- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

At 40, I was well-off. At 53, I’m broke. But boy, have I got a great train set.”

Rohan Vos, owner of South Africa’s Rovos Rail

DURBAN, South Africa — All aboard. The gleaming green Pride of Africa, with its wood-paneled coaches — classics remodeled and refurbished to mint condition — and 1920s- and ‘30s-style furnishings, is leaving.

The world’s most luxurious train — a safari train — is pulling out of South Africa’s seaside city of Durban, the country’s principal port for cargo, with a four-mile-long beachfront and shark-protected beach. The train is on a slow — maximum speed is 37 mph — meandering, 55-hour trip to the administrative capital city, Pretoria, which is especially attractive with its wide avenues of jacarandas.

The train clicketyclacks on the 3-foot-wide track. Twenty-nine passengers quickly mingle and lounge in comfort, Edwardian-era elegance and decadence, attended to by the 21-person Rovos staff: Once aboard, everything, including all drinks, is free. This trip costs $1,590 per person for two sharing a suite.

The train glides (often not smoothly) on the state-owned railroad tracks past blue-green sugar-cane fields, some blackened after burnings to remove vermin. Cattle and dairy farms slip by, then banana plantations, eucalyptus trees (which provide wood pulp for the paper industry), raffia palms and macadamia trees (which take five years to produce nuts, a passenger says). Not so enjoyable are the foul-smelling titanium and aluminum factories.

ZULULAND

The train enters Zululand. During the mfecane (“the great crushing”) in the early 19th century, the Zulu kingdom swept in from the north to this gentle land of rolling hills, river valleys and lush grasslands, led by Africa’s ferocious warrior king Shaka Zulu (1787-1828). He killed everyone in his path. He invented the iklwa, a short stabbing spear named for the sound it made when pulled from a victim’s corpse. Two half-brothers stabbed Shaka Zulu to death as he watched the setting sun outside his cattle kraal. He remains the dramatic symbol of the bloody Zulu heritage, and he is buried in Zululand.

The train enters the landlocked mountain kingdom of Swaziland. This former British protectorate became independent in 1968 and has a population of about 1 million people. Passengers spot wild game as the train follows the fence of South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

On the trip’s last morning, the train climbs the Crocodile River Valley, then up the switchbacks of a long, steep slope past a lovely waterfall.

My attractive, naturally blond and ever-vigilant 23-year-old hostess, Ilana Van Rooyen of Pretoria, who has studied tourism for one year and trained five weeks with Rovos Rail, is on call 24 hours a day. She greets me in my well-appointed teak-paneled suite.

She says there are no locks on the sliding compartment doors, but the room does have a digital safe. A dressing gown and sleepers, she says, are mine to wear but not to take with me at the end of the trip. Adapter plugs could recharge my camera and cellular phone, allowed only in the suites.

She hands me an “immunity bag” filled with earplugs, tea-leaf bags, an antacid called Rennie, several mosquito-repellent towlettes and a contraceptive. She says I can don the goggles on the closet shelf if I want to lean out the window and feel the wind rushing by.

Each suite accommodates two people, who have the option of twin or double beds. Mine is a 118-square-foot deluxe suite: a lounge area with two upholstered chairs and writing desk; a minibar; two full-length mirrors; a compact refrigerator; and bathrooms with hot showers, hair dryers, heated towel racks and shaver plugs. All suites and dining, observation and lounge cars are air-conditioned.

“Rovos Rail has the biggest bedrooms of all the trains in the world and is the only train in the world with openable bedroom windows,” says train manager Pieter Peyper, 45. Rovos Rail has a maximum of three suites per carriage; some have just two, which is extravagant by other trains’ standards.

“The train is an expression of my own taste,” says its South African owner, Rohan Vos (thus the name Rovos). “I am very tall, so I wanted everything to be roomy, from the king-size beds to the claw-foot full-length baths in the royal suites.”

ROMANTIC TRAINS

Mr. Vos, a pilot, yachtsman and entrepreneur who made his fortune in the automobile-parts business and in real estate, adds, “I wanted to combine the romance of train travel with accommodation, cuisine and service of the highest standard.

“Traveling on Rovos Rail is like being in a time warp. We’ve tried to re-create the ambience of an English men’s club of the early 20th century, but with attention to modern comforts.”

The interiors were decorated by Mr. Vos’ wife, Anthea. “Our idea was to indulge guests in an atmosphere of colonial elegance,” she says. “While I’ve used a lot of floral patterns, the look is more Edwardian than Victorian. Overall, the interiors are refined and cozy; not too formal, though, so that guests can relax.”

The observation car has a mahogany bar and lamp-lit booths with leather, cane and rattan furniture, popular during colonial times. Only in the glass-enclosed observation platform can guests smoke cigarettes or the cigars the train offers. No televisions, radios, newspapers, gambling facilities or exercise equipment are on the train. Games such as chess, backgammon, and Scrabble; playing cards; magazines; and leather-bound coffee-table books are in the observation car.

