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Cape to Dar by Rovos Rail

August 24, 2018

Fancy a super spa in Africa? Take the train.

Not any train, mind you. The one you want is Rovos Rail, where embarkation begins at Cape Town in South Africa – the fairest cape, said Drake – and ends 15 days later after a thrilling adventure in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

It is an indulgence of luxury and elegance on wheels, involving bush gear by day and Hermes ties at night. Ladies will likely be wearing Shimansky diamonds they bought in Cape Town.

This is new wave travel as practised on expedition voyages to faraway places like Antarctica, where you rough it, gently, by day and dine in state in the evening.

Two nights in Tau Lodge on the border of Botswana are en route. The first day we lunched by a waterhole with two white rhinos and the next day in the company of a

statuesque giraffe, while nearby, zebras fought off a pack of hyenas. On game drives we encountered huge lions and had sundowner cocktails, while our cozy cottage (with outdoor shower) overlooked a waterhole thronged with elephants and a malicious-looking crocodile.

And equally enjoyable was the spa, where Dina administered the best pedicure ever, then followed up with a massage that left me begging for more.

But Rovos Rail was waiting and so was the track through Gaberone, capital of thriving Botswana, a city of gleaming, Chinese-built office towers. We were to see

more of the long reach of China in our odyssey across a huge stretch of Africa.

Our first stop had been Matjiesfontein, on the the lofty and dry Karoo plateau settled in 1890 by the pioneering Jimmy Logan, a Scot who founded the Lord Milner Hotel here – and a sausage factory. The Karoo bangers would likely have been made from mutton as sheep thrive here.

Kimberley was a great stop. Here is the story of diamonds galore, Cecil Rhodes’ riches, and the dream of the Cape to Cairo railway.

What started as a small hill in 1871 became the Big Hole as the legend of diamonds was reborn. Up until then diamonds came from India and Ceylon, the congealed tears, it was said, of a Hindu goddess.

We then skirted Johannesburg, where a huge gold reef was discovered in 1886 (what amazing times these were) and stopped for lunch in Pretoria, where Rohan Vos grew his hobby railway into what is now the largest passenger railway in Africa.

Here he has his own station and workshops employing scores of engineers maintaining steam engines – one built in Glasgow in 1893 – and restoring handsome carriages such as the 17-wagon train we were on. On many trips the train set has 21.

We left here for Botswana, then crossed the border into Zimbabwe, land of a brave people who somehow survived the appalling Mugabe years, now looking forward to a recovery economy with tourism already doing well judging  by the full house at the bougainvillea-fringed Victoria Falls Hotel, a  colonial-style treasure reminiscent of the Raffles of old.

At sundown, there are few places to match the sweeping terrace bar overlooking the graceful bridge built on the orders of Cecil Rhodes (the same engineers later erected the Sydney Harbour bridge). Old Africa hands and millennial tourists swapped stories about travel here that was and is an adventure. Such as the woman in a tented camp who phones the ranger at midnight, “there’s a lion here!” To which the ranger replies, “Madame, is it outside your tent or inside your tent?”

Then the Victoria Falls experience, which began with a fine statue of David Livingstone, the first European to come here in 1855. Even today, when colonial-era monuments are being toppled from the Cape to Cairo, Livingstone is a revered figure and known to all school children in southern Africa.

Words cannot the describe the sight, sound and spray that awaits the visitor, other than to convey the feeling that when you have been here, you have felt the spirit of Africa.

And so the train carried on, stopping briefly on the falls bridge for an American bungee jumping to within a heartbeat of the crocodile-infested Zambezi. Rovos Rail trundled across Zambia and Tanzania, through the luxuriant Rift Valley with baobab trees and the huge Selous game reserve where a final game drive was offered.

Armchair travelers enjoyed comfortable lounges, including an open observation car, where the engaging young staff served drinks in crystal glasses.

Meals brought everyone together – on our trip just a happy band of 35 – in the elegant dining room, whose teak pillars and wall lights delivered a clubby atmosphere which bubbled along on a tide of connoisseur-class Cape wines such as Bouchard Finlayson chardonnay and Diemersfontein pinotage.

Cabins were equally well fitted out. There are three sizes – Pullman, Deluxe and Royal. All have good size bathrooms with showers. For a trip this long you want the Deluxe. Laundry is done daily free of charge and the service is excellent. Rovos claims to be the most luxurious train in the world and I would not argue. 

Finally, after 3568 miles, we reached Dar-es-Salaam. Tantalisingly close were Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro (Africa’s highest mountain, 19,341 ft) and the Serengeti. Going home was hard to do.

  • Fares for the 15-day journey start at $16,000 pp.

* Everyone had a stopover in Cape Town before or afterwards, and not just because of jet lag.

Cape Town is a fabulous city, nestled around Table Mountain, skirting beautiful beaches and lush winelands. 

A good place to start is the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, basically a compound comprising a marina open to the ocean, with hotels, restaurants and shops. It is close to the city centre and five minutes from the railway station.

Rovos has its own hotels, and the Waterfront has a superb selection as well. I thought the Cape Grace was a bit tired while the One&Only is spacious and has a buzzing Nobu restaurant. The Table Bay has a fine location, particularly for the big shopping area, while next door the striking new Silo hotel has the wow factor, but at a price. Certainly it is the place to go for rooftop cocktails.

Daytime there is plenty to do around town, such as mooching around the bookshops and coffee bars in Long Street, or exploring the Company Gardens first laid out by the Dutch East India Company to provide vegetables for crews bound for the Spice Islands of Asia.

Table Mountain, Cape Point and the penguins at Simonstown can all be experienced via the hop on-hop off bus, while Robben Island is a special trip.

Waterfront has many good restaurants such as Karibu, well known for its African theme (oysters and ostrich) and Willoughby’s for seafood.

Out of town lunches are popular, such as on Camps Bay beaches or wineries in Stellenbosch. 

The famed Garden Route is worth  a few days, particularly if you stop at Franschhoek, which charms with a French accent. Accommodation is often cheaper in places like Somerset West, location of one of the Cape’s best golf courses, Erinvale. Particularly good value is Cape Links guest house here, run by Frank McDonogh.

He also runs a shuttle service, which is worth using from the airport. After a long flight, all you need is a one-hour wait for a rental car and a drive when you are falling asleep. 

Frank is the man for reasonably priced out of town drives, while the rest of the time, particularly at night, you can’t beat Uber.

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