Category : Our Team

Happy birthday, Rovos Rail!

happy birthday rovos rail
Image by freelance writer, Andrew Thompson

Another clickety-clack around the sun! We can hardly believe it. Happy birthday, Rovos Rail! 35 years. What an achievement.

Some of you are familiar with our story but, for those who aren’t, we’re a small family-owned and operated business that launched our first overnight journey on 29 April 1989. When we celebrated our 30th birthday in 2019, we produced a short film where you will meet the family and team members who narrate the Rovos Rail tale and now, five years later, we have so much to add to our story.

Since resuming our services post-pandemic, we introduced the new 15-night African Trilogy journey. We have now operated this trip four times and on the last sojourn we sent a film crew to capture its magic (click here). We’re proud of this adventure because we feel the African Trilogy shows our guests a true cross-section of Southern Africa from its east coast to Namibia in the west.

We also sent trains all the way to Angola and back on our Trail of Two Oceans and Copper Trail trips. And wow, what a challenge these journeys are to operate given that water, electricity and any kind of formal tourism are in short supply. But we succeeded and our brave band of intrepid travellers had a good time, which is all that matters.

Unfortunately some of you reading this would have experienced delays and other obstacles due to infrastructure failures within South Africa. Transnet (national railway authority) and Eskom (national electricity provider) are in a bind, which has presented problems for all trains on the railway network. To combat these issues, our formidable CEO, Rohan, and his problem-solving COO daughter, Tiffany, treated the company to its biggest birthday presents ever by purchasing combination electric and diesel locomotives. Should there be power outages or other challenges, we can seamlessly switch from electric to diesel for the journey to continue. This has not been an inexpensive endeavour and the business of hauling our trains with our own locomotives is not something we ever wanted but, with South Africa currently navigating significant crises, we figure the less reliant we are on parastatals the better it will be for our passengers and our team.

Since we last celebrated a significant milestone, we have said farewell to long-serving staff who either moved on or retired. We have also welcomed many new members to our team who took up key positions in human resources, sales, marketing, reservations, finance and in our workshops. We had to rebuild our staff complement after the pandemic and it finally feels like we once again have a robust team in place.

Over the past five years, our incredible workshop team has built two new train sets in between renovating and repairing existing stock, so we now have six full train sets! There have been some moments over the past few years where our yard at Rovos Rail Station has been empty of carriages because they have all been out on various journeys; these moments have felt rewarding and certainly made us feel proud.

We remember back in 1988 when we first put the word out that we were launching a vintage luxury train in South Africa, many people thought Rohan was crazy and didn’t believe he would succeed. We don’t blame them; sometimes we feel the same but, here we are, 35 years on, and we have Rohan and his wife, Anthea, to thank. Working at Rovos Rail is a wild ride with no day ever the same. To not be bored or feel stuck on a hamster wheel is a gift and, although the stress can feel overwhelming at times, there is never a dull moment and for that we are grateful. We are a quirky and eclectic bunch who care deeply about Rovos Rail and who genuinely love our beautiful trains!

A heartfelt thank you to our industry colleagues and the media who have supported us over the years. And to our guests, especially our Rovos Club members, we would not be here without you and it is our privilege to have welcomed you on board. Thank you for travelling with us.

Congratulations to Rohan, Anthea, Tiffany and the rest of the family and a very big happy birthday to Rovos Rail!

Rohan and Anthea Vos with Rohan’s late mother, Marjorie, and Brenda, Bianca, Shaun and Tiffany.

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Happy birthday, Rohan!

From all of us we say, happy birthday Rohan! To his grandchildren he is “Papa Choo Choo”, to his children he is Dad or Pops and to his team, he is Rohan. And today marks another gallop around the sun for this determined young man.

For as long as any of us can remember, Rohan has never been in South Africa to celebrate because for the past three decades he has always travelled to Berlin to attend the ITB travel trade show which falls over his birthday. And this year is no different as he flew to Germany a few nights ago and is deeply entrenched in his Rovos Rail sales hustle!

