Epitomising a bygone era in train travel, Rovos Rail provides a stylish experience on the 870-mile journey from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, to Pretoria in South Africa. Departing from Victoria Falls Railway Station — established in 1904 — insouciant baboons stroll on the platform, as Trumpeter hornbills call from the canopies of Natal Mahogany trees.
An à capella African choir serenades us enthusiastically, as we proceed along the red carpet to board the train.
Like travellers of the Belle Époque, we are led by our hostess to our vintage sleeper coach, with its walls of burnished mahogany.
Our luggage is waiting, our double bed made up in crispy white linen and in our ensuite bathroom is immaculate.
A canvas toiletry bag holds useful amenities. Low beams from the setting sun filter through three windows.
The Shongololo Express blows her high-pitched whistle, then with a chug, we are on our way.
Ladies and gentlemen are required to dress formally for dinner, so passengers arrive at the dining car looking elegant.
Tables are made up of two-seaters and four-seaters, so guests may dine together or individually.
White damask tablecloths, silver cutlery and cut glass crystalware complement fine china.
Our sommelier, wearing a dapper waistcoat, pours the first wine with a flourish.
We taste the iced Pecan Stream Chenin Blanc to be paired with the starter, declaring it to be delectable.
Chosen carefully to be enjoyed any time during the journey, the wines are South African with 4-5 star ratings, including the renowned Meerlust Rubicon.
The table d’hôte menu, with vegetarian options, has three courses, followed by a cheese plate, then dessert.
Exceptionally tasty and presented with flair, the cuisine — with its accent on fresh local ingredients and traditional dishes — is a consistent highlight each day of the four-night journey.
After the formal dinner, guests repair to their cabins, or stroll down carpeted corridors to the Lounge Car or Observation Car — that includes an open air balcony — for post-prandial conversation and a nightcap. Perfectly designed to mingle with fellow travelers, or to find a quiet corner, these cars have picture windows, comfortable sofas, wing backed chairs and booths.
To re-create the feeling of timeless travel, in grandeur and quietude, the use of mobile phones is discouraged.
This adds time for a game of cards, backgammon, scrabble, to peruse the leather-bound books, or to watch the scenery go by.
The Club Car is a glass-enclosed space for smokers to take pleasure in their cigarettes, or cigars, while being able to watch the countryside on both sides of the train.
Returning to our sleeper carriage, we find the shutters closed, soft lighting over a turned down bed, plus a gift of Wedgwood nougat.
Clothing that we had chosen for the excursion in the morning has already been pressed by our hostess.
Though adrenalised by excitement and anticipation, the motion of the train and repetitive sound on the tracks eventually rocks us to sleep.
As the sun’s rays ease over the horizon at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, we enjoy a continental breakfast, including pastries still warm from the oven.
Quality Twinings tea or cappuccinos are available.
Disembarking for a game drive through this far-flung wilderness, an image of the savannah, in soft pastel light, is reflected on the side of the train.
Sweeping plains of grass yield a rich reward of elephant sightings, including a breeding herd with tiny calves.
We are driven through a forested area where the road is narrow and not often traversed, adding to our sense of being deep in remote Africa.
We are surprised by a giraffe that peers down at us, seemingly curious, then he continues to strip leaves from a Camel-thorn tree.
Keeping up the tradition of excellence, for the morning coffee stop, a long serving table with a banquet of snacks has been prepared for us.
Beneath spreading Leadwood trees is a semi-circle of canvas chairs.
This is hosted by the owners of The Hide, a prize winning safari lodge.
Back at the train, we are greeted by staff, with champagne or pressed fruit juices.
While we are savouring lunch in the dining car, the train is still travelling through Hwange National Park.
With a mighty screech of breaks, the train stops! Someone has spotted lions on a kill, so we rush to the windows to watch the action of these big cats.
Friendships are forged as we chatter about this sighting and how we are revelling in our Hwange venture.
The adventurers of the Victorian era could not have had it better than this.
When Rovos Rail halts at Gwanda, we hop off the train for a leisurely walk to explore and to meet the local people.
A donkey cart moves alongside pedestrians, while entrepreneurs hawk their array of goods, including vegetables, dried mopane worms (protein rich), cigarettes, mobile phone time or second-hand clothing.
Established premises in brick buildings sport names like Conquering Family General dealer, Liquid Sports Restaurant, and Mbalabala Cocktail Bar.
λ This feature was originally published in Luxury Travel Magazine