“I sure hope that light I see up ahead is the end of the tunnel and not a train coming towards me.”
It’s amazing how this journey back in time started with a jump forward in the use of technology. A simple Twitter comment to Rovos Rail asking how accessible a trip on their train is for a blind passenger had turned into a flood of emails and many questions. Could someone without sight enjoy the trip and feel safe and comfortable? We fired our back and forth correspondence and after just a few hours, Rovos Rail invited me to come and see for myself.
The Rovos Rail is a family owned and operated business. The brainchild of Rohan Vos, the business prides itself in superior service and attention to detail. Rohan’s particular passion for true-to-original restoration of his famous locomotives is remarkable and makes the Rovos experience a unique and unforgettable adventure.
Less than a month later I stood on the Rovos Rail station platform in Pretoria feeling like a little boy again. Full of excitement and anticipation, I grinned to myself as I eagerly waited to climb onboard what is arguably the most luxurious train in the world. I wondered what it would be like to immerse myself in this luxurious experience with no eyes. Would I feel comfortable and be able to enjoy the journey despite not being able to see what the other travellers could see? Would I be able to touch, smell, taste and listen my way through the adventure?
I hope to enchant you with this story as it takes you back to a time where enterprising colonialists made and lost their fortunes and everything moved a little slower. A pre-mobile phone and social media era where each moment was savored and the art of conversation was the entertainment. Where reclining in a soft oxblood-red leather chesterfield couch was the best way to pass time on a lazy afternoon. Where sipping ice cold gin and tonics out of crystal tumblers was enjoyed over a high tea including the obligatory crustless cucumber sandwiches. A time where folks enjoyed the simple splendors that life offered and hours pealed away as history was made.
Please pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple and sit back on the most comfortable sofa you can find while I endeavor to share my adventure and journey with you back to a bygone era.
Day one and I found myself onboard a flight from Cape Town, the mother city, destined for Johannesburg, the city of gold. I was told that the clouds lay from one side of the horizon to the other stretched out like a fluffy duvet and edged with the rising sun’s ruby grapefruit pink rays. It was an early start. After our short flight we disembarked and were greeted by the chill and smell of fresh rain on tar as we arrived at OR Tambo International airport. I moved slowly down the staircase as the cold air bit at my skin, which had been warmed by the conditioned air from the overhead compartments onboard the airplane. I had earlier bumped my head on that very same overhead compartment as I found my way to the window seat.
Navigating my way as I rolled the tip of my white cane along the tiled floors of the airport, we quickly found the luggage collection point. The sound of the conveyor belt that carried the bags was familiar, although I am positive that I had never consciously taken note of it before. I had never released in my sighted days that all these sounds were so distinct and obvious. The orchestra of acoustics echoed from every corner and I could almost feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins as I cautiously tapped around with my cane. I had never realised during my sighted years that airports were so noisy. I was very grateful to have my sighted wife, Tamlyn, at my side.
Breakfast was a hurried affair at a local fast food eatery and before long we were catching the modern and speedy Gautrain that would quickly transport us to the Rovos Rail Pretoria station where were to begin our luxurious trip back south. This was the real adventure that we had come to experience.
The Gautrain is a fast commuter train that crosses the city from east to west and north to south. The levels of comfort and accessibility this service offered a blind traveller was impressive. Before we knew it we were in Pretoria. It had been many years since I had visited the Jakaranda lined streets of Pretoria. I distinctly remembered the heady musky scent of the tree’s purple blossoms that made me feel like I was in the Far East. I wondered if I would smell this or if the trees would not be blooming at this time of the year. I sniffed the air like an exploring wolfhound as I kept this thought to myself.
At the street level, just up the escalator from the Gautrain station, we called for an Uber taxi using the App on our mobile phone. This cab would be the last form of public transport we got to explore for the day before we boarded the Rovos train at its own private station just 5 kilometers away.
Arriving at the Rovos Rail Station, way ahead of schedule, we were greeted with a warm welcome at the departure lounge. We spent the next couple of hours sitting on one of the comfortable puffy leather sofas sipping champagne and using the free wifi to post our final pre-departure thoughts on social media. The Rovos prides itself in offering a ‘wifi free experience’ while onboard the train – perfect for us who were looking for a digital detox weekend.
