February 2022 was an important month for us at Rovos Rail. The first of the month marked 677 days since South Africa went into hard lockdown and it also marked the day we were officially back on track.
With the ever-moving goal posts of the Covid-19 pandemic we found ourselves holding on a little tighter with each announcement from our own government, politicians overseas and from the WHO. It felt like every few weeks we were postponing our contingency plans until at last we were able to say that February would realistically be when we could let our industry partners know that we were back on track and fully operational. It was indeed a relief and also a very happy month!
We have operated numerous journeys since February, including exceptional private charters which have been lovely successes. Our first advertised Cape Town to Dar es Salaam trip departed on 2 July with train manager, Hennie, at its helm. Despite one or two unforeseen challenges, guests and staff enjoyed a fabulous trip with the team receiving the highest of compliments! Thank you to our wonderful group of guests for their joviality and positivity.
Hennie’s and his team had a few days off in Dar es Salaam before the train, carrying a new band of intrepid travellers, set off on our second ever Trail of Two Oceans sojourn which will take guests from the Tanzanian capital through Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with journey’s end in Angola. The sojourn was certainly an adventure and the train arrived safely into Lobito on 3 August.
The maiden voyage of our 15-day Copper Trail trip also departed in July and the first leg of the journey was a lovely success with guests thoroughly enjoying themselves and giving us constructive feedback so that we can further improve the itinerary. Train manager, Lawrence, and his team travelled through parts of Africa none of us have ever seen and sent through some funny, heartwarming and wild stories!
In amongst these two long trips, we have also operated shorter journeys to Durban, Cape Town and Victoria Falls so it is safe to say we are back on track! Our train teams are busy, Rovos Rail Station is once again a busting hive of activity and our inboxes are full.
To celebrate our restart and in many ways a new beginning, we put together a photo and video shoot with new faces, new coaches and new energy!
We would like to sincerely thank Simone Dominique Shapiro from The Safari Gals for being our lady of the day, Jonathan Boynton-Lee for being our dapper gentleman, Ross Hillier for his phenomenal photographic talent and Dylan Hohls from Motionworx for capturing it all on video. You were a dream team and we hope to be able to work with you all again one day soon.
We are delighted to be able to share our video with you and will be releasing our new photographic content soon.
It feels so good to be back on track and we can’t wait to welcome you on board one of our journeys soon.
How many ways are there to applaud Hannes Myburgh and his Meerlust team? Rovos Rail has enjoyed the happiest and longest relationship with the iconic wine farm and it’s little wonder that Meerlust is regarded as a South African national treasure.
It’s one of the oldest family-run wine farms in the country having been owned since 1756 by the Myburgh family for a remarkable eight generations. The gracious Cape Dutch Manor House is also the oldest surviving grand farmhouse in the Stellenbosch district.
Meerlust also produced the second Bordeaux blend ever produced in South Africa – the Meerlust Rubicon – which soon became a benchmark of local red wine quality and gained iconic status in the global marketplace.
“Alea iacta est” (The die is cast) are the words that Julius Caesar is supposed to have said as he led his troops towards Rome in 49BC. The crucial border of the ancient capital was the Rubicon River and the decision to cross it marked an irrevocable point in history. It would profoundly shift the course of Roman politics; there could be no turning back.
Some 2000 years later, a watershed event occurred in the life of Nico Myburgh, father of the current custodian of Meerlust, Hannes Myburgh. Holidaying in Bordeaux, he discovered that the terroir in this area of France was similar to that of the Eerste River Valley. Both have a distinctive climate, characterised by a cooling sea breeze. And both have a soil structure made up of decomposed granite and clay.
Nico returned determined to create a blend of his own that would match those of the French. In 1980, after several years of experimentation together with winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia, he announced the birth of the new blend. With proportions of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, a new style of wine was created in South Africa. Like Caesar, there could be no turning back.
Nico and Giorgio had already considered a number of names for the new blend when Professor Dirk Opperman from the University of Stellenbosch, a friend of Nico’s, suggested that “Rubicon” might be appropriate. The pair had, after all, crossed a new frontier – and changed the way South Africans thought about red wine.
