Taking a trip on the Rovos Rail has always been a dream of mine. When the price of a ticket on this steam locomotive could be traded for a small car for your teenage son, you can well imagine that taking a trip on this luxury 5-star train comes along but once in a lifetime, unless of course you frequent large banking institutions dressed in balaclavas and boasting pointy devices in ones pocket on a regular basis.
Fortunately we were not required to rob a bank, as the bank, Absa Bank that is, came to us with the trip on silver platter, quite literally. As part of the Absa Rewards Program, Red Pepper Books (represented by myself, Phillipa Mitchell and my partner, Ceri James) were one of 72 fortunate guests at this once in a lifetime event.
We were so excited that we could hardly contain ourselves. Arriving at Rovos Rail’s headquarters, Capital Park Station in Pretoria, we were ushered into a beautiful colonial-style lounge where we were treated to tall glasses of sparkling champagne, while the beautiful sounds of a cello and a violin dancing in musical harmony with each other filled the air.
After we had all been welcomed on to the Rovos Rail and the details of our trip, as well as the required “rail etiquette” had been explained to us, we were invited to board the train.
The sight of exquisite Edwardian furniture surrounded by rich, dark wood panelling greeted us as we boarded, and we were invited to take a seat in one of the coaches. After exploring each carriage we finally settled at the pub which was situated adjacent to the Observation Deck at the back of the train. Travelling at a slow pace by today’s standards at a mere 40km per hour, the train had departed and slowly chugged and snaked its way through the outskirts of Pretoria and towards Warmbaths.
Sipping on a cup of tea (at the bar, have you ever!) we joined in the conversation with our new found friends, Tim and Amanda and laughter filled the air.
At 12pm we were invited to join our fellow 70 guests in the dining car where we were treated to a sumptuous 5-course lunch. We quaffed some of the best South African Chardonnays and Chenin Blancs as we were served mouth-watering plates of Ostrich carpaccio, butternut soup, salmon, and desserts that would make any heart-surgeon cringe. Lunch was rounded off with delicious platters of cheese and biscuits, finished off with Cognac and filter coffee. I must admit that lunch felt like something of a blur after I was unable to count how many glasses of wine I had consumed, but the food and the company of our fellow travellers, especially Rani (Absa Rewards) and her husband Ruben Pillay at whose table we dined, made the afternoon incredibly memorable.
At about 2pm we arrived in Naboomspruit and disembarked the train. Some of us had to hold on to the railings to stabilise ourselves, but I will not digress and go into too much detail on that front. It was with much sadness that we were informed that the remainder of the trip would take place by bus, and we sadly bade farewell to the steam locomotive that had brought us safely to our destination. Boarding the bus, we settled in while some of the passengers having lost their stage fright ambled their way to the front and competed with each other on the joke front as if we were at Jo Parker’s comedy club. Ceri and I even went as far as using my Blackberry to look up the words to the Rocky Horror Picture Show song that ended with the words “und I did” and proceeded to sing it to our unfortunate fellow travellers at the top of our lungs. The effects of that last glass of Cognac had clearly not worn off…
After about 45 minutes we arrived at Legends Golf and Safari Resort where we were greeted by awaiting game viewing vehicles which took us on one of the most special game drives that I have ever experienced in this country. With Michael as our chauffeur we were taken into the beautiful Entabeni Safari Conservancy and private game reserve (Entabeni meaning “Place of the Mountain”) at the foothills of the Waterberg Mountains. Zebra, Kudu, Blesbok, Warthog and Impala roamed the planes and stopped in their tracks as we crept past them, looking on in curiosity, some snorting at our impoliteness at interrupting the otherwise peacefulness of their afternoon. Michael picked off branches from nearby trees and invited us to taste their leaves, explaining how they were used for their medicinal properties. At that point I wondered whether there were sponges growing on any nearby trees that could assist in mopping up the copious amounts of Chardonnay that I had consumed…
We were fortunate enough to see a mother white rhino and her baby within about 10 metres of the open 4×4 from where we sat and it was fascinating to watch how she protected her baby from us, the strangers who had trespassed into their area.
We headed back onto the main dirt road and up to the white lion conservancy. This, to me, was the real highlight of the trip as we were treated to a visit to two young white lion cubs as well as an adult male and female, one of whom had been found on a dirt road – almost dead as a tiny cub but had been rescued and hand reared and was now an oversized, friendly, hairy feline. One of the guests, Trish, had at one point bent down to take her camera out of her bag, only to be greeted by a huge paw with claws extended as it groped through a hole in the fence. The one side of her bag was ripped open and we all jumped backwards as we realised that this seemingly cute and cuddly lion was very much a wild animal and deserved some serious respect.
With our tails between our legs we left the lion enclosure and Michael took us on a short game drive around the giant cheetah enclosure as the sun set behind the Waterberg Mountains. I watched in awe as two of these regal creatures emerged from the bush and watched us from the distance. We were incredibly lucky to see a lioness with her three three-and-a-half-week old cubs. This was a particularly special moment as we watched through holes in the fence as the cubs clambered over their mother and played with their siblings. Complete with fat tummies and short legs, these were the most precious little things I had seen all day.
Feeling completely at peace with the world, dusk settled around us and we were taken down to the local Pedi village where we were welcomed with the sound of drums and traditional dance and song of the colourfully dressed Pedi villagers. A feast of culinary delights awaited us and we all tucked in with relish, wishing that we could turn back the clock and start the day all over again.
Alas we could not, and at about 18:00 we were whisked back to our awaiting busses. The lights were dimmed, conversation hummed quietly in the background, and weary heads rested on heavy shoulders as the bus began its two hour journey back to Pretoria. I closed my eyes, smiled, thanked the Universe for the beautiful gift we had been given that day, and revelled in how fortunate we are to be part of this beautiful country we call South Africa.