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The Call of Africa

 An epic journey by rail from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam     

By Chantal Cookson, Noble Caledonia Tour Leader

Chantal recounts her experience of a wonderful African adventure that she undertook aboard Rovos Rail’s luxury Pride of Africa train in the company of a small group of Noble Caledonia guests.

The cold raw winter, stress of packing and organising disorganisation in readiness to tackle the M4, M3 or worse still the M25. Car, taxi, coach or train a group of 58 travellers assembled at London Heathrow. Cape Town was finally on the radar screen, where we landed several hours later in bright morning  sun shine, no hint of winter just a air of excitement at the adventure we were all about to embark on. Cape Grace Hotel was our base for the next three days. Located on a private quay near the waterfront, a hotel of a modern approach, distinctively stylish and seamless service.   What better way to start!  A blissful day of unwinding, savouring the warm weather by the pool or for some, a cable car ride to the top of Table Mountain.

Table Mountain, Cape Town

The next two days were action packed, the two modern coaches and excellent guides easing everyone in to the history of Cape Town. Suitably the first day was visiting the Cape Winelands in the glorious Drakenstein area of Paarl. We arrived in bright sun shine at Plaisir de Merie Wine Estate, an historic farm.  A newly renovated Tasting Centre, once an old barn which was built in 1823 adjoins the picturesque 18th century Homestead. We spied a most attractive garden as we were led to the cellars and our guide talked enthusiastically about the process of wine making showing off hundreds of barrels of wine. We drove on to Mount Rochelle Restaurant for a relaxing and delicious lunch and continued to the Boschendal Wine Estate one of the oldest and most famous wine estates in South Africa. A visit to the famous town of Stellenbosch could not be missed before returning to Cape Town. That evening a gentle walk along the waterfront for obligatory dinner at a seafood restaurant!   Cape Point was the next destination, so an early start driving over Constantia Nak and in to Cape of Good Hope National Park to Cape Point. The most southerly westerly point of Africa. One felt a million miles from anywhere and the imagination danced thinking of Bartholomeu Dias, the Portuguese seafarer who was the first to sail around the Cape in 1488. On to Boulders Penguin Beach, home of the Jackass Penguins and seeing them scurrying in to the sea and their playful nature were a delight to watch.  Time was getting on so a speedy drive to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, world re-nowed for the diversity of Cape flora and where only indigenous South African plants are grown. 

The charm of Cape Town and majestic beauty of Table Mountain was soon behind us as we assembled in the Rovos Rail rather old fashioned but immaculate Lounge opposite Cape Town Railway Station. We were about to start the rail journey of 5,733 kilometres travelling through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and finally Tanzania. Almost overwhelming, but the walk down Platform 23, the first sighting of the train - already there was an atmosphere of by gone days and romance.  No sooner were we aboard having been joined by our delightful doctor, the engine purred, the 21 carriages slightly jolted and we slipped effortlessly out of Cape Town Railway station.  Everyone settled with ease in their handsome suites.

Rovos Rail, Mossel Bay

 As we travelled through Worcester, wide open spaces of lush green grass, through tunnels under the Hex River Pass the most varied scenery was beginning to unfold beyond the windows. Our first stop the small town of Majiesfontein. Much to our surprise parked near the station was a Number 12 London Bus ready to take anyone who wished on a whirlwind tour The whistle blew and we continue to Hutchinson for the night. Another elegant superb dinner and I for one mentally noted that weighing scales were definitely to be avoided!  Kimberley was our next stop the following afternoon.  One of South Africa’s best kept secrets, as somewhat off the beaten track towards the arid northwest of the country. Kimberley is the story of diamonds. De Beers, Cecil John Rhodes and the Cape-to Cairo railway are all centred on Kimberley and soon we were staring in to the Big Hole, where in 1867 the discovery of the diamond ‘pipe’ triggered the Diamond Rush.  Ten minutes after departing this fascinating area the train passed a shallow lake ablaze with flocks of Flamingos. Our first experience of leaning out of the carriage windows trying to catch at speed a photograph!

As we passed through Bloemhof, we sat contently in the beautifully restored wooded panel restaurant for another spectacular dinner. Overnight at Potchefstroom and on towards Pretoria passing through Johannesburg and Germiston.  On arrival at Centurion, two Rovos locomotives were attached and we steamed in to Capital Park, Pretoria. The heavens then opened. but the chic green ponchos and matching umbrellas handed out were a God Send. Lunch in re-built Capital Park Station and then a fascinating tour of the Rovos Rail headquarters and locomotive yard. A city tour with a visit to the Voortrekker Monument, a major landmark overlooking Pretoria.

As we headed North West much discussion about the next two days on safari, packing diligently the green tog bags provided by Rovos Rail. Morning arrival at Zeerust, an area of mixed farming and mining of minerals. Our stewardess running up and down checking we had not forgotten anything we set foot on the platform.  A fond farewell to all the train staff as leaving our heavenly 'comfort zone’ seemed like travelling to the unknown!

