Victoria Falls is a destination awash with nostalgia. From the Victoria Falls Hotel and its Edwardian grandeur and high tea, to the giant statue of Livingstone that overlooks the falls themselves. There is a very post-colonial whiff about the place, and we got a little swept away with it. To recapture a little of that bygone era, we decided to jump aboard the quintessential Victoria Falls steam train experience. Read on for our full and honest Royal Livingstone Express review.
What is the Royal Livingstone Express?
This is more than just a train ride, the Royal Livingstone Express experience is a full evening of luxury. Once on board, you are plied with food and drink (more to come on that later) and the very best service.
Why Choose the Royal Livingstone Express?
Two dinner trains run to the Victoria Falls Bridge. If you love a beautifully restored steam train, then the Royal Livingstone Express is for you. This has a proper steam-driven locomotive on the front, whereas the alternative (Bushtracks Express) has a diesel driven engine. Despite the same amazing service, there is something terribly romantic about steam trains.
Not Very Fashionably Late
There is nothing like a last-minute decision to throw you into disarray. So it was, when at 15:45 we bought our tickets to review the Royal Livingstone Express. The pick up from our hotel was at 16:00 and we were still in our travelling clothes, having arrived from Johannesburg very shortly before this. We slammed the phone down and ran at full speed back to our room. Clothes were thrown madly around the room as we tried to find something that made us feel reasonably smart. Deodorant was sprayed into each other’s faces and I was on my knees rummaging for jewellery in my backpack.
Now, I know we were staying at the awfully fancy Victoria Falls Hotel, but we were in full backpacker mode when we arrived having woken up at a horribly early hour to fly up to Victoria Falls. We arrived at the transfer minibus five minutes later than everyone, apologising but still grinning wildly from the fun, the spontaneity of it all.
Getting Steamy with the Royal Livingstone Express
After crossing from the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls to the Zambian, we pulled up to the siding and jumped out into the sun. The train sat, ticking, steaming and dripping on the tracks in front of us. The adrenaline was still coursing through me and I was incredibly excited to be there. We made a bee-line straight for the engine to see it and take some snaps. The African sun was fierce and the heat of the engine’s furnace must have been unbearable as they stoked and coaxed it into life.
All Aboard for Victoria Falls
After ten minutes or so, the staff announced that the train was ready for us and we eagerly lined up at the red carpet. Everyone was made to feel like a VIP with a drink to sip on as we entered the cool shade of the lounge car.
The interior of the train is beautiful and classic. These carriages have been lovingly restored by Bushtracks and Rovos Rail. Together they have reproduced every detail with love and attention. The green carpets, embroidered upholstery and dark wood could have come straight out of an Agatha Christie murder mystery novel. (Luckily, we all made it to the end of the night unscathed). The wine was served in glittering crystal glassware and the staff were all bedecked in classy, classic uniforms. Now we’ve seen onboard, lets continue our full Royal Livingstone Express review.
And So, We Depart.
I grabbed a glass of chilled white wine and took a seat on one of the sofas that lined the edge. We made chit chat with our fellow passengers until our host for the evening came to explain how the experience would run. He invited us all through to the bar car and the observation deck at the back of the train.
I was slightly confused when we appeared to be going backwards. In all the excitement, had my wine gone straight to my head!? Someone pointed out that we had to reverse out of the siding…gosh, I was in a silly tizz. Mind you, after quite a bit of shunting, we did end up going all the way to the falls backwards.
To be honest, I was feeling a little outclassed. We aren’t posh by any means and both our surroundings, and our train companions all seemed to be of a slightly higher calibre. But hey, it is super fun to pretend sometimes isn’t it. We were very tempted to pretend we were Lady this and Lord that but running up to the minibus, red-faced and slightly dishevelled put a stop to that.
Canapés were handed around. There were smoked salmon mousse nibbles, satay chicken skewers and some sort of mushroom bite, amongst other tasty treats. The wine was topped up generously and we enjoyed waving over enthusiastically at the children who called out to us.
Drinking in the Scenery
The wine wasn’t the only thing we enjoyed. It was so relaxing to watch the world slip by. The vista, scorched by the African sun, was given some relief as it descended and the shadow of the train grew longer. Stretching out into the distance, parched bushes looked ready to snap, waiting for the rainy season to return.
