Rovos Rail Feature
The Pride of Africa
Rovos Rail exists in a world far removed from the stresses of everyday life,one where luxury is just the starting point for a golf adventure like no other.
Paul O’Hagan reveals all…
Anyone who has ever visited South Africa will know that the country is blessed with a beauty and magic all of its own. But experience it on a Rovos Rail train, and the country comes to life in a way I could never have imagined. While impeccable service, mouthwatering food and a seemingly endless supply of the finest wine would be the highlights of many a holiday, these aspects form just a small part of the Rovos Golf Safari experience. I didn’t know that a holiday that offers so much for golfer and non-golfer alike even existed!
Step back in time
There is much to talk about specific to the golf element of my incredible Golf Safari trip, but let’s start with the Rovos experience. The brainchild of South African businessman, Rohan Vos, the Rovos story began with the purchase of a number of train carriages at an auction in 1985. Vos’ intention was to restore these coaches and hitch them to a South African Railways train for trips with family and friends. After struggles with the South African Transport Services administration, a locomotive was purchased so that he could pull his own coaches. This idea slowly morphed into the first ever commercial Rovos Rail journey in 1989, when four paying passengers, friends and press set off on a four-day trip to the Eastern Transvaal.
Years of financial and emotional stress followed, but slowly the Rovos fleet and reputation grew into the thriving family business it has become today. There are now seven Rovos Rail adventures, ranging from a two-night trip from Pretoria to Cape Town, to a 15-day journey from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
My own South African adventure was a trip that would provide entertainment, relaxation and excitement in equal measure. The Golf Safari is an eight-night trip stopping off at some of the best golf courses and safari spots in South Africa. It starts out from Rovos Rail’s very own station in Pretoria, before heading up to Sun City, then down to Durban via Estcourt and Ladysmith. From Durban, the train heads north once more through Swaziland before reaching Kruger Park and heading back to Pretoria. During the nine days there is the option to play golf at Sun City, Champagne Sports Resort, Durban Country Club, Royal Swazi Country Club and Leopard Creek. Excursions are planned for golfers and non-golfers alike, including game drives, battlefield tours and city tours. The cost of the trip includes all golf, excursions, food and drink.
From the moment my wife and I arrived at the Rovos station, there was an atmosphere unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – a real sense of stepping back in time into another world of charming elegance and unadulterated pleasure. On arrival we were introduced to our hostess, just one of a team of incredibly friendly, yet unobtrusive train staff, and were shown to our suite, which was far roomier than I had imagined. Every Rovos train offers three suite sizes, each with a sleeping area and bathroom. We stayed in a mid- size Deluxe Suite, which offered ample room for the two of us and allowed us the luxury of lying on the bed during the day, soaking up the beauty of the South African landscape as the train rolled on through.
One of the many thoughtful touches that combine to make this such a special trip is that once you arrive at the station you can forget about your golf clubs. A coach follows the train for the entire journey and your clubs are ready and waiting on arrival at every golf course!
World class service
Every breakfast, lunch and dinner served on board is an experience in itself, with the food truly outstanding, The variety and tastes on offer would grace any top-class restaurant but the fact that it is all prepared in a tiny kitchen on board a train makes it all the more impressive. Dinner in particular offers an opportunity to dress up and indulge. The choice of wines is outstanding, with two sommeliers on board to make recommendations if required.
Any downtime onboard can be as sociable as you wish, with your room and quiet carriages available for relaxation and contemplation. The stunning observation car at the back of the train not only provides the best views of the countryside, but on our trip also acted as the social hub of the train. What surprised me most was the sense of togetherness among passengers from many countries, continents and backgrounds.
Before the trip we were intrigued to discover who the typical Rovos passenger might be, but we soon realised that this typical traveller does not exist. There were couples, friends and single passengers made up of golfers and non-golfers alike. Indeed, such is the strength of the non-golf itinerary that in some couples neither person played golf! A time for peace and contemplation can easily be found if so desired, but the opportunity to spend time with other passengers should not be missed.
Off the tracks
Although the itinerary might seem full-on at first glance, the balance between relaxation and off-train activities is just right. Early starts are to be expected to get the most out of the game drives, but they are then followed by relaxing afternoons onboard as the train makes its way through the beautiful and varied landscape.
We were lucky enough to see four of the ‘Big Five’ of lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino during game drives, along with a host of other animals in wonderful surroundings. As I was with my wife, who does not play golf, I decided to do the gentlemanly thing and pass on two of the five rounds, joining the non-golfers for extra activities instead. This request was willingly accommodated, as was anything else required throughout the nine days.
Beyond the multiple safari opportunities, the Battlefields Tour at Spionkop Lodge, with the Drakensberg mountain range as a backdrop, is not to be missed. The history of the Anglo-Boer War is fascinating and heart-wrenching in equal measure.
The trip does a great job of highlighting the fantastic variety of golf on offer in South Africa. First, we played the Gary Player course at Sun City, a layout familiar to many thanks to the annual Nedbank Golf Challenge. It combines stunning backdrops with exhilarating holes created in an extinct volcano crater. The final stretch is especially exciting with water playing a major role.
Durban Country Club is another to regularly host the world’s best players. It offers a very different, but equally enjoyable, challenge. Situated between the Indian Ocean and Durban city, the course mixes undulating fairways with lush vegetation to create brilliant variety.
Leopard Creek was undoubtedly the golfing highlight for me though, a breathtaking course usually reserved for members and their guests. Set on the borders of Kruger National Park, the memorable layout serves up regular sightings of crocodiles and hippos among other wildlife. There were golfers of all standards on my trip, but with a range of tees to choose from at all the courses, everyone is admirably catered for. There is even a PGA professional onboard every Golf Safari train to organise tee times, set up competitions, and help any golfer looking for advice, another neat little touch that helps trips run completely stress-free.
Left wanting more
It is telling that many of the guests onboard had been on a Rovos Rail trip before, and several had been on multiple Rovos adventures. After nine days on the train it was easy to see why. Holidays often end with an eagerness to get home, but our final night onboard was tinged with sadness that we would soon be stepping out of the time machine and back into everyday life.
There can be no better way to experience the beauty of South Africa than onboard a Rovos train, where the service, food and drink are of the highest quality, all delivered on a train brimming with charm, style and unrivalled character. The ability to combine this with some of the finest golf courses in the country made it a very special adventure that we will never forget.
Rovos Rail station is situated about 40 minutes’ drive from O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg. The Golf Safari departure times from the station mean that those flying in from the UK will need to stay the night before. Paul stayed at the stunning Castello di Monte Guesthouse in Pretoria, just 15 minutes from the station.
All green fees are included in the package
Gary Player Country Club
Stats: Par 72, 6,550 yards
Champagne Sports Resort
Stats: Par 72, 6,203 yards
Durban Country Club
Stats: Par 72, 6,463 yards
n Royal Swazi Spa Country Club
Stats: Par 72, 6,719 yards
Stats: Par 72, 6,629 yards
There will be three Golf Safari trips in 2015: April 2-10, October 8-16, November 19-27
A second nine-day African Golf Collage trip is also available, running from Pretoria to Cape Town and including golf at Leopard Creek and Fancourt Golf Estate