The World’s Most Luxurious Train Ride
Bunny’s Review of the Rovos Rail Trip from Pretoria to Victoria Falls
Bunny loves train travel. She would go around the world by train tomorrow if that was possible.
There is something special about train travel: the freedom, the ease, the excitement of seeing different scenery and cities, all from the comfort of the train. Trains are simply charming, Bunny says. She likes the old-fashioned, slow and environmentally-friendly style of travelling it represents.
The most fabulous train ride Bunny has ever taken is the Rovos Rail ride from Pretoria in South Africa to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The journey was three fabulous nights on the opulent vintage train through amazing African landscapes.
It was a pricey and boozy affair but oh-so-lovely! Read about Bunny’s experience on Rovos Rail below.
Rovos Rail was established by train enthusiast Rohan Vos in 1989. He had bought his first coach a few years earlier and gradually transformed his love of trains into a flourishing family business.
Today, Rovos Rail operates four beautifully restored vintage trains and offers several luxurious journeys to choose from. The journey lengths range from two days, the popular Cape Town - Pretoria route, to truly epic cross-African adventures.
Bunny chose the iconic three-night Pretoria - Victoria Falls itinerary. Her train, the Pride of Africa, is touted as one of the world's most luxurious trains. It has spectacular, wood-panelled vintage coaches that have been turned into opulent suites, dining cars, a lounge car and a superb open-balcony observation car at the end of the train.
The Rovos Rail trains have three different suite types: Pullman Suites, Deluxe Suites and Royal Suites. All suites are elegant and spacious (relatively speaking). The sizes vary from 7-16 m2. Most importantly, all suites have ensuite facilities with hot showers and full bathrooms.
The Royal Suite also has a spectacular Victorian claw-foot bathtub. As much as Bunny would have loved an indulgent bath on the moving train, she couldn’t possibly justify the high price tag of the Royal Suite. So, she opted for the smallest (and least expensive) instead: the Pullman Suite.
And it was beautiful! Even Mr. Bunny was totally blown away. Particularly when he realised that the suite’s minibar would be stocked daily with whatever he requested…
The beds in Pullman suites can be configured either as twins or a double and also serve as a comfortable couch during the day which the tireless staff convert. A dedicated host/ess is available for full 24-hour room service, just in case you wake up in the middle of night starving (you won’t).
The suite also comes with comprehensive amenities, such as high-quality toiletries, dressing gowns and slippers. There is also an electronic safe and, surprisingly, plenty of space for luggage in the suite.
Pretoria - Victoria Falls Journey
Bunny’s chosen three-night adventure on Rovos Rail took her from Pretoria in South Africa across Botswana and then Zimbabwe right to the doorstep of Victoria Falls.
The route may vary according to railway capacity but always includes three nights on the train, excellent food and drink, impeccable service and some interesting excursions outside the train.
The Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria
The journey begins in the dedicated Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria. The man himself, Rohan Vos, is there to meet the passengers and give them a tour of the station and its workshop, conveying the history of the company whilst doing so.
Bunny happily hopped along with the station tour, with a glass of bubbly in hand. It was one of the earliest times of day Bunny had ever drank sparkling wine but she figured the occasion called for a glass (or two).
This was also a sign of things to come. The impeccable service for which Rovos Rail is known was on display from the first greeting at the station in Pretoria until the last goodbyes at Victoria Falls.
Some of the highlights of the three-day itinerary included crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, travelling along one of the world’s longest stretches of straight railway line in Zimbabwe, traversing the Hwange National Park and just observing the passage of daily life outside the train’s windows.
You will witness some poverty along the way, but there are also a lot of smiling people, going on about their daily activities, as well as plenty of children playing along the tracks and cheerfully waving to the passing train. Make sure to wave back, Bunny says!
The scenery itself is not spectacular, at least not all the time, but when else do you get the chance to ride through authentic African countryside and villages in such comfort and luxury?
All border crossings were effortless as Rovos took care of the formalities. Just confirm ahead of your trip that you comply with all the passport and visa requirements for a glitch-free journey.
Sleep Quality Alert
If you are a light sleeper, you should be prepared for a bumpy ride, Bunny says. Unfortunately, Rovos is given the lowest priority by the railroad system authorities and this usually means numerous delays punctuating the journey. The train will then try to make up time and catch up to its schedule by travelling at night, along tracks that are not always in top condition…
Food and Drink
A big part of the Rovos charm is derived from the excellent food and drinks selected to pamper passengers.
Breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and formal dinner are served on the train every day. A lovely, old-fashioned gong heralds passengers for lunch and dinner. The meals are served in the gorgeous dining car and paired with excellent South African wines.
Special dietary requirements are catered for, as long as you make a request when reserving the trip. Bunny was very pleased with her vegetarian meals. They were tasty and fresh, and the staff’s attention to detail was remarkable.
It was such a joy to engage in fine dining and sip delicious wine while the train made its way through the African scrubland.
Rovos subscribes to a smart casual dress code during the day and jacket and tie (for men) and cocktail/evening dress (for ladies) for dinner.
Bunny quite enjoyed dressing up for dinner, as normally she very rarely does. Dressing up also went very well with the special atmosphere on the train. Showing up in jeans would have felt very wrong somehow.
During Bunny’s journey, Rovos Rail organised a couple of excursions along the route, allowing passengers to step off the train and get acquainted with the workings of a cattle ranch in Botswana and experience a game drive in Zimbabwe’s magnificent Hwange National Park.
The afternoon game drive at Hwange produced a variety of wildlife sightings and a beautiful sunset, enjoyed with majestic giraffes grazing nearby. Wildlife sightings directly from the train as it traverses the national park are also quite common.
