It’s a dream bucket-list trip if ever there was one, traversing the bulk of Southern Africa on one of the last remaining truly luxurious trains. On the pine-green Rovos Rail coach, you’re surrounded by polished mahogany panels and shiny brass, smart, muted florals and plaid as the 3,500 miles (5, 633 kilometers) whoosh by over 15 days of delicious dining and pampered service. You can embark on the journey from Cape Town (South Africa) or Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) – it runs both ways - with entertaining excursions and stays at well-appointed accommodations in Madikwe (South Africa), and Livingstone (Zambia) to catch the magnificent Victoria Falls (between Zambia and Zimbabwe).
What to Expect on Board
Much of the dining is done on board in the fine dining cars, with elegant crystal stemware, monogramed crockery, gloved service and the best South African wines from notable estates like Bouchard Finlayson, Hamilton Russell, Le Lude, Reyneke and Iona. Meals lean on the classic French style of preparation (one chef told me it hadn’t changed much in the 8 years he’d been working there), using local ingredients. For breakfast and lunch the dress code is smart casual – think comfortable chic when packing your wardrobe. Dinners are formal affairs (men are requested to wear jackets and ties) and women glam up in cocktail frocks or smart suits. It’s all reminiscent of the golden age of train travel. Lucky thing though, the wait staff are friendly and approachable.
You’re assigned a butler, and your air-conditioned room has the finest bedding, a proper shower, plush gowns, slippers and luxury toiletries. In winter and the cooler months, a hot water bottle is tucked under the covers during the turn down service. Unless you bring your own Internet connection, there’s none on board and using devices in public spaces is frowned upon. Instead, you’re encouraged to sit up front in the open-air car and watch the landscapes transform before your eyes, enjoy a G&T or high tea and a book or listen to a set of lectures presented by the on-board historian. In fact, apart from the designated excursions, you’ll hardly want to leave. And you do get used to sleeping on a moving train. They even stop for a few hours at night.
1. Cape Town
With the majesty of Table Mountain and cold waves of the Atlantic, fynbos dotting the natural reserves, Cape Town is a city of inspiring sunrises and breathtaking sunsets. With a compact city center and the winelands navigable within fourty minutes, city buzz and country living are within easy reach. From poke to bone broth, ramen, sushi, Indian food and Thai – you’ll find a little bit of everything.
Luke Dale-Roberts’ multi-awarded The Test Kitchen in Woodstock should be number one on your list. But take note, you’ll need to book months in advance for dinner. It’s easier to get into his sharing plates concept The Potluck Club with a 360-degree view over Cape Town, or his classicold-school diner, The Shortmarket Club headed by Wesley Randles in the city center. Liam Tomlin’s tapas concept at Chefs Warehouse & Canteen is elevated by head chef Ivor Jones at Beau Constantia in the most beautiful of surrounds. La Colombe in the Silvermist Estate is also un-missable.
The Test Kitchen
Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock
Website (online reservations only)
The Potluck Club
Old Biscuit Mill, Silo, 6th Floor, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock
+27 (0) 21 447 0804 - Website
The Shortmarket Club
88 Shortmarket St, CBD
+27 (0)21 447 2874 - Website
1043 Constantia Main Rd, Glen Alpine, Constantia
+27 21 794 8632 - Website
Silvermist Wine Estate, Main Road, Constantia Nek
+27 21 795 0125 - Website
2. Big 5 at Madikwe
En route you’ll visit the charming town of Majiesfontein where locals gather at the pub at the Lord Milner Hotel to chat to tourists; the former mining town of Kimberley where you’ll visit the Big Hole and you’ll glide past the flat haunting landscapes of the Karoo. You’ll disembark in Zeerust in the North West province to stay at the luxury safari Tau Lodge in Madikwe, one of the more peaceful wildlife reserves in South Africa, on the far northern fringes bordering Botswana. Here you can partake in morning and afternoon game drives to spot the Big 5 (African lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, buffalo), leisurely showers under the open sky or spa treatment and watching game roam by from an open lounge.
Typical food served at game lodges in South Africa include game like springbok, gemsbok, kudu, ostrich, sometimes crocodile, and potjiekos - food like oxtail or beef stew prepared in a three-legged cast iron pot and cooked over the fire, curries, and hearty meat pies. Tau Lodge serves more refined meals at dinner but guests often look forward to the “braai” evening – where meat is grilled over the coals and served around a boma near a roaring fire.
Madikwe Game Reserve, Madikwe
3. The Smoke that Thunders at Victoria Falls
Known for the awe-inspiring mighty waterfall that “thunders” in season on the banks of the Zambezi, you’ll be conveniently located in Zimbabwe and next-door Zambia. At the Victoria Falls Hotel, Zimbabwe’s oldest luxury establishment, things hark back to the era of British colonial rule with red-polished verandahs and waiters bearing jugs of Pimms and scones topped with fresh cream drooping in the heat. The Livingstone Room at the hotel is fine dining all the way with exquisite plating. Excursions and sunset boat rides on the Zambezi River all leave from here.
Victoria Falls Hotel
1 Mallet Drive, Victoria Falls
4. Zambia's Landlocked Landscapes
Back on board, feast your eyes on baobab trees and, rondavel dwellings and villages with locals who you may be able to interact with at the stops. At Kasama, you’ll disembark for an excursion to Chisimba Falls – not as grand as Victoria Falls but still special. The Rovos staff set up a bar with drinks and snacks to crown the moment. While you’ll be treated to handsome dining on board the Rovos for this section of the journey, Lusaka, Zambia’s capital is worth noting. Traditional local food, Chinese, Indian, Creole and seafood are popular at the restaurants here. Try Dil for great north Indian food.
Plot 153 Ibex Road, Kabulonga/Ibex Hills, Lusaka
5. Tanzania, East Africa's Jewel
From Makambako you’ll descend the spectacular pass to Mlimba, passing through gorges and tunnels in a rugged terrain. It’s a perfect day to nab a seat in the open car up front to drink in the views with sipping on a beer or glass of wine. You’ll disembark for a game drive at Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania before heading to Dar es Salaam, the chaotic, commerce-centric former capital of the country. You’ll be greeted in Swahili by women in gorgeous, colorful kangas, the local dress. Don’t miss the coffee, pineapples in season and range of foods with an Indian (try Alcove Restaurant and Patel Brothers) and Omani influence. Grilled meat at Mamboz Corner BBQ and Chef Pride for Swahili food are popular choices. Nearby island Zanzibar (a convenient 45 minute ferry-ride away) was once the port through which the world’s spices were traded, via Oman and the Arab world. The food has absorbed these influences.
The Alcove Restaurant
Haidery Plaza, Kisutu
Mamboz Corner BBQ
3 Libya Street, Morogoro Road, Dar Es Salaam
+255 683 626 269 (go after 6pm)
unnamed road off Makatba Street (opposite Holiday Inn)
Chagga Street, Dar Es Salaam