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The colorful history of Rovos Rail – Traveling through the heart of Africa for more than 30 years
On April 29, 2019, the privately-owned luxury train tour operator, Rovos Rail, celebrates its 30th anniversary! Train enthusiast, Rohan Vos, originally intended to use the renovated train privately, to travel with his family through South Africa. But his visionary dreams led him to develop it into the most luxurious train in Africa.
The first overnight trip took place in 1987 with a seven-coach train to the former Eastern Transvaal. Since then, Rovos Rail has grown enormously and despite some serious setbacks and difficulties, now offers eight trips around South Africa with five trains that can accommodate 72 passengers. A sixth train is in production with completion aimed for December 2019. Rovos Rail Milestones >>
“The most luxurious trains in the world travelling through the heart of africa.” – Rovos Rail Tours
“We lost so much money in the early days, and we knew nothing about hospitality. In my naivety, I believed what we were offering was so unique that tickets would sell easily. Boy, was I mistaken.”– Rohan Vos, owner, and CEO of Rovos Rail Tours
Rovos Rail now employs 440 staff members, many who have been with the company since the beginning. Capital Park Station, is the impressive private railway station and headquarters in Pretoria. In 1999, the derelict 60-hectare property was rehabilitated and renovated to become the home of everything from the on-site laundry and kitchen to the locomotive and coach maintenance workshops responsible for the production of furniture and maintenance of the locomotives and wagons.
There is a story behind each Rovos Rail locomotive, and they all have their own distinctive character and charm. All the engines acquired for Rovos Rail have been named after the Vos children.
Rohan Vos had had his eye on locomotive 3360 “Shaun” since 1986. Ten years later, he purchased and lovingly restored it with the help of his staff. Use of steam has become increasingly difficult over the years as more and more water and coaling facilities have been scrapped. Diesel or electric locomotives are used while steam is used in and around the area of Rovos Rail Station only on departure and arrival.
“We also have our own little museum that pays homage to our 30 years of operation and also South Africa’s railway history.” – Rohan Vos
Even after 30 years, visionary, owner and CEO of Rovos Rail Tours, Rohan Vos, still loves greeting guests himself on their arrival in Pretoria, when he has time. We were also lucky enough to get to know the charismatic Rovos Rail’s owner!
If you feel like it, you can visit the workshop sheds in Pretoria upon arrival and watch the employees at work. They do magic! Transforming a wagon bought for 70,000 South African Rand into a luxuriously restored cart worth 1 million Rands.
Rovos Rail takes discerning passengers from its private train station to Cape Town, Durban, the Victoria Falls, and Namibia. Travel times vary between 48 hours and 15 days. The newest route, Trail of Two Oceans, from Dar Es Salaam to Lobito in Angola, will be launched in July this year. It will be the first time in history that a passenger train will cross the Copper Route from east to west.
Last year we had an unforgettable experience, traveling from Pretoria to Cape Town with Rovos Rail. This year, the most luxurious train in Africa, took us on a beautiful journey through KwaZulu-Natal. Our trip started in Durban, a popular city with sandy beaches on the Indian Ocean. In Zulu, it is aptly named Thekwini – the place where earth and water meet.
The three-day Durban Safari is Rohan Vos’ favorite. On this trip through KwaZulu-Natal, you not only get to enjoy life on board but can also go on many interesting excursions. The program includes a trip to the Apartheid Museum, the Ardmore Pottery Workshop, a tour of several battlefields with a historian, a safari at the Spioenkop Game Reserve and a game drive at the Nambiti Conservancy, where you get to experience the Big Five up close.
Settling into the elegant suite is a great feeling. The magnificent mahogany wood paneled suites, finished in brass and silver with handcrafted glass and lampshades, takes you on a journey back in time to the 1950s. The suite is ingeniously plannedand beautifully designed in Edwardian colonial style.
We got acquainted with our cabin hostess Merica, and then the train wheels started their clickety-clack, and we were sent off in style!
The minibar is stocked according to your preferences.
From the Indian Ocean, the route led through KwaZulu-Natal to the Drakensberg Mountains. The name of this province, is a combination of KwaZulu, meaning place of the Zulu, and the former name of the province, Natal. The climate here is subtropical, and it is generally warm and humid. The Drakensberg is a sandstone and granite mountain range with some peaks higher than 3000 m. It is part of the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park and a World Heritage Site.
The delicious 4-course lunch allows you to enjoy the view, the delicious food, and the carefully paired wines.
The meals are top-notch. What makes it even more impressive, is the fact that the kitchen team prepares these dishes in such a small space!
A popular meeting point between meals and excursions is the observation deck.
Zululand is located in the northern part of KwaZulu Natal, bordering Maputaland, the Kingdom of Swaziland, the Battlefields, the North Coast and in the east, the Indian Ocean. It is an area rich in symbolism and tradition, and the age-old Zulu culture remains today. Here you will find green hills, waving grasslands, lush forests and a peaceful, unhurried lifestyle.
Nelson Mandela Capture Site
By bus, we went on our first trip to the Apartheid Museum. It tells the remarkable story about the life and the long road to freedom of Nelson Mandela.
Born in 1924 in Mvezo, South Africa, into a Xhosa tribe, Nelson Mandela became the political leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and the first black president of South Africa. From 1964 to 1990, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, for acts of sabotage and for conspiring to overthrow the Apartheid regime violently.
