Rovos Rail – Part Two – Da Aar to Cape Town


I’m in the afternoon of day two on this luxury train trip from Pretoria to Cape Town. The comfort and extra touches on offer are simply stunning, and are worth a quick description.

In our large private stateroom with it’s Queen Bed, Desk, two arm chairs, and full bathroom are complete amenity kits, including a free laundry service – and a free pressing service. I make use of both – the pressing service to ready my gowns for the formal dinners on Friday and Saturday night, and the laundry service because it’s been a few days, and laundry does mount up! On the desk is a gift box of various cookies to enjoy in case you run out of food – and a full bar menu. Just let your personal suite server know your needs – and she will stock the handy fridge to your requirements. No charge of course. Like a great wedding – it’s as much wine and alcohol (and food) as you want.

When we return from dinner on the first night, our bed has been made up, including warm cozy duvets (it gets really cold at night in the African plains), toffees to enjoy, and a note telling us about tomorrows weather – which is more of the same – warm and sunny.

When we return from dinner the 2nd night – we are stunned by how they have made the bed! We had told the booking agent that it is our 47th Wedding Anniversary (children please note – 3 years to 50… have you started planning?). And they have surprised us with a bottle of bubbly, two champagne glasses, a gift box of a honey/salt Carmel spread (sweet on sweet – so popular here), and a personalized note congratulating us. But it’s the heart of rose petals that is truly over the top.

Well – we shall just have to celebrate I guess!

The sky visible from our bed is filled with lovely stars – and we fall asleep watching the African flat lands and the glorious sky drift by.

This morning, our 3rd day on the train, the weather has decidedly changed. It’s cold. Really, really cold. I’m regretting my packing choices, would it have been so hard to pack at least one pair of warmer socks?

Having not figured out how to turn our AC from cool to heat, we bundle up and go into the lounge, where it is decidedly warmer. I’m offered a cup of hot water, and a latte with breakfast, both of which are very welcome.

Enjoying South Africa, at least from the train, is a question of where you look. From where I sit in the oh-so-comfy lounge car there is a view to the right and the left.

If I look left, I see young men sitting looking forlorn on the train tracks, and behind them a line of what can best be described as ‘better’ government housing. As we arrived in the station of Matjiesfontein, we passed groups of tiny corrugated shacks, then things improved to the left – going from corrugated metal to cement homes. Clearly not middle class – although given the reality of South Africa – these could easily be middle class for black Africans. Certainly there is smattering of Satelite dishes, and even the occasional car.

If I look to the right, there are three musicians serenading anyone who walks by, mostly Beatle songs – and then the most adorable Victorian village you’ve ever seen. It is quite lovely – and in stark contrast to the relatively depressing view to the left. How unNorth American. According to the guide book – the village is the work of just one man – Jimmy Logan. He and his wife arrived here in 1890 with little more than a vision, and from that built almost everything we see to the right.

In conversation with other guests on our train, we learn that one of the major issues in South Africa is the stark lack of social programs. There is no unemployment insurance, no social welfare, few government sponsored options for helping the poor out of their predicament. And this is clear to even the most casual tourist. If you are born on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks – your parents are likely lacking in education, your grand-parents likely had no better choices, and you have few if any options. And life is boring. We’ve seen flocks of kids who gather whenever the train slows down to come and check us out – we are easily the highlight of their day.

But enough of my muttering on these issues. Apparently if you are willing to work very hard – and have just a bit of good luck, you can break at least part of the endless cycle. The staff on the train is an interesting mixture of whites and black – although the blacks tend to be wait staff and housekeeping, the white members of the staff are the sommelier, train manager and his assistant and the gals running the sales shop and offering customer service. My husband observes that perhaps they don’t see the clear division of tasks that we do – and perhaps he’s right. On the other hand – the driver of our train was a very very nice Black woman. So some things must be looking up.