There have been a few guests in the past who have been curious about the man who dared launch a vintage luxury train in a time where political restlessness was reaching its inevitable boiling point. With South Africa’s post-apartheid era on the horizon, there were many who packed their bags for Perth and those who loudly predicted outright civil war. So who would start a luxury train company during a time of so much uncertainty and especially a business whose success would, for the most part, be heavily reliant on international travellers?

We’re not sure that Rohan’s late mother, Marjorie, knew what she was in for when she birthed a lanky, big-eared babe on 7 March. We remember anecdotal tales of him entering the world with ferocity on his face which, 78 years later, is still very much there. Even at a young age, Marjorie knew that being a solo act would be the only option for her extremely intelligent, can-do young man. Given that he never appreciated being told that he couldn’t do something, there was certainly anxiety over how he would fare at school.

Born in Cape Town in 1946, Rohan attended Western Province Preparatory School before completing senior school at Bishops Diocesan College where one or two of Rohan’s teachers identified his genius but also recognised that if his restless energy wasn’t correctly channeled he might fail high school or pursue naughtier adventures (which he already had plenty of). So in his senior year he was made captain of the first rugby team and head of his boarding house leaving him no option but to focus, lead and thrive.

Rohan began his professional career selling encyclopedia’s and also opened the doors to a discotheque in Witbank (situated in the former Transvaal) called Zorba’s Beat. Being interested in classic cars, boats, trains and planes, he started Witbank Auto Spares and also dabbled in commercial property ownership. His triumphs in Witbank lead him to a railway auction where he was the successful bidder on an old South African Railways coach. His intention was to renovate the carriage that could hook onto a regular commuter train so that he and his family had a “railway caravan” to explore South Africa. His application to the Railways was denied and it was suggested that he sell tickets and create a commercial venture.

Over a double Red Heart rum and Coke one evening in May in 1988, Rohan pondered his options and decided to take the risk of launching a vintage luxury train experience in South Africa. He and his wife, Anthea, travelled the country acquiring a train set and locomotive and the first overnight journey was launched in April, 1989. Fast forward 35 years and Rovos Rail not only has its own private railway station and headquarters in Pretoria but also houses its own six train sets, steam locomotives as well as its own fleet of diesel, electric and combination locomotive units. The company now offers 11 journeys ranging from three to 15 days with trains that traverse South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Namibia.

At the tender age of 78, Rohan is not slowing down. Operating trains across Southern Africa certainly keeps you on your toes as does his family which is made up of mostly women – it seems to be Rohan’s fortunate lot in life to be surrounded by independent ladies who are not afraid to put him in his place or throw the occasional eye roll his way.

Rohan also likes to keep active and fit so on Saturday mornings one might spot him and his pack of dogs hiking the mountain ranges of Cape Town. Or you might see him in his plaid shirt and oversized sun hat on the golf course on a Sunday. And if you’re really “lucky”, you might see him atop his bicycle, clad in all his glorious spandex, tackling the steep hills and undulating curves of the Cape.

In fact, this Sunday, Rohan will once again participate in the Cape Town Cycle Tour where he will aim for another personal best by cycling it in under four hours. And after he has cycled 109kms, he will be attending his granddaughter’s fourth birthday party where he will undoubtedly be tackled by his grandchildren but where he will also finally get some birthday cake.

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Shopping for Lobito

Lobito Laundry List

It’s difficult to believe that the third departure of our Trail of Two Oceans, from Dar es Salaam to Lobito is already done and dusted. We spoke of the inaugural journey’s success here so this time we thought we’d share a few behind-the-scenes details with you such as the trip’s extensive laundry list. This one train actually travels six separate journeys with a total of 23 400kms’s being traversed so the Lobito laundry list is mammoth!