“We wanted to revive the art of conversation,” Mr. Vos says. “Trains allow you to experience the landscape and really feel the essence of a country in an unhurried way. It’s an atmosphere of good food, good wine and good conversation that we are striving to create.”

‘MOST LUXURIOUS’

Mr. Vos calls his trains the “most luxurious in the world” and supports his claims with a paper listing 21 reasons, including these:

• Storage space for seven large suitcases and a set of golf clubs in each suite.

• King-size beds (6 feet 2 inches by 6 feet 2 inches) in 90 percent of suites.

• Tea- and coffee-making facilities in each suite.

• 25 percent more closet and bathroom space than the nearest competitor offers.

• Individual air conditioners and automatic underfloor heating.

• Standard household flushing toilets.

• Meals served at one sitting, allowing guests to linger as long as they choose.

• 25 percent more train tonnage per passenger than the nearest competitor has (11 tons per passenger).

• A classical string duet on the platform seeing off all departures.

• The owner of the train endeavors to meet and greet departures and arrivals of the trains.

Rovos tries to have all arriving and departing trains steam-hauled into Pretoria, where the company’s headquarters are in the 25-acre rebuilt private Capital Park station. Train passengers can park there without charge.

DINNER GONG

A gong announces dinner at 8 p.m. and lunch at 1 p.m. but not breakfast, which is served from 7 to 10 a.m. A full bar with room service is available at all times. “We try to support South Africa,” Mr. Peyper says. “We drink only South African wines and eat fresh local produce.” Wines from South Africa’s most renowned cellars and estates complement the menus.

With the formality of fine china, silver and white linen in a charming Edwardian atmosphere, passengers enjoy a full breakfast. The breakfast buffet includes dishes cooked to order, fresh fruits, yogurt, cereals, cold meats, cheeses, croissants and preserves. Lunch and candlelight dinners include an appetizer and an entree choice of fish, meat or vegetarian, followed by a tempting dessert.

Chef Ilse Daniels, 28, says she tries to “present food so the colors, presentation and quality are all right.” In the small train kitchen, she has found “a corner to work in and to the movement of the train. I love working here because guests come into the kitchen, take pictures and want our recipes.”

Guests dress according to mealtimes. During the day, they relax in casual clothes. Comfortable pants and shirts and a hat for protection against the sun are perfect for excursions. Returning to Edwardian tradition in the evening, guests don their fancy duds. Ties and jackets are mandatory for dinner, and the train will provide a tie if a gentleman has forgotten his.

Passengers appreciate the staff’s attention to detail. After dinner one night, I return to my room to find that my hostess has folded the floral bedspread and rolled it into two rosebud shapes. Nestled in them are chocolates and a bottle of champagne.

The wine and the large dinner help me get to sleep, but the occasional stops and starts wake me. Late at night, the train stops in a resting spot and remains there until after our early-morning excursion.

Twice, we passengers board customized open four-wheel-drive Land Rovers with banked seats to view wild game at animal reserves. The Mkhaya Game Reserve is an exclusive game park and the kingdom of Swaziland’s official refuge for endangered species. It is the only place in that country to see 13 rare species, such as black rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo. The reserve is crisscrossed with usually dry riverbeds and dotted with water holes. It has a network of game-viewing roads.

Our field guide, Patrick Mfana, 29, says the seven hippos we find relaxing at a watering hole eat grass, not meat, and can stay underwater for five to seven minutes.

The giraffe we spot pulling leaves from a tall tree, he says, fights with its long neck and eats 20 hours a day, leaf by leaf.

The black rhino we are thrilled to come upon is rarer than the white rhino, he says, because the young follow their mothers, making it easy for lions to prey on them. Also, because the black rhinos raise their heads while crossing rivers, poachers get a good shot at them.

CONSERVATION

South Africa has a century-long history of wildlife conservation, and its budget for that is the largest in Africa. Kruger National Park, which we visit early one morning, is Africa’s oldest park and is one of the largest (about the size of New Jersey) and most successful conservation areas in the world.

Kruger boasts the greatest species diversity in Africa. It protects 1,980 plant species, 300 types of trees, 49 species of fish, 34 types of amphibians, 116 reptilian species, 505 bird species and 147 mammal species. Five rivers cross Kruger from west to east.

Kruger has the “big five” of South African animal life: the African elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros (both types) and buffalo. Kruger’s animals are so accustomed to people that they will eat, hunt and even mate while tourists are watching.

We see an aggressive male buffalo. “It’ll attack without warning,” says our guide, Barend Vanderwatt, 23. “Rangers fear them most of all.”

Elephants have knocked down trees trying to get moisture from their roots, he says. “When this largest land mammal pushes trees over, it opens the bush for other animals,” Mr. Vanderwatt says. Several hyenas have gathered around a water hole. They kill baby animals and run down weak ones. Their jaws are so strong that they can crush a leopard’s hip bone, Mr. Vanderwatt points out.

