In 2023, we had the chance to take a trip from the very top of our travel bucket list, a four-night trip with Rovos Rail from Pretoria to Victoria Falls. Four days went by in a flash and it was pure vintage joy all the way. Rovos Rail specialises in interesting itineraries all infused with the essence of golden age glamour. Join us for a full review of our time travelling with Rovos Rail from Pretoria to Victoria Falls.
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To learn lots about Rovos Rail, check out our blog post; 16 Rovos Rail Tips which is stuffed full of important info.
Arrival at Capital Park Station
We booked a taxi from our hotel in Johannesburg to Capital Park, the Rovos Rail station-cum-museum in Pretoria. It is not very near the main train station in the city so transport is a must. As we stepped out of the taxi, it was clear another world awaited. A red carpet led to a doorway under a colonial canopy. Neatly uniformed porters stood guard over a trolley already groaning with luggage, and the host smiled in greeting as we flapped in excitement. I was positively cooing. We gave our names, confirmed a few details, and attached our fancy new luggage labels to our bags before taking the red carpet inside. A lovely lady offered us water, juice or bubbles. No surprises, we took advantage of the wine. In the open lounge, across the sea of comfortable chairs and sofas, we spotted the table full of hot drinks, more juice and an ice bucket of sparkling wine available for top-ups. There was also a little afternoon tea so of course I grabbed a finger sandwich.
Playing On the Locomotive
We took our glasses outside to the platform, where we discovered a hissing, ticking, magnificent steam engine. This gorgeously restored locomotive is one of the beauties owned by Rovos Rail. Sadly, they are not able to pull the trains anymore due to a combination of regulations and logistics. Still, we had a grand old time taking photos, getting a glimpse into the furnace, and playing on the tracks in a way you can’t normally do. The rest of the guests were much better behaved, but I think they were missing out!
A Look Around the Rovos Rail Museum
On our way in, the staff mentioned a museum we almost totally forgot about. When they announced that our tour of the sheds was in 20 minutes, we suddenly remembered. I dashed through the corridor of twisted trees to find the museum and have a quick look around. It was a delightfully eclectic collection of rail, memorabilia, transportation paraphernalia, and other vintage machinery and art. I wish I’d had more time, but I had to whizz around. As I made it back, slightly out of breath, it was time to don our high viz vests and take the tour.
A Tour of Capital Park
Tours of Capital Park are conducted by Rohan Vos, the creator of Rovos Rail himself. His talk was both slick and still clearly bubbling with enthusiasm. You won’t find anyone older than seven who is more thrilled to talk about bogies.
The group got to see how the carriages were salvaged, purchased and restored. It is an impressive transformation. New windows are cut, holes patched up in the sides and the interiors are totally redone. We also got a glimpse into the hardware under the train. The problems of the wheels, the fuel and the government bureaucracy, all told by the guy who does it for the love. The other nice thing we learned is that the skilled workers here are hired locally as part of a social initiative and trained up (no pun intended) on-site. It is so great to know the success of Rovos benefits the community it is based in.
Welcome On Board Rovos Rail Pride of Africa
Boarding the Rovos Rail
After the tour, everyone took a seat in the lounge for a little admin. We had a quick talk about the train, including some safety information and a quick guide to how dinner worked. Then they began a register. As each name was called, the guests were whisked away. We were nearly last, and I started to get nervous that we’d been forgotten. Luckily, our names were finally announced (and with Fluskey pronounced properly) and we trotted excitedly along the platform. It was getting dark so we didn’t really get any good photos but hey ho, there was plenty of time for photos. We found our room and dived in, ready to have a proper nosy around.
Our Room – The De Luxe Suite
The deluxe suites are 11 m², which I thought would feel smaller than it did. We weren’t in each other’s way much at all whilst in the room which isn’t always the case when we are travelling and it’s definitely the largest room we’ve ever had on a train.
The decor was deliciously vintage with West African mahogany panelling, lily lamps and three super tactile light switches that made me smile every time I flicked them. That all sounds a little dark, but the modern lighting that was less obviously visible, plus the lovely large windows ensured it was light enough.
…and speaking of the windows. The unusual and brilliant thing about all the rooms on Rovos Rail is that the windows open fully. This allows you to spot wildlife, enjoy the breeze and hang your head out like a happy dog from a car. In a rather thoughtful touch, everyone is provided with safety glasses so they can look out the window without fear of getting grit, smuts or insects in their eyes.
In the centre of the room was a table and two chairs. The minibar was tucked beneath the table in a nice cupboard. This was a magic minibar but more on that later. Below that was a drawer full of tea and coffee, a kettle to make them and a teapot (how British). There was a wardrobe with plenty of shelving and a little hanging space. It couldn’t be deeper or it would eat up too much floor space. We hung our formal wear in here but used the shelves for the rest of our clothes. This was fine for our four-night trip but wouldn’t work on the longer itineraries.