Ardmore Ceramic Art
After visiting the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, we went to the Ardmore Ceramics workshop. Thanks to the founder, Fée Halsted, 80 Zulu men and women have the opportunity to express their imagination based on nature and Zulu folklore and tradition. As such, theykeep their sense of rhythm, color, dance, and song alive.
Fée and her daughters have created a truly unique business with so much energy and love. Their patterns and designs even made it to Hérmes in France.
The sculptures are not only beautifully designed and painted – but they also often contain funny fantasy elements. The artists have free rein. They do not receive a fixed salary, but are paid according to the quality of their objects and can earn a good living.
After every excursion, we were warmly welcomed back at the train station by the professional and friendly Rovos Rail employees.
The best thing about a Rovos Rail train journey is getting ready for dinner. The minimum requirement for men is a jacket, tie or bow tie and for women smart evening wear.
In the sparkling and ornate dining car, exquisite 4-course meals are served, each course served with iconic South African wines in soft, romantic candlelight.
The perfect place to end the evening is in the lounge or observation car with cocktails and good wine. The last night on board is usually celebrated with a cocktail party.
Upon return to our suite, the beds were already lovingly turned down. Gently rocked to sleep at night – a dream!
Having a delicious breakfast while enjoying the majestic views.
Spionkop Lodge is a game farm adjacent to an 11,000-hectare nature reserve with magnificent views of the mountains, the bush and the battlefields of the area. You can either go on a safari or on a history tour of the Battlefields with the owner Raymond Heron or his son.
From here, British generals, such as Redvers Henry Buller, commanded their troops to fight the Boers. Mahatma Gandhi served as a stretcher bearer in this war. Winston Churchill personally convinced himself of the action on Spioenkop, and General Louis Botha commanded the Boer troops.
We stood on the summit plateau of Mount Alice and had a 360-degree view of the Spioenkop Game Reserve, the Tugela River, the Drakensberg and the “mountain of spies.” In 1899 the British suffered their worst defeat here at Spioenkop against the Boers. It was not until 1902 that the bitter war ended with a peace treaty.
The beautiful turn of the century farmhouse, formerly the British headquarters, has been lovingly restored in Natal colonial style.
Nambiti Big 5 Private Game Reserve
The Nambiti Reserve is set on 20,000-hectares of malaria-free bushveld with savannas, grasslands, the Sundays River and tall Acacia trees in KwaZulu-Natal.
Three jeeps awaited us, and off we went on safari with our ranger Ben.
On the way, we met some giraffes, waterbuck, kudu, antelope, and elephants.
Of course, you cannot wait to see the Big 5 when on safari! And if you then suddenly run into some elephants, it cannot get much better!
The grand finale of any safari is, as always, sundowners in the bush.
After the safari, we were welcomed back in romantic style with champagne and candles on the tracks.
Infos & Tipps
The Oyster Box Hotel, a chic and stylish 5-star hotel on the Indian Ocean, double rooms from 280 EUR, www.oysterboxhotel.com
Spionkop Lodge, Spion Kop Lodge, one to three-day excursions with Raymond Heron to the Battlefields, double rooms from 100 EUR, www.spionkop.co.za
Hartford House, a stately home on the largest stud farm in South Africa, from 100 EUR per person per night, www.hartford.co.za
Fordoun Spa & Boutique Hotel, 5-star wellness temple with African healing arts, from 120 EUR per person per night, www.fordoun.com
Three Trees at Spioenkop, ecological lodge overlooking the Spioenkop Game Reserve, from 125 EUR per person per night, www.threetreehill.co.za
Castello di Monte, beautiful Tuscan style property with views over Pretoria, double rooms from 190 EUR, www.castello.co.za
Traveling on Rovos Rail pays tribute to a luxurious bygone era! The entire atmosphere on board is serene and romantic. We loved the suites, the food, the wines, the excursions, the attentive service and above all, what Rohan Vos has accomplished with great vision and passion over the last 30 years. It is absolutely amazing how he with his love of vintage trains and train journeys of yesteryear, has created a legacy and has brought the style and elegance of a past era back to life! We loved our trip on this world-class, one of its kind train. As a bonus, you always meet such fascinating people on board, you are completely spoiled and can learn so much about this beautiful country and its people on the intriguing excursions.
Congratulations on your 30thanniversary Rovos Rail! What a remarkable accomplishment. May there be many more!
Rooms: maximum 72 passengers in 36 suites
Transfer: Flight to Durban, transfers can be conveniently booked through Rovos
Vaccinations: tetanus, diphtheria, poliomyelitis, hepatitis A, rabies and hepatitis B (for long-term stays), malaria prophylaxis not necessary
Price: from 1400 per person (Pullman Suite, Durban to Pretoria) including three meals daily, all alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, sightseeing trips with a qualified guide, entrance fees to places of interest, 24-hour room service, mini bar, limited laundry service on the train
Special offers: 30% discount for their 30th anniversary valid until December 2019 in the Deluxe or Royal Suite ( more info >> )
Note: No Wi-Fi on board the train
Particularities: Luxurious design, beautiful suites, excellent food, friendly service, interesting excursions, and safaris
Perfect for: Couples, peace seekers, romantics, nature lovers, friends
World’s Leading Luxury Train – World Travel Awards 2004-2008
Africa’s Leading Safari Train – World Travel Awards 2004-2007
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Please note: Rovos Rail sponsored our journey. Thank you so much! Nevertheless, the opinions expressed in this article are, as always, 100% our own!