The Rovos Rail Station is situated in Capital Park in Pretoria. This centre forms the heartbeat of Rovos Rail’s operations. The red brick buildings, which line the platform to the railway’s edge, are perfectly restored with white painted balconies and edges to match the green roof. Before it was restored and developed into today’s comfortable splendor for travellers to enjoy, Capital Park served as the main depot for the maintenance of steam engines in the old Transvaal.
I wandered around the departure lounge gently touching the textures of all the furnishings while Tamlyn gave me a detailed description of everything in the room. There were beautiful pictures of old trains and gentle classical music played in the background. We slowly got into the vibe and feel of what was to come while we sipped on bubbly and snacked on the delicious crustless sandwiches.
After some time and a couple of chats with the friendly staff the other travellers started to arrive. The room came to life with the chatter and enthusiasm of adventurous roamers of the globe. I listened in awe as I puzzled together the nationalities from the accents. The bulk of the folks were Australian. There were lots of British as well as some Americans. I heard some German tones too, which later I found out were in fact Austrians. Excitement poured out and filled the atmosphere as the travellers chatted, snapped pictures and scribbled in their journals. Many were on longer trips to Southern Africa and this train tour was their holiday highlight. Listening to everyone as they pondered their upcoming days onboard and their delighted laughter was addictive.
The next big and loud sound was the chugging of a steam locomotive as it pulled-up alongside the station platform. Everyone bustled outside as the gentle rain steamed and evaporated in the warm afternoon air. The steam engine was called ‘3360 Shaun’. All the Rovos steam engines are named after the family’s children. Lovingly restored to its awe inspiring former glory, Shaun was built in 1948 and is one of only 50 steam engines made by the North British Locomotive Company. We were exceedingly excited to make Shaun’s acquaintance as we watched him pull up to the station platform. The characteristic chugga-chug-chug and clickety clack sound of the engine hauling its weight along the rails was unmistakable. We stood on the platform, our senses feasting on this amazing spectacle. The sound specifically served as a nostalgic reminder of days past.
Steam rose from the massive beast. The engine driver blasted the whistle and the crowds clapped and cheered. I almost hit the ground in fear as the piercing sound assaulted my hearing. Afterwards, I laughed with Tamlyn, I guessed that I should have expected it.
Camera buttons clicked away as I was lead to the side of the now stationary locomotive. Standing close to the platform’s edge, I ran my fingers over the Rovos Rail embossed signage that embellished the side of the train. Tamlyn guided me to the engine’s carriage and using the handrails, I climbed up the steel ladder into the driver’s cab. Once inside the cockpit, I gave a huge grin so that my picture could be taken. I could feel the fear from the crowds as they all watched and worried about the blind guy and his capabilities.
The cabin’s furnace was hot as the coals of the fire roared and crackled keeping the engine alive. More pictures were taken and I felt like a small child as my excitement continued to mount. As I came to the ladder to dismount the beast, helping hands reached out to keep me from falling. I assured everyone that I was capable and would rather they just stood clear and gave me the chance to feel and do this myself. I understood that everyone was just concerned about my safety and wanted to help, but assured them that I would ask if assistance was needed. Tamlyn laughed as she knew that I was capable and I am sure that she would have shouted, “Stop!” with all her heart and soul if I was in any danger. People’s perceptions of a blind person’s abilities are often clouded by their need to show concern. I am pretty sure that this little display of courage gave everyone some confidence in me and for the rest of the trip I was left to explore the train at my leisure. In fact within seconds of my courageous dismount they were all clambering up so that their loved ones could capture their childlike excitement in the engine room.
The whistle sounded a few more times and the crowds stood back so that Shaun could steam away and make place for our Rovos train to roll into the station. The carts that would carry us on our trip were to be pulled by Transnet diesel locomotives. Due to regulatory and practical requirements, the use of the steam engines for an entire trip has become difficult in recent times. However, the steam engines can still be enjoyed at the Rovos Rail Station at Capital Park, as we had just had the pleasure of experiencing.