We all made polite small talk about these once-in-lifetime trips and marvelled at how amazing the evening had been so far. Eyes were kept firmly peeled as the train trundled at its leisurely pace through the brush.
Victoria Falls Bridge
Constructed in 1905, the Victoria Falls Bridge spans the Zambezi gorge from the Zambian side, to the Zimbabwean. It was quite a feat of Victorian engineering and has stood the test of time. These days, you are more likely to be bungee jumping from it than anything, but we prefer a more sedate pace of sightseeing (apart from zip-wiring, which is always awesome).
The Royal Livingstone Express came to a stop with a squeal of brakes and hiss of steam. We had a quick debrief about the hawkers that were about to surround us, and I grabbed a quick glass of wine to fortify myself. Having travelled in some quite tout-heavy countries, a little light hassle wasn’t all that bad, but it did slightly spoil the mood.
The bridge spans the Second Gorge. The First gorge is the one that the falls themselves crash into. From the bridge, you can see the spray but not the actual Victoria Falls. Instead, we spent our time gazing down at the gorge at the distant Victoria Falls Hotel and the river that snaked far below. The valley filled with the light of the setting sun and imbued the whole scene with golden hues. It was all rather lovely.
Whistle While You Work
After soaking up the view, we made our way to the front of the train again and were surprised and delighted to see that we could get inside the engine. We clambered into the sweltering cab just planning to take a photo or two. The driver was very welcoming and even let us blow the train whistle.
Six year old me, with her Thomas the Tank Engine bedding was over the moon! (older me loved it just as much!). I’d have loved helping at the front for a bit but my dress wasn’t entirely practical and it was time for dinner.
Royal Livingstone Express Dinner – A Balancing Act
Eagerly, the train guests passed back through the bar car and lounge car into the front two carriages. These were dining cars and were set for dinner. We all found a spot and took our seats.
Our dinner companions (we chose to sit in a four) were a lovely couple from the North of England on their trip-of-a-lifetime. I kept saying that this African adventure was our trip-of-a-lifetime too, but I hope I get to have many more of these epic trips!
Now for the food part of this Royal Livingstone Express review.
Dinner began with rich, earthy beetroot carpaccio with goats cheese mousse. Following this was pate which I believe was laced with onion. I’m not sure why else I wouldn’t have eaten it…? It must have been good as Mr Fluskey managed to eat his and mine.
The main course was a piece of tender pork covered in a wonderfully sticky sauce. It was served with gratin potato, one of my favourites.
Finally, we had a very grown-up jelly for dessert. I know jelly in a luxury setting may sound odd but it was seriously fashionable and considered exceedingly high end in the past. When this train was at the height of its popularity, serving jelly would have been quite a feat for the chefs. I thought this complemented the nods to the past that the whole meal had been.
Every plate was polished off with gusto, accompanied by the gentle rattle of cutlery and ting of glasses. We have had many a train picnic but nothing like this. Despite the clattering wheels, and swaying carriages, the service was impeccable and we marvelled at the skill and balance of the wait staff.
All Change Please
The day had given way to dark and sweltering night, and we could no longer see out of the window when we stopped back in the siding. The final few morsels of food were slowly nibbled and our host returned to bid us all adieu.
After dinner was cleared we disembarked the train and jumped back into the waiting minibus.
If you are considering your own Victoria Falls Royal Livingstone Express dinner adventure, here is some information you might like to know.
- Tours are run by Bushtracks. You can read all about the trains and book your space on the Bushtracks website.
- The Royal Livingstone Express runs from the Zambian side of the falls. The Bushtracks Express runs on the Zimbabwean side. Make sure you have the right documents to travel across the bridge if you need to for your chosen train and DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT ON THE NIGHT!
- The experience lasts around 5 hours.
Final Thoughts On Our Victoria Falls Royal Livingstone Express Train Trip
This was by no means a cheap evening out! I get that it may be a stretch when you are on a long trip, but I think it was a wonderful evening. The food was great, the service very friendly and the history of the train gave the whole thing a delicious charm. Yes, there is always the niggle of post-colonialism but if you get past that, happy in the knowledge that this is owned by a local company, then you’ll have a magical experience. We hope you enjoyed this full Royal Livingstone Express review.