An interesting point to note is that Billy Hofmeyr of Welgemeend released the first Bordeaux blend in 1979. Meerlust has, however, discovered bottles of the 1978 Meerlust Rubicon although these were never released commercially. These were found at the Tabernacle at Distell, the famous underground wine cellar in Stellenbosch, and four bottles were sold five years ago at the Nederburg Auction for ZAR16 000 each.
Today Rubicon is only made in quality years and the portions of each variety vary according to vintage (it also now includes a little Petit Verdot). Since its beginnings in 1980, five vintages have been declassified and not released – the 1985, 1990, 2002, 2011 and the 2019.
The 2018 Rubicon, currently being served on all Rovos Rail journeys, is a classically proportioned blend of 67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot.
The harvest season was really challenging, due to a prolonged drought which some believe to be the worst in 100 years.
Each vineyard block is hand-harvested and fermented separately, run off into 300-litre oak barrels and large foudre*, and monitored until it is time to blend; in this vintage it was after eight months. At that point, a careful assessment of the merits of each parcel is assessed and the blend decided upon. It spends another 10 months in barrel for harmonisation before bottling, where it will see out another two years before it is released. However, further bottle maturation is advised for the intriguing complexity of this classic wine to unfold and reveal itself.
It boasts the quintessential Rubicon nose with violets, ripe plum, cedar wood, fennel and intense spiciness. A typical liquorice note also evident on the nose. Still young and intense, the palate is full bodied, structured but packed with fresh dark fruit and rounded tannins. This is a vintage that is more approachable in youth because of the ripeness and richness levels attained in 2018 but will provide great complexity with further maturation.
It is a stellar advertisement for Meerlust and an illustration of the commitment to quality that underpins this famous old estate.
It is a wine that demands food! Feed it a roast beef done rare. This iconic Bordeaux red blend also pairs well with venison, game, pot roast and noble cheese. Or serve with slow roasted lamb shank and oven roasted sweet potato.
Meerlust was one of the early pioneers of Pinot Noir as well with the release of its first Pinot Noir also in 1980. This was around the same time that Hamilton Russell near Hermanus released its first vintage.
Stellenbosch is typically considered to be too warm for growing Pinot Noir, however Meerlust’s proximity to False Bay makes it at least three degrees cooler than the typical average temperature in Stellenbosch.
The Meerlust Pinot Noir 2020 is an exciting fusion of the refreshingly modern and the tirelessly classical. The grapes are selected from three clones of Pinot Noir with an average age of 21 years. Grapes were handpicked from two blocks. The majority of grapes are destemmed and crushed to small fermenters, but a portion of the harvest is only destemmed, and another portion is fermented as whole bunch. Light handling during fermentation allows gentle extractions resulting in elegant structure. The wine was matured in new and second fill barrels for 10 months before bottling.
On the nose the wine shows pronounced floral perfume with brooding and alluring red berry fruit, earthy, wild mushrooms and hints of spice.
On the palate there are very pure Pinot fruit flavours on entry with red cherry and musk flavours tied together by a fresh acidity. The wine has layered complexity with great elegance and finesse. There is a fine and delicate, almost powdery, tannin on the finish.
It pairs with various food dishes including white and red meats, duck, Parma ham, grilled line fish, tuna, wild mushrooms and traditional cheeses.
Meerlust Rubicon 2018
Residual sugar: 2.6 g/l
Total acidity: 5.54 g/l
Alcohol: 14.3vol %
Meerlust Pinot Noir 2020
Residual sugar: 2.51g/ l
Total acidity: 5.71g/l
Alcohol: 12.5vol %
* A foudre is a large wooden vat, popular in France’s Rhône Valley, significantly larger than typical oak barrels, often with the capacity to hold more than a 1000 litres of wine. Using a larger vat or barrel than a typical barrique means there is less wine to wood exposure and less obvious wood or oak flavours.
We feel privileged to work with this icon in the South African wine industry and we are thrilled to be able to serve these two delicious wines on our trains.
Never did a great man hate good wine…or an accountant named Gyles become an award-winning winemaker.
