Ten top things to do in South Africa with Rovos Rail
The romance of rail travel is alive and well in South Africa and beyond with Rovos Rail. Luxurious trains transport guests through spectacular natural landscapes, with regular stops along the way to visit the key sights and enjoy a dash of adventure. Dawn Jorgensen checks in with ten highlights from this once-in-a-lifetime experience...
As much as South African road trips are synonymous with the country’s big skies, wide-open roads and conveniently placed padstals bursting with homemade confectionary and freshly picked produce, there’s an even better way to explore this diverse and beautiful country.
Surrender control of the steering wheel for time spent relaxing to the beat of the wheels on the tracks as you meander through Southern Africa with Rovos Rail — one of the world’s most famous luxury trains. Along the way, guests enjoy select included excursions that offer access to many of South Africa’s must-see sights and attractions.
Here are ten top things to do in South Africa with Rovos Rail.
1. Step back in time in Matjiesfontein, Karoo
In the picturesque village of Matjiesfontein about 300 kilometres north of Cape Town, step into a bygone era in a place where little has changed over the past 100 years. The town was founded by charismatic James Logan in 1890. He bought a farm, built a grand house and set up a small refreshment hotel and rest stop for the passengers of the Cape Governments Railways.
Today the attractions are the iconic Lord Milner Hotel, manicured gardens, a large reservoir swimming pool, a tearoom and a collection of impressive museums. You’ll enjoy a tour in the London Red Bus; it takes about five minutes to go around the village. Make sure to spend time in the museum under the station, which is packed with artefacts and interesting stories from the South African Anglo Boer War.
You may hear tales of ‘Tommy’ — the ghost of a wounded British soldier who has been said to visit the town on occasion. Have a drink at the Laird’s Arms and if you’re lucky John the Entertainer may play you something on the honkytonk piano.
2. Sparkle in Kimberley — the Diamond City, Northern Cape
Rich in history and home to the first electric street light in the Southern Hemisphere, Kimberley in the Northern Cape is fondly referred to as the Diamond City. Your time here will start with a visit to the Big Hole mine complex, where you’ll have the opportunity to absorb the magnitude of the world’s largest (reputedly) man-made excavation.
From the time the Big Hole’s first diamond was discovered, thousands of claims popped up as would-be miners rushed from their respective corners of the world to try and make their millions. With digging commencing in 1871, the once lonely hilltop soon saw millions of tons of ore removed as hopeful diggers rummaged hundreds of metres underground.
The Big Hole is also home to the Diamond Museum, which shows how diamonds are transformed from a rough cut to the exquisite engagement ring in a jeweller’s window.
3. Visit the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, KwaZulu-Natal
If time is on your side when arriving in Howick in KwaZulu-Natal, you’ll be taken to visit the Nelson Mandela Capture Site. In 1962 police waved down a car on a lonely country road. At the wheel was Nelson Mandela, posing as chauffeur David Motsamayi. The arrest would lead to a succession of court cases that would ultimately see Mandela spend 27 years in prison.
The site is marked by a museum and a striking sculpture. From a distance, by optical illusion, fifty steel poles of varying heights form an image of Mandela’s face. It’s a wonderful monument and you’ll want to find exactly the right spot for a photo.
4. Admire the work of Ardmore Ceramics, KwaZulu-Natal
Ardmore Ceramics are internationally renowned for their surreal and exuberant sculptures and pottery. Their work highlights South Africa’s endangered species, fusing animals and art in the design of imaginatively molded bowls, teapots, platters and more. Established by Fée Halsted and Bonnie Ntshalintshali, Ardmore Ceramics also tells the story of the Zulu people, and their sense of rhythm, colour, dance and song.
Take a tour of the studio and enjoy tea afterwards, served with views across the surrounding rolling hills. There’s plenty of time to browse the fantastic creations on offer in the shop.
5. Learn lessons from the frontline at Spionkop Battlefields, KwaZulu-Natal
Stop in the historic KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields for a lesson in the events of the renowned Spionkop battle with expert and raconteur Ray Herron. Ray will talk you through the history of the area, with emphasis on the Anglo Boer War and the influence the conflict had on the country’s future.
