September 11, 2011
Elephants laze by a pond.
Alison Stewart boards the luxurious Pride of Africa for an epic train journey from Dar es Salaam to Cape Town.
MY MISSIONARY explorer great-grandfather, James Stewart, canoed up the Zambezi in the 1860s, bush-bashed into central Africa and arrived back from his adventures “a bag of bones, barely recognisable”.
It is quite the contrary for my own African adventure, which has taken me 5742 kilometres across half of Africa from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa to Cape Town, about double the distance from Copenhagen to Istanbul. There are no canoes for me, no sleeping rough in malarial fever swamps fighting off crocodiles and hippos, certainly no despair.
Encased in arguably the world’s most luxurious train, Rovos Rail’s Edwardian Pride of Africa, plied with exquisite food and matched fine wines on a degustation expedition as long as Africa’s Great Rift Valley, I am, sadly, far from a bag of bones.
Since the 1800s, my English and Scottish family has frequently returned to Africa, so this is a journey peopled by ghosts of family past. But it’s one couched in such opulence,
I fear my stern Scottish great-grandfather might not entirely approve. There are times when I do not quite approve, especially confronting the meagre way of life that is Africa’s reality, compared with the crystal, silver and champagne cocoon of the Pride of Africa. One might argue, however, that Rovos brings income to struggling economies and that is no small thing.
The journey begins as it ends, in utter luxury. I am six degrees south of the equator in the “haven of peace”, Dar es Salaam. The city’s romance lies more in the imagination than in its chaotic reality. Oyster Bay, however, is the prettier, ambassadorial, ocean-front part and this is where we arrive from the airport in an airconditioned car. It’s part of the all-inclusive service for the eight-suite Oyster Bay Hotel, next door to the Tanzanian prime minister’s residence. And here is my first ghost.
As I look across the Indian Ocean from our huge suite with its high ceilings, at my shoulder is my great-uncle, a World War I King’s African Rifles veteran, who looked across this same ocean as a tobacco and cotton trader in the 1920s. I imagine his house might have been this very hotel, whose decor from the grand Zanzibar double doors to the sculptural hangings, rattan, pottery and textiles is pure east African Swahili elegance.
We are well rested on arrival at Dar es Salaam station to begin our epic, 14-day journey. The station – a gigantic Chinese-built structure – is virtually deserted. It sees only two local TAZARA (Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority) services a week and a handful of Rovos trains a year. The Chinese who extended the line from Zambia to Dar withdrew when the copper price collapsed in 1975.
In preparation for our departure, the Rovos red carpet is unrolled, wine stewards Michael and Gareth serve champagne and the Dar es Salaam Police Band plays a jaunty rendition of Hernando’s Hideaway, with a spontaneous trombone solo that careers endearingly along the platform.
Then, courtesy of Rovos’s own driver and locomotive, the train pulls smoothly from the platform just in time for lunch – our first introduction to train cuisine – four petite but exquisite courses with matching wines. Rovos takes on fresh food every three days, an organisational procedure of military precision.
We join the affable Capetonian train doctor, Edward Evans, and his lovely wife, Lee, for an entree of bobotie (a South African curried meat dish), plump east coast garlic prawns, a pecorino cheese and a miniature dessert of koeksisters and melktert (sweet dough twists and milk tart).
Ultimately, we’ll meet everyone, either chatting in the bar or lounge or sharing meals that include loin of springbok, lobster, scallops, ostrich, trout, lamb shank, duck breast, Lake Tanganyika tilapia, tuna and beef fillet. It’s all inclusive – food, alcohol, excursions and three five-star nights off the train.
This extravaganza is the brainchild of Rohan Vos, who has been described as “a brilliant entrepreneur and rugged individualist”. Vos made his fortune early and decided to run a train into Africa using steam, diesel and electric engines. To many, this was a mad and difficult undertaking.