33 years on and at Rovos Rail we are still star struck by these two beautiful Thelema wines.
It’s a story that reads like fiction. A hard-working articled clerk visits a bottle store in Kimberley and finds his life changed forever when he has a sip of Puligny-Montrachet from far away Burgundy.
It reminds of us of our beginnings. A hard-working businessman visits an auction hosted by the Heritage Railway Association of South Africa and his life changed forever. The story of how Rovos Rail and Thelema have not only succeeded but also persevered since the 1980’s is one of relentless dedication, optimism and trust.
Our infamous Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon may have tasted stars but this bottle of sublime French Chardonnay resulted in our accountant leaving the profession, moving his young family to the Cape winelands and starting a new life’s journey.
The man in question is Gyles Webb, now the owner of two renowned South African wine estates – Thelema Mountain Vineyards outside Stellenbosch and Sutherland Vineyards in Elgin.
After his epiphany, Webb headed to Stellenbosch – with his wife and baby son in tow – to do a B.Sc. (Agric.) degree majoring in Viticulture and Oenology. He then worked for Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW) and did a stint in California before purchasing a run-down fruit farm at the top of Helshoogte Pass in 1983. This became Thelema which released its first wines in 1988. In 2002, a second wine estate Sutherland was added to the family stable.
Situated on the slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain, Thelema occupies mainly south-facing aspects that afford spectacular views of the Simonsberg, Drakenstein and Jonkershoek mountains. Elevations ranging from 370 to 640 meters above sea-level make the 157-hectare estate one of the coolest and highest wine farms in Stellenbosch.
Webb was named John Platter’s Wine Man of the Year in 1993 and was the Diners Club award winner for 1994. Current Thelema and Sutherland winemaker is Rudi Schultz while Webb remains as owner, director and cellarmaster.
Although it was a white wine that captured Webb’s imagination all those years ago, the high altitude and rich red soils at Thelema are ideal for premium quality wine grape production and the estate is now one of the leaders in Cabernet Sauvignon, placing Stellenbosch Cabernets firmly on the global wine map.
With some of the most exceptional terroir in the Western Cape, Thelema have rightly resurrected and restored their premier league standing as one of the most sought after and age worthy wine producers in the Cape, a position they held throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
Travellers on Rovos Rail can sample the Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 2018. This was a warm, dry vintage with a late start which resulted in smaller tonnage but yielded balanced, well-structured wines with lovely intensity.
All fruit was destemmed, crushed and pumped into stainless steel tanks and saw two aerated pump-overs per day during fermentation before being racked into barrels for malolactic fermentation and an additional 18 months of ageing in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new.
It is complex and stylish, with classic Stellenbosch Cab aromas of ripe blackcurrant, violets, dark chocolate, cedar wood, cedar spice and pencil shavings. This wine is bone dry yet exhibits a lovely sweet fruit character on the palate, showing exceptional depth, weight and length. It is drinking well now, but you can tuck this wine away for 15 years for greater reward. It is a perfect accompaniment to grilled beef, especially with a Béarnaise sauce and rocket salad.
Nearly 20 years after purchasing the Thelema farm, Webb felt it was time for a new challenge. He embarked on a search for the right property and terroir for a second vineyard and, in 2002, purchased an idyllic apple farm in the cool coastal region of Elgin and Sutherland was born. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes were planted first and more varietals added over time.
The Sutherland Vineyards are situated nine kilometres off the Atlantic Ocean with altitudes of 140 to 250m above sea level with ideal cool climate conditions.
The same ethos is used with Sutherland as with Thelema: Grape quality being the single most important factor and a policy of minimum interference, allowing the wines to be a true expression of each vineyard.
The Sutherland Riesling 2021 is made in an off-dry style, showing fragrant spice, orange blossom and lime on the nose with flavours of white peach, hints of citrus and an elegant minerality. The wine shows a delicate balance of sweetness and acidity. Enjoy as an aperitif or with salads, chicken and mildly spicy dishes.