On the nature side – I spent a great part of yesterday on the Observation Deck, keeping my eyes peeled for animal sightings. I was rewarded with glimpses of an Ostrich, lots of Springbok and the like, plus two red deer that were as surprised as I was when the train roared past. I also spotted huge solar farms, and a series of massive wind generators on the ridge line of the hills. Better homes, when we pass them, often sport Solar Hot Water systems – which makes a great deal of sense in this environment.

Only one scary moment – we were stopped in De Aar, waiting for folks to check the train I would guess when a young man attempted to claim onto the Observation Deck. He had been asking my husband for food – and apparently took his attention to mean he had permission to climb aboard. The train security folks responded quickly – and he ran back into the housing near the train yard – but afterwards we were reminded that as hard as it seems, generosity here isn’t as clear cut as back home. You are better to support the NGO systems that work to keep the poor fed and housed, then to reward begging. Tough on our North American sensitivities.

We have met some very nice folks from Holland – and share lunch and travel adventures with them. They have been to more places then we have – which is saying a lot, although their visits were often shorter. That’s the advantage of travelling for pleasure rather than business – you can choose how long to stay! And then this afternoon we spent time again on the Observation Deck. Company was rather lively, with one younger retiree from South Africa holding court with his varied experiences around Africa. He did point out the differences between ‘townships’, which are places where Blacks choose to live and have government services – like electricity and running water, and squatter camps – where Blacks live without any government services – no toilets, no electricity, no garbage removal. Once identified the differences are actually quite visible, although we’re not talking small places in either case. I’m guessing at least a thousand homes, in each of the few squatter camps we passed. Curiously, the townships were walled in, the squatter camps had no walls, and could expand in all directions as needed. From both types of ‘homesteads’, dozens and dozens kids gaily waved as we rode past.

Our train has finally cleared the mountain tunnels and dropped at least 1000 vertical meters towards Cape Town, and the surroundings have gone from the African plain to the food basket. Green fields, vineyards, green houses, a private zoo, townships, squatter camps, and more upscale housing and factories provide visual distraction as we make our way towards Table Mountain and Cape Town.

Our plan for the next few days is to visit Cape Town and then continue our tour along South Africa’s Garden Route. Penguins, Whales and Wine Tasting – here we come!

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Rovos Rail – Cruising Across South Africa


I’m on the Pride of Africa – an over the top luxury 20 car train that is currently snaking itself from Pretoria to Cape Town.

And it is truly a cruise on land. All the things that annoy me about cruises – too much food, and not enough exercise – but oh so relaxing. My fellow travellers are an eclectic mix of South African, Dutch, Canadian, Australian, and American. English is the language de jour, although one occasionally hears Chinese (from Vancouver), Africaans, and Dutch. It’s all together kinda neat – in an decidedly too elaborate way for my simple mind.

And alarmingly – no Wifi. Nada. For a full 3 days and 2 nights. Which means I’ve been out of contact for all that time. I just spent a few minutes chatting with the train manager – and he assures me that in a year or so, they will have solved that problem. Bit late for my purposes of course.

There are almost as many wait staff as there are guests – I suppose that is not surprising given the cruise motif. But there aren’t any shows, other than the food of course, and there is no pool or exercise facility. Instead, we have an Observation Car, a Lounge Car, a Smoking Car (glass walled to keep them in – and us out), two dinning rooms, a car devoted to a huge kitchen, and the rest of the train are the cabins.

The private cabins are huge. Our cabin is a mid-sized version and features two comfy arm chairs, a bathroom with a full sized walk-in glass shower, and a Queen sized bed. I think most cabins are the same size, although one group I was chatting up complained that their cabin didn’t have the two chairs. And I did peak into a cabin that had a bit more space between the chairs and the bed. Apparently it also had a bathtub, but that’s just a rumour. But never mind – everything is leather, or wood, or glass, heavy brocade materials, old fashioned lamps, and lots and lots of AC units.

Wouldn’t want someone to get either too hot or too cold!