First, a reminder of the six different journeys that this one train operated in two and a half months:

  1. Pretoria to Cape Town (three nights)
  2. Cape Town to Dar es Salaam (14 nights)
  3. Dar es Salaam to Lobito (14 nights)
  4. Lobito to Dar es Salaam (14 nights)
  5. Dar es Salaam to Cape Town (14 nights)
  6. Cape Town to Pretoria (three nights)

Each journey listed above had its own set of guests so the passengers who travelled with us from Pretoria to Cape Town disembarked in the Mother City as we welcomed new guests on board the trip from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam. The train and our crew would have hosted approximately 311 guests across these six separate trips.

We thought it might be interesting to share a few details with you about how some of our departments go about planning and packing for a train which was out for 75 days. We asked Ilana, the manager of our onsite laundry department, just how much linen is packed and she came back to us with the linen count for her Lobito laundry list:

  • 200 towelling robes
  • 200 towelling slippers
  • 108 antimacassars
  • 76 curtains
  • 256 fitted double sheets
  • 256 flat double sheets
  • 512 fitted single sheets
  • 512 flat single sheets
  • 1152 pillowcases
  • 384 large bath towels
  • 400 tablecloths
  • 450 linen napkins

We spent some time with Ilana and her team onsite so we could film them in action. Ilana started coordinating her Lobito laundry list in January so that should there be any additional linen required, the order could be placed and delivered in time for the train’s departure. The counting and packing of the towelling robes, curtains, sheets, duvet covers, pillowcases, antimacassars, towels, facecloths, tablecloths and serviettes began in early June and took place in amongst all the other journeys which were operating at the same time which mostly consisted of the Cape Town and Victoria Falls trips.

Aside from food and beverages, linen is probably one of the most complicated issues as our large laundry bags require space which is limited on board. We have three different suite categories on board the train, each with their own size beds and linen requirements so the counting out of sheets, blankets, duvets and covers, pillows and pillowcases is methodical.

Our hardworking team washes and irons bed and table linen every day as well as providing a laundry and pressing service to our guests. The curtains we have in the public coaches are made onsite by our upholstery team and these also need to be removed and cleaned by the laundry team on the train. Suffice to say that the crew is kept very busy. They are honestly magicians because not only is their role incredibly demanding, but their job also requires steady nerves and hands as the train traverses various countries on tracks that are not always that smooth. And they somehow pull this magic off working within confined spaces on board.

Another challenge with all the laundry is water supply. Once the train departs Dar es Salaam, areas which can supply us with water and have the necessary pressure in order for us for to fill up within a reasonable amount of time, are few and far between. A trickling hosepipe will not do so in 2022 we installed three 10 000L water tanks, on six-metre stands, in Kolwezi (Democratic Republic of Congo) and a large volume pump for a guaranteed water supply. A 21-coach train can hold approximately 54000L of water so to have this equipment available to us in Kolwezi is a welcome relief.

The onsite laundry team counted, recounted and packed over 100 laundry bags for the suites and public cars on board this train. Their Lobito laundry lists were endless with each being checked and cross-checked by Ilana and on-board staff so that nothing was short. When the train returned to the Rovos Rail Station in September, the staff had to count each item back into the onsite laundry so that the stock is ready and waiting for the next journey.

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Tiffany Vos-Thane, COO of Rovos Rail Tours Tours

Unstoppable with Tiffany at our Helm

By Brenda Fitchet

There are four siblings in the Vos family, three of whom knew they could not and did not want to take over and be at the helm of the family’s business when it was time. But the youngest, Tiffany, had the fire in her belly from the time she was born but knew that she needed to establish herself on her own merits before joining Rovos Rail. She has been at the company for five years now and there are many positive words used to describe her but the one that stands out the most is “unstoppable”.  

We were recently asked by one of our longtime Rovos Club members to describe 2023 in three words and it completely stumped us. The guest then asked us to “zoom in” because she wanted to know specifically what this year had been like for us, the staff.  

The small group of employees to whom this question was posed sat pondering for a good while and after some time the consensus was: challenging, stunning and profound.  

Challenging because we had to battle through another year with corrupt parastatals like Transnet and Eskom. Stunning because of lovely guests, beautiful views and successful train journeys. And lastly, and this one made us well up a bit, profound because of Rovos Rail’s leadership.   

