As I write this, I have just completed a three-day digital detox across the KwaZulu-Natal province, courtesy of Rovos Rail. Social media is an important part of my life but, for the best part of 72 hours, I was living and breathing in the 1920s aboard the Pride of Africa as it skimmed across the savannah.
The overnight flight from London to Johannesburg is a tough one if you don’t sleep a wink but the sights and smells of rush hour in nearby Pretoria soon wake you up. South Africa is incredibly diverse, but nothing prepares you for the eternally animated melting pot of cultures that create living and breathing streets. With our eyes glued to the windows, the hour-long trip passed by in a flash and we were at the Rovos Rail private train station.
Feeling like a weary traveller, it was a weight off my shoulders when the perfectly-dressed staff whisked away our suitcases to be put on board the train. The imposing colonial station housed sofas and refreshments and after a quick introductory talk, it was time to board the Pride of Africa for our 10am departure. Living in London, train carriages carry the connotation of dirty, overcrowded underground boxes of sweat and disappointment, so to see polished green paint sparkle under the Pretorian sun was a welcoming sight.
Orientation took around ten minutes; essentially a guide to our room and a reassurance that any need would be taken care of by the very attentive staff of twelve. We were given an itinerary, meal menus and instructions to simply switch off, enjoy the experience and get through as much of the extensive wine list as possible. With that, the horn sounded and echoed through the peacock-inhabited train station gardens; it was time to leave.
For the duration of the trip, we would be staying in a Deluxe Double Room. The permanent double bed was both spacious and comfortable and the en-suite bathroom was finished to a very high standard. With the train stationary for most of the evening and night, it was easy to forget that you were on board a train! During the day, it was very satisfying lying on the bed with the window open, just watching this foreign landscape go by.
By midday, we had already navigated through the colourful suburbs of Gauteng and were heading at a gentle pace towards the Drakensberg mountains. The concrete and steel structures of the city gave way to endless plains and herds of cattle and a gong sounded through each carriage to remind us that it was time for lunch.
Without phones, laptops and television, food and drink quickly becomes a focal point on board the Pride of Africa. Twitter and Instagram are replaced by conversations over the table, and memories and stories are vividly retold through spoken word rather than being proudly displayed with the latest filter. Oh, and the wine pairing certainly helps conversation flow. Top this off with five-star décor and food, and you can’t help but empathise with Pavlov’s dog. That gong definitely made me salivate at least once.
Lunch that day set bar high. Pitta with hummus may not sound like the most exciting starter, but this version packed so much flavour. The mains of pan-fried chicken on a bed of spinach tagliolini was to die for and the accompanying South African chardonnay provided a sweet aftertaste. No 1920s meal is complete without a round of cheese, and so a generous helping of Roydons Camembert provided the perfect excuse to move onto the red wine. To finish, dessert wine paired with a deconstructed Eton Mess. I was slowly becoming a vineyard connoisseur.
As the sun reached its highest point and started to fall back towards the horizon, most of the guests retreated to the observation deck at the back of the train. Conveniently located next to the bar carriage, it provided the perfect spot to chat away over cocktails and take those once in a lifetime shots of a sunset over the African plains. Every shade of orange and pink painted the sky and even the “local” guests were in awe of their surroundings. Before we knew it, it was time to put on the jacket and tie for dinner.
With everyone dressed in their best outfits, dinner promised to be special. Sautéed artichoke and a selection of mushrooms kicked off proceedings, followed by the most delicious chicken pot pie. Once again, the cheese board marked the transition from white to red and I was fortunate enough to find a new wine to add to my ever-increasing collection. With subtle hints of a banana aftertaste, the Kanonkop Pinotage is as surprising as it is flavoursome. For dessert, chocolate mousse serve with the most delicate, but delicious, vanilla macaroon.
Post-dinner, it was time to walk back to the rear of the train and take a seat at the bar in the observation carriage. More exchanges of stories followed for a good few hours as Friday slowly became Saturday. However, despite the temptation of sampling the remainder of the Rovos Rail whiskey list, it was time for bed. Saturday involved a 5.30am wake up call, but for good reason; the game drives.