You may be interested to learn that Thelema is named after monk, doctor and writer François Rabelais’ Abbey of Thélème, an imagined utopian abbey on the banks of the Loire. Only one law governed its members: “Fay ce que vouldras!” – “Do what thou wilt!” Among Rabelais’ more memorable quotes were “Wine is the most civilised thing on earth” and “Never did a great man hate good wine.”
It is a message that Webb clearly took to heart more than 40 years ago.
Our time at Rovos Rail during various levels of lockdown in 2020 and 2021 was not spent idly. We spent many months discussing how we could go even greener and we finally had the time to tackle the issue of bottled water. This has been a long time coming and we are relieved and happy to have introduced new plant-based and biodegradable water bottles to our trains, departures lounges and to our guesthouses.
We have our own small bottled water company called Babamanzi based in Cape Town which has been certified by SANBWA – South African National Bottled Water Association. Our water plant is small and energy-efficient which further assists us in reducing our environmental footprint. The introduction of our new bottles ensures that we are supplying water to our guests which has been locally sourced and packaged with our planet in mind.
Over the years we have tried various earth-friendlier options which have included glass and aluminium but neither worked too well. We have to take a great deal of water with us on our journeys, especially our longer trips, so we needed a solution where the boxes could be stacked safely and nothing would break or explode.
We got in touch with the good folks at Fortis X who helped us navigate all of our water needs. The plant-based water bottles are made entirely from sugarcane and 100% biodegradable into compost. Fortis X also manufacture bottles from a variety of materials which include Bio-PET, PHA, PLA and other compostable as well as bio-based polymers. Some of these polymers are sugarcane based, which means the bottles are 100% made from plants, with zero plastic and no additives. #
All the water bottles are tested as food-contact safe, with zero leaching into the contents of the bottle. Further testing proved rapid decomposition in certain environments, especially with compost. Such materials degrade into lactic acid which is a valuable soil supplement.
This range of revolutionary bioplastic products are made entirely from naturally-occurring plant sugar (dextrose) found in harvested plant starch. Many products can be made from bio-based polymers and Fortis X specialises in producing bottles and bottle preforms.
At Rovos Rail we understand that as a participant in the local and global hospitality industry we have a responsibility to go greener wherever we can. Our team is working tirelessly to find solutions to the remaining waste challenges we have and we are committed to being as earth-friendly as possible. We are the green train after all.
Rovos Rail has enjoyed a long love affair with the Hamilton Russell Chardonnay and are proud of our happy relationship with the family and team. The superb dry white has been a firm favourite on our wine list since our early days and it has always been an incredible treat for our guests.
The plaudits keep coming in for their 2021 Chardonnay and we are delighted to be in a position where we can still serve this delicious wine on board all of our trips as well as our guesthouses. Especially on our Cape Town journey as the estate is not too from the Mother City and absolutely worth a visit!
It marks the 40th vintage of Chardonnay from one of South Africa’s most renowned estates with 2021 being an exceptional vintage for the farm. Owner Anthony Hamilton Russell is clearly excited about this wine: “Both the winemaker Emul Ross and I believe this to be the best vintage of Hamilton Russell Vineyards to date.”
Considering how well Hamilton Russell wines do both locally and in the international marketplace, this is an impressive claim with those who have tried it believing it has all the hallmarks of an absolute classic.
Back in 1975, successful advertising executive Tim Hamilton Russell (Anthony’s late father) bought 170 hectares of land (a former sheep and wheat farm) not far from Hermanus and planted the first vineyards in what was to become the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley ward (appellation) in 2009.
Hamilton Russell had been encouraged by his friend Dezso Pongracz (whose surname was given to the well-known MCC) to look outside of conventional wine-making areas in South Africa. Hamilton Russell senior himself believed that the southern location and cool climate of the area would produce excellent wines and this wine-making pioneer was soon proven correct.
The estate is located only three kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean and the cool breezes that come from the ocean make this one of the coolest regions for wine production in South Africa.
