Harsh mining country is best viewed from the plush confines of a luxurious train, writes Kristie Lau.
Poking my head out the carriage window, waving goodbye to a swarm of African schoolchildren chasing after our train along the platform, I feel like an old Hollywood film star. It has been drizzling in Cape Town this morning and a light mist haunts the tracks, adding a further touch of the theatrics.
Friends back home had even suggested I hunt down a tall, dark, mysterious male passenger – whom we imagined always roam overnight trains, just like they do in the movies – and indulge in a forbidden affair.
But, as fortune would have it, there would be no passionate affair. I was sharing Rovos Rail's South African journey from Cape Town to Pretoria with an entirely different demographic. During a lavish champagne breakfast reception inside Rovos's Cape Town station offices earlier this morning, I had spotted not one fellow passenger under the age of what looked like 40. Some had even approached me in sympathy, offering to take me under their wing. It made me feel like a little girl and a far cry from the seductive minx I had hoped to portray on board.
Now, meandering through the surprisingly lush green outskirts of Cape Town, I realise this is undoubtedly glamorous transportation no matter how old your travelling companions may be. And I'm excited.
Rovos's African trail was flattened out amid scrub more than 160 years ago. The route, which stretches about 1600 kilometres as it winds north from the Cape, through the historic diamond-mining town of Kimberley and on through the slums of Johannesburg towards Pretoria, is restricted to a speed of 60km/h during the evenings. A leisurely night pace ensures the trip lasts more than two full days, which is quite long compared with the famous South African Blue Train's day-and-a-half span on a similar route. But on Rovos, you're without the tireless rickety-rocking that comes with a faster speed. Meals are served and sparkling wine is poured without the risk of creating a mess.
Francoise, my hostess for the journey, escorts me to my cabin, which is no larger than eight or so square metres. She guides me through every detail in the room, from how to turn on the taps to how to recognise when it's meal time (a soft bell is rung throughout the train by one of the staff). The cabin has two single beds, a double-sized wardrobe, a small dining table, two chairs and a minibar, so it's a tight squeeze.
Pre-dining refreshments are on offer in two sections of the train. The first is the lounge car, suited to passengers who like to enjoy a drink or two before meals. The other, the observation car, is the hotspot for serious drinkers, particularly those looking to kick on late in the evening.
Sipping on a gin and tonic in the lounge car before lunch, the decor captivates me. I picture the room spilling over with 1930s New York-style socialites. Truman Capote chatting in a corner, Dorothy Parker wisecracking in another. Rich mahogany low-rise coffee tables are flanked by velvet-blanketed wing-back chairs, while dimly lit miniature chandeliers add the mood lighting. I could sit here for hours imagining a life so much more exciting than mine. My stomach rumbles, swiftly bringing me back to reality.
The dress code is smart-casual through the day and I chat to a well-dressed British couple about the endless string of paddocks we spy from our oversized windows. We're surprised to see no sign of the townships we had been expecting.
Cate and Tim, the Brits, invite me to join them for lunch and the three of us sit quite cosily in a four-seater leather booth. We gobble down an entree of leek and broccoli tarts before a traditional South African bobotie – a national dish made with minced meat and mixed fruit and topped with egg custard – arrives.
Out of habit, I reach for my purse to text a friend back home about how great it is. But I remember electronic devices are banned inside Rovos's communal areas so I stop myself just in time.
As we chat over tea and biscuits, heading into the lounge car for a game of cards, my mobile phone is long forgotten. My elderly travelling companions are rubbing off on me – and, shockingly, I don't mind one bit.
We stop in a village called Matjiesfontein right before dusk. Although I do take a peek at a couple of its "attractions" (an old museum, a display of historic cars and an old, empty pub), Matjiesfontein, like the lounge car, feels like a film set. But there's something not so authentic about this one.
Matjiesfontein station was once a refreshment stop for train travellers, but what is now a tourist trap looks too much like something you'd see on a Universal Studios backlot tour in Los Angeles. A family of buskers, including a child who is dressed as a monkey, arrives out of nowhere, further puzzling me. It's not the biggest hit of the day.
