Taking to the rails for a journey to the heart
First published in Juice Magazine, October 2015 issue.
Ardmore Ceramics’ exotic Noahide style is nowhere more evident than in their Natal Midlands home, near Howick. where animals leap from or cling to the most beautiful of stages. There, among the animal, people and plant creations available for purchase, is the Bonnie Ntshalintshali museum, dedicated to the memory and early work of Ardmore founder, Fée Halsted’s friend and co-artist.
The story of how Fée and Bonnie went on to create a thriving business – an important community-based art producer now showcased in collections and art museums around the world, is retold on one of the Rovos Rail, Pretoria to Durban three-day safaris. Providing access to the creative process and an insider’s view in a way not available to walk-ins, is what makes this and other Rovos-arranged outings, such special experiences.
Preparing to leave Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria on a Friday at 10am for a three day journey into Durban, our group of strangers seem awkward together. The steam enthusiasts – a key component of each Rovos Rail passenger list, are outside quizzing the steam locomotive driver Willem Ras. As one of only five remaining steam drivers, his face is as deeply lined as the rail network when viewed from the sky.
Willem seems nonplussed with the questions about this leaver or that valve and eyes his Tupperware with sarmies and the Pall Mall cigarettes in his breast pocket as an imminent reward following our departure. For many reasons – the fire risk and environmental cost chief among them – a steam haul much beyond Rovos Rail’s Pretoria station is not practical. Rovos Rail has recently refurbished another diesel loco and these are preferred. As Rovos Rail elects to use the original rail network rather than the busy, newer commercial lines used by rail commuters and for freight, the experience on board chugging along at little more than 60 Km is frequently free from passing traffic.
After a welcome, typically by founder Rohan Vos himself, passengers are called to meet with their hosts to board the The Pride of Africa, a beautifully restored vintage train that has elevated train travel to the luxury of yesteryear where time and care were things we valued.
Stateroom interiors are panelled in warm timber hues, while emerald green carpets with gold woven diamonds cushion your feet even when not wearing the slippers and generous robe provided in your wardrobe. Accent lights with elegant Edwardian blown glass shades remind you that the journey you’re about to take it one that reaches back in time. To help create this mood, use of technology is not only discouraged but restricted in public places. The only way to curdle cream on board is to take a mobile phone call while in the dining car!
Dressing for dinner
Although formality in dress is encouraged and a jacket and tie is a requirement for dinner, the Rovos Rail experience is unexpectedly relaxed (and, of course, relaxing). Interactions with staff, many young but all superbly trained, and preemptive in their desire to serve, are as comfortable as they’d be with your staff at home.
As a fully inclusive offering you’d expect staff to discourage yet another tot of premium whisky or bottle of Meerlust Rubicon yet they do exactly the opposite. You will get the feeling from the moment you arrive until the moment that you leave that staff believe you are under nourished and require constant feeding and watering. Despite them catering to the most exacting dietary requirements, the vastness and delicious quality of the offering will, I’m afraid, mean that you will depart with additional kilos in among your photos and happy memories. Rather than try to avoid this, it is best to wear your best, slinkiest outfit on your first night as by day three it will be too tight. I speak from experience.
During the almost two thousand meter climb from the Witwatersrand to Heidelberg and onwards as the Drakensberg comes into view conversation, so awkward and stilted at the start, flows as easily as the tea and coffee being poured in the comfortably elegant lounge car. People sitting on the benches in the open-backed observation car are clinking gins and tonic brimming crystalware, the bright yellow lemon melding into the setting sun.
With a multi-course lunch, beautifully paired with fine South African wines and a traditional afternoon tea (cucumber sandwiches, scones and cakes) under our belts, it is time to dress for dinner.
Because your stateroom (even a single-bedded Pullman) is larger than any equivalent you might find on rails and as you have a private bathroom with toilet, basin and a shower cubicle, some suites have baths too) as well as plenty wardrobe space, dressing for dinner is a pleasure. No more so if your finery as been freshly pressed as part of the fully inclusive laundry service.
If the lavish dinner and cocktails don’t ensure a good night’s sleep, the fact the train stops for some hours at historic Elandslaagte station will. An indication of the high level of care and consideration is that ear plugs are included in amenities offered in your room, along with a protective plastic eye mask in the event you’d like to look outside your window into oncoming traffic.
Early morning safari
There’s a 6am wake-up call with coffee brought to your suite if you’d prefer not to make your own (a kettle and fully-stocked mini bar are in your suite) in preparation for a morning game drive on the 20, 000 hectare Malaria free Nambiti Reserve, a big five retreat.
The Sundays River flows through the Nambiti and the biodiversity is unusually rich offering savanna, grasslands, thorn veld and tall Acacia trees. Because of this, great animal and bird sightings are practically guaranteed. Remember to wear layers as early mornings can be freezing while temperatures can shoot up by the time you return to the train.
Like everything Rovos Rail does, excursions are exceptionally luxurious with red-carpet welcomes and silver trays with a champagne cocktail or sherry at the ready once you’ve returned your offered warm or chilled towel.
Such a premium experience comes at a premium price but when considered as a total package (especially if you typically fly business class and stay at five-star hotels), it represents outstanding value for money. People on board weren’t only silver-haired, well-heeled international travellers. An incentive group from Tupperware South Africa were on board, at least two of the couples we spoke to had been gifted the trip by their children while others, friends travelling Africa together from the UK, elected to stay at B&B’s elsewhere so that they could use their travel budget to enjoy The Rovos Rail experience.
Churchill, Gandhi and Majuba Hill
There is a second opportunity for a game safari at the Spionkop Reserve but I recommend rather listening to historian and raconteur Raymond Heron talk about the battle for Ladysmith while overlooking Majuba Hill. I was amazed to hear that Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi met on that hill while Churchill was a war correspondent and Gandhi worked for the Red Cross during the South African War.
The visit to Ardmore Ceramics is another highlight as the journey draws to a close. Pulling into Durban’s station late afternoon the group of strangers we curtly nodded to on arrival now leave with hugs and exchanged contact details as friends. One embarks Rovos Rail expecting a luxury journey from one place to another. The journey of the heart is the happiest byproduct.