In the spirit of experimentation, Hamilton Russell senior made 11 wines from eight different wine varietals with the first harvest in 1981. But it was not only in wine-making that he was a forerunner. In an industry not renowned for its progressive politics at that time, Tim was a passionate advocate of minimum wages for Black workers and was a prime mover in the abolition of the “dop” system of paying wages in wine. In 1989, Hamilton Russell and four other Cape winemakers formed the Cape Winelands Commitment, which rejected apartheid and outlined improved farm employment practices.
In 1991, his son Anthony Hamilton Russell, the current second generation owner, took over and purchased the property from his father in 1994. Anthony and his wife Olive conducted extensive soil research and immediately changed the farm’s focus entirely to only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – ideally suited to the sunny but cool, maritime climate and the “stony, iron- and clay-rich shale derived soils” in Africa’s southern tip.
Today there are 30 Ha of Chardonnay and 22 Ha of Pinot Noir vines, specialising in producing highly individual terroir driven Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which are widely regarded as the best in South Africa and among the finest in the New World, and are available in restaurants and shops in more than 50 countries worldwide.
While production is small, the impact on international and local markets has been significant. Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay is different to most New World Chardonnays; low-vigour, stony, clay-rich soil and a cool maritime mesoclimate give rise to a tighter, drier, more complex mineral character and length to complement the varietal fruit. The yields are smaller and the wines perfectly express the terroir in which they were grown.
The Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2021 was matured for nine months in a combination of 228- and 300-litre barrels, of which 26% were new, plus a small portion in foudre*. 2021 is regarded as a stellar vintage that was later and cooler than usual. The nose shows blossom, intense citrus and pear, subtle oak and a little smoky reduction while the palate has soft oak spice, well integrated creaminess, good fruit purity and bright natural acidity.
It is a wine with classic Hamilton Russell Vineyards’ length and complexity – elegant, textured and intense with a strong personality of both place and vintage. This wine pairs wonderfully with poultry, fish and seafood served with creamy sauces. It’s ready to drink now but will get even better over the next few years.
Acid: 6.80 G/L
Residual sugar: 1.90 G/L
Barrel fermentation: 68% 228 litre, 26% 300 litre French oak barrels
* A foudre is a large wooden vat, popular in France’s Rhône Valley, significantly larger than typical oak barrels, often with the capacity to hold more than a 1000 litres of wine. Using a larger vat or barrel than a typical barrique means there is less wine to wood exposure and less obvious wood or oak flavours.
We’re doing cartwheels with excitement as we welcome our new earth-friendly amenities by Katavi on board our trains!
We’ve spoken a bit about how our time during the Covid-19 pandemic and the various stages of hard lockdowns was not idle. Being forced to press gave us the gift of time and we were finally able to do in-depth research into earth-friendly products that are locally made, contribute to community upliftment and are packaged in recyclable or biodegradable materials.
We provide guests with an amenities kit on board which includes the usual – shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand and body lotion, ear buds, sunscreen, insect repellant and tissues. We undertook to look through each item to see where we could improve in terms of our sustainability efforts.
We were so happy to discover Katavi, a company founded by two women who knew that they could leverage what nature has to offer and also create a sustainable and earth-friendly product range.
Janine Halsted is a veteran in the beauty industry who was raised in Zimbabwe. It was early on in her life that her father, a cosmetic scientist, introduced to her the pitch black and earthy-smelling Kigelia fruit. He had noticed locals from rural villages rubbing the fruit on their skin for hydration and protection.
Janine’s father later developed a less than appealing product range using Kigelia and convinced Janine’s best friend, Carolyn, to use the product which in fact improved her complexion enormously. Carolyn knew that there was merit to the product and worked with Janine to improve on the look and smell without damaging the cream or the environment.
After 17 years of developing and launching new products, always staying true to their beliefs of utilizing Kigelia and other “super fruits“, they decided to further expand distribution and enlisted the assistance of Gus Lebreton, an ethno-botanist and founder of PhytoTrade, a southern African natural products trade association.
The result of over 27 years of work, Katavi is an all-natural anti-aging skin care collection. The range features wild-harvested, certified African oils and extracts—free of chemicals and toxins. The Katavi products we provide our guests are “Goggatjie”, an insect repellant, shampoo, hand and body wash and hand and body lotion.
