Text Sarah Buitendach Photographs Patrick Toselli She was born on a train travelling between Nairobi and Mombasa. So, for her 70th birthday, Gill Parkinson and 14 members of her family gathered to celebrate the milestone on Rovos Rail. In a Deluxe Suite a carriage or two up, Capetonian Wendy Harries-Jones was celebrating her 60th birthday. Like her husband Phil, who’d travelled to school by train as a small boy, Wendy spoke vividly of rail excursions as a Girl Guide and later as a student – travelling to Rhodes University overland and overnight by train. And then there was my own father. He and my mum had travelled on the very same strip of railway line 40 years ago as young teachers – delivering children back to the farms they came from in then-Rhodesia’s Wankie and Dett and small sidings in between. It was one of the first unofficial dates they ever had. The 34 guests on our Rovos Rail trip from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to Pretoria had assembled for three days of luxury and relaxation, three days of fun and indulgence, and, above all, three days of pure nostalgia. They’d come to reminisce about their own lives and experiences, to recall days of journeying across part of a beautiful and mesmerising continent and – even if they’d never travelled by train before – to enjoy a brief encounter with an elegant, once prolific mode of transport that has all but disappeared. Rovos Rail’s train journeys span the length and breadth of southern Africa and sometimes run as far as Dar es Salaam, but there surely isn’t a journey that epitomises and encapsulates the days of old-world colonial travel more than the one which runs to and from Victoria Falls. At the centre of this small, shabby Zimbabwean town sits a grand old lady who’s just reached the staggering age of 106. The Victoria Falls Hotel is the stuff of legends, legacies and long cocktails on the Stanley Terrace – and does this centenarian look good for her age! I’d heard rumours that she’d let herself go, but, walking through the central courtyard with its mango trees and water lily-filled ponds, welcome cocktail in hand, I realise that this couldn’t be further from the truth. As Duly Chitimbire, the safari suit- and pith helmet-clad head concierge, tells us, this is where a young Princess Elizabeth stayed with her family on their famed royal visit to Africa in 1947. They must have been bowled over by this glamorous colonial bastion tucked away in the bush, with its sweeping views over the expansive gorge below and the Smoke that Thunders rising impressively in the distance. And that’s a little how I feel too. I love the high shine of the wide, red, polished verandas; the old British Overseas Airways Corporation posters advertising southern Africa that line the deep pink walls; and the indulgent high teas served daily on tiered silver stands. But it’s the fact that the hotel has managed to keep its old-fashioned charm while moving with the times that impresses me most. In the courtyard of Stables Wing where we spend the night, they’ve filled old flowerbeds with nasturtiums, rocket, dill and every manner of herb and edible plant. This organic produce goes a long way towards serving the hotel’s top-notch kitchens in a modern, sustainable manner. Jumping back to the early days of the 20th century, there’s another excellent reason to choose The Victoria Falls Hotel. Strategically placed alongside the town’s railway line, and being the original hotel in the area, it has its own entrance onto the station’s platform. And that’s exactly where we find ourselves on a wintry Sunday morning, waiting on a red carpet. The synchronised voices and drums of a local Ndebele performing arts group doing their thing on the siding have got us all worked into a bit of a frenzy, and our gaze is repeatedly drawn towards the track as we listen to utterly charming train manager Joe Mathala’s welcome. There’s the low hum of excited chatter and then, suddenly, with a flash of deep forest-green further down the line, The Pride of Africa chugs into the station. It’s an unforgettable moment. Overnighting on a normal train generally involves sharing with strangers and precarious bunk beds. But Rovos Rail isn’t a normal train. My spacious Deluxe Suite sports a double bed with views out of three big portrait windows and a checkerboard-floored bathroom with shower (and amazingly powerful water pressure). Add to this the thrice-daily making-up of your room and butler-like attentiveness of the train’s staff, and it’s easy to imagine why you spend so much time in your compartment. Which really is the gist of this journey. There are no spa treatments or extreme sport excursions. A train journey is all about doing very little: reading, snoozing, drinking rock shandies in the Observation car and enjoying the scenery. Which, as I note while lying on my bed at the end of our first day