A trip through Zimbabwe from the Victoria Falls to Tshwane recalls a bygone era of luxury travel.
Travellers love to toss around the quote “it’s about the journey, not the destination”. The thing is, that was said by tennis legend Arthur Ashe in reference to success. But we may be forgiven for giving it a more literal meaning while on board a luxury train, rocking gently along the tracks from Victoria Falls to Tshwane.
In this case, the journey on Rovos Rail is by far the main attraction. Not to take anything away from the Falls, of course. They are pretty spectacular in their own right, but we departed from there and had already showered in their rainbowed, misty magnificence.
An Experience In Itself
Running in both directions, one-way or round-trip, this three-night excursion is one of the short ones. All too short, some might say, as they reluctantly leave the grandeur and opulence of the train.
Being on board is not merely a means of getting from one place to another; it is in and of itself an experience.
There is a dress code, which requires a carefully constructed schedule of costume changes – smart casual for during the day, warm and suitably layered attired for the game drive, and formal for dinner. This is utterly delightful and fully in keeping with the atmosphere of the train.
All Dressed Up To Dine
The dining car is panelled in highly polished wood, with turned posts, tasselled curtains, and Edwardian features such as glass lampshades fashioned like flowers, and lazily turning ceiling fans.
Technically, these are not necessary as there is air conditioning throughout, but let’s not allow such a thing to get in the way of the sumptuous feel of a bygone era.
The uniformed staff go about their business graciously as they serve the four courses – starter, main, cheese, dessert – each accompanied by a South African wine.
It is only right that we should make the effort to dress accordingly, and there is a lovely nostalgia seeing the men enter wearing jackets and ties, and the women dressed in sequins and satins with glittering necklaces.
After dinner, passengers may stroll to the back of the train to take a postprandial digestif in the lounge car, or a quick smoke in the club car. Later, they will retire to their suite, where they will be lulled to sleep by the rhythms of the train.
There are three sleeping options. The Pullman suites are the smallest, and reminiscent of the compartments we used to have on the old South African Railways trains back in the 1970s.
Except not – these are much more luxurious, no green vinyl. During the day, they are made up with a sofa seat, and at night this can be converted into a double bed, or a twin bunk.
The Deluxe suites have a double or twin-bed option, as well as a spacious lounge area with two chairs, bar fridge, writing desk, and wardrobes with hanging and shelf space, because you need somewhere to put the ball gown and tuxedo, obviously.
If they are a little bit creased from the suitcase, there is a laundry service to take care of that.
The Royal Suites
The Royal suites – two of them take up an entire car – have a double bed separated from the lounge with sliding doors, and a separate bathroom… with a Victorian-style claw-foot tub.
It faces a window so you can wallow in your bubbles while watching the African bush go by.
All other suites have en-suite bathrooms with showers, and the décor continues in the Edwardian theme with lots of wood, and warm colours. Your every need is anticipated with toiletry bags filled with amenities.
“You are welcome to take these home with you,” our hostess tells us. Oh, yes. You get your own personal hostess who will look after you for the duration of the trip, replenishing everything from the shampoo to the champagne. And if you forget to fill out the refresh request, or get a sudden hunger pang at 3am, there’s 24-hour room service.
During the day, between breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, passengers are kept incredibly busy with sitting in the open-air observation car at the very back of the train, absorbing the beauty of the scenery.
The train travels at a maximum speed of around 60km an hour – often slower, depending on the standard of the tracks (this is Africa, after all) – so the pace is leisurely enough to take it all in.
Or maybe you want to lie on your bed with a book, or challenge a fellow passenger to a rousing game of Checkers or Scrabble.
A Trip Back In Time
This particular Vic Falls/Pretoria journey is what they call “train-heavy”, as in there is only one excursion: a game drive in Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe, on the border of Botswana.
If you lose your bearings, a gorgeous glossy fold-out map is available in your suite to further add to the old-timey feelings.
On this note, it is prudent to mention there is no Wi-Fi on board, nor are there televisions. The idea is to switch off, relax and be transported not only across our beautiful continent, but back in time.
Words by Bianca Coleman