Stewart Creasey discovers the world's most luxurious train on a South African rail safari.
In all the time I'd spent dreaming of taking a safari holiday, I never once thought about going by train. However, that changed when I read about the Pride of Africa, which claimed to be "the most luxurious train in the world". On closer inspection, I started to think that this might well be the ultimate way to take a safari.
At Capital Park in Pretoria I boarded the 'Pride of Africa' to begin an eight-night "safari-by-train" journey across South Africa, criss-crossing national parks and big-game reserves from Pretoria to Cape Town, via Durban, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth. Once upon a time, the only foreigners in this part of the world were explorers, adventurers and big-game hunters. My journey was on a train which has two wine stewards, a small army of chefs, an attendant on hand in every carriage and even an outdoor 'patio' area.
The Pride of Africa is unlike any train I've ever experienced. The interior is pure elegance - a pristine country club on rails with mahogany-panelled walls and furniture, comfortable free-standing arm chairs and antique table lamps. The story of Rovos Rail, the company behind the Pride of Africa, is fascinating. What began as one man's dream of creating a private holiday train for him and his family, eventually led to a commercial venture and the birth of a luxurious "train set". Over a period of 20 years, the company has restored more than 90 carriages and six historic steam locomotives, many rescued from scrapyards and private collectors. My private Pullman Suite is far more spacious than any other 'standard' cabin on a normal sleeper train - Rohan Vos, the man behind Rovos Rail, is a particularly tall gentleman who designed everything on his trains to accommodate his own measurements.
There are 70 guests on board for the journey, including 30 in my group - I'm travelling on the Pride of Africa as part of the "South African Adventure" holiday organised by rail specialist tour operator Great Rail Journeys. We spent the first night of the holiday at the 5-star Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria, and we'll end the tour with four nights at the 5-star Radisson Blu Waterfront Hotel in Cape Town. Between here and Cape Town I'll be enjoying lavish breakfasts, mouth-watering lunches, sumptuous afternoon teas and indulgent five-course dinners. All drinks on board are complimentary, including the generous selection in the minibar, the fine wines selected to match each course and the vintage brandy served with coffee. The diet can wait.
The eight-night adventure includes four game drives - proper safaris in jeeps that allow you to get up close to the wildlife and see the "Big Five" - and a variety of daily off-train excursions. Time spent on board the train is enhanced immeasurably by permanently spectacular views through windows which can be fully opened, allowing you to feel closer to the world outside. The train never exceeds 60 kilometres per hour, making for a more comfortable ride, and there are no televisions or radios on the Pride of Africa. From the moment you step on board, the most important decision you need to make is whether to have a second glass of wine with lunch, and the biggest challenge is avoiding the urge to fall asleep in an armchair during the afternoon.
I thought I'd be missing out, when the reality is that this might be the finest possible way to experience South Africa. By booking with Great Rail Journeys, the experience is enhanced by 5-star hotels, a Tour Manager to take care of the details, scheduled flights, transfers, taxes and charges - and the promise of four nights exploring Cape Town and the surrounding region at the end of your time on this incredibly luxurious train.