The Spionkop battlefield is also famous for another reason. It was here that three extraordinary men, who would one day influence the course of world history, crossed paths. They were Louis Botha (the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa), Winston Churchill and Red Cross ambulance volunteer, Mahatma Gandhi.
6. Go on safari in Nambiti Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Disembark at Elandslaagte for a 4×4 game drive in the private Nambiti Conservancy Game Reserve — 20,000 acres of malaria-free bushveld, which is home to the Big Five. Here you’ll find incredible biodiversity with acacia trees, savannah regions, thornveld and extensive grasslands.
With the chance to see elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo, as well as wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, loads of antelope and stunningly moody skies, your drive is bound to reward with good sightings. This expansive reserve is one of the few in Africa with the space and habitat required for species to display their natural behaviours; herbivores roam in large herds as they would have done for centuries.
7. Tee off at a top-notch golf course
Step out of your compartment and onto the platform to be whisked away to your tee off. Rovos Rail’s golf safaris — one of the most popular highlights of luxury train travel in South Africa — have been designed to please the discerning player. Games can be booked at Sun City in the hills of the Pilanesberg, in the foothills of the imposing Drakensberg Mountains on the 18-hole Champagne Sports Resort, and in Durban at the Country Club. Other optional golf courses include the Royal Swazi, and Leopard Creek near Kruger National Park.
In each case all the player has to do is focus on the game, as the train crew ensure your comfortable transfer, book your times and have refreshments waiting on your return. Each course will challenge the novice and delight the proficient player, and that’s before you take in the surroundings.
8. Explore caves and Ostrich Palaces in Oudtshoorn, Little Karoo
Located at the heart of the Little Karoo valley is the town of Oudtshoorn, an area famed for its illustrious ostrich farms (known as Ostrich Palaces) and feather industry. During the 19th century ostrich feathers were highly sought after by affluent Europeans and North Americans and it was during this period that Oudtshoorn grew to be a big exporter of the lavish plumes.
The town is flanked by the majestic Swartberg Mountains to the north and the picturesque Outeniqua Mountains to the south. The Cango Caves, located just a short drive away from the town and nestled within a limestone ridge parallel to the Swartberg Mountains, are a natural underground wonder comprised of towering hallways and the finest dripstone caverns.
9. Stop and smell the flowers in Bloemfontein, Free State
The city of Bloemfontein is located between Johannesburg and Cape Town and offers an oasis to weary travellers. Too often overlooked by tourists, Bloemfontein radiates a peaceful ethos. Known locally as the ‘City of Roses’, thousands of rose bushes line the streets and a floral scent lingers in the air from the more than 4,000 rose bushes in the gardens of Kings Park.
Drive up to Naval Hill, a small nature reserve that provides the perfect vantage point from which to view the city. West of Naval Hill in Hamilton Park is the Orchid House, which boasts the largest collection of orchids in the world. There’s also a statue of Nelson Mandela that watches over the city.
10. Travel on the Pride of Africa
The story of luxury train travel in South Africa with Rovos Rail began almost three decades ago. Owner Rohan Vos purchased the first few coaches with the intention of restoring and hitching them to South African Railway trains, and offering family holidays on board.
Over time more carriages, locomotives and engines were acquired and lovingly refurbished — always under the watchful eye of the family whose heart and passion have gone into creating what is now Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa fleet.
Whichever Rovos Rail route you choose to take, you’ll be indulged from the moment you first board until you reluctantly disembark for the final time. Accommodation is offered in Pullman, Deluxe and Royal suites. All are air-conditioned, and feature gorgeous wood panelling, windows and shutters that open to the endless views, en-suite bathrooms, mini-bars and loads of storage space.
Off-train excursions are included in the cost of your journey, and you’ll enjoy hot scented towels and chilled champagne as you re-board after each outing.
Dawn Jorgensen is an award-winning South African travel writer and blogger. She travelled as a guest of Rovos Rail.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in South Africa? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.