It takes a special kind of chutzpa and a perfect blend of calm, intelligence and logic to keep all Rovos Rail staff feeling safe, confident and appreciated. And it also takes a resilient kind of patience to work with this eclectic, eccentric and passionate group of staff because as with all families, there are daily squabbles and everyone needs attention.  

When you have a Chief Operations Officer who is all those things and who is also a wife and mother of two young children, it makes you start to believe that perhaps super humans do exist. The daily challenges and enormous emotional output that Rovos Rail demands would shatter many people, but our Wonder Woman takes it all her in her stride and rarely misses a step. So yes, she is unstoppable.  

We haven’t spoken too much about Tiffany Vos-Thane, our COO. Mostly because she doesn’t like too much attention and also because 2023 seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye.  

Tiffany is the youngest daughter of Rohan and Anthea Vos, CEO and owners of Rovos Rail Tours (Pty) Ltd. She was born with a spreadsheet in her hand and a determination to conquer whatever she set her mind to whether it was academics or playing for her provincial hockey team as a young girl or beginning her hospitality career in a tough and grey city like London. 

Tiffany attended the International Hotel School in Cape Town and whilst still studying, worked as a trainee at the Victoria & Alfred Hotel at the Waterfront in the city. She graduated in 2006 and won herself a six-month internship with Starwood Hotels & Resorts working as a Sales Coordinator in New York.  

On returning to Cape Town, she scooped up a position at Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel where she began as a Guest Services Agent before being promoted to Groups & Incentives Sales. But international adventure was calling and so was an Events Coordinator position at the Imperial College Business School in London. Tiffany moved to the United Kingdom in 2010 where she lived for over a decade. 

After a short stint at the Business School, Tiffany returned to the Starwood Hotels & Resorts group and worked in the Events Sales team for Starwood Central London complex. Like Rohan, her father, sales was in her blood and she was determined to learn the skills it took to be an efficient executor of a lucrative sale. It only took a year for Tiffany to be promoted to an Account Executive where she focused on driving sales for the groups & events segment for Starwood Hotels London.  

Two years later, she earned another promotion to Sales Manager for Business Travel where she focused on driving sales and revenue for the Corporate segment for Starwood Hotels in London. The hotels included the Park Tower Knightsbridge, Sheraton Park Lane Hotel, Le Méridien Piccadilly, W London – Leicester Square & Aloft London Excel. 

Tiffany was in her Sales Manager position for a year before she was again promoted to Account Director of Business Travel where she managed the corporate segment for all Starwood Hotels in London. 

If you’ve ever worked in London, you’ll know how cutthroat the business travel sector is and how smart you have to work to have any kind of success. For Tiffany to have achieved what she did in five years is impressive and reiterates to us that not only did she have hospitality woven through her DNA, but that she could stand on her own, proving to herself and others that she was smart, unafraid of challenges and always willing to go the extra mile.

Rohan and Tiffany, circa 1988

In amongst all this determined hard work, there was a great deal of personal travel which took her through Europe, including a magical Christmas spent in Iceland, extensive travel through the United States and a three-month adventure through South America. 

In 2017, Tiffany earned a position as the Assistant Director of Sales for Business Travel for Marriott International but South Africa, family and Rovos Rail were calling her home. She felt it was time to create a space for herself within her family’s business and to prove to herself and Rohan that she could be his second-in-command as well as instill confidence in the market about her leadership abilities. After all, Rovos Rail needed a succession plan and Tiffany, with her siblings in full support, knew she could do it. 

After getting married in early 2017, Tiffany and her husband went back to London to pack up their lives before moving permanently back to South Africa. Tiffany joined Rovos Rail in an official capacity in 2018 and it quickly became apparent that she was well suited for a Chief Operations Officer position which was awarded to her in June of 2019.  

In her first two years, she overhauled the entire food and beverage department, renovated the entrance to the station and began the long, painfully tedious task of implementing a new and integrated reservations system. In many ways, she brought operations into the 21st century – we can laugh about it now but goodness, some of the systems we had in place prior to her arrival were archaic! 