Twenty-two years later, his high-end trains ply various African routes with the jewel in the crown being this Pride of Africa journey.
As Vos says, he’s not as wealthy as he once was, “But, boy, do I have a great train set.” His daughter and protege, Bianca, 27, hosts this journey and, calm beyond her years, defuses some tricky situations.
We are passing across Tanzania’s fertile, 64-kilometre-wide coastal lowlands. Tanzania is half the size of western Europe, bordered by the Great Rift lakes of Tanganyika and Nyasa in the west, the ocean to the east and the great Masai steppe to the north.
As the sun lowers towards the western ranges, we enter one of the world’s last vast wildernesses, the Selous Game Reserve, which is almost the size of Ireland and thickly populated by animals. Sightings include leopard and elephants grazing the densely forested miombo woodland. The open observation car is packed. Though Tanzania is not wealthy, it has high literacy, good education and a unifying language, Swahili.
It should be said that Rovos’s service and the accommodation, built for a tall man such as Rohan Vos, are remarkable. There are 36 suites carrying a maximum of 72 passengers – 42 on our voyage. There are five compartments in a Pullman coach, three in a deluxe and two in a royal (with claw-foot Victorian baths). Ours is a spacious deluxe double, “Warrenton”, with wood panelling, Edwardian features and modern additions. There’s a king bed, down bedding, electric blankets, reverse-cycle airconditioning, ample storage, full-length cupboard, two long mirrors, desk, chairs, safe, bar fridge replenished daily, coffee and tea-making facilities, en suite and everything from toiletries to slippers and gowns.
Our delightful steward, Anton, nips in whenever we depart to make Warrenton beautiful again – nougat or chocolate on pillows, amazing blanket topiary, roses, champagne. An English guest, musing about the unusual scarcity of single malt, finds a bottle of Glenfiddich on his pillow. Little presents appear sporadically – a silk scarf and tie, cards in a wooden box, Rovos-embossed carry bags.
A derailment up ahead (not unusual) delays us for 10 hours, so we strike lucky daylight for our ascent towards the divide from which rise three great African rivers – the Congo, Nile and Zambezi. No roads run or phones work in the wild country between Mlimba and Makambako. We climb 2500 metres through the escarpment’s tunnels, switchbacks and viaducts, before dipping into the Great Rift Valley that splits the vast plateau stretching from Ethiopia to South Africa. Mbeya, in a narrow highland valley surrounded by a bowl of high mountains, raises another ghost. My father’s World War II SAAF squadron refuelled here en route to the east African front.
We’re at the mid-point between lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa, cool winds replacing the tropical lowland humidity. As we rise again to cross the border, striking the Zambian high savannah, we will be thankful for our heating. Zambia is not prospering, with AIDS decimating a generation. It’s sad seeing dusty, parentless children gazing after the train and more than a little discomfiting for passengers with knowledge of the Horn of Africa famine.
At Kapiri Mposhi, north of Lusaka, the TAZARA line ends, heralding the 781 kilometres of raddled tracks that run to the Zimbabwe border. We now travel at a mere 20km/h, riding for a while outside on the front of the engine. Here, we can fully appreciate the line’s degradation but, on a positive note, can also exchange greetings with locals who use the tracks as a path to town. Then there’s Lusaka. Suffice it to say, in the words of train historian Nicholas Schofield, that “darkness lends enchantment to the view”.
Schofield, who has inspired rail travellers since the Dar es Salaam run began in 1993, lectures enthusiastically (and hilariously) most days on all things African, from David Livingstone to Cecil Rhodes to African politics. It is no coincidence that his talks in the lounge car are jam-packed. They remind us this is not merely a train trip but a journey into history; not a reverence of colonial times but a rich lesson on Africa.
And there it is at last – Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders”. For me it’s a highlight, not just because we are finally at the Zambezi, which I associate with my great-grandfather’s travels, but also because the 1.7-kilometre-wide Victoria Falls, the seventh natural wonder of the world, is truly magnificent. In the wet season, you can see its spray for 60 kilometres.