All the passengers were beckoned to the departure lounge where a short welcome and orientation speech was given by the Rovos team. The layout of the carriages was explained and the whereabouts of the dinning cars as well as lounges and the observation car was learned. Passengers were individually welcomed and then led to their suites by the butlers and hostesses. As our host read through the passenger list, we listened with interest to all the nationalities and titles. There were doctors as well as a Sir and his Lady on our trip. One couple were return visitors on their 14th journey with Rovos Rail. Before long, our names were called. Mr. Christopher Venter and Mrs Tamlyn Venter were quickly guided onto the station’s platform as our fellow travellers clapped and cheered us on. There were 54 passengers and a total of 24 staff on this trip.
We were led to our carriage and climbed up the short ladder to reach the entrance. Our suite was named Oranje, which is the name of the longest river in South Africa. The river’s source is in Lesotho, high up in the Drankensberg Mountains. Its course runs westwards and spits out into the Atlantic Ocean.
We were welcomed to our suite by an enthusiastic young lady, Lebogang Mohloalo (or Lebo as she introduced herself). I liked her immediately as she told us what to expect and how the itinerary would work during our trip. All the trimmings and features in our deluxe suite were explained in detail as we sat back in the comfortable chairs and listened. Lebo enthusiastically answered our questions and was genuinely excited to talk about life onboard the Rovos and tell us a little about her personal story. Just before leaving us alone in the suite she asked if we had anything more to tell her or any special needs that she could assist with. I assured her that we were well and truly impressed with everything thus far. When I mentioned that I felt safe and comfortable as a blind passenger and was sure that the trip was going to be wonderful she was taken aback. Lebo had not even realised that I was blind. She was still unsure as she told me of her blind brother who had lost his sight in a car accident years earlier. Through the unselfish sharing of her personal history, we established a connection and we liked her immensely. It turned out the Lebo was not to be our carriage’s hostess after all, but we looked forward to meeting her during the trip as we strolled by and always stopped for a short chat.
Lebo had just left us to unpack and get comfortable in the suite when Brenda Vos, the family member with whom I originally spoke, came in to wish us a bon voyage and say good bye. It was such a pleasure talking to her as she always showed her pride and passion for her family’s business. As she left us she said, “So let’s see how bad it could be for a blind passenger or if the Rovos was indeed something that the sightless traveller could enjoy.” I already knew the answer.
The train jerked as it came to life and we slowly started to roll away from the station. No turning back now. Tamlyn explained what she saw out the windows. We passed by the local station platforms jam packed with commuters. Hundreds of people waiting for their own trains to transport them home at the end of the working day. It was a Friday afternoon and we could feel the anticipation of the crowds longing to get home. Children shouted out and waved and tired workers looked eager to go and rest for the weekend.
Another knock at our suite’s sliding door and we were greeted by Daphne Mabala the train’s onboard trip manager who had come to say hello and meet us. She had brought the Chef along to ask if we had any special dietary requirements. I am a fussy bastard and of course I did. We ran through the trip’s menu and a couple alternatives were offered to the seafood and poultry options, which I unfortunately cannot eat. We were very impressed by the professional manner in which everything was handled and run. As Daphne was leaving she said that her team and her would do anything to ensure that I was always comfortable and felt safe. I assured her that everything was amazing thus far and told her how I was looking forward to sharing my trip in words. Daphne, like everyone we had met from the Rovos team, was very well trained and showed her passion for the journey’s experience in everything she did.
A short while later, we decide to explore and wandered to the rear of the train where the observation cart was located. Here we sat in a comfortable oxblood-red leather chesterfield couch and sipped our first gin and tonic out of a crystal glass as the train passed through Gauteng.
We chatted to some Australian and some British passengers who were enjoying the high tea buffet of delicious treats. Being the only South African travellers onboard, we were plowed with questions about our country. People were also interested in the story of how I had lost my sight and how I ended up on the train. They listened as I told and retold my story of travelling through Africa by scooter. Here I was as a blind adventure and travel writer, exploring the world through my other four senses and sharing the experiences with everyone.
Soon we were back in our suite after a couple of drinks. It was time to get dressed for the formal jacket and tie dinner. I felt refreshed after a hot shower. It took only two attempts to get the Winchester knot in my tie just right and we were ready. It had been over twenty years since I had worn a formal jacket and tie. Tamlyn had never seen me dressed so formally. I had even worn short pants to our small garden wedding. It was fun to dress up. Tamlyn had a challenge when applying her mascara as the train jerked suddenly. This left us both laughing aloud at the ‘hazards’ of 1950’s rail travel. I explored the suite, touching my way around over the smooth wooden panels that lined the walls as Tamlyn described the rich mahogany colours. I imagined Rhodesian teak and even tried to breathe in the scent of the walls to get the full picture.
