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Sights along the 1,300 kilometres of track include Matjiesfontein, where a man offered rides on a double-decker bus, and Kimberley, where the diamond industry got its start in ‘the Big Hole.’ (ROVOS RAIL)
Sights along the 1,300 kilometres of track include Matjiesfontein, where a man offered rides on a double-decker bus, and Kimberley, where the diamond industry got its start in ‘the Big Hole.’ (ROVOS RAIL)

Long for the glamour days of travel? You have to try this unforgettable train ride Add to ...

But the Cronins are a father and son from Margate, a seaside town in England. And on each of the two evenings of our trip to Pretoria from Cape Town, across the dusty Karoo, they dressed in black-tie fashion worthy of the Earl of Grantham. Smiling, chests puffed just a little as their posture stretched to suit their suits, they entered most fully into the spirit that Rovos intended.

You get an idea of what sort of trip it will be even before you step on board, when you’re greeted in the private Rovos terminal in Cape Town. Here, the people who will be your crew carry trays of Methode Cap Classique (the local sparkling wine) and various petit fours as a string quartet plays in the corner.

I can imagine this running along the ragged edge of intolerable to some, too twee by three quarters. And this is certainly not “the real” South Africa, any more than it is “the real” state of transportation in the 21st century. It is dress-up – peacocking in a world in which travel has become a necessary evil between two places (usually hassled airports). Yes, business- and first-class airplane cabins offer some vestiges of elegance, but Rovos is well into private-jet territory.

For instance, after purchasing a ticket you’re asked about your favourite cocktails and mixed drinks. The purpose, in addition to preparing the bar staff, is to ensure that your own fridge is properly stocked, in case you feel like an evening in. It’s restocked as often as you like, and it’s all included in the fare, along with bar drinks, the wine, all the food and daily laundry service.

Once the journey begins, you’re never asked for another rand.

On Rovos Rail, one is told to dress for dinner. You’re also asked to leave your gadgets in your cabin, because, although there’s free WiFi throughout, public spaces are for conversation, watching the giraffes lope by and sipping a cocktail or three from the bar staffed by strapping young Afrikaaners.

The result is an amiable gentility that pervades the carefully and continually restored 19th- and early 20th-century Rhodesia Railway cars as they roll along the 1,300 or so kilometres of track that South Africa’s other luxury rail operation, the much faster Blue Train, covers in half the time and, I suspect, roughly the same fraction of grace.

On our way from Cape Town to Pretoria, we stopped in Matjiesfontein, an old Boer War outpost that would have made this trip worthwhile on its own. This tiny town – with its 19th-century hotel and a wooden bar, where Australian Boer War hero Breaker Morant wouldn’t seem out of place drinking before being led off to be shot – distilled a part of what it was that made colonial South Africa.

Like South Africa itself, Matjiesfontein is far away from everything, half desert, more than half deserted, with few prospects. But in the bar was a man pretending with great aplomb and many flourishes to play the player piano. After we’d had our shots of whisky and bottles of Castle lager, he offered us all a town tour. He led us to a 1950s vintage London double-decker bus, in which he drove us down one street, turned left, drove us down another, turned left again, and then left once more before returning to the hotel in all of about four or five minutes – all the while barking a hilarious but easy and fluid patter obviously honed over years. Then the train whistle blew, we bundled aboard, and trundled away.

The next day we stopped at Kimberley, site of the first diamond mine. What remains is a big hole, called with characteristic South Africa directness, “the Big Hole,” now filled a third of the way with water. Although Kimberly is a city of about a quarter million, the feel of the old mining town has been preserved in the immediate vicinity of the Big Hole, where there’s also an impressive and informative diamond museum. You’ll find souvenir shops galore in ye olde wooden buildings, but Kimberley is still very much a hub, being both the provincial capital and the world headquarters of De Beers SA, founded by Cecil Rhodes after an 83.5-carat diamond was discovered here in 1871. We stayed only a couple of hours, but when added to Matjiesfontein, the stop provided an admirably economical summary of the modern European foundations of this nation.

South Africa is a fascinating place, packed with lions and rhinos, heroism and injustice, wine and war. But for all that, when planning a visit, you’re likely to be told there are just two absolute must-sees: Kruger National Park and Table Mountain. I think it’s time to add a third (that by happy coincidence can get you from one to the other). Just don’t forget the black tie.

The writer was a guest of Rovos Rail. It did not review or approve this article.

IF YOU GO

The Cape Town-Pretoria route is the shortest and most regular offered by Rovos Rail. Longer, seasonal additions include trips to Victoria Falls, and northeast into Tanzania and northwest into Namibia. Every two years, the railway company offers a 28-day transcontinental tour to Cairo from Cape Town. Prices range from $1,500 to more than $50,000. rovos.com

WHAT TO EXPECT

My 100-square-foot cabin housed two beds, one of which allowed me to prop my head up on three or four pillows and watch the countryside go by while I read or sipped a cocktail. A desk also offered a view – and a place to follow along on a map of our route. The bathroom, with black-and-white tile floors, was surprisingly uncramped, with a shower the size of the one I use at home. The cabin was made up three times a day, clearing up both morning and predinner shower shambles, plus whatever mess was caused by my midday lounging, when the gravitational pull of my own little enclave drew me away from the rampant port-and-sherrying of my fellow 23 passengers.

RIDE THE WORLD'S RAILS IN STYLE

If you’re looking for luxury, these are your best bets.

The Venice Simplon- Orient-Express

This is older world than the Rovos. It hasn’t even made the sort of genteel accommodations to the modern world that the South Africa company has: There are no showers, and toilets are shared. Heating is with coal and air is conditioned by opening the windows. But the 1920s Art Deco cars will make up for it, especially if you’re a fan of Agatha Christie. vsoe.com

Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express

Of the few ways to get across Siberia, some are quite authentically Soviet – this one is more oligarchical. All the cabins come with their own bathrooms, and, although the lower-end cabins are quite small, you can get 120-square-foot Imperial Suites. The route is the longest in the world, at 9,000 kilometres. goldeneagleluxurytrains.com

The Royal Scotsman

This is intimate – just 36 passengers – and sixties era cars have been overhauled to give off an Edwardian appeal. Suites are between 66 and 85 square feet, and there’s no single supplement for those who want to stalk the highlands solo. royalscotsman.com

Royal Canadian Pacific

The cabins on this Calgary-based line are duplicates of the Royal Scotsman, but this train is even smaller, accommodating only 30 passengers. As of this year, it’s operating on a charter basis only, so you have to check dates. There are two routes: one takes you through the Rockies, and another through fly-fishing highlights on a circular itinerary starting in Calgary and going through Golden, Fernie and Fort MacLeod. royalcanadianpacific.com

Check the Society of International Railway Traveller website – irtsociety.com – for more information on luxury trains.

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