Sunrise. Even with bleary eyes and a slightly sore head, sometimes a 5am wake-up call is worth it, especially aboard Rovos Rail. As the rays of light bounced off the shiny green paint, we boarded our vehicles for the morning and looked back on the train. Tiredness was soon replaced by an excited murmur, one exciting word…safari.
Technically referred to as a “game drive”, our destination for the morning was to be the Nambiti Big Five Reserve; 22,000 acres of prime South African real estate nestled in the heart of Kwa-ZuluNatal’s roaring body. Within five minutes, we were already winning at the Big Five bingo. Two blots; one for an elephant and one for the lion.
I have to give a special mention to the King of the Jungle here; there is nothing quite like stalking, or being stalked, by such a magnificent beast. You can get up close and personal in a zoo, yes, but when a wild lion passes within a few metres of you it really does give you goose bumps. Luckily for us, I don’t think they do too well with metal doors and rubber tyres. Otherwise, as the tour guide hastily reminded us, we could almost definitely be breakfast.
As the morning grew older the mercury rose, along with our appetites for adventure. It’s amazing how easily your eyes can play tricks on you, metamorphosing moving water into a hippo’s breath, a rustling tree into a giraffe or (my favourite) a stationary boulder into a rhino. On the African savannah, your imagination really does run wild.
After a few hours in the reserve, we returned to the Pride of Africa for a much anticipated brunch. Upon our arrival, the staff were all waiting to greet us with cold towels and glasses of champagne; it is the small touches like this that really make a service great. We chatted to them for a few minutes and then it was time for brunch; the most magnificent spread of cold platters and egg dishes. My only complaint is that I only wish I had the stomach to eat more!
Departing Nambiti it was a short two-hour ride to our next stop, Spion Kop Game Reserve. The site of an infamous battle between the British and the Boers more than one hundred years ago, it is a place steeped in history as much as it is in wildlife. Even though the option of a battlefield tour did sound incredible, we opted for a second game drive of the day, if only to tick the elusive zebra and leopard off our lists.
Immediately, as we entered the vast landscape in our off-road vehicles, we passed a herd of zebra. Check. We also saw the obligatory giraffes and rhinos, as well as a plethora of South African mammals. With the sun setting fairly quickly it was only a short drive and, after a quick stop at the dam, it was time to head back. Of course, with this being Africa, there was one more surprise in store for us; a sunset to rival any other sunset on earth. A vivid splash of yellows, oranges, reds and blacks across the savannah sky. Even Venus came out to say hello. Magical.
That evening, we returned to the train for what would be our second and final night. Rovos Rail are keen to say goodbye to their guests in style and so black tie was worn by the waiters, providing even more of a buzz in the air. The butternut and coconut soup was probably the best liquid starter I have ever tasted, trumped only by a mains of perfectly seared loin of springbok. For dessert, the local delicacy of Malva pudding; South Africa’s answer to the humble sticky toffee pudding. With plenty of food and wine consumed, it was time to remove a few more untested whiskies from that list. Then, as the chime of midnight arrived, a well earned sleep in preparation for our final day.