Dinner was served at 7pm and as the clock struck the hour, one of the staff walked the length of the carriageway sounding the dinner chimes. All this old world charm was exciting. It made us feel as if we had been transported back in time. It was enchanting and rather than bother me, as I feared it might, it enthralled me. I felt guilty for the lazy ways of our time where at best we would be in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt for meals out. I promised myself that my jacket and tie would not spend another twenty years hanging in the cupboard.
Walking into the dinning cart we were greeted by a friendly young man wearing a nametag that said Aubrey. He led us to a table and welcomed us onboard. Napkins were snapped open and placed on our laps in the true showmanship style that belongs to silver service. My hands explored the silver cutlery on the table while Aubrey poured wine into the crystal glasses.
Aubrey served a hand selected South African wine to complement the flavours of each dish that we were already enjoying.
Our starter was a trio of grilled queen scallops with a lemon-scented hollandaise sauce for Tamlyn and a tomato panacotta for me, as I do not eat shellfish. The panacotta was packed with flavour and I was left wanting more as my tastebuds were awakened.
The main course followed, which is one of my all-time favourite meals. Slow roasted karoo lamb shank with mashed potatoes and vegetables. The lamb was perfectly cooked and I was in culinary heaven.
The cheese course was a delicious blue vein Camembert served with melon preserve and a homemade savoury shortbread. A very traditional South African cape brandy pudding followed, served with cinnamon cream. It was the perfect ending to our first dining experience on the Rovos.
After dinner we wobbled our way along the narrow corridors that run down the length of the carts and bumped from side to side. It may have been the rocking motion of the train as it moved along the rails, perhaps assisted by the copious amounts of wine and gins we had enjoyed. The train moved around much more than I anticipated it would, but it never felt unmanageable. A brass handrail runs along the length of the passageway and is used by the sighted passengers as much as by me. The width of the passageway is just large enough to run ones hands along the walls and down the line of the caboose.
Luckily for us, our deluxe suite was well situated and close to the dinning car.
As we slid open the door we found our suite had been made up for the night. The heavy duvet was gently folded down and the electric blanket was kindly turned on. The evening was chilly but our air-conditioned room was warm and inviting. A bottle of bubbly was laying on the bed amongst rose petals. There were some hand made chocolate treats, fresh towels in the bathroom and our fridge was re-stocked. Again we felt like royalty as we giggled and doffed our fancy outfits and retired them to the hanging closet.
As I lay back on the comfortable bed and wriggled my way under the blankets the train rolled on. The noise was heavy and the wheels clanged their way along the steel tracks. Sounds echoed from every corner and the sway as we rocked from side to side was intense in a way that I had not really noticed before. I remember saying to Tamlyn that I hoped the large quantities of gin and tonic I had imbibed would help me to fall sleep as the alcohol buzz fought off the thunder of acoustics. Then, as if I had ‘abracadabrad’ the train to a halt, it slowed and stopped. The night was silent outside and nothing but the sound of steel cooling down could be heard. The train had stopped as if it was also ready to close its eyes and rest for the night. I pushed the little buttons on my mobile phone to hear it read the time to me. The audible voice announced it to be 11pm. I snuggled in close to Tamlyn and fell into a deep and well earned sleep.
At around 6am the train sprung back into life as if to say, “wake up all! I am rested and so are you!” The noises and motion seemed much gentler as we rolled along the track and everything came to life.
I felt my way to the bathroom after realising where I was and ran my hands around to get to the basin. Splashing cool water onto my face and rubbing my eyes, I called out a good morning. Tamlyn was awake already. I heard her fumbling with the kettle and a cup as well as the sound of aluminium sliders slamming as she slid open the window shutter that hid the morning light from the suite.
Outside, the dawn greeted rolling fields with a hundred shades of golden light. I could smell the wet cut grasses in the farm fields as the sight was explained to me. There was nothing but rolling hills as far as the eye could see. The skies were hidden behind a mosaic of silver clouds that were letting light get through all over the place. Shadows danced in the fields like light breaking through a treetop as the leaves and branches would blow in the breeze. The train hugged the curved lines of the tracks as it passed by neatly rolled up hay bales spattered in the lands where they had been harvested.
