After a rainy evening in Durban – we confined ourselves to the hotel and enjoyed a local dish – Bunny Chow, which is a curry served within a loaf of bread- what a great idea and utterly delicious!
We got our more formal clothes out and were whisked to the railway station, where we were greeted by Rovas Rail staff and ushered aboard The Pride of Africa train. This was to be our home for the next two nights as we made an 800km journey north through the South African countryside to Pretoria.
The train is a luxury 1920s Pullman and the carriages are lined with walnut and decadent in decoration. We were assigned our carriage – a Pullman Suite, which if I’m honest, we immediately regretted not upgrading – a small cost in the scheme of things (£400 pp at the time of booking). The Pullman Suite makes good use of a small space and if you were travelling with just hand luggage would be absolutely fine for us. We are campers, and spend a large proportion of our year camping in a VWT5 camper, so the size didn’t bother us too much; however laden down with luggage to see us through a 2 week multi centred holiday, plus formal wear which is required for dining on board the train, it was a squeeze, especially once the bed was out in the evening. Luckily for us we didn’t envisage spending much time in our cabin, so it wasn’t a huge problem.
An appeal of the Pride of Africa marketing literature was the open air observation car at the rear of the train, similar to what we enjoyed on the train in Peru. So, like everyone on our trip, we were disappointed to learn on arrival that there had been a technical problem which meant the observation car was at the front of the train and therefore directly behind the large engine. More technical problems followed which delayed our departure for almost 4 hours and meant that our first dining experience – a 4 course lunch with wine flight – was served whilst we were still sat in a very dreary Durban station! Still, the service and food, in our opinion was absolutely wonderful. The food and wine pairings were utterly inspired and it was on par with Michelin restaurants that we’ve eaten at.
Eventually our train departed and we were on our way north. Sadly the delays meant that we only had a couple of hours of daylight travelling time, but we enjoyed watching the world go by from the bar cart and the observation car, despite the engine blocking the view!
We opted to take the excursion to the ceramics place, which in hindsight we regretted. Unfortunately we hadn’t realised it was over an hour’s drive on the coach, and the weather had turned. The roads were terrible and when we arrived the coach driver spanked the side of the coach into the gate post, causing quite a mess of his coach. After half an hour looking at some beautiful but exceptionally expensive ceramics, it was time to leave and the coach got stuck on a road leading back up to the main road. The coach had stopped and couldn’t then get enough traction to continue and just kept wheel spinning. We then all had to be disembark the coach, and wait in the dark on a grass verge in the pouring rain, whilst the coach reversed back down the slight hill for a good mile or so, then absolutely hammer it back up without stopping. At the time, both Keith and I and many others had a sense of humour failure. We didn’t find it amusing and were really quite fed up. In reality, I suppose it wasn’t the end of the world, but at the time we were cold, wet, fed up of being on the coach, and worried we were going to miss dinner – which we ended up being over an hour late for.
Thankfully we didn’t need to worry about the latter as the train staff delayed dinner, and we were able to have a very quick shower and get into our formal wear ready to be wined and dined. But in hindsight, we would have been better off opting out of that excursion!
Our first night sleep was actually very comfortable and we adapted well to the gentle rocking of the train. We were aware of the train stopping at its station around 4am and continued sleeping until just after 6am. We had a fairly early breakfast before being whisked off to nearby Spioenkop Reserve. Some went on a battlefield walk and the rest of us went on our first game drive of the trip.
We saw many antelope and zebras – the zebras particularly took my breath away, they are simply stunning. We also saw some rhino, which was very exciting too.
Absolutely buzzing, our 3 hour game drive whizzed by, and before we knew it, we were returned to the train where we were served lunch.
Following lunch, we went back out by coach to Nambiti game reserve. Every time we left the train, the staff lined up to give us a royal wave, it was quite a sight.
Nambiti game reserve was another real highlight and once again, we struck lucky immediately. We saw giraffes within the first 5 mins, which was so emotional. I just love giraffes and seeing them in the wild was something else.
We saw more zebra, rhino and antelope and then we found the elephants, or rather they found us!
We were delayed by 45 mins due to a large elephant road block- we ended up much closer than we imagined, and the experience was absolutely incredible.
Back on board the train, and our road block delay meant that it was another very quick turn around to get into our glad rags for dinner. Not complaining- what a wonderful game Drive we’d had. We enjoyed getting dressed up for dinner and it was lovely being around everyone in their finery.
Dinner once again was delightful and extremely civilised, and we enjoyed cocktails in the bar afterwards and then some South African liquor as a nightcap.
We did notice that the train hadn’t departed the station, although we’d be warned to expect delays. The beautiful carriages are privately owned by Rovas Rail however they aren’t allowed to have their own engines, nor drivers. However, when we woke up the following morning to still be at the rather ugly station of Ladysmith rather than chugging through the plains of South Africa, we were disappointed, not to mention starting to doubt what would happen next. Breakfast, our 4th meal was served at the station, and after breakfast we got the news we were dreaded. The train couldn’t continue due to overhead wire theft. Therefore we would be transferred his coach for the remaining thirds of the journey. What a disappointment. We were given an hour to pack, and then lunch, and the carted off the train onto a coach to take us to Pretoria. The mood around was low, and Rovas tried to make the journey a bit better by sending some bar staff and a bar service for the journey, but the long 7 hour journey by road wasn’t what we’d expected – especially considering the cost of this segment of the holiday.
There was some pleasant scenery to look at on the road, but by the time we got to Pretoria at 9pm everyone was fed up. Some of us had a meal at the hotel, and then we all turned in, keeping fingers crossed for a smoother day tomorrow.
We enjoyed the experience of being on aboard the Pride of Africa but I’m afraid we would question whether it is “the most luxurious train in the world’. The staff were excellent, as was the food and drink, and the fame drives also were excellent. The accommodation looked nice if you upgrade, but the Pullman suites were far too small to be luxurious, we mange better comfort in our vw Campervan. The observation car wasn’t as advertised- the view obscured by the engine, which was annoying and very loud too. Mind you, we only managed 3 hours of daylight travelling out of 52 hours on board, so in the end it didn’t matter. Would be go by train in South Africa again? Probably not. Sorry. Until the infrastructure improves, I don’t think we can justify the large price tag. It’s just too disappointing when it goes wrong, which by all accounts, is quite often. We have to remember that South Africa isn’t as developed as what we’re used to here. But with a high price tag, one has high expectations and so when the infrastructure can’t cope, and routes are delayed or can’t be completed. Had we paid a lot less for this part of our trip, it wouldn’t have bothered us so much. But we paid a small fortune and ended up leaving on a leaking coach, having only competed 3 hours of daylight travelling, and many many hours sat at stations. We may as well have booked an air b n b train carriage to stay in!