Packaged in environmentally friendly, recyclable, airless pump bottles, Katavi’s products contain no parabens, no artificial colorants, no perfume, and no petroleum-derived ingredients with no testing done on animals.
We’re going to be introducing you to our new sustainable, locally made and earth-friendly products over the next while so check in with us from time to time to see how we live up to our colour green!
We would like to welcome Ellie & May to our Rovos Rail family. It never ceases to inspire and amaze us when people turn pain into proactivity. The strength it must take for a family to not only grieve the loss of a loved one but also turn their passing into something meaningful and beneficial is awesome.
It’s one of the many reasons why Rovos Rail is now stocking items produced by the lovely folks from Ellie & May and we are so thrilled to have the McMillan family on board with ours.
The sudden and tragic passing of their brother, son and friend, Mike, inspired them to create a lifestyle apparel brand which contributes to raising awareness about elephant conservation in Southern Africa. Mike was passionate about wildlife and after graduating high school with distinction, he studied a Bachelors in Science with Conservation Ecology as the principal focus at Stellenbosch University.
Whether we like it or not, there is an evolutionary component to pain and often the bereaved turn their grief into action which is how the Mike McMillan Nature Fund was born. A beautiful documentary, featuring Amy McMillan, called Burning Embers was produced to honour Mike’s memory but also to raise awareness and funds for the continuing fight to preserve elephant life in Southern Africa.
There are three different types of products including Ellie buckets, Ellie caps and Ellie beanies. Each cap comes with an Ellie and May sticker with which you can spread the word and the love. Snap a pic whenever you see an Ellie and May sticker and tag @ellie_andmay and #jointheherd to unite all on Instagram.
The caps embody a vibrant personality while being trendy, brightly coloured, and adventurous. All products are locally made, which we also love, and it feels like the love and passion of the McMillan family is woven into every cap, hat and beanie that is delivered into the world.
Please note that Ellie & May items are subject to availability and not are always in stock and available on board.
The Journey to the Sun has begun, with Suncamino Floral Rum!
The journey to the sun
Rovos Rail added the world’s first floral rum to our already impressive range of spirits. Suncamino Floral Rum is the brainchild of three Capetonian friends who shares a love of adventure, the outdoors, and the ocean. These friends got together and created something magical. Suncamino is a Spanish word, which means “Journey to the sun”, and what a journey it has been. Part of what makes the Suncamino journey so special is their mantra, which is simply: bring good company, a bottle of Suncamino, and pick a spot on the map – The rest will take care of itself.
Where it all began
The idea behind Suncamino rum originated in Cape Town. Thereafter the three friends travelled to Barbedos and developed their signature 8yo blend with the help of a local distiller. This incredibly smooth rum ages for 8 years in a typical Caribbean climate in ex-bourbon barrels. As the world’s first floral rum, the intention behind aging the rum is to preserve the naturally beautiful aromas. As well as to develop a rum that is perfect in its natural form without having to add a lot of extra trimmings.
Why choose Suncamino on Rovos Rail
Once the blend was perfect, the friends travelled to sunny Cape Town where a local botanist subtly infused the rum with natural floral extracts typical of the Cape. It is a beautiful bouquet of floral botanicals that complement the rum’s signature notes. What makes this rum so incredibly unique is some of the exceptional flavours found in the rum which includes Hibiscus, Honeybush and Orange Blossom. Suncamino Floral Rum can be enjoyed in a range of ways, it is only dependant on your mood. We invite the dreamers, the travellers, the chance-takers, and those who know the quality of life to bring their passion for everyday adventure to enjoy the rum on our train journeys.
Suncamina Floral Run can be enjoyed on a trip to Cape Town and all Rovos Rail journeys. Come as you are and you will be welcomed.
Please note that items on our wine list and bar menus are subject to availability and not always in stock and available on board.