In terms of luggage storage, we fit our three hand luggage size cases under the bed easily, but for longer journeys or bigger bags, there is a large luggage shelf by the ceiling along the whole length of the room. We aren’t the tallest people or the heaviest packers so we didn’t bother with this higher storage.
Our bed was made up as a double. I think you can see from the wooden frame at the base of the bed that it could be two singles. Our set-up meant we had a giant bed where we were nowhere near each other overnight, which was ideal. Dealing with a swaying train is quite enough without adding a tossing and turning partner into the mix. I thought the bed was very comfortable. It was the right level of firmness for my taste, although I found the pillows a little soft. There are a million of these, however, so we could build the correct level of pillow every night. Turns out, the spare blanket tucked under one of these was perfection. The bed was beautifully turned down during dinner and our hostess even included Mr Fluskey’s travel pillow in her displays which was so sweet.
Back to that magic mini bar. We popped beverage requests on a little form and our incredible, incredible room hostess would fill the fridge with these desired drinks. We had bubbly, Savannah Light (a low-alcohol South African cider) and Cokes for the duration of our trip. It was pretty epic. We also had water bottles provided and could have still, sparkling or both. The water in the taps is fine for washing and brushing your teeth, but it is tank water, so not for drinking. These bottles, I was happy to find out are plant-based and biodegradable. Sustainability is definitely something Rovos takes seriously.
The amenity kit provided was quite extensive and again, has a focus on reusable, non-plastic products. As well as shampoo and conditioner, we also got lotion, insect repellent and even reusable face wipes. Plus if we needed earplugs, we could just ask the train manager, but we had brought our own from home.
The Bathroom – A Full En Suite
Every room on Rovos Rail has a full ensuite with a proper toilet, complete with wooden seat. It felt so luxurious on a train but I had spotted a pile of these seats on the warehouse tour so I was expecting no less! Not only that, but we had fluffy towels, fluffy robes and a proper shower. The large shower head was great but the other had a bit of a splutter so I stuck to the large one. I was amazed that the shower had enough room to shave my legs without having to train as a contortionist. There was even a cute little cabinet above the sink which contained room bug spray (important after indulging in our open windows).
Exploring the Rovos Rail
The Lovely Lounge Car
The lounge car was in the centre of the train. It was full of sofas and armchairs, a comfortable place to read a book, have a chat with new train buddies or play one of the provided board games. The games were mostly quite traditional: Backgammon, Chess, Scrabble. I guess that my favourite kind of game that involves shouting answers too loudly (Taboo, Articulate, Heads Up) would shatter the refined ambience. In fact, Heads Up would be a definite no-no, as passengers are encouraged to leave laptops, tablets, phones etc in their suites apart from for photography purposes. The whole idea is to capture the decorum of days gone by and to coax passengers to get to know one another. I am absolutely certain that a carriage full of people scrolling through their social media would be a very different vibe.
It was possible to order a drink and pick up a snack here too. There were nuts, sweet, dried fruit and even some biltong. At the back of the train was the bar car, the other spot for a nibble.
My Favourite Spot – The Observation Car
The bar car was quite plain, the drinks slightly hidden away but it did have some comfy seating options. Most were angled into the centre of the train making this a great place to sit and meet new people. Through the bar car was the observation deck. This had space for around 8 people comfortably, and lots more when the view was good. The whole thing was open air and sitting out here with a drink was so lovely. It is not often you can be outside on a train. The speed limitation of Rovos Rail lessened the wind and the nearby bar made this an extremely nice place to relax.
Dining on the Rovos Rail
Serving three nice meals a day on a train is no mean feat. When you are stuck in a rolling tube, the company could probably feed you whatever they want in terms of quality. However, Rovos Rail takes its dinners seriously. It is remarkable the fine dining that is produced in the small galley kitchen.
All meals are served in the two dining cars. One is refurbished as a Victorian car and one is a touch more modern, styled as a 1940s car. They are both beautifully lined with wooden walls and carpeted in the signature deep green diamonds. The older style carriage had wooden beams and smaller windows, whereas the other was much brighter with bigger windows, less covered by their curtains. We liked to have dinner in the older style room (it is all vintage charm) but breakfast in the sunlight of the newer one.
