Travel – Gin and Jesus juice to Durban

2012-04-13 13:31

There are few places from where you can enjoy the view of KwaZulu-Natal’s lush escarpment while lying on your back.

If you add some chilled gin and tonic or champagne, the whole thing unfolds like a life-affirming spell of laziness. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The first step is to get aboard the Rovos Rail luxury train. Let’s choose Durban as a random destination, since no one should be in a hurry to get there.

The idea is to let the locomotive lumber along its path unhurriedly.

Snaking and charging through its course oblivious of time, this journey should take us two and a half days.

This is to cover the same ground a car will do in six hours and a flying machine does in 40 minutes.

Our train departs from the station in Capital Park, north of Tshwane.

It’s an old-style colonial Dutch red brick and corrugated iron structure. Painted fawn and military green, it’s hidden by trees and freight trucks from the view of cars passing by Paul Kruger Drive.

So, except for the occasional wail of the steamer that announces the establishment’s fascination with the dignity of times past, not much will give its location away. Hence it takes a few meandering turns to find it.

Here, I learn that the word colonial can be deployed to invoke the illicit pleasures of that era of embarrassing riches without coding any guilt – at least for the beneficiaries of that historical context.

So then this trip, for the child of the black working class, will acquire the texture of role-playing. Like the garden worker who enjoys stolen moments of bliss with the master’s private treats, if you get my drift.

After being disarmed of our luggage by the obliging staff, we are ushered into the waiting lounge where we are inducted into the history of the Rovos Rail. The owner of the fleet, Rohan Vos, takes pride in sharing a few anecdotes about this mobile hotel.

A champagne-induced play with his name reveals that the train’s name is actually an acronym of his.

The tall silver-haired man announces that the dining and the kitchen cars are reunited in this trip for the first time since they were parted 27 years ago.

The two used to belong to Spoornet and were separated when they were decommissioned all those
years back.

Having survived the speeches, we’re finally led to the luxury coaches. The suites are named after historical South African towns
of colonial significance, such as Messina in Limpopo or Port Beaufort in Western Cape.

Yours truly is checked into Groote Schuur, which is actually Dutch for “big barn”.

It’s located on the slopes of Devil’s Peak in Cape Town. But that’s not why we’re on this train. Hence it doesn’t take us long to find the observation car at the tail with it’s well-stocked bar.

Here we join fellow travellers to exchange notes on all manner of trivia. The space functions as a balcony of sorts and it’s connected to the enclosed bar area.

Just like the rest of the train’s design, it carries the classic traditional look with an all-dark-wood interior.

Apart from the outdoor benches, it is fitted with chesterfield-style sofas. The only missing details are pith helmets, safari suits and rifles.

Otherwise, the journey flows with expected ease. The memories of those unfortunate news reports from April 2010 are well behind us. No one even remembers exactly how many people lost their lives in that infamous Rovos Rail derailment accident.

The only disturbance is the pleasant sound waves of the hand-held vibraphone calling us to lunch or dinner.

Perhaps the scar of poverty that jumps into view as we roll on by reminds us that ours is a fragile paradise. These provide for the most confused moment in the journey’s conversations. Like when co-travellers ask about people in the squatter camps.

Of the 30 passengers on the trip, eight are from either the UK, Norway, Canada, Denmark or Switzerland.

I’m the only working-class darkie at the party, among my white fellow locals.

The strange nature of our historical separation comes up every time one of the internationals asks about our homeland, including why there are so many shanty towns.

We are always saved by some delicious distraction, like biltong, a refill call or the approaching dinner with its elaborate meals.

The dress code to the feast is a tie and jacket, at the minimum for men, and at other times smart casual.

The Friday evening dinner finds us traversing the Majuba Hill, near Volksrust, in Mpumalanga.

The four-course meal starts with a red onion tartlet infused with cumin, garlic and crème fraîche garnished with baby beetroot leaves and dressed with balsamic reduction. It’s followed by a pan-fried line fish on a bed of spinach tagliolini with a vegetable ragout

of capers, black olives, sun-dried tomato and basil. The slight rattle of the locomotive is helped by some Sauvignon Blanc.

As the eyes grow heavy in the dim-lit hall on wheels, it gets harder to remember what we paired the mature cheddar and ciabatta with, or the chocolate mousse and vanilla macaroon that followed it. With dinner dispensed and our first midnight on this pleasure ride approaching, we stop at Elandslaagte for an overnight nap.

The morning programme includes a game drive at Elandslaagte’s Nambiti Game Reserve. When we return to the train, we then choo-choo towards Estcourt. The stopover here involves a visit to Spioenkop Nature Reserve.

Its owner, Raymond Heron, gives visitors an adventure presentation recalling the battle of Spioenkop from the Second South African War.

This was principally a war between settlers feuding over land in Africa. This time there’s no Jesus Juice to deflect our attention from the elephant in the room.

That settled, we retreat to the train after drinks to cool down.

There’s the dinner ritual, after which couples retreat to their suites. Of course they resurface later at the bar, some with their partners, except for 70-something-year-old Nigel Button, who left his wife of 34 years in their cabin, Delagoa, named after the famous bay.

The geezer walks barefooted in a pair of rugby shorts on account of gout and the heat. This is not his first time on the Rovos.

So he also knows the famous Ardmore ceramic gallery we are scheduled to visit the following day. Like a regular old timer, he’s got moral licence to be drunk enough to call everyone out.

The first to go is Morten Haaland, the Norwegian who keeps talking and whom everybody finds unintelligible.

We laugh with embarrassment and shift the conversation to the Valley of a Thousand Hills. This is the last natural spectacle before we arrive in Durban.

Then suddenly the locomotive bends to unveil a full view of the cityscape. The wind grows sea salty and the ambience turns sombre as we all awake to the reality of returning to the world.

» Mabandu was a guest of Rovos Rail 

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