We sat for a while and listened to the sounds of the train as it pushed on. Tamlyn had taken to closing her eyes so that she could also appreciate the other senses as I did. I explained what I thought everything looked like and she told me when I was wrong or right. Many sighted people do not understand that as a blind person we draw pictures in our mind to allow us to imagine the sights around us. We focus our senses one at a time to piece together a picture of what we believe our surroundings look like. Slowly we puzzle together the smells, the feel, the tastes and sounds in the same way as an artist paints on a canvas. In the end we see something that is perhaps not exact, but it certainly feels right to us. Exploring all these senses can be a wonderful experience. Blind people are often mistaken as having special hearing abilities. People told me that my hearing would simply get better as I learned to live in the dark. I would not say that I can hear better; however my focus has improved tenfold. Without the distraction of sight, my other senses feel enhanced. Once I lost my ability to use my eyes, I really learned to see.
Breakfast was another feast for both the sighted passengers as well as me. A platter of selected cold meats and cheeses was accompanied by the buffet of fresh fruit, cereals and yoghurt. The freshly baked croissant was as good as any one I had eaten in Paris. The fruit punch tickled my taste buds as I sipped the nectar and guessed all the fruits that were hidden in the glass of flavour.
Little perfectly formed butterballs sat in their heavy silver bowl begging to be used. I happily obliged by smothering the butter on my hot toast. Along with bacon, sausages and scrambled eggs, this was the perfect meal to start the day. Again, we over indulged. I told myself that it would be ok and I would walk off the extra strip of bacon when we had our pending outing in the diamond mine town of Kimberley. The train slowed into the station as I swallowed the last gulp of juice from the little crystal glass in my hand. I could get used to this life.
Kimberley and it’s world renowned diamond mine, is situated in the Northern Cape and serves as the Province’s capital. It was South Africa’s initial hub of industrialisation in the late nineteenth century after the Eureka (a 21.25 carat diamond) was discovered. Due to its diamond mining past, the city has considerable historical significance. It was this history that we were headed out on a tour to explore.
Our tour guide for the morning, Veronica, welcomed us onboard the shuttle en route to the Big Hole. Veronica was fast-talking, knowledgeable and clearly passionate and proud of her hometown.
The Kimberley Mine Museum was well developed and felt new. We were led into a little cinema room and guided to our seats for a short film that would give us more info. The reels from the projector clicked and whirred and the music started as the lights dimmed for the showing. The story told an African tale of an ancient god sprinkling diamonds all over the earth. Tamlyn told me that the screen was still dark and would surely spring to life any second. But it didn’t. The next thing our guide stood and announced to the operator that there was something wrong. The picture part of the presentation had not come to life. I had of course not realised that there was a fault. I laughed out loud and announced to the room that now they knew how I felt. They all burst out in giggles. It was the audio only tour, until the presentation kicked back into life.
The Big Hole itself is massive. Standing on the observation deck that protrudes over the edge, I could sense and feel the cavernous drop below my feet. I could also hear the sounds from children in a classroom located in the distance on the opposite side.
Veronica continued to lead us around the complex. One of the American tourists spouted questions like sausages coming out of a hydraulic butcher’s machine. What depth is the hole? When did they stop mining the diamonds? How many people worked on the site? Who owns the mine now? And just for good measure, again asked when did they stop mining the diamonds? Veronica handled each question with wit, grace and diplomacy – clearly her experience won against the persistent line of questioning.
We came to a stairwell and were told to take the little lift as it would be easier for me to navigate than the stairway. The elevator rattled and moved so slowly that I thought we were going down 100 meters or more. Imagine my surprise when we arrived at the bottom and found our group was already waiting for us. We had only descended about 10 steps down and we were in fact just one level below the surface.
Back at the bus we sat on a little bench and chatted to the elderly couple who were on their 14th Rovos trip. They loved South Africa and could not think of another place that they wanted to visit more. They assured me that each adventure was unique and they would do it all over again. I jokingly asked when the 15th journey would be and they proudly told us that they were already making plans.
Arriving back at the Kimberley station we were greeted with a hot towel as we strolled along a freshly laid out red carpet that lined the entrance way to the station. More glasses of bubbly flowed and the group slowly worked their way back onboard the train.