Breakfast was served between 07:00 – 10:00 so of course we arrived at 09:30, cutting it a little fine. In the centre of the dining cars was a selection of yoghurts, cereal, fruit and granola bowls to grab and take to the table. Then, from the menu, we could choose from continental meats and cheeses, and hot options including omelettes and eggs prepared in a variety of ways. I had seen pictures of the tables stuffed with cheeses, meats and pastries but they are now served individually I am guessing this is either a hangover from the covid pandemic or to save waste. The baked goods came out in cute little baskets. The toast was great and Mr Fluskey couldn’t get enough of it. In each basket there was also a flaky pastry, I couldn’t resist those croissants, and a muffin which one of our fellow guests was nuts for. I was thrilled with the amount of smoked salmon that came with my eggs and the GIANT omelette. There were so many options of sides including salmon, sausages, bacon, mushrooms and tomato. Omelette fillings included ham, cheese, mushroom, tomato and onions. The one below had ham, cheese and tomato and look how stuffed it is! For someone who doesn’t eat breakfast often, I got stuck in! Oh, and the coffee was Kenyan and mellow enough to have black which was a great kick in the morning.
Breakfast in Bed
We ordered breakfast in our room one morning, feeling like we wanted to be super lazy and indulgent. I wrote our requests on a little card and left it in the room the night before. So far, so good. However, in the morning I opened the door to a line of staff all carrying cloches and realised that I had accidentally ordered two of everything! Well, we tried our best to eat everything but didn’t quite manage it. We added our little bottle of bubbles from the fridge to make it a truly special breakfast in bed…almost a bottomless brunch with the right ratio of food to booze!
Lunch and dinner only have one sitting. They are both scheduled and announced by a delightful gong/glockenspiel that is played throughout the train. (That doesn’t mean on a speaker, that means a host passes through the whole train playing the instrument in real life). The meal is a four-course affair with wine pairings…but more on that later. There is a starter which every day was a total flavour bomb (scroll the slideshow to see some of the lunch dishes we had). Then, the lunch main is always a little fun and modern South African fusion. A light cheese course and a whimsical dessert completed the meal. My particular favourites included the Amarula parfait (I am a big, big fan of the South African liqueur) and the coconut prawns which were absolute perfection.
For dinner, you will get another four courses and another four drink pairings. This is an elevated style of cooking with more celebration of local produce. The starters were all so delicious! The first night we had Cape Malay Bobotie Samosas. I had never eaten a samosa with a knife and form but it felt like I should. The inside was full of spicy cape malay stew and they were so, so delicious. It was widely agreed by everyone that we could have a bucketful each. My other favourite dishes included:
- Smoked kudu carpaccio served with Italian additions of parmesan and pinenuts. It was packed with flavour but so delicate.
- Springbok line and polenta cake. The meat was perfectly pink and the polenta cake was a lovely carb to serve on the side. I heard someone saying they didn’t eat theirs because they weren’t hungry and I was one glass of wine away from offering to have theirs.
- The gravadlax was thick, subtly flavoured and additive. I asked if I could have the leftovers for breakfast but they laughed as if I wasn’t deadly serious!
- The chocolate fondant was by far the best I’ve ever had. The ooze was perfect!
On our last night, we had a formal night. I guess that sounds weird when every dinner is formal, but they lit real candles, upped the level of indulgence in the food yet again and even made our napkins into little shirts which was utterly adorable.
The only thing I would change about the food service on board the train is the presentation of the cheese courses. They were on the same plates as the starters and mains, and although I understand it makes things easier, it always felt so lost on the plate.
Rovos Rail is fully all-inclusive so all drinks are included. The only exception is French champagne which has a surcharge and has to be ordered ahead of time. I get that this might be a nice touch if you are planning a proposal or something but I can attest to the South African bubbly being delicious and free flowing so why bother? We had a fair few glasses of bubbly when it was offered and out of that magical fridge.
Drinks at Dinner
As mentioned, every lunch and dinner came with four suggested drink pairings. The first courses tended to be wine, moving from white to red. The wines were all South African and it was so interesting to learn about the breadth of the varieties they had (so many beyond Pinotage). I tried the red every time but didn’t always opt for a whole glass as it isn’t normally my jam. Sometimes I stuck with the white from the previous course, sometimes the onboard sommelier got us a white that would match the course and sometimes we went totally off menu (Mr Fluskey loves rum). The last course was often paired with a liqueur. We sipped our way through some strange barback bottles that you wouldn’t normally try by themselves. It was fun.
Drinks After Dinner
Throughout the day, it was possible to get drinks from both the lounge car and the bar car but it was nicest to head to the back and get an after-dinner drink. We were especially fond of the Springbok shooters that apparently taste like a South African sweet called a Peppermint Crisp. All I know is that they are minty, Amarula-y, and they make me happy. On our last night, the bar had a variety of cocktails that we could try which was swell. Along with our normal springbok digestif, I had a heart of darkness (Amarula and dark coffee liqueur), and we enjoyed mojitos and some other very grown-up sippers before moving back to bubbly. It was a nice night, chatting with our tour friends as well as meeting new train buddies, all helped along by the social oil of alcohol.