Tiffany has spent countless hours with both Rohan and Anthea listening and learning. Rohan has spent a considerable amount of time explaining his thought processes regarding operations, the railway infrastructure and working alongside Transnet as well as other national railway authorities. It’s an enormous and sometimes overwhelming side of the business but with time, Tiffany has started to navigate on her own with Rohan standing by should her decision-making process need to be revised or her course of action pivoted.

With Anthea, Tiffany has learned about the ordering of stock – anything from bed linen to glassware to amenities or to wine. Anthea has taken Tiffany with her to look at new fabrics for the upholstery on board the trains, passing on lessons learned from experience over the course of 35 years.

And then came the Covid-19 pandemic. Together with Rohan, Tiffany had to mindfully manage this crisis which essentially shut Rovos Rail down for two years. As it was for many people across the world, the pandemic was an incredibly challenging and devastating time and something we could not have navigated without Tiffany’s calm communication and unwavering support.  

In 2021, she gave birth to her daughter which was followed by the birth of her son in January 2023. Justin, Tiffany and the kids live in Cape Town with Tiffany commuting to Rovos Rail’s headquarters in Pretoria every second week. 

Tiffany now manages 17 departments across Rovos Rail which includes HR, Training, Finance, Procurement, F&B, Laundry, Upholstery, Locomotive Department, Workshops, Train Operations, Train Staff, Reservations, Sales & Marketing, IT, Security, Hardware, Health & Safety. 

As for the future? Tiffany’s main focus for 2024 will be staff training across all departments but specifically the train teams. There is so much that goes into working on the trains and because we have been so busy, she feels that we have fallen short in equipping these young staff members with the knowledge and confidence they need.  

Rovos Rail also has a determined passion for sustainability and although enormous strides have been taken to be as earth-friendly as possible on board the trains, there is still more work to be done at Rovos Rail Station. Tiffany is determined to continue on with the “green” audit of each of the 17 departments she oversees in order to further minimize unnecessary waste.

As always, research into new and adventurous routes will continue be a priority because above all things, Rohan is a pioneer and with Tiffany having inherited his ambition and spirit for adventure, we are certain we will be bundu-bashing through different African countries for years to come.  

Rohan and Tiffany will continue to work together for years to come as this “handover” is complex. Having already spent five years in training, it will be interesting to see what the next five will bring as there have already been so many efficient and positive changes made to our day-to-day operations. Father and daughter will undoubtedly continue to butt heads because they are both stubborn, confident and incredibly passionate about operating a successful business.

The future of Rovos Rail is in good hands, not only with Tiffany as its helm but also with a strong and experienced management team in place. Both Rohan and Tiffany are ensuring a smooth transition but if we’re being honest, if you know Rohan, you know he is not going anywhere so our tall and lanky leader will be breaking boundaries for many years to come with his daughter watching and learning from the wings so that when the time is right, she is more than ready.

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Women’s Month: Renolda Motha

Written by Linda Sparks

Caring, responsible and a go-getter. I couldn’t agree more with the three words chosen by Rovos Rail train manager, Renolda Motha, when asking how she would describe herself.

Her accomplishment of rising through the ranks from her first job with the company as a room hostess, to one of the top jobs as train manager in her 14 years with Rovos Rail is testament to her go-getter drive. 

Her incredibly demanding position requires Renolda to be quick thinking and creative in looking after her passengers and staff, resolving problems, and finding solutions. She is on call 24/7, overseeing all aspects of the successful management of the train both in terms of transport logistics, as well as hospitality which entails taking care of her guests’ every need and supporting her staff.

Humility is an important value to Renolda, and she takes her inspiration from Rovos Rail’s founder and owner Rohan Vos whom she talks about with great admiration – from the way he conducts himself whilst travelling on the train to how he acknowledges and interacts with all staff members.

Renolda believes that dealing with people from different cultures and spheres of life has taught her to be humble. Interacting and exchanging information with a diverse range of personalities has broadened her knowledge and increased her skills. 

