South Africa: Cape Town to Pretoria by train – diamond empires to shanty towns

South Africa's contrasts and diversity strike you from the moment you arrive.

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more." Though I lack the pet dog to do it justice, this thought passes through my head as I reach the reception area of the Pride of Africa train, operated by Rovos Rail. At its Cape Town end, the 600-kilometre luxury train journey to north-eastern Pretoria begins at an elegantly appointed lounge opposite the main railway station.

A young man in a suit stands at its entrance, proffering a tray of champagne glasses. Beyond him, the 52 passengers on this two-night trip are settling in among the deep sofas, high ceilings and chandeliers, drinking bubbly and enjoying salmon or cucumber sandwiches.

The day before, I'd been at this same station on a solo excursion to the city's south via the suburban train network, keeping an eye on my valuables and avoiding slashed train seats. Today's ride is clearly in a different class altogether.

Not that luxury has been a stranger. A few days before I'd been staying at Grootbos, a private nature reserve east of Cape Town with beautiful environs and a view over the Atlantic.

South Africa's contrasts and diversity strike you from the moment you arrive. There are extremes of luxury and poverty, and an undoubted crime problem, though that can be managed with common-sense decisions about where to hang out.

My Deluxe Suite is indeed the largest cabin I've ever had on a sleeper train.

For all its issues, there's also a wonderful diversity of culture, language, people, food and wildlife that make South Africa a joy to visit. There's never a dull moment and I suspect that will hold true for this rail trip.

Rohan Vos, the founder of Rovos, arrives to give us a pre-trip briefing. He may operate a luxury rail company, but he has a wry, straight-talking style that is typical of South Africans.

"Please take note, we are never on time," he says, before giving us some tips on security. "Don't leave the windows of your suites open, or there will be a shopping expedition."

There's one last thing before we board. "No use of cellphones or computers in the public areas of the train," he says. "They get in the way of scintillating conversation, and serious drinking."

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The use of the word "suite" instead of cabin is a hint at something special, and my Deluxe Suite is indeed the largest cabin I've ever had on a sleeper train. Its 10 square metres contain a double bed at one end, a table and chairs in the middle, and an en suite bathroom with shower beyond that.

The fittings are high quality, with polished wood and deep green carpet, and framed prints on the wall. There are cleverly designed cupboards and drawers for storage, an airconditioning unit, a bar fridge and a full-length mirror.

I'll be needing that mirror later, as we are required to dress for dinner. I've dutifully packed my suit jacket and a couple of neckties which I had ironed at my previous hotel.

Our first meal aboard, however, is lunch. Beforehand, I hang out in the central lounge car which is filled with sofas, sipping a cocktail and watching the scenery slip past.

Even in this elegant environment, there are reminders of South Africa's extremes. About two hours out of Cape Town we pass a large, ragged shanty town, housing those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Ten minutes later, lush vineyards appear, framed by attractive low mountains.

The "new" South Africa is present on board in the form of its efficient multi-ethnic crew. As lunch approaches, one crew member walks the length of the train striking a xylophone, a substitute for a dinner gong.

At lunch I sit with Barry and Joan, a British couple who left South Africa during the apartheid era. They, like me, sense that something good is being forged here as the country gradually tackles its economic disparities.

By the time the local cream liqueur, Amarula, is poured we've discussed everything from Brexit to the royal family. I'm struck by Joan's clear love for the African landscapes she forsook in her youth. It seems they get under your skin.

In the style of a cruise, the Pride of Africa makes two excursion stops on the way to Pretoria. The first, around sunset, is at Matjiesfontein. This small town was once a quiet way station for travellers; now it acts as a living historic village of African Victoriana.

A red double-decker bus takes passengers on an entertaining 10-minute tour which is more showmanship than education.

Otherwise, it's pleasant to wander the main street and ogle the old facades. The Transport Museum is disappointingly closed when we arrive, but I stick my head inside the Lord Milner Hotel to admire its grand dining room and pat the resident cat.

As we pull away into the night I don my suit and pink tie to dine with Paul and Beverley from Seattle, retirees who've travelled by rail around the world. There's no denying that the passengers' finery does match the class of the dining cars' timber panelling, soft light and crisp tablecloths.

The food has been impressive so far, the vegetarian highlight for me being the pumpkin fritters at lunch; though the dinnertime eggplant dish is less successful. The meat-eaters have mussels followed by slow-roasted lamb shank for dinner, and we all enjoy the dessert of berry malva pudding with cinnamon syrup.

As always on rattling long-distance trains, I find it hard to sleep. So I rise at 6.30am, and am surprised to find myself the only occupant of the dining car when breakfast service begins. Perhaps my fellow passengers had a lively late night at the bar at the rear of the train.

Curious, I make my way to the observation car after breakfast. It's a beautifully appointed space with leather sofas and an open-air section from which to take photos.

We're passing through the Karoo, a dry, flat landscape with few trees. It seems empty of everything except windmills, and a few random sheep, though at one point I spot a distant herd of springbok. Later we pass a ghostly abandoned village and its defunct railway station. There's something familiar here to an Australian: overwhelming open spaces under a big sky, with few people to fill it.

Inside the lounge area I chat with Peter and Johanna from Sweden, who teach me a version of solitaire combined with poker. I also exchange a few words of Xhosa I've learned with Silverman, a cheerful crew member who's staffing the bar and is amused by my efforts to learn some of his language.

After lunch (a main of either ostrich fillet or pan-roasted chickpeas, each served with a quinoa tabouli salad), we pull into Kimberley.

The tour highlight here is The Big Hole, the water-filled remains of the city's first diamond mine within a deep volcanic pipe. This was originally the site of De Beers' farm, the farmer giving his name to the glittering diamond company that exploited its subterranean wealth.

It's quite a sight from the viewing platform suspended above the hole, though it's further away than it looks.

"You can't even throw a cricket ball from here to its edge," says our guide. "We've had Australian professional cricketers here trying to do it, and they couldn't."

My final dinner is with an Australian couple from Melbourne and a Finnish woman who works for a travel company. For this I wear my second tie, the green one, and enjoy a savoury cheesecake of roasted peppers, pumpkin and onion. My companions order the prawns and scallops on a creamy pea mousse.

It's been a very pleasant journey, a nicely-judged mix of sightseeing and sociability.

Tomorrow this temporary community will dissolve, though some of my fellow passengers are continuing on one of Rovos Rail's longer journeys, through Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls. Frankly, I'm jealous.

Tim Richards travelled as a guest of Rail Plus Australasia and South African Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

railplus.com.au

southafrica.net

FLY

South African Airways code-shares with Virgin Australia for flights to Perth, from where it flies to Johannesburg with domestic connections to Cape Town. See flysaa.com

STAY

Table Bay Hotel sits on Cape Town's lively waterfront entertainment and shopping zone. From ZAR3280 (about $340) a night. See suninternational.com/table-bay

Grootbos is a luxury eco-reserve east of Cape Town. From ZAR10,600 (about $1100) a night. See grootbos.com

TOUR

Rovos Rail's Pride of Africa train is a Rail Plus Great Train Journey, with all-inclusive fares from $2120. Book via railplus.com.au

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