Africa’s 3’6” Cape Gauge. That restricts the possibilities for expansion, although Cape Gauge service from the airport to Pretoria just opened.

For me, however, the Gautrain was ideal. The service was a welcome alternative for air travelers who wish to avoid pricey and time-consuming taxi rides to Sandton City.

And any rail fan would enjoy the ride.

IRT Welcomes Rovos Rail Representative

18 Jun

Men: longing for luxury on Rovos Rail’s “Pride of Africa,” but cringing at the thought of dragging a coat and tie half-way across the world to wear in the fancy diner?

IRT Staff and David Patrick Front Row (Left to Right): David Patrick, Owen Hardy Back Row: Margaret Langner, Eleanor Hardy, Angela Walker

No worries, says Rovos Rail marketing director David Patrick. They’ll gladly loan you one. They have a wide range of sizes. And there’s no extra charge. Just let them know ahead of time.

This was just one of several revelations made known during David’s recent visit to IRT headquarters in Louisville, KY. Others are:

• In-cabin minibar: Fill out the menu, and your bar will be filled with all your favorite drinks and snacks, David says. The staff restocks your goodies each day of your journey.  Instead of a hotel mini-bar, which has the implication of an extra charge, this is a “personal bar,” and everything is included in your tour price.

• All-inclusive fare: Everything except gratuities and gift shop purchases is included. That means: all your excursions, lectures, food, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and, of course, everything in the minibar.

• Room Service: Run out of champagne? Need a snack? Simply attach the white Room Service tag outside your door or use your cabin phone to call, and the staff will get you anything you need.

• David’s favorite Rovos Rail journey: Surprise! It’s not Pretoria-Cape Town, the train’s most popular. It’s the special three-day safari between Pretoria and Durban departing during Africa’s summer months. “It includes a visit to a Big Five game reserve, which is fantastic,” David said. “We saw all five:” lion, African elephant, Cape Buffalo, leopard and Black Rhino. He also gives high marks to the once-a-year, nine-day “African Collage” tour, the only one which covers the “Garden Route” from George into Cape Town, at times skirting the Indian Ocean.

• Gratuities: The age-old question: how much to leave for a tip? “When asked,” David says, “we suggest 15 to 20 U.S. dollars per guest per day; maybe slightly less for the longer trips.”

Photo by Nels Freeman

• Beds: it’s crucial to let us know upon booking any mobility challenges you have and even your height. That way, we order the room most suited for you. Order far in advance for one of the limited number of cabins whose beds are configured in an L-shape. They’re easier to access than the usual king-size bed in the deluxe cabin.  Also, if you love a view, there is one exclusive cabin per car whose bed faces the window.

• Observation Car: For many IRT travelers,the outdoor platform is party central. Responding to popular demand, Rovos has enlarged the space to accommodate 12 sitting passengers—with their drinks.

• Rohan Vos: The brains and muscle behind the entire operation, Mr. Vos (Rohan, if you will) seems to be every returning traveler’s best friend. His secret? He works like a demon, knows every aspect of his operation and does his best to personally greet all Rovos Rail passengers, whether they’re boarding in Pretoria, Cape Town or elsewhere.

Photo by Nels Freeman

Meeting at Louisville’s classic Brown Hotel, IRT staff and David continued the discussion over dinner at the hotel’s English Grill that night. David had an early plane to catch the next morning, so there was no time for Kentucky sightseeing. Maybe next time!

Society owners Owen & Eleanor Hardy host one of Rovos Rail’s most ambitious trips, the July 2-15, 2011 Cape Town, S. Africa to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania trip. For information about this or any Rovos Rail trip, email us or call our office at (800) 478-4881. Or visit our website.

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