The Rovos Rail observation coach between Pretoria and Durban. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBE
The Rovos Rail observation coach between Pretoria and Durban. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBE

The weekend friendship on Rovos, the world’s most luxurious train, started with a nicely international group basking in the celebrity glow radiating off a top Australian baker. 

The conversation in the group of eight Australians, Americans, Brits and South Africans was almost casually steered in the direction of Florentines by Kerri as we sat on the open observation coach at the back of a Rovos train taking a three-day meander from Pretoria to Durban.

The words “blue-ribbon winner” and “Florentines” proved immediately riveting to the group as we sipped on the finest local wines or fancy gins as the lush countryside fresh from end-of-summer rains unravelled behind us.

To be on a train trundling along at 60km/h through the escarpment and then snaking down through the Drakensberg before the gorgeousness of the Midlands and the weaving track from Pietermaritzburg to Durban is one thing.

Being ensconced in luxury that is the hallmark of Rovos is another entirely otherworldly experience where it’s hard not to feel special and very privileged.

The conversational show-stopper (to borrow from a well-known British reality baking show) was gently dropped like a ticking hand grenade into the buzz of conversation about places we’ve seen, experiences we’ve had and destinations on our wish list — the regular type of chat you’d expect from such a diverse group.

David, Kerri’s husband, knew what was coming and rolled his eyes and muttered a suitable Australian oath, prompting some to speculate that perhaps the thrill of celebrity had faded somewhat for him.

Kerri had won the blue-ribbon award for her Florentines in the Royal Melbourne Show baking competition.

While it is pricey, the experience is unforgettable and can be switched up for a longer option. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBE
While it is pricey, the experience is unforgettable and can be switched up for a longer option. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBE

Conversation pivoted like a platoon of well-trained soldiers and homed in as people oohed and aahed over the remarkable achievement and the presence of a celebrity among us. Two couples near us made up of Germans and Poles, who may or may not have been eavesdropping, exchanged bemused looks and crooked their fingers at the waiter for fresh drinks as the adulation around Kerri built to a crescendo.

The blue-ribbon Florentines, pictures of which were freely shown on Kerri’s mobile phone, proved the perfect icebreaker and then glue for the group, which suddenly hooked up at every chance with far less polite and stilted conversations, delving deeper into one another’s lives, histories and experiences.

The German and Polish couples along with a healthy number of SA couples making up the 22 guests on the train didn’t quite understand the running and ancillary jokes over superb meals, impeccably chosen wines paired with each course, and top-notch African coffees.

The service out of the small galley on the train was flawless, with no request too difficult. A single vegan on the train had three-course meals that had others looking on enviously. Apart from the tofu.

The lounge coach, decked in dark mahogany polished to mirror finishes, the deep armchairs, fat sofas and muted lighting, was perfect for a post-prandial drink or two as was the bar coach that had the open observation deck.

There are daily train newspapers, with A4 sheets filled with carefully culled daily national news from each country represented by the guests. Cellphones are frowned upon and laptops barred from the recreation areas, rules designed to encourage people to look each other in the eye and talk.

It turns out this was the true find of the trip. The luxurious surroundings are the juicy cherry on the top.

Rattling through the dark, with heavily laden container and goods trains thundering past, watching the lights of rail signals, billions of stars and breathing in the smell of working locomotives while standing on the swaying deck of the observation cart, eating a last little mouthful of good biltong rated as one of life’s rare moments.

The end of the evening comes when you want it to, bearing in mind the first excursion is a 6am start to the Nambiti game farm. The 5.30am wake-up call, done the traditional way of a knock on the door until a sleeping someone answers, comes way too soon.

The crisp cold, the drizzle from low, grey clouds means the train’s staff hand out raincoats and blankets, along with a steaming cup to those brave enough to leave their heated compartments.

Little glasses of sherry and port were sensibly provided for frozen guests as we returned to the train standing in a siding where we spent the night.

In our compartments, which are top-rate hotel rooms on wheels, there were hot showers to ease cramped joints and warm gowns to wrap up in and time to stretch out on the giant double bed for a while before lunch.

For the truly well-heeled, the premier compartment is half a carriage long and has the addition of a bath to lie in and watch the world go by.

The coaches deserve a mention.

Each coach has been saved from an ignominious demise and lovingly restored by skilled artisans. Rovos buys dilapidated carriages for about R70,000 each.

These are turned over to their teams of specialists who strip the coaches down to bare bones at a large, dedicated facility in Pretoria, which is part of the predeparture tour for guests.

Welders, metal workers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and upholsterers convert the carriages into wood-panelled works of art and luxury worth R1m each.

They form the fleet of trains plying the rails as far south as Cape Town, up to Walvis Bay, and as far north as Dar es Salaam, which is now linked to Lobito in Angola in a 15-day Rovos trip.

It’s fair to say these trips are not cheap. They are aimed at wealthy retirees and those with plenty of spare cash at the end of the month, making for a rather exclusive guest list.

Our little group included two such retired couples, with Kerri and David on their third visit to SA, and Susan and Michael on a visit from Seattle as part of a leisurely set of tours of countries around the world in search of a warm retreat from North American winters.

Our other couple was Kerry and Neil. Having done a special anniversary trip on Rovos from Livingstone, Zambia to Pretoria, they were hooked on the luxury rail and embarked on a second trip for Kerry’s birthday (the big one with a five in it).

It is also a place to make special memories. Xolani, a lawyer, proposed to Lebo one evening and brought the dining car to cheers, whistles and shouts of congratulations.

It was, however, not a flawless trip because of issues outside the control of Rovos. This included spending Friday morning and into the afternoon standing idle at Germiston station, waiting for Spoornet locomotives and then for clearance to set off on the busy Durban-bound line.

It meant the entire first-day schedule was thrown off by five hours and a long stretch of the journey was done in the dark, missing the countryside and the descent down the Drakensberg.

The rattling, deafening squeal of brakes and steel wheels on curving tracks, and stops and starts made sleep difficult despite the enormous and comfortable bed.

Rovos has a plan to address the need to wait for locomotives and drivers from not only Spoornet but in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Congo and Angola, by training its own crews, securing the necessary licences and using its own fleet of diesel and electric locomotives, taking out one of the annoying variables.

The Rovos trips include time off the train during the day, with game drives, visits to local points of interest or history lectures. The feeling was that while these were a nice-to-have, many would prefer more daytime spent on the moving train, seeing SA’s spectacular scenery, the bulk of which was lost on the first day because of the late departure.

If you can, do the trip. Just once. It’s expensive. I probably wouldn’t do the Durban trip again, instead looking for the three-day excursion to Cape Town or the longer ones to Namibia or Dar es Salaam.

If you have money burning a hole in your pocket and you’ve done all the obvious things with it, try this for something different.

• Seccombe was a guest of Rovos Rail.