We walked right along the station and boarded the train at the rear observation carriage. We settled into a couple of comfortable wing back chairs while I spoke a few notes into my dictaphone. The train rolled on out of the town and before long the old buildings disappeared behind us. We were once again meandering through farm fields and passing lands that were tinted shades of copper, ochre and amber. The sun was now above us and the air felt dry and warm.
Lunch was served as the gong announced that we should all go to the dining cart. I was surprisingly a little peckish after the morning’s outing and looked forward to tasting the feast that was on offer.
More delicious white wine flowed as the starter, hearts of palm with grilled aubergine, was served. The main course was an ostrich fillet salad for Tamlyn and roasted beetroot salad for me. The crisp watercress of the salad was tossed with walnuts and a balsamic vinegrette. Refreshing after our morning explorations.
The afternoon’s savoury cheese course was served with a just out of the oven warm baguette and a unique sundried tomato and black pepper jam.
The desert of buttery homemade shortbread, mascarpone cream and fresh fruits was a perfect way to end the meal.
Aubrey was his enthusiastic self and the lunch was really delicious. We were passing acres of Karoo lands only distinguishable from the last by the odd farmer’s truck and the flocks of sheep that gathered around the drinking troughs scattered here and there.
That afternoon we sat in the lounge car and enjoyed a Jameson whiskey with ginger ale, and ice, finished with the squeeze of fresh lime. The last time I had enjoyed this drink was at the Jameson factory in Dublin a few years ago, before loosing my sight. The guide at the factory assured me that there were only 2 ways to enjoy the drink, on the rocks or with lime and ginger ale.
That afternoon we had a little siesta in our suite. The evening before and morning had been jam packed with activities and I was grateful for the stolen naptime. The passengers are kept well fed and drinks flow at all times. The hours passed all too quickly as the train rolled on.
Dinner was again a grand affair, with the Rovos team dressed in black tie. Daphne pinned a red rose to the lapel of my jacket and Tamlyn had a pink rose pinned to her dress. Our wine glasses were never empty. We worked our way through the silver cutlery that filled the table and disappeared as the plates were whisked away after each course.
The evening’s culinary adventure began with an exotic sweet potato and lychee soup. Served with a swirl of peanut butter cream and a savoury crouton, the soup was an interesting beginning to the evening meal.
The main was an extravagant course of grilled cape rock lobster tails for Tamlyn and a perfectly rare fillet of beef smothered in a creamy pepper sauce for me.
The cheese course was a delicious mushroom Brie from Dalewood, accompanied by a fig relish and melba toast.
Aubrey offered a hazelnut Frangelico liqueur to accompany the decadent desert. We held our breathe as the rich chocolate fondant, with its’ warm and sticky centre arrived. Served with a creamy vanilla bean ice-cream and tart seasonal berries, the chef had made our chocolate fantasies come true. How such culinary delights are delivered from such a small kitchen on a moving train will always amaze me.
After dinner cocktails were served in the rear lounge, but we chose to spend some time enjoying the comforts of our suite. We chatted about the day and I took down more notes. The skies turned dark and dustings of stars were sprinkled from horizon to horizon. Tamlyn told me they made her think of the diamonds we had seen earlier minded her of the African fable we had heard earlier. The story told of the ancient gods scattering diamonds from the skies. The train again pulled over for its mid night break, but I don’t even remember this happening. The gentle rocking had lulled me into a deep sleep as I dreamt of a bygone era. Saloon bars filled with prospectors drowning their sorrows after a long dig with no findings. Blistered hands and sore feet throbbed from spending hours digging in the trenches. The saloons teamed with ladies of the night as folks shared stories of success or dashed hopes and dreams. A different time, but the same diamond filled sky hanging overhead.
That night the train slept in the middle of the Karoo.
The Karoo must be one of the quietest places on Earth. This semi-desert is a place of immense spaces that spans some 400,000km2 across South Africa’s mid section. It is a place of stark contrasts; craggy mountain ranges frame the breathtaking horizon sunsets and the sky is so big that at night it feels like you can touch the stars.
The Karoo stands proudly with other desert tourism regions like the Australian Outback as well as Arizona and New Mexico in the United States. It makes for a memorable road-trip or even better, a train trip.