Dinner, on the other hand, is up there. It's a choice of braised oxtail with grilled polenta or Cape rock lobster tails with white-wine sauce. A no-brainer for me, I almost forget to come up for air as I inhale my lobster. I chat to a couple of the single passengers and we continue our evening over glasses of port in the observation car, which is fitted with floor-to-ceiling windows. It's dark and the port gets me feeling quite adventurous. So adventurous that I accept one of the Montecristo cigars the staff offer me at the bar.
"Are these expensive?" I ask Shirley, a lovely elderly woman who downs her port at an astonishingly rapid speed. I like her already. "Oh, you'll find they're complimentary, dear," she whispers to me.
I smile and thank her, sucking the cigar back like I have every clue as to what I'm doing. I don't, but there isn't one person in the car who doesn't offer to show me the ropes. It feels as though I have adopted an entire family.
The train stops for a couple of hours at about 2.15am. I know exactly what time it is because, unfortunately, I'm still awake. Over breakfast later in morning, I overhear passengers gushing about their lovely night's sleep. I listen with envy and vow to skip the late-night cigar-smoking tonight.
Arriving in Kimberley, we are taken by minibus to the Kimberley Mine Museum and its famous "big hole". There doesn't look to be much else to see in Kimberley besides the heavily hyped diamonds we're assured we will lust after; the streets are so empty it's eerie. We're ushered into the museum where a short film about the town's mining history is screening. It almost sends me to sleep.
The 215-metre-deep hole – an open-cut mine said to be the largest excavated by hand – is huge, there's no denying it, but my travel companions whinge about missing a Rovos sleep-in for a two-minute viewing of it. I join in just because I can.
A visit to a small diamond museum heralds the end of our excursion and only two couples purchase their own sparkling rocks before we are loaded back on to the train. Everyone is relieved to be on their way. That wonderful train has turned every other tourist opportunity into a total snooze.
Thankfully, as the sun beats down fiercely, the Rovos staff can feel our pain – they stand at the entrance doors of the train and hand each guest a damp face towel and a glass of bubbles. Smiles slowly return.
Settling back into the good life, we keep our eyes peeled for the 20,000-plus herd of blush-pink flamingos we are told rest in the shallow pond 10 minutes down the line from Kimberley station. Sure enough, there they are and it's stunning. While a big ball of African sun sets in the distance, I capture some truly magical shots, even on my el cheapo digital camera.
Our final night is something of a celebration although crying feels more appropriate as we're reminded our trip is coming to a close. Both male and female passengers are pinned with a single rose, before being seated for supper. A choice of honey and mustard springbok medallions or vanilla bean and champagne risotto is on offer and another new group of friends allow me to sample from of their plates. A pecan-nut tartlet with vanilla ice-cream goes down a treat for dessert and I retire early to ensure my energy levels are in good shape for my first day in Pretoria.
My old friends, Cate and Tim, grab me in the corridor and pass me their contact details in case I ever make it to Britain. I only just manage to swallow the lump in my throat as they wish me good luck on my travels. I give them both a big hug before heading off to hit the hay. A passionate love affair? Not quite, but life-long friends and two days of pure relaxation? I'd take it any day.
The writer was a guest of the Captain's Choice Tour, Rovos Rail and Singapore Airlines.
Malaysian Airlines flies from Sydney to Cape Town from $1658 a person, including taxes. Phone Flight Centre on 1300 939 414.
GET ON BOARD
The Rovos Rail journey travels from Cape Town's Capital Park Station to Pretoria at least three times a month. Prices start from R11,000 ($1650).
Coming dates include November 3, 4, 13, 18, 20 and 27. See rovos.co.za for the full 2009-10 schedule and to book.
The Captain's Choice Tour will run two 19-day tours from Cape Town to Cairo in September 2010, which both include the Rovos Rail journey. They depart September 9 and 23.
Prices start from $24,880 a person, which includes accommodation and sightseeing in Zambia, Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya and Egypt, private flights within Africa and all transfers. See captainschoice.com.au.