Epitomizing a bygone era in train travel, Rovos Rail, The world’s most luxurious train provides a stylish experience on the 870-mile journey from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, to Pretoria in South Africa. Departing from Victoria Falls Railway Station – established in 1904 – insouciant baboons stroll on the platform, as rumpeter hornbills call from the canopies of Natal Mahogany trees. An à capella african choir serenades us enthusiastically, as we proceed along the red carpet to board the train. Like travelers of the Belle Époque, we are led by our hostess to our vintage sleeper coach, with its walls of burnished Mahogany. Our luggage is waiting, our double bed made up in crispy white linen and in our ensuite bathroom is immaculate. A canvas toiletry bag holds useful amenities. Low beams from the setting sun filter through three windows. The trainblows her high-pitched whistle, then with a chug, we are on the way.
Ladies and gentlemen are required to dress formally for dinner, so passengers arrive at the dining car looking elegant. Tables are made up of two-seaters and four-seaters, so guests may dine together or individually. White damask tablecloths, silver cutlery and cut glass crystalware complement fine china. Our sommelier, wearing a dapper waistcoat, pours the first wine with a flourish. We taste the iced Pecan Stream Chenin Blanc to be paired with the starter, declaring it to be delectable. Chosen carefully to be enjoyed any time during the journey, the wines are South African with 4-5 star ratings, including the renowned Meerlust Rubicon. The table d’hôte menu, with vegetarian options, has 3 courses, followed by a cheese plate, then dessert. Exceptionally tasty and presented with flair, the cuisine – with its accent on fresh local ingredients and traditional dishes – is a consistent highlight each day of the four-night journey on the world’s most luxurious train.
After the formal dinner, guests repair to their cabins, or stroll down carpeted corridors to the Lounge Car or Observation Car – that includes an open air balcony – for post-prandial conversation and a nightcap. Perfectly designed to mingle with fellow travelers, or to find a quiet corner, these cars have picture windows, comfortable sofas, wing backed chairs and booths. To re-create the feeling of timeless travel, in grandeur and quietude, the use of mobile phones is discouraged. This adds time for a game of cards, backgammon, scrabble, to peruse the leather-bound books, or to watch the scenery go by. The Club Car is a glass-enclosed space for smokers to take pleasure in their cigarettes, or cigars, while being able to watch the countryside on both sides of the train.
Returning to our sleeper carriage, we find the shutters closed, soft lighting over a turned down bed, plus a gift of Wedgwood nougat. Clothing that we had chosen for the excursion in the morning has already been pressed by our hostess. Though adrenalized by excitement and anticipation, the motion of the train and repetitive sound on the tracks eventually rocks us to sleep.
As the sun’s rays ease over the horizon at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, we enjoy a continental breakfast, including pastries still warm from the oven. Quality Twinings tea or cappuccinos are available. Disembarking for a game drive through this far-flung wilderness, an image of the savannah, in soft pastel light, is reflected on the side of the train. Sweeping plains of grass yield a rich reward of elephant sightings, including a breeding herd with tiny calves. We are driven through a forested area where the road is narrow and not often traversed, adding to our sense of being deep in remote Africa. We are surprised by a giraffe that peers down at us, seemingly curious, then he continues to strip leaves from a Camel-thorn tree.
Keeping up the tradition of excellence, for the morning coffee stop, a long serving table with a banquet of snacks has been prepared for us. Beneath spreading Leadwood trees is a semi-circle of canvas chairs. This is hosted by the owners of The Hide, a prize winning safari lodge.
Back at the train, we are greeted by staff, with champagne or pressed fruit juices. While we are savouring lunch in the dining car, the train is still traveling through Hwange National Park. With a mighty screech of breaks, the train stops! Someone has spotted lions on a kill, so we rush to the windows to watch the action of these big cats. Friendships are forged as we chatter about this sighting and how we are reveling in our Hwange venture. The adventurers of the Victorian era on the world’s most luxurious train could not have had it better than this.
When Rovos Rail halts at Gwanda, a village in Zimbabwe, we hop off the train for a leisurely walk to explore and to meet the local people. A donkey cart moves alongside pedestrians, while entrepreneurs hawk their array of goods, including vegetables, dried Mopane worms (protein rich), cigarettes, mobile phone time or second-hand clothing. Established premises in brick buildings sport names like Conquering Family General dealer, Liquid Sports Restaurant, and Mbalabala Cocktail Bar.