We disembark directly on to the bridge Rhodes wanted built so “the trains as they pass will catch the spray of the falls”, before checking in at the grand old lady, the Victoria Falls Hotel. Built in 1904, it is a colonial masterpiece. On our agenda: a sunset Zambezi cruise, a helicopter “flight of the angels” over the falls, a drenching walk along its edge and a night lulled by the sound of water.
Later, the arid landlocked plains of Botswana appear. We leave the train at Gaborone to drive to the Tau Game Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve for two nights of spectacular game viewing and luxury in the form of a thatched cottage directly overlooking the natural waterhole (lions mating at sunrise, anyone?).
Our magnificent sweep down South Africa takes in bushveld savannah to highveld grasslands, stopping to meet Rohan Vos at his restored Pretoria Capital Park station and locomotive yard, where we are introduced to seven steam engines named after family members. There are ghosts aplenty as
I pass childhood landmarks: De Aar, where my university train refuelled; the Lord Milner Hotel at Matjiesfontein, whose roast Karoo lamb was to die for; Wolseley, home of my uncle’s fruit farm, La Plaisante, and many a happy holiday.
At last we drop through the snow-capped Montagu Pass to sea level again and my old home of Cape Town. We’re collected by the “Cape Grace BMW” and whisked to the lovely waterfront hotel, which Rovos recommends.
The next day, as we eat our breakfast overlooking Table Mountain, reading The Sydney Morning Herald that the hotel has thoughtfully printed out, we can only agree with writer Khaled Hosseini, who said: “Life is a train. Get on board.”
The writer was a guest of Rovos Rail and South African Airways.
South African Airways bundles the four flights you need into one booking for about $3250 a person, including taxes.
1300 435 972, flysaa.com.
Rovos Rail Dar es Salaam to Cape Town. From $US8900 ($8455) a person sharing, all inclusive. +27 123 158 242, www.rovos.com.
Westcliff Hotel, Johannesburg. Doubles from R2515 ($335). +27 114 816 074, westcliff.co.za.
Oyster Bay, Dar es Salaam. $US450 a person sharing, all inclusive. +44 1932 260 618, theoysterbayhotel.com.
Cape Grace, Cape Town. Doubles from R4980 with breakfast. +27 214 107 100, capegrace.com.
A Sydney-based African travel specialist, Susie Potter of Africa Safari Co, can help, africasafarico.com.au
Top tips for taking on 5000 kilometres of Africa
Australians need visas for Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s cheaper buying them at the borders — about $US50 ($47) each. Rovos takes care of most border formalities.
It’s easier to fly first to Johannesburg, rather than Nairobi. This avoids the long backtrack from Cape Town for your flight home. Flights from Sydney to Johannesburg arrive in the afternoon so it’s best to stay the night. South African Airways flies daily to Dar es Salaam. The train will return you to Cape Town. You can then fly to Johannesburg for your return home. If you choose to fly SAA all the way, you can do a one-stop booking for all flights and check your luggage through from Cape Town.
In Johannesburg, avoid the sterile airport hotels and casino complex. Consider northern suburbs hotels such as the Westcliff. You can wander safely around the three-hectare estate with its city views, cobbled lanes and rose gardens, exploring the villas meandering up the hill. The area boasts Sir Herbert Baker mansions, built for the gold rush “randlords”. Nearby Liliesleaf farm gives an insight into the Rivonia trial in which Nelson Mandela and 11 others were sentenced to life for sabotage. Liliesleaf.co.za.
Melantia Travel is a reliable family team who will take two people from the airport return for about $115. firstname.lastname@example.org.
The high altitude on the central African plateau may irritate your skin. Take a good moisturiser and antihistamine.
Credit card use in Zimbabwe, except at hotels, is not recommended.