Communication is an integral part of Renolda’s job, and she appreciates the upskilling that the company invests in their staff. A recent communications course she feels has enhanced her management style, improved her communication skills, and developed her conflict resolution abilities. Her role requires her to communicate constantly – both staff and guests rely on her to provide ongoing updates to plans and schedules.

Renolda has hosted a wide range of international celebrities who’ve travelled on Rovos Rail – they include politicians, royalty, musicians and multi billionaires. One that stood out due to her humility was Nelson Mandela’s daughter, Zinzi. But it’s also the ordinary guests who have saved their money to tick a Rovos Rail trip off their bucket list that are inspiring to her.

Her favourite Rovos destination is Victoria Falls. One of the reasons is because as soon as the train crosses the border into Zimbabwe, they are able to use their own locomotives and train drivers which normally ensures seamless travel and a guarantee that they keep to their time schedules.  Renolda also enjoys the excursions offered on this journey which range from walks in the unique Matobo Hills to safaris in Hwange National Park where guests are almost always fortunate enough to see the Big Five.

On being asked to share something that people might not know about her, Renolda chuckled and told me that she likes the finer things in life such as sports cars and motorbikes! And that she has a fear of snakes which has created some tricky situations during her travels around Southern Africa.

When she’s not working and travelling Africa on the train, Renolda prioritises spending time with family and loves treating them to travel opportunities that she has been fortunate to experience. In her free time, she enjoys reading non-fiction educational type books, watching documentaries and cooking.

In keeping with her go-getter persona, Renolda has set her sights on achieving her LLB degree, something that she has already begun, in order to improve her business skills. Her long-term dream is to graduate, and ultimately start her own business, a travel agency or events company.

She is passionate about Rovos Rail, she says it’s a family, not only because it’s a family-owned business, but also because everyone works so closely together for long periods of time, the relationships formed are close, supportive, and transparent. She would not hesitate to recommend Rovos Rail to anyone considering a career in hospitality.

Renolda is a true example of what she describes as the biggest life lesson she has learned during her time with Rovos Rail, that being humble and working hard can secure a great future.

On every Rovos Rail trip Renolda sets herself the challenge of giving guests the very best African experience that they could possibly imagine – it’s the highlight of her job to see this come to fruition.  And it’s a privilege for Rovos Rail guests to have Renolda in charge of their train journey ensuring that their Rovos adventure is just that – the best.

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Women’s Month: Melody Maishman

By Linda Sparks

Melody Maishman, our dynamic Train Operations Manager, is the next megastar staff member to be highlighted for August Women’s month. The role Melody plays within the Rovos Rail family is to ensure that the company upholds the standards and values that the Rovos brand has come to be known for.

Her responsibility for the operational portfolio entails the planning and co-ordination of the train configuration and supply for each of the regular routes as well as the customised charters, dinner-runs and the many different annual journeys. Stores, staffing, training, and numerous other maintenance duties for the train fall under her direct responsibility.

Melody has been with Rovos for 28 years.  She applied for a hotel job that she spotted in a newspaper ad, only to discover during the interview that it was for a train position.  She was offered the job and has enjoyed working on the trains ever since.

She began her “journey” with Rovos Rail as hostess, gaining experience in various train departments, and through on the job training she gradually climbed the ranks to reach a management position.

In answer to the question about what she enjoys most about her job, Melody described the rush of adrenaline, the constant busyness and the immense pressure that comes with finding solutions to unexpected obstacles. She enjoys the incredible learning and growth opportunities which she is exposed to every day.  She values the feeling of being cherished and essential within the Rovos family which makes her job all the more rewarding.

Melody believes that through her job experiences she has learnt the value of patience and grasped that unanticipated events are a part of the logistics despite meticulous planning. These challenges have taught her to be adaptable and to think creatively on the spot. Interacting with diverse individuals, both guests and staff, from various cultural backgrounds has provided her with valuable insights into the essence of humanity.