aboard, includes the ochre, orange and grey of Zimbabwe’s winter bushveld and then, as we enter the Hwange National Park, fleeting views of antelope, giraffe and a family of elephants enjoying sundowners at a watering hole. Dinner on Rovos is a grand affair. In the Dining car with its dark wood detailing and tulip lamps, guests dressed in their most elegant evening-wear nibble caviar mousse and rice-wafer layers for starters and sip on an array of South Africa’s best wines. Cleverly, the likes of Springfield Estate’s Whole Berry Cabernet Sauvignon and Warwick’s Trilogy red blend are all served by the glass, so guests get to sample a wide selection of wines over the duration of the trip. As mains of Moroccan spiced pork roulade and seafood al forno are served, the train rocks backwards and forwards in the darkness, speeding through the night towards Bulawayo. Waking up to never-ending stretches of Botswana bush is not a bad way to start the day. It’s also slightly amusing when you consider that you actually went to bed in Zimbabwe. But that’s Rovos style. While you slumber, the staff sort out border control so your blissful bout of relaxation continues uninterrupted. When not chatting to other passengers, I’m engrossed in a book – alternating between a paisley-covered wingback chair in the sunny Observation car and an equally cosy spot on my bed. From my window there’s a glimpse into the hustle and bustle of Francistown and later, after a leisurely lunch, we pass through Serule. This small railway village, with its cheerfully painted houses and kids playing in the street, conjures up images of the Botswana that Bessie Head wrote of in her novels and the vibrant, colourful world that Mma Ramotswe encounters in her investigations for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. It’s like stepping into a world I’d only previously imagined. And the literary connotations of the trip continue the following day. Back in South Africa, via Mafikeng on the line towards Jo’burg, we make an attempt at healthy eating (for the first time on the trip) with wholesome muesli for breakfast. We are now in Herman Charles Bosman country and pass through the towns made famous by his short stories set in the western Transvaal of the early 1900s. We whizz through Groot Marico, Koster and Swartruggens – along endless rows of grain silos and tiny railway houses – and before we know it we’re passing through Magaliesberg and begin to make out the familiar golden mine dumps of the West Rand. Over lunch we chat to Joe about the amazing experiences he’s had at the helm of the beautifully revamped train. He is possibly its best advertisement and beams with delight as he regales us with stories of Russian billionaires hiring out the entire train, and of all sorts of amazing characters that have coloured the pages of Rovos’s 20-year history. I’m overcome with pride as we chug into Johannesburg. I’ve never seen my hometown from this point of view and ply the foreign passengers left in the Dining car with useless information about the Carlton Centre, Newtown and the CBD as we travel through it. In the blink of an eye we’re passing under the impressive new highline portions of the Gautrain in Centurion. As I walk down the carriages past compartments where frantic packing is under way, there’s a definite air of melancholy – largely because we’re almost at Rovos Rail’s private station in Capital Park. We get hooked up to one of the company’s original steam engines for the final stretch to our destination on the western edge of Pretoria, and three days of being ensconced in utter luxury come to an end. From the plush station lounge, I look back at the enchanting green carriages that have come to rest alongside the platform, and can’t help but think it’s a great pity that the golden age of elegant train travel is past. If Rovos Rail is anything to go by, I could easily become accustomed to travelling everywhere in this kind of style. The Essentials Getting There HL flew to Victoria Falls International Airport from OR Tambo, Johannesburg, on Air Zimbabwe. The flight takes approximately an hour and forty minutes. As Zimbabwe’s national carrier, Air Zimbabwe is an excellent choice to get you to all major destinations in the country. It flies return to Victoria Falls from Jo’burg on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. 011-390-3064, airzimbabwe.co.za What To Take A good stash of books, a notebook or a sketchbook, binoculars, an iPod, elegant eveningwear (which includes ties for men), smart-casual clothes for the daytime – and a camera! Pack walking shoes and a rain jacket if you’re planning to walk from the hotel to the Falls. Directory Rovos Rail, 012-315-8242, rovos.com; The Victoria Falls Hotel, SA Reservations (African Sun Hotels), 087-806-5555, 011-442–488. This article was originally featured in the October 2010 issue of House and Leisure.