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

By Owen C. Hardy

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)