A short drive to Madikwe Game Reserve situated against the Botswana border and now one of South Africa’s largest game reserves. As we approached some miles from the lodge, torrential rain but with skilful driving we arrived safely at Tau Game Lodge and were soon installed in our rustic thatched chalets overlooking the waterhole. The early evening game run was abandoned due to the weather but dinner revised everyone’s spirit and to the sounds of croaking frogs’ early bed called. During the night, the weather cleared so the morning game run left promptly at sun rise, after a light breakfast. Within minutes some of us spied a lioness half asleep with her kill nearby under a tree. Our watchful rangers, our binoculars to the ready the wonders of the Reserve were before us.   Abundant wild life appeared through and above the long grass , colourful birds, momentary blue skies  and a rewarding coffee break ensured a  fascinating morning, the high light seeing a watchful leopard and later with her young.  The early evening game run some of us were lucky to spot the leopard again high up in the rocks.  A gathering of the entire group for sun downers in the bush was surreal as we watched wondrous cloud formation and a stunning sun set breaking through.

Lion at Madikwe Game Reserve

Botswana was are next destination and we joined our sojourn by rail at the colourful city of  Gaborone named after Kgois (Chief) who led the Batlokwa tribe into the area in the 1880’s. Now perhaps more famous for the novels written by Alexander McCall Smith. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency!   The welcoming smiles of the train staff waiting for us on the red carpeted platform holding trays of glasses of  champagne,  we truly felt we were back home again!

Our journey continued towards Francistown through vast areas of bush land and scattered villages arriving at the Zimbabwe border during the night and crossing at the town of Plumtree.  Mid morning, our train arrived in the tiny Victoria Falls station against the backdrop of The Victoria Falls Hotel for our one night stay. This legendary gracious colonial style hotel, an oasis of soft sweetness is situated on a world heritage site overlooking the Victoria Falls, one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World.  We soon settled in with the help of the charming hotel staff and looking around, we all decided it was not difficult to see why members of Royal Families, Heads of State, authors, journalists, artists and poets often use to stay in the hotel decades past.

David Livingston epic journey, and who is generally considered to be the first European to have seen the falls in 1855 unravelled before our eyes. With the efficient organisation of our historian, Nicholas Sheffield, not a minute was wasted savouring this utterly unique wonder of Nature. The spectacular Victoria Falls seen from the air in helicopters, the walks along  wooded paths and through the lush dense fern undergrowth watching the falls cascading in to the gorge and the contrast of the Sunset cruise on the Zambezi Rivers was truly awesome. The charm of the Zimbabweans, Charlie our police escort on the walks recounting how’ initiative is survival’  the tales and hope of the hotel staff, wearing their frayed uniforms,  their genuine  gratitude to us coming to stay at their hotel was indeed a very humbling experience.

Pride of Africa, Victoria Falls

In an all too short a time we were back on the train crossing Victoria Falls Bridge, which links Zimbabwe and Zambia. For the next two days we travelled through Zambia along mostly flat grasslands supporting ranches and farms of mostly maze and tobacco. Kabwe, an important transportation and mining centre of Zambia and onto Kapiri Mposhi where control passes from Zambian Railways to that of the trans-national Tazara railway.  As we travelled through the gentle rolling countryside, Nicholas enthralled us on the complex history of Africa, stories of conflict, exploration, adventures and the fascination of the Cape-to-Cairo Railway.

It was hard to keep track of the time let alone the days as the outside world seemed on another planet!  The train seemed to have a great aura about her too, especially for children, who would jump up and down with joy waving with all their might as we passed.  The elegance, luxury and comfort of our hotel on wheels, travelling through history, spectacular scenery sprinting by as we sat in the observation carriage gave us time to reflect on what we had seen and what was before our eyes.

It was Friday, nearing the end of our journey we visited Chisimba Falls in the Northern Province, disembarking at Kasama. The rain fell as we boarded the somewhat antiquated buses for the short drive to the falls. A combination of about three successive falls, regarded by the Bemba people as one of the most sacred places of power. We walked over the rocky terrain and managed to clamber down to near the bottom of the gorge amongst the ferns and dense undergrowth. The roar of the falls, sheer expanse of the curtain of water, the mist and spray whirling was quite startling!

Back to the train for another spectacular lunch and we continued to Chozi climbing towards Nakonde on the Zambian and Tanzanian border, almost the midpoint between Africa’s two Great Rift Valley lakes. The train negotiated with skill the descent into the Rift Valley through tunnels, switchbacks and viaducts of the escarpment. Nakonde in the late afternoon crossing the border in to Tanzania and, as always, the border formalities seemed effortlessly but that was all down to the efficient Ester. A long time employee of Rovos Rail, and who seemed to be everywhere at all times!

The last country Tanzania on our travels. Through Mbeya and Mazamba for the night and then a short morning stop and a walk on the platform at Makambako. Back on board and we continued on!  A time to relax and be captivated by the changing languid scenery, moments of torrential rain and the dreaded thought of packing! On the last afternoon, the train traversed through Selous Game Reserve, the largest on the Continent. Our last sumptuous dinner and we all given exquisite masks to wear. The observation carriage an array of white and green balloons and streamers intermingled with colourful drinks ended the evening.

And so on a Sunday morning in February, we arrived at Dar Es Salaam Railway Station which look big and foreboding. Our journey’s end. A band struck up on the platform, the wonderfully attentive train staff shepherding us and the luggage off the train.  To the sounds of Royal Britannia we walked towards the main building leaving behind ‘The Pride of Africa’. It was all very orderly, very English and hard to believe we had just completed one of the greatest train journeys in the world. A unique unforgettable experience.


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