However, if you’re interested in doing a safari in Africa, you should not rely solely on your Rovos experience. The three-night itinerary includes just one game drive and no-one can guarantee you wildlife sightings. It is best to organise a separate safari either before or after your Rovos adventure, Bunny recommends.
One of the best things about the African Pride was the open-air observation car at the tail end of the train. Bunny loved sitting there, feeling the wind in her fur and watching the world (Africa) go by.
There are also board games, playing cards, books and magazines available for the entertainment of passengers. But there is no Wi-Fi, TVs or radios on Rovos Rail - “in keeping with the bygone era” as the company puts it. Bunny is totally fine without TV or radio, but the absence of Wi-Fi does sting. Thank god there was at least mobile phone reception for most of the journey which allowed her to take quick peeks on her social media.
Bunny's Book Tip
Go for a classic and pick up a copy of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country as your travel companion. It might not be light reading but it makes you appreciate the troublesome history of South Africa.
Bunny also loved sitting by the open window in her Pullman suite. All the suites in Rovos Rail are air-conditioned but the windows can also be opened, which is a great feature allowing you to actually experience the sights, sounds and scents of Africa. Plus, it makes for better photos.
If you’re the type of person that craves human interaction, the train’s lounge car (complete with a cocktail bar) is a great place to mingle with other passengers. Bunny didn’t, the antisocial animal that she is…
Most passengers on Rovos Rail enjoy chatting with each other and swapping travel stories and experiences in Africa. The majority of the clientele on the train does tend to be a bit older. This is not a party train, despite all the booze on offer.
There were no children on Bunny’s journey. Yahoo! This is exactly how it should be on every journey as Rovos Rail is a not an adventure for the little ones.
The official Rovos policy refers to the “adult nature and atmosphere” on the train, without banning children as such. There are no facilities for children on the train and Bunny (the great child expert that she is) would expect many of them to get bored, particularly on the longer journeys. So please keep the offspring at home for this one.
When to Go?
Rovos Rail runs the Pretoria-Victoria Falls trip throughout the year and the Falls are spectacular whenever you visit.
Bunny went in September which is generally considered the end of the dry season. This was noticeable particularly on the Zambian side where the Falls dry out almost completely that time of the year.
If you want to experience the full might of the Falls, the peak high water season runs from April to June - although visibility may be affected by the huge spray of mist generated by the Falls.
After the Journey
One of the great things about Bunny’s journey on Rovos Rail was the destination itself: the magical Victoria Falls. Even if Bunny was somewhat reluctant to leave the luxurious train upon arrival in Zimbabwe, she had reached one of the world’s most intriguing destinations. Not a bad deal, Bunny says.
Exploring the Falls
Victoria Falls - Mosi-oa-Tunya - the smoke that thunders - is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. Located on the mighty Zambezi River, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the grandeur of Victoria Falls is shared by the two countries. The lion’s share of the falls, however, are on the Zimbabwean side.
Arriving in the actual town of Victoria Falls by Rovos Rail, you will be close enough to walk to the Falls if you so desire. But it is better to take your time and go with a local guide for a full day. There are altogether 16 view points on the Zimbabwean side of the Falls. This is where you will get the best overall impression of the Falls, Bunny says.
Where to Stay
Instead of staying in the busy Victoria Falls town, Bunny chose accommodation, Zambezi Sands River Camp, that was located a bit of a drive from the Falls.
It was a lovely, tranquil place to wind down after the train journey and take in some marvelous game drives, walks and canoe trips on the Zambezi River. Accommodation at Zambezi Sands is in luxury Bedouin tents, offering complete privacy, full facilities (including bathroom) and great views to the river.
Crossing Over to Zambia
Viewing Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwean side may be more impressive, particularly during the dry season, but you should still cross over to Zambia, Bunny says. You can literally walk from one country to the other using the Victoria Falls Bridge spanning the Zambezi River. How cool is that?
Going to Zambia is also the only way to do the Devil’s Pool which is a must for any adrenaline seeker. Check out a cool Youtube video here:
Bunny regrets missing out on the Devil’s Pool herself. She left the reservation too late and all the trips were fully booked for the days she stayed in Zambia. Darn.
Not that Bunny didn’t enjoy the Zambian side of the Falls! There are some fabulous(ly expensive) places to stay in and around Livingstone and plenty of activities on offer.
Bunny’s choice for accommodation was the decadent Royal Livingstone, with excellent rooms, impeccable gardens with grazing zebras, a swimming pool with views of the Zambezi River, and direct access to the Victoria Falls National Park.
On the Zambian side, Bunny also opted for a sunset river cruise on the Zambezi, with plenty of hippos and yet more wine on offer - an afternoon well spent!
Chobe National Park in Botswana
Another must activity in Livingstone is a day trip to Chobe National Park in neighbouring Botswana. It is an easy and affordable day trip, with plenty to see. The wildlife sightings on Bunny’s trip were excellent, including lions, elephants, buffaloes, hippos, giraffes and much more. A truly memorable day.
Riding Rovos Rail is hardcore bucket list stuff. You will be travelling across Africa in a luxurious vintage carriage, seeing and experiencing amazing things, probably gaining a few pounds from the excellent food and drink on offer and creating memories of a lifetime.
If you have a chance to select the route, do the one from Pretoria to Victoria Falls, Bunny says. It is the most iconic and you’ll end your journey at a destination that rivals any other in Africa and perhaps anywhere else.
Riding Rovos Rails was one of the best holidays Bunny has ever had - and she’s had a few…