Rovos Rail wants to bring back the lost art of drinking.
Train travel is having a renaissance all over the world, and trips ranging from bare-bones adventures through the mountains of Sri Lanka to luxuriously decadent journeys through the Peruvian Andes have never been more popular (or more Instagrammed). In South Africa, Rovos Rail offers an all-inclusive luxury train ride that’s rediscovering the lost art of travel—no Instagramming allowed. Trains depart from Durban, South Africa destined for Pretoria (though there are multiple routes all over southern Africa) on a 3-day adventure and experiment in slow travel. A journey aboard Rovos Rail is theatrical, luxurious, and full of elegant, courteous formalities. As a newly minted expert of classic rail travel, I would be remiss not to provide prospective riders with a few tips for ditching your computer, turning off your phone, and partying like it’s 1899.
At the Durban train station, bellhops sorted and labeled our luggage and offered the travelers champagne and canapés. Champagne would become a recurring theme on the train, where luxury was synonymous with decadence and leisure.
When the guests were assembled (about 35 of us total), the manager of the train went through a basic breifing. The train offers no Wi-Fi, and there’s very little cell reception. There are no locks on the doors, but each room contains a safe for valuables. Tipping is discouraged, but at the end of the trip, riders can add gratuities to a discreet envelope to be distributed to all the staff. A business casual dress code is requested during the day and formal attire required at night, especially for meals. And most importantly, there are no cell phones or computers allowed in public areas. Riding Rovos Rail is meant to be about enjoying the beauty of South Africa in a classic setting and bringing back the lost art of drinking. And wow, there was a lot of drinking.
INSIDER TIPIf you are sober for medical or personal reasons, this may not be the trip for you.
Décor and Decorum
After the brief orientation, we were guided to our onboard suites. Each train car has 2-4 private rooms, ranging from smaller rooms with bunks and murphy beds to massive suites with living rooms, bedrooms, and bathtubs in the bathrooms. Most of the rooms are deluxe suites with a queen-sized bed, a writing desk, a closet, and a bathroom with a shower. On each desk, there’s a sheet of paper with the name, nationality, and room number of every passenger on board. It might seem like a breach of privacy at first (especially because there are no locks on the doors), but it’s a convenient tool for remembering people’s names and making new friends.
In addition to the suites, Rovos Rail has a luxurious dining car, a lounge/living room car, and the bar car, which has an open-air extension where you can casually sip champagne with the wind in your hair.
One the train pulled out of the station in Durban, our drinking odyssey began. It was a few hours’ ride until our first stop, which was just enough time to begin to unravel the stories of the other passengers and staff. The outdoor bar car turned into a popular hangout spot and the best place to mingle. With passengers dressed to the nines in a classic train car, Rovos could be the set of an immersive theater experience.
The cast of characters was something out of a (modern day) Agatha Christie novel: the mysterious woman dripping with diamonds and a husband who never spoke. A perfectly made up woman and her impeccably dressed mother—there were rumors she was a famous television personality in Botswana. The Korean Instagrammer couple who came aboard with a giant trunk full of camera equipment. The bawdy railroad-obsessed American with a Texas accent and his wife. Couples from Finland, Angola, and Italy were abaord, and quite a few South Africans. While there were no solo travelers on this trip, Rovos Rail would be a perfect way to travel alone while still in the close company of others.
There’s something about the chandeliers, dark wood, and flowing cocktails that makes you feel like you’re living in a time when travel was always a glamorous occasion and everyone has an interesting story.
A few hours after leaving the station, lunch was announced with a bell. We took our seats in the dining car for the first of many over-the-top meals on the train. Lunch and Dinner were always four-courses, with an appetizer/salad, an entree, a cheese course, and a dessert. The menu focuses mainly on South African fare and changes for every meal. The variety and quality of the food is surprising, especially considering how hard it is to store, cook, plate, and serve fine dining for 35 people. The magicians in the kitchen car delighted passengers with exotic game like springbok, served with fresh salads, roasted vegetables, and locally-produced cheeses. And don’t forget about the suggested wine pairings for each course.
