Sunday, May 15, 2016

Fabulous Way to See Africa

[Although courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, our Travel Department's Director can confirm on personal knowledge that the Hwange Game Preserve is fabulous and the places you'll see on and off this train trip will leave you with memories for a lifetime, such as saving your travel companion from being killed by a giant crocodile, a herd of baboons, and a white rhinocerous. It's an amazingly cost-effective way to go even if the preserve now charges more than $5 per night as it did in 1971]

Mahogany paneling, fine brass fixtures and a doting butler are perks you might expect from a luxury hotel. I found them all in my cabin on Rovos Rail, the train I rode across 1,300 miles of southern Africa. For four days and three nights I watched the African countryside slip past as the 20-coach Rovos carried me from Zimbabwe’s side of Victoria Falls to South Africa’s capital of Pretoria. The landscape seemed to change every time I looked out the window. One minute it was the vast plains of Zimbabwean grassland, then another, the hazy-grey industrial city of Bulawayo. In South Africa, I watched the sun set over velvety green mountains.
Ever since I saw Meryl Streep, en route to Nairobi, pop out of a train car to scold Robert Redford for putting his elephant tusks dangerously close to her crates of Limoges china—in the 1985 film “Out of Africa”—I’ve dreamed of my own elegant train ride through the continent. Of course, the film takes place a century ago, and when I finally made it onto an African train, this past January, the handsome big-game hunter and crates of porcelain were absent. But much of the trip was just as I had imagined.
Founded in 1989, Rovos has restored much of African train travel’s erstwhile glory, using an extensive but increasingly neglected network of colonial railways that can still spirit travelers from Table Mountain in Cape Town north about 3,500 miles to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s teeming Indian Ocean port. Train enthusiasts consider a journey on one of the company’s four trains among the most indulgent rail trips in the world, along with the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
But even on that fabled train, which typically runs from Paris to Istanbul and Istanbul to Venice in five days, you share a bathroom; the least expensive berth on Rovos includes an en-suite loo with a shower, while the most expensive have claw-foot tubs. In my middle-of-the-range Deluxe Suite, I stretched out across a double bed that filled just half of the quarters. It was appointed with polished woods, fresh flowers and champagne. Even the bathroom, with its Art-Deco-style black-and-white floor tiles, looked like a set piece from colonial times.
Rohan Vos, Rovos Rail’s 70-year-old founder and chief executive, made a fortune selling car parts in his native South Africa before turning an idea for a family-vacation train car—like a camper van but much cooler, I thought—into a business venture. “The interior design was very much my own because it was going to be a family caravan,” said Mr. Vos when we met in Pretoria. Instead, he decided to build up an entire rail line.
The Rovos luxury train winding through southern Africa near the Hex River Valley.
The Rovos luxury train winding through southern Africa near the Hex River Valley. PHOTO: ROVOS
Mr. Vos also designed an observation car at the back of each train that is partially open-air so passengers can sit outdoors while watching the villages and wild bush roll by. Mr. Vos said the idea was inspired by the caboose balcony from which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered campaign speeches as he crisscrossed the U.S. in the 1930s. But I imagine Teddy Roosevelt, not Franklin, armed with a pith helmet and rifle rather than speeches, would have taken great pleasure in the Rovos Rail. The morning after I boarded in Victoria Falls, along with 60 or so other passengers, we stopped at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and hopped into game vehicles. We hadn’t lumbered away from the tracks for more than 10 minutes before we spotted a cheetah. We snapped a storm of pictures as the world’s fastest land mammal graciously posed on a termite mound in the misty morning light. Sightings of buffalo, zebra and lions followed, before we stopped for tea, served around a campfire in the middle of the bush. Then we re-boarded the train and continued on.
My fellow passengers skewed toward retirees, hailing overwhelmingly from the U.K., with contingents from Sweden, the U.S., New Zealand and South Africa. Few had come solely for the Rovos; most weaved the train ride into longer safari itineraries. South AfricanDiana Buchanan wasn’t on my trip, but she’s a Rovos and train-traveling connoisseur. She started traveling by Rovos Rail when her husband was too ill to fly between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and has made the journey about 55 times since 1995. “I’ve never gotten to the other end and wanted to get off,” said Ms. Buchanan.
The Pullman Suite on the Rovos Luxury Train across southern Africa.
The Pullman Suite on the Rovos Luxury Train across southern Africa. PHOTO: ROVOS
The game drive at Hwange and a brief stroll at a market in Botswana were the only excursions on our route (longer itineraries include more outings), but the balance of our trip unwound quietly: reading, chatting and watching wildebeest flicker past in the savanna outside. We were served three meals a day in the dining car, with its tufted green-leather chairs and silver flatware. For dinner, men wore jackets and ties, while most women donned dresses. Though entrees such as traditional kudu stew and grilled butternut squash underwhelmed, I found solace in a procession of fine South African wines and the nightly cheese courses. One night, Rovos General Manager Joe Mathalaentertained us with tales of hunting for fuel during regional shortages and other misadventures. Murder on the Orient Express it wasn’t, but as close as I’m likely to get.
In January, Mr. Vos bought another train, South Africa’s three-star Shongololo Express, which was in financial distress, because he didn’t want to see it fold. He is currently refurbishing it and planning new itineraries, including a 15-day South Africa itinerary from Pretoria to Cape Town, with stops along the way in the country’s wine region and the colonial-era diamond mine in Kimberly.
But doubling down on railway tourism in southern Africa is a risky bet these days as governments cut back on infrastructure budgets, including those meant to fund track repairs. That austerity was evident on my last night aboard the train, when constant screeching and jerking in the middle of the night kept me awake for hours on the last stretch of track toward Pretoria.
Still, Rovos bookings are filling up into 2017, for trips that range from around $1,000 per person for a two-night trip in South Africa to more than $20,000 for the best berth on the 14-night trip from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam. (The strong sales are based in part on the deep discount that foreign customers are receiving thanks to the South African rand’s plunge against the U.S. dollar and the pound sterling.) Nevertheless, Mr. Vos contemplates how much more time and money he wants to invest in his growing railroad empire as the economies he relies on for support crumble around him.
“What does one do? Keep growing?” Mr. Vos said at the Rovos Rail station in Pretoria while clambering into one of the dilapidated carriages of his new Shongololo Express. Workers were excising rusty patches that would soon be covered with the Rovos signature dark-wood paneling. “It’s a question I need to figure out between me and a bottle of rum,” said Mr. Vos.
Rumbling Across Southern Africa on Luxury Trains
Getting There: South African Airways flies from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport to Johannesburg ( From the airport, it’s just a 40-minute light-rail ride to the Rovos Rail station in Pretoria ( If you’d rather end your journey in Pretoria, connections are available via Johannesburg to most regional departure points such as Cape Town, Victoria Falls and Durban.
Riding the Rails There: Fares on the author’s three-night trip on Rovos Rail (see route at left) start at about $1,500 a person. The company also runs trips from 2 to 14 nights through Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. A few important matters to keep in mind before booking: Men are required to wear a jacket and tie to dinner, and trains don't have Wi-Fi, radios or televisions on board. You are asked to use mobile phones and laptops only in-suite, and reception is generally poor, so don’t expect to catch up on any work ( A competitor to Rovos, Blue Train is a less expensive, less formal alternative, with prices starting from about $600, although the routes are more limited (

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