From our humble beginnings in 1989 a focus of ours has always been preserving what little is left of the era of steam and the golden age of rail travel. In our 29 years we have collected artifacts, yes, but the most incredible and incredulous stories and sentiments. Our museum at our private station in Pretoria is one way we treasure not only our history but also all the stories, some of which are legend. Guests have expressed their sentiments at us being custodians of a rich part of South Africa’s rail history and the stories which we tell in our little museum.
Renate Engelbrecht from Travelling Mystery Guest visited us recently and penned a piece on our station, Oom Gert and his careful curatorship of our museum.
Like the Rovos Rail family business, the Capital Park station has many stories to tell. It’s a historical gem tucked away among Pretoria’s CBD, the National Zoological Gardens and African tuck shops. The station, built in 1948, from which Rovos Rail departs, also plays its role of heyday holiday start-off point and preserver of all things train, very well.
The station grounds are filled with animals – from lamas lying in the staff’s garages that greet you with weird looking faces, to an on-site Nguni herd. But, it is Oom Gert who welcomes you at the Railway Museum.
Oom Gert, a humble soul, is tall and skinny with a voice that tells the story of life on trains. He has been around since even before Rovos Rail. He started as a stoker in 1969 and eventually worked his way up to train driver. It was not long after his retirement that he was called up again to man the Railway Museum. Trains are his passion. “You can’t see nature from a car like you can from a train,” he says. Every person is important to him. He does, however, enjoy the Japanese visitors most. Still, he has never had people arrive at the station with an attitude other than excitement. “For them it is the beginning of an exciting journey. They are already comfortable and meet people from different countries in the museum. So, when they get onto the train, they already know each other.”
The 40-hectare station first belonged to South African Railways, with many different locomotives and train drivers that drove these trains into many different directions. After moving to another depot, though, the station became dilapidated and was later taken over by Rovos Rail, who has brought the station back to its former glory. Today Rovos Rail’s trains depart from here to Cape Town, Durban, Victoria Falls, Namibia, Dar Es Salaam and soon also Angola, with the whole complex posing as a museum.
Rovos Rail has given the station a proper revamp and kept historically relevant artifacts intact for train passengers and visitors to appreciate. The main station building, previously a dining hall for artisans, has been prettied up and they’ve added a clock tower to enhance the station’s ambiance. The steam and diesel loco shed has also been cleaned up. Most of the structures have either been rebuilt or are converted ex-SAR buildings. The on-site Railway Museum is mainly focused on the tourists embarking on their Rovos Rail journeys, but Oom Gert, the curator, welcomes anyone. The museum is constantly developing, and it is the Vos family’s goal for Rovos Rail Station to become the leading working train museum globally. The museum is small and quaint and takes passengers back to their childhoods with an original phone box, parking meter and old trains, as well as special collector’s items that have been beautifully kept.
It’s like exploring a bygone era when you step into the station building. Even before you set foot on the luxury train that has been voted one of the top seven trains in the world by wired.com, you are taken on a trip down memory lane. The station lounge has a certain elegance to it and takes you back to a time when you had to dress up for dinner and where sophistication was key. Rovos Rail Station serves as the departure and arrival point for all eight journeys on offer and passengers rave about the welcoming experience and the colonial atmosphere of the station.
Rovos Rail’s guests are received with elegant welcoming drinks and canapes at the station and are often given an introductory speech by the owner, Rohan Vos, which sets the tone for the exciting journey ahead. Vos then also habitually takes guests on an informative and educational tour around the station grounds before the train’s wheels start turning, explaining the workshops and loco sheds to them with unfailing enthusiasm. The museum, marshalling yards, train renovation and repair facilities and welcome centre are all run by him.
Owner, Rohan Vos, is an enthusiast of note and with the help and support of his family, he has brought Rovos Rail and its station to what it is today.