It’s incredibly hard to stay sober aboard Rovos Rail, but when there’s nothing to do except for eat, lounge, and watch the onboard drama unfold, there’s not really a good reason to stay sober. Life is better with champagne, and Rovos is here to remind you of that fact.
Art & Culture
After lunch, a stop at Ardmore Ceramics Gallery, a cooperative ceramic studio/boutique/guest house where artists create and sell intricately beautiful pieces inspired by the owner, Fée Halsted. While everything in the shop is too heavy and also a bit too fragile to haul home, it’s well worth a look around at the museum-quality pieces.
Dinner back onboard was once again an elegant four-course affair. While the bar car was tempting, it was imperative that we get a good night’s sleep for the next day’s 5 am wake-up call and morning safari.
The Game Drive
Passengers on our luxury train were offered two options at the next stop: join a game drive at Spionkop Nature Reserve to spy rhinos, giraffes, and nyala, or tour of the nearby battlefields. While Durban has a tropical, beachy feel, the morning game drive was our first look at a savannah landscape, with tall grass and acacia trees dotting the horizon. On our short drive, we managed to get a close look at two giraffes and a herd of zebra that surrounded our car. After a cool morning, the heat of the day set in by the time it was ready to head back to the train. Lunch was, as always, a boozy and indulgent affair. It was remarkable how much food we could eat and somehow still be hungry for the next meal.
While the heat of the sun was still in full-force, we arrived at our next destination, Nambiti Game Reserve, a private (malaria-free!) Big 5 park. The riders broke into groups and piled into six different game vehicles, and after only five minutes in the park, there was an elephant blocking the path. There’s nothing quite like seeing an African Elephant in the wild for the first time, simply because these animals are unfathomably enormous. Powerful and graceful, the elephant marched past us nonchalantly, coming within inches of the vehicle. It was exhilarating–even the guide was snapping photos.
Our guide was the star of the show at Nambiti, regaling us with dramatic tales of life in South Africa. In just a few hours, we drove up and over hills, through forests and rivers and over rocks, and encountered a multitude of animals, most notably a huge herd of water buffalo, a half-submerged hippo silhouetted by the sunset, and a baby rhino illuminated by golden hour light.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, our guide drove us to the top of a cliff to watch the magenta sunset begin to fade into lilac–with a drink in hand, of course. Equipped with a cooler full of ice, bottles of gin and Amarula, and stainless steel mugs, our guide turned out to also be a pretty good bartender.
When it was finally too dark to see very well, we hopped back in the vehicle for our dusty drive back to the train. For our final night on the train, everyone seemed to bring out their finest fashions. There were women covered with jewels and one lady in a floor-length silver gown and a fur stole. An older gentleman was in a bow tie, and his companion had teased her hair into a halo of orange curls. I wore a five-foot-long strand of black pearls.
The staff, as always, were also dressed to perfection in black tuxedos for both the men and women. At our tables, there was a rose for each of us.
Dinner felt especially festive since we had all gotten to know each other–if not by name, then by nationality. In a little over 24 hours without our phones, we had created shared memories and inside jokes. Not just with the other passengers, but with the staff members too, who each hold multiple jobs on the train. On our game drive, we had made friends with the Angolans and the Koreans, one of whom had a zoom lens the size of a golden retriever.
The After Party
After a decadent three-course dinner of South African food and wine, the staff announced a surprise for us: a party in the bar car! Not one to be late to a good party, I led the charge to the back of the train, where we were presented with a dizzying technicolor display of everything the bartenders could make. There were standards like martinis and margaritas, but also mudslides and daiquiris and fruity shots topped with whipped cream.
The usual smooth jazz of the bar car was replaced with Michael Jackson and we all did the Thriller dance–even the bartender.
Our last day on the train was devastating—I hate goodbyes. Cruising through the countryside at faster-than-previous speeds, Rovos hastened toward Pretoria. A beautiful, private train station welcomed our arrival. Our bags were discreetly collected from our rooms, we had one final glass of champagne, and we began to exchange email addresses with our new friends, pulling out our phones and our business cards for the first time in days. I would call it “once in a lifetime”, but I have the feeling that I’m going to ride the Rovos Rail again (if I’m allowed back on).