Kruger’s 150,000 impala are “an important source of food,” he says. “All predators eat them.”

As we drive on tar and dirt roads, he directs us to look high in marula trees for the elusive leopards, which like to sleep there. We see many park animals but hear no sounds from them, he says, because they keep quiet so predators won’t know where they are.

MESSAGES ON A TRAIN

Back aboard the train, I pick up the visitors book in the lounge car, where Andrew and Margaret Hart from Charlottesville have written: “To travel with Rovos Rail is to travel in style and luxury. South Africa rules!”

From San Rafael, Calif., is this message: “Well done x 10.”

Idaho: “Very enjoyable and relaxing. Fun to be pampered.”

Cambridge, Mass.: “Wonderful, relaxing trip — wish it could go on forever.”

Fellow passengers on the Pride of Africa love the train, except a Japanese businessman living in Germany, who claims the service is not first-class and the rooms are dusty. “Maybe we expected too much. It’s our first and last experience here.” His German wife concurs: “Nice trip, but not again.”

South African Bronwen Mortimer, director of a corporate communications company in Johannesburg, is celebrating her 40th birthday. She says the trip is “an old-fashioned travel experience. I was completely pampered and indolent. A bit unreal, it makes me look forward to coming back to reality. I am coming back restored with more energy.”

Planes, trains and places to eat and stay

Rovos Rail offers a selection of luxury train journeys linking some of southern Africa’s most popular destinations, such as Pretoria to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe ($1,590 per person, sharing, subject to exchange-rate fluctuations); Pretoria to Durban ($1,590 per person); and Pretoria to Cape Town ($1,423 per person).

Other trips include annual journeys from Pretoria to Swakopmund in Namibia; Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania; the African Collage (Durban, Drakensberg Mountains, Port Elizabeth, Garden Route, Cape Town); and, three times a year, a Golf Train Safari incorporating some of South Africa’s top golf courses. Call 800/524-7979; e-mail [email protected] or write Rovos Rail, PO Box 2837, Pretoria, 0001, South Africa.

The train’s Web site is www.rovos.com.

South African Airways (866/722-2476) flies direct from New York City’s John F. Kennedy International and Atlanta’s Hartsfield International airports to Johannesburg. Economy-class fares cost about $1,460 to $1,948.

Avis Luxury Cars and Avis Chauffeur Drive can pick up a maximum of seven people at the Johannesburg airport and drive them to their hotel. Just outside baggage claim, Avis chauffeurs, dressed in bright red, carry a printed Avis greeting board with a customer’s name. The rate is per transfer, not per person, and depends on distance; e-mail, [email protected]

Hotel stays before boarding the train include:

• Ten Bompas, in a garden setting in Johannesburg’s Dunkeld West, about 25 minutes from the Johannesburg airport. Its 10 suites have a separate lounge, fax machine, a complimentary minibar, fireplace, steam bath, complimentary laundry service (excluding dry cleaning) and breakfast; e-mail [email protected]; Web site www.tenbompas.com.

Eat at the hotel’s Sides Restaurant; start with a Ten Bombas cocktail of cranberry and strawberry juice packed with a vodka punch and then order shark carpaccio, grilled skate or oxtail in Guinness with savory cabbage and mashed potatoes.

Or eat at Johannesburg’s Moyo restaurant in Melrose Arch, a shopping and office complex. Moyo offers a mix of Moroccan, Ethiopian, Senegalese and South African cuisines.

• Michelangelo, Sandon Square, West Street, Johannesburg, is a huge five-star hotel, outrageously opulent and on top of the city’s most upscale shopping mall. High tea is served daily from 2:30 to 7 p.m. in a relaxing, elegant setting with a pianist and a lavish spread of sweet and savory delicacies; e-mail [email protected]

• Drive a half-hour to seaside Durban and stay at four-star Quarters Hotel, 101 Florida Road in Morningside (fax. 031-303-5269). It is near city center, trendy restaurants, antiques shops, coffee bars and the beach and is just blocks from Rovos Rail’s departure station. Eat at Brasserie Restaurant or al fresco in the courtyard or walk to nearby Sunrise House of Curries for an inexpensive meal: a scooped-out half-loaf of bread traditionally stuffed with curried beans but also available with mutton, vegetables or beef.

• Pretoria’s Court Classique — after the train trip — has suites with kitchens and is 20 minutes from Rovos’ train station. It provides complimentary pickup service and is near the beautiful parliament building and lovely sprawling grounds. It has an upscale Mediterranean restaurant; e-mail [email protected]

Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, 15 minutes from the airport ($5 for adults, $2 for children and senior citizens) immediately subjects visitors to the most basic principle of apartheid — segregation — when the entrance card labels them either white or nonwhite, and they enter through the allotted gates.

Reunited, they see films, photographs, text panels and artifacts that show the causes and effects of the state-sponsored system of racial discrimination and the struggle and opposition to it, which ultimately led to 1994’s democratic elections and the freedom all South Africans have today.

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