Travelling on Rovos Rail from Pretoria to Durban is a three-day celebration of sights, sounds and sublime cuisine. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBER
Travelling on Rovos Rail from Pretoria to Durban is a three-day celebration of sights, sounds and sublime cuisine. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBER

Rovos Rail has reached the limits of its growth and will focus on efficiently running its fleet of luxury trains across southern Africa and offering a unique trans-Africa experience.

Certainly, there are no operators that can offer the range of vistas and experiences that Rovos  does, with three-day journeys to Cape Town and Durban from Pretoria. There are trips to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Walvis Bay in Namibia, with a trip to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania expanding the reach well into East Africa.

The latest addition is the breathtakingly daring Dar es Salaam to Lobito in Anglo, crossing through the copperbelt of northern Zambia, into southern Democratic Republic of Congo — a country on few tourists’ schedules — and into central Angola to end at the Atlantic town of Lobito, south of the capital Luanda. The 15-day trip is fully booked up to 2021.

Rovos runs four Rovos train sets, which can each take up to 72 passengers, and one Shongololo train set, says Tiffany Vos-Thane, daughter of Rohan Vos, the brains behind the start of Rovos 30 years ago and the formation of a tightly family held business.

Rovos is building another train set which could either be a Rovos train or fall into the Shongololo business which offers 12-15 day trips to Namibia, Mozambique, depending on where the demand lies, a decision that Rohan will make.

“Do we continue to expand, building a seventh, eighth and ninth train? To be completely frank, we don’t know the answer to that yet. Our instinct at the moment is to focus on what we have and to take care of it,” Vos-Thane says.

“We’ll focus on maintenance of our coaches, our workmanship in the coaches, staff training and ensuring we remain the most luxurious train in the world. It’s a big statement to make and one which we’ve been able to stand by for 30 years,” she says. “For the next two or three years there are no plans to build more trains.”

Rovos ticket prices may come as a shock to many and they exclude the majority of South Africans from the experience, keeping the guest list exclusive to wealthy, retired foreigners and well-heeled locals.

Prices range from R20,600 per person on the shorter three-day trips between Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town in the cheapest compartment. Travelling for longer distances the price escalates closer to R100,000 per person, meaning a couple travelling on the Namibian Safari can expect to pay R206,000 for the Deluxe experience, excluding the airfare back home.

To travel in the premier Royal suites on the Dar es Salaam to Lobito trip expect a couple of tickets to cost close to R645,000 (correct, R645,00). To book a single ticket expect a 50% surcharge.

“We don’t want to lose our exclusivity of the experience and become something that everybody does,” Vos-Thane says, adding about 10% of annual bookings are repeat guests.

Bookings have grown to 14,000 in 2018 from 9,000 in 2015.

The pricing is measured against the top game lodges in SA, considering once on the train there is no reason to take out a wallet. The prices account for the high running costs of the operation which is charged per kilometre per coach by rail networks, making it the single largest cost in running the business.

Looking ahead at the sustainability of the business, the strategy is to broaden the offering from wealthy retirees from Europe, UK, North America and Australia, including people in the 40-60 age bracket.

• Seccombe was a guest of Rovos Rail.