And the views out the absolutely clean windows are of Africa. We started our journey in Pretoria (just a few kilometres from Jo-burg), and for the first two hours or so we go past station after station with primarily black customers patiently waiting for their commuter trains. Young folks and old, in traditional dress and today’s standard jeans and a T-shirt – they were, as we’d been warned, primarily blacks. Apparently the white population of South Africa has abandoned their rail system to rely on cars. This is a terrible mistake, but given that the trains we saw (other than ours) had no AC – and it’s over 90 degrees – I suppose I’d be hesitating to use the public rail as well.

A more disturbing view is that of the corrugated metal tiny shacks that serve as home for countless folks. We rode past whole towns of these shacks, some with fenced in yards – some with nothing but dirt in front and in back, and others with carefully planted gardens. The sheer numbers is astounding. But even more disturbing is the casual attitdude towards garbage. There is literally tons of garbage in just the section between the rail lines and the homes – it’s very clear where ‘no-man’s’ land begins – and that’s where the garbage is left. I asked about social services to clean up this mess – and was told that it is done often, but the lack of places for these folks to put garbage properly makes dealing with the problem an endless task. Maybe so – I must admit a lot of it looked to be ‘fresh’. And sometimes it was just a question of where you looked. On the right side of the train – clean as a whistle. On the left – coloured garbage bags lie everywhere, and those light weight plastic bags are as common as Christmas Ornaments on the bushes.

Back to Rovos Rail. This is a private rail service that offers luxury travel on several ‘Journey Itineraries’ thru Africa. We are taking the journey to Cape Town, but they also go to Victoria Falls, Durban, and Namibia. The train is glorious – it’s hard to find issue with the abundance of silverware at dinner, the constant inquiry as to your happiness and needs, and the over abundance of delicious alcohol on offer. Naturally, the Pride of Africa’s wine cellar specializes exclusively in the high end South African options – including a Port and a Brandy that blew my socks off.

Breakfast offerings include lattes of course, Lunch offered as much as you can drink white wine and port, and we’ve been promised a 5 course tasting menu for dinner tonight – paired with 5 other South African wines.

My issues are pretty much as predicted – the scenery, while lovely, is huge and perhaps a bit boring. I mean we saw a massive flock of Pink Flamingo’s – from a distance, and a herd of Springbok fled when we quietly came past, but generally it’s hours and hours of flat dry lands – going from the more bushy grasslands near Jo-Burg to the Karoo Plains. Eventually we will enter the mountain passes and tunnels that herald our arrival into Cape Town – but right now – after almost 2 full days – I can’t say the scenery has been stunning by Canadian Standards.

And sleeping last night, despite the amount of alcohol and the soft as down duvets, was problematic. The train did stop for 5 hours – but I actually find it easier to sleep when the train is moving – for some reason I kept waiting for it to start moving, even though our all so competent hosts had made it clear that we were deliberately stopping so that folks could get a good night’s rest.

Just like a good cruise, there are excursions. Today’s ‘off the train’ trip was a 2 hour tour of the Diamond Museum in Kimberley. I was thrilled by the prospect, but disappointed in the reality. Our guide was very careful to explain that they no longer use the methods on show – but there was no description of how they are currently mining diamonds. Even more disappointing – our ‘mine’ tour was a fake. Concrete, wood, and flashing lights to convince us that we were underground. Having actually taken a real mine tour – where we actually descended in a still working miner’s lift – and walked thru actual stone tunnels – this was quite disappointing. I did enjoy the movie, and there’s a fair museum to visit – but despite renovations in 2009 – it’s at best a ‘less than Disney’ experience. There are much better museums in the UK – I suggest you read up on some of my other blogs.

Another source of disappointment – we are just two. So if conversation lags, we must chat up strangers. Not a problem – but lots of our fellow travellers came in groups – so the pickings have been slim. And since I’m not travelling with The Intrepid Traveller, I can’t rely on her ability to instantly appeal to strangers.

On the other hand – food has been excellent (I always wondered what Ostrich would taste like – and it’s like lean beef, not ‘chicken’ at all). The service can not be faulted. The wine selections have been superb – and we still have a day to go.

Signing off with hopes that things will improve in the next 24 hours – The Soup Lady