This sparse area formed an almost impenetrable barrier to the interior of South Africa from Cape Town. The early adventurers, explorers and travelers denounced it as a frightening place of great heat, great frosts, great floods and great droughts. Today it is still a place of great heat and frosts with an annual rainfall of between 50–250 mm. The sense of adventure whenever I enter this region is not lost. I opened the window of our suite to breathe in the night air and listen to the silence.
In the morning we stopped about 5 kilometres before the small town of Maitjiesfontein. Passengers are given the opportunity to stroll the last 5000 meters to the town. A chance to stretch your legs while you wander through the semi desert area and take it all in. Not sure if the route would be a level and clear path, we chose to rather stay onboard and ride on into the heart of the village. We feasted on breakfast as the train pulled into the station. A local busker started to strum his homemade guitar from the platform and all the little shops swung their doors open. We disembarked at the lounge just forward of the dinning cars. The air was crisp and fresh but dry and you could just tell that it would be a warm day.
We walked along the concrete and popped into the Marie Rawdon Museum, privately owned and curated, it is part of the station’s buildings. The exhibition is full of old curiosities, everything from personal and household items to antique barber chairs and old photography equipment. This eclectic mix of collectables provided a window into Matjiesfontein as a colonial outpost at the turn of the century. As we walked through the many rooms, I ignored the ‘do not touch’ signs. I wandered about feeling the textures of dentistry and surgical equipment, lace Victorian dresses displayed on antique mannequins and old cookery scales. Most curiously, the museum includes an apothecary. Glass jars lined the shelves and we imagined what type of elixir or potion was bottled in each jar. It is one of the biggest privately owned museums in South Africa, and Matjiesfontein’s second oldest. It is definitely worth spending some time discovering the trinkets and keepsakes in this unexpected treasure trove.
Just outside the train station, we saw a big red double decker bus that had found its way from London to this obscure little hamlet. We walked in and quickly out of a couple of little curio stores and found ourselves standing at a long row of vintage cars outside the transport museum.
Located on the edge of the village, the museum features a remarkable collection of vintage cars from the 1930-1960s era, among them, Chevys, Dodges, Rolls Royce and a Jaguar. The collection includes two Royal Daimlers from King George VI’s 1947 tour of South Africa, which he undertook accompanied by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.
I got to gently glide my hand over the bonnets and find the emblems that would help me identify the cars. A miniature silver chrome jaguar easily identified the iconic jag. A little ram’s horns let me know that I was looking at a Dodge. The chevrons of a Chevrolet were quickly recognisable for a petrol head like myself. The double R ensign of the Rolls Royce made my heart skip a beat. This was such a treat and left me in a great mood for the rest of the day.
Walking through the foyer of the historic Lord Milner hotel, I heard the old wooden floors creak under our feet. The reception was bustling with guests, many taking pictures or relaxing with morning tea. The gardens out back felt cool and fresh and finding our way through the little labyrinth led us to a small chapel.
Known as The Traveller’s Chapel, it was originally built to house gas-generating equipment, which was used to light the village. The building was later converted into the chapel. I stopped at the entrance and listened to the quietly burbling fountain. On finding the chapel’s bell, I was tempted to give it a loud ring and break the morning’s tranquility, but I resisted the urge.
The walking group had arrived now and the town was bustling. We explored the town a little more and then returned to the train. At the beginning of our journey, climbing up the train’s ladder at first got all the staff overly anxious. This time we were alone and heaved ourselves up with no assistance. The Rovos team had learned that I was more than capable now and stood back watching, but available to assist if need be, much to my relief.
We sat at the rear of the train on the outside area of the observation cart. Small children stood watching the train in awe and admiration. Every time a new passenger arrived and joined us they came close to ask, no sorry beg, for a treat. A can of coke or a slice of cake or anything was requested and denied. As much as we wanted to share with them, we understood that it was not good to be a part of creating a culture of begging. So we just greeted them and smiled. In Afrikaans we told them that we were not allowed to give them anything as we would be thrown off if we did. They laughed and moved on to one of the side windows to try their like with the next tourists.
As the train rolled out of the station I realised that we were sitting with Australians, Austrians and Americans. What a mix. I guess with the favourable exchange rate, this was an affordable adventure for many foreigners.