Our Rovos Rail Excursions
Our Rovos Rail trip from Pretoria and Victoria had two excursions. The first day was totally on board (apart from a lovely stop at a train station with a cool old train). We hopped off to take a stroll and to see the old loco. It was a bit mucky but Mr Fluskey still had a nice time climbing all over it.
However, on afternoons two and three, we were off the train and exploring Zimbabwe.
Motobo National Park
Motobo National Park in Zimbabwe is not known as a game park, but more for its striking landscapes and cultural significance. After a 40 minute coach ride, the group divided between a few jeeps and the exploration of the park began. We had three main stops. The first was to learn the history of the park and the Bushmen that have inhabited this land for thousands of years. it was fascinating. The next was a market full of arts and crafts sellers, all of whom were from tribes that live around the park. We bought an incredibly detailed little wooden rhino for Mr Fluskey‘s family. Our final port of call was a pitstop for sundowners. I didn’t fancy a glass of wine, so I opted for a Grapetizer, which I had never tried, mixed with vodka…because I am classy.
Everyone took a walk up the hill to see the grave of Cecil Rhodes. Zimbabwe has a love/hate relationship with this British businessman. He requested to be buried between the stones atop this sacred hill and it now a bit controversial, but you’ll learn all about that on the tour. Whoever end up here, it was a lovely place to watch the sunset.
Hwange National Park
Hwange is home to tens of thousands of elephants, and if pachyderms are your poison, then you’ll love it. The train stopped right in the park as everyone gathered in the lounge car. We took the temporary steps down and to the waiting cars. Some people even used temporary steps to get into the jeeps!
The game spotting in Hwangi is helped by the water holes built by the park. There isn’t a lot of natural water here so it really supports the wildlife. The drivers all take slightly different paths so you we saw different things from our train mates. We saw many majestic elephants, zebras, a grumpy hippo, gorgeous bird life, and a fair few impalas. Another group spotted lions, asleep in the shade near the waterhole. I am not going to lie, I was a little jealous.
The group reconvened at the hideaway Safari camp with drinks and some substantial snacks. A glass of wine, a spinach pie, and a delightfully sticky chicken wing by the fire was the perfect end to the day.
The Overall Experience of Our Rovos Rail from Pretoria to Victoria Falls
They say that time flies when you’re having fun and I was astonished how time slipped by during our journey. Here are a couple of my favourite parts of the trip:
On our first full day, we ran alongside a steep hillside to one side of the train and a pretty river to the other. In the distance, we could spot iconic Baobab trees. Everyone was crammed onto the observation deck and it was a nice bonding moment.
I love a costume, a dressing up party, or any kind of enforced dress code, which allows me to shop, plan and get into character. If we go to Disney, I am Disneybounding. If its a 20s night you know the hair and makeup is on theme! On board Rovos Rail we got to pick up some safari gear for day trips and formal attire for dinner. Finding the outfits, editing the outfits and working out how to pack the outfits were all part of the excitement. Then, as each activity arrived, it was really exciting to pull out the clothes we had planned and get into the style.
The Wine Pairings
It’s not often I have four drinks with lunch. It may be a little more common with dinner? However, it is definitely not normal for us to enjoy this kind of boozy indulgence for three days running. It was so fantastic being presented with beautiful bottles of delicious wine or weird and wonderful liqueurs with each course of our meals. Who knew South Africa had such a wide range of delicious wines?
Our Breakfast in Bed
Well, despite messing up my ordering and ending up with two of everything, clambering into bed with trays full of delicious breakfast and a bottle of sparkling wine from the fridge felt so luxurious. it felt like we were being a bit naughty. The train was passing through Hwange National Park at the time so we could do some wildlife spotting right from our sheets as we sipped the bubbly. It was a total treat.
Everybody on board was so incredibly friendly. This wasn’t just at meal times or during service, but even as you passed through the carriages, everyone would have a little chat. Letting each other pass in the corridors with awkward giggles was always funny, and most interactions were more than just a sentence or two with plenty of genuine smiles. I couldn’t fault the service, and I feel like we were treated as family.
Final Thoughts on Our Trip with Rovos Rail from Pretoria to Victoria Falls
I don’t know if I can describe just how much I enjoyed this experience. Dressing up, being on our best behaviour and pretending to be awfully fancy was just fantastic fun. The whole four days, from start to finish, were beautifully curated by Rovos Rail but with space for everyone to have their own special holiday. It was a couple of days after our wedding anniversary but this would make the most phenomenal way to spend any kind of occasion and PERFECT for an engagement! I would hop aboard in a heartbeat if we ever got the chance to return to the rails, with a glass of bubbly in hand and a fancy frock in my bag.