After a joyous time of street photography, I welcome the soothing air conditioning in the Lounge Car, as I quaff a chilled litchi virgin cocktail. Crossing the border from Zimbabwe – over the Limpopo River – into South Africa is a seamless process, organised by Rovos Rail staff. Panoramic views unfold as the train crosses the Tropic of Capricorn, heading southwards towards Pretoria and the olde world Rovos Rail Station.
For a change of tempo from the pace of city life, the demands of media and from one’s usual pre-occupations, this is a perfect way to slow down, to unwind, to allow thoughts to flow freely. Cuisine is superb, the wines and spirits par excellence and the service unobtrusive. It’s an enriching journey, a way to reconnect with yourself and with your partner, if you travel these tracks together on the world’s most luxurious train.
What better wine to enjoy on your next Rovos Rail adventure than with an acclaimed Cape dry white which defies perceptions of origin and which is tantalisingly called the Vagabond.
The Vagabond – made by The Fledge & Co. – is like a luxurious train journey; it is not about the destination but the level of satisfaction that you feel when you see the world at a more sedate pace. The wine is similar and takes a good few years to show at its best. Every vintage is like a voyage of discovery and can be compared to a cricket test match where each session should be played carefully and strategically.
The name Vagabond stems from the fact that the winemakers do not own vineyards but travel around diverse wine growing regions from Swartland to Agulhus in search of the best grapes they can find.
The Fledge & Co. is the remarkable undertaking by husband-and-wife team Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel who have attracted plenty of attention for their nonconformist approach to winemaking.
Fledge is a passion project that started back in 2007 and is an expression of the couple’s desire to handcraft authentic wines to enjoy with fine food with good company. The wines are unflinching, eclectic and experimental and express their true sense of place (terroir) through a combination of “old school” techniques and innovative methods, while driving an agenda of concern for their soils and the environment with a carbon-neutral or carbon-sensitive footprint.
Margaux Nel has an impressive wine pedigree and is a seventh-generation winemaker from Calitzdorp (South Africa’s Cape port capital) in the Klein Karoo where the Nel family has plied their trade for many years. She is also the winemaker for Boplaas (the family estate) where The Fledge & Co. is also produced.
Margaux is in charge of the cellar while Leon collaborates with the farmers they work with and together they blend The Fledge & Co. wines. Explains Leon: “We are currently working with nearly 50 different vineyards and around 28 different varieties from across the Cape.”
The Vagabond is produced from vines planted from 1971 to as early as 2010; many are old dryland bush vines while others are grown more conventionally but all are produced by farmers who believe in sustainability.
The blend changes with each vintage but varietals generally included are Chardonnay, Steen (Chenin Blanc), Viognier, Verdelho, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. Sometimes there is even a blast from the past with the inclusion of the rare Hungarian Hárslevelü – fully skin fermented as one would a red.
Says Leon: “Our aim is to showcase the best of the Cape in a glass and produce a wine which works well with food but can also be enjoyed on its own. We want to defy preconceptions which is why the Latin on the front of the bottle says Prudentia Sine Vino (An Independently Minded Wine). It is only in the Cape that one has the freedom to blend such a diverse (some may think mismatched) variety of different grapes together to craft a reflection of the diverse tapestry which makes up this wine.”
Vagabond’s components are vinified separately, either destemmed or whole bunch pressed and barrel fermented in old French oak for nine to 15 months until the final blend is made. It is racked into tank and left for another six to nine months on the lees. It is unfined and unfiltered when bottled and only sold when Margaux and Leon believe it is ready which is usually three years after vintage.
The wine profile is a mélange of orange blossom; ripe cling peach; yellow, orange and green citrus; pineapple; hay; hints of Rooibos and flint while honeyed almond and white spice abound on the bouquet. It is a perfect partner for roast fowl, duck or pork, traditional Cape Malay and mild Cantonese cuisine or enjoyed as an aperitif.
Devotees affectionately call this wine the “Geel Slang”, Afrikaans for the resplendently golden yellow Cape Cobra sometimes found in the vineyards, a beautiful reptile with an impressive strike.