We spoke to our fellow passengers for a couple of hours. They were all very interested in hearing my story about how I had ridden on a little vespa scooter through Africa and gotten sick along the way, eventually loosing my sight.
I proudly shared my story and also got to answer questions about our destination, Cape Town. Some of the travellers had never been to Cape Town and they wanted to know what they could expect and what they should try make an effort to see. Others were on return visits to South Africa and knew that the mother city was a true highlight.
Just before the town of Touws river we passed through a long tunnel. It is 13kms long and the train was thrust into darkness and echoing noise as it burrowed through for about 20 minutes.
As we came out the other side of the tunnel the wineland region was upon us. The main road ran right next to the tracks now. The N1 is the main route that links Cape Town to Johannesburg. Majestic mountains rose on either side. Farmlands were now filled with the curvy branches of grape vines. It was against this magnificent backdrop that lunch was served.
Our final meal onboard was our favourite dining experience of the trip. Traditional South African Bobotie (spiced beef meatloaf with a savoury custard) served with fruit chutney to start. Tamlyn enjoyed skewered prawns served on a crisp green salad, while I had a tender fillet beef salad. We finished off the meal with another South African favourite – melktert. A sweet crust pastry which houses a creamy milk filling that is dusted with cinnamon before serving. The coup however was the sweet koeksister or syrup coated doughnut – one of the best I have ever tasted.
Aubrey again confidently moved between the tables and made sure everyone’s wine glass was filled. I handed him a business card and told him to find my online blog if he would like to read this story that I would be sharing soon. He had been such a great character and I assured him that he would get a mention in the tale. He nervously smiled and said that it had been a pleasure to meet us and have us on the train. He then walked away looking a little worried. I thought that I had picked up a nervous vibe, but put it down to him perhaps being tired from the trip.
Moments later Aubrey came back to the table with a confession to share. He told me that just before the trip had started he had lost his nametag – his name was not in fact Aubrey after all. His name was Pieter Swanepoel. He had found an old nametag to use, left by a guy who had worked on the train years earlier. I laughed out loud as I shook his hand and said that I was pleased to meet him. I teased him asking if he had pushed Aubrey from the train and stolen his nametag. I asked where exactly he had jettisoned Aubrey. We laughed at his little fib as the train rolled on. What a trooper, keeping up his post till the end.
Stations flicked passed us more frequently now as the mountains wrapped us in their shadows and more and more wine estates were passed. Places with borrowed names like Worcester, Wolsley, Tulbagh, Gouda, Hermon, Wellington and Paarl.
Roads around us became more frequent now and the smells of neighborhood braais filled the air. Braai is a local form of Barbeque that is popular in South Africa, especially on a Sunday afternoons. The smell is unmistakable.
Cape Town was getting closer by the minute as homes and office buildings replaced the farmlands that had filled our view.
We rolled into Cape Town station just as the evening air was becoming cool and the sun was nearing the horizon. I could taste the saltiness from the sea in the air and hear the bustle of the city as it echoed its familiar sounds on a quiet weekend afternoon.
The train gently rolled to a stop at the main Cape Town station. Our adventure was over. We disembarked and joined the crowds of tourists in funneling off the platform. Staff greeted us as we passed by and everyone said their good byes.
The last words I said after saying my goodbye to Daphne, the train manager were something about me going home now to give birth to the food twins that I was now pregnant with.
A few days after the trip, we still felt the rocking motion of the train. It was like a reminder that lingered with us not letting us go and forget the adventure too soon. This was truly one of the most amazing times of my life and if you are blind or sighted, a traveller or a tourist, a curious passer by or a true roamer of the globe, this will be one of the most memorable times of your life. Choo-choo and roll on Rovos Rail. I hope to one day be immersed in your charm again, enjoying the culinary delights, interesting textures, sounds and smells on another truly remarkable journey on in what my opinion is the most luxurious train in the world.
The Rovos rail trip from Pretoria to Cape Town was a delight and I can honestly say that as a blind traveller, I saw and enjoyed every experience just as much as a sighted traveller.
*Writer’s Footnote: This article is Part 2 of a 6 part series of articles and short stories all about travelling by rail as a blind passenger in Southern Africa. All these articles will be combined to make up the story “Tales from the Rails” to be published when completed. I hope that you have enjoyed the read and if so please share. Part 3 coming soon… Watch this space.