One of the aspects of her work that fills Melody with pride is the many repeat guests that choose Rovos Rail for their holidays time and again. It is a sign of the success of Melody and her team, that they are delivering on the experience that they offer.  The commitment of the staff members who work in operations ensures that Rovos journeys become memorable trips for guests. And with the many challenges that come with our rail system every small victory adds up.

Melody’s favourite Rovos destination is Namibia. She describes how it stands out because the train track traverses a part of the desert, providing a unique and picturesque experience during the journey. The stunning desert landscapes and the sense of adventure make Swakopmund a popular choice among passengers.

In response to what three words she would use to describe herself, Melody picked “energetic”, “agile” and “committed”.

These characteristics are endorsed by Melody’s colleagues who have been known to describe her as “superhuman” and one of the most hard-working people in the company – her light is always the last to go off and she’s usually first in at the office. Working in such a close-knit environment for 28 years her colleagues know her well – they have witnessed all aspects of her first hand in a multitude of different circumstances.

Melody is known for her passion for animals and has rescued many that now live at the Rovos Rail offices. When not working Melody loves spending time with her animals and getting together with friends or family. She uses her leave time to unwind, recharge, and fully immerse herself in the things she loves doing the most.

Her goals include taking care of the well-being of her family, continuing to enjoy her work and to keep learning and growing in her experience with Rovos Rail.

Melody could write a book about all the interesting stories she has been a part of during her Rovos Rail adventures. But the one that stands out most for her is the Rovos story itself. How a man with a dream and a vision, through many, many, difficult situations can still triumph thanks to the buy-in and support of those around him in order to realise this vision.

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Travelling Teddy Bears

By Linda Sparks

We had no idea that our travelling teddy bears would draw such a crowd or that the travelling teddy bear “scene” had the sweet and very dedicated fanbase that it does.

I had a delightful chat with Sonja Peters from HiBearNation to get some insight into the heart-warming story behind the travelling teddy bears.

Max, an 80cm tall beautiful Steiff teddy bear seated beside Sonja joined us for part of the interview!

The Rovos limited-edition teddy bears came into being 25 years ago, and these adorable collectors’ items have been available for sale to guests ever since, in either the train gift shop or at the Rovos Rail Station.

Bev Duncan was the original creator of the Rovos teddy bears after Anthea Vos discovered her work in a small barrow at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. A 17-year friendship transpired in which time Bev produced 20 collections of 50 customised, handmade Rovos teddies as well as 600 kiddies’ bears. Very sadly, Bev took ill and passed away in 2015, Sonja and her husband Björn took over production the following year.

Sonja’s love for teddy bears was sparked on a visit to a character filled teddy bear shop in Knysna over 20 years ago. Soon after she attended a Teddy Bear Fair at Buitenverwachting, a Cape Town wine farm, where she purchased another special bear to add to her collection. Wanting a partner for this bear and being unable to find anything suitable, Sonja decided to create one herself.

Little did she realise that this would mark the beginning of a rewarding and successful teddy bear business which has seen her lovingly made creations find homes across the globe.

Sonja’s first big step (and leap of faith!) in this venture was her attendance as an exhibitor at the same Teddy Bear Fair that had inspired her first creation. With over 100 of her own handmade bears of different shapes and sizes the fair turned out to be a great success for Sonja and it was here that she met Anthea Vos and her association with Rovos Rail began.

In keeping with Rovos Rail’s reputation for luxury and excellence, Sonja’s bears are all handmade with the best workmanship and the finest quality materials. The use of natural substances is a priority, and this includes mohair, cotton, seed paper and recycled matter. Attention to detail is paramount with each bear having embroidered footpads, double stitched seams and the cutest miniature accessories from binoculars and spectacles to pocket watches and covered buttons, all handmade locally or sourced and imported from abroad. The intricate items of clothing that adorn each bear are painstakingly designed and made by Sonja.

Mohair is the perfect fibre for the Rovos teddy bears – often called the “noble fibre” or the “diamond fibre” – it is soft, durable, luxurious, and warm to the touch and the mohair story is a fascinating one in itself. A product of the Angora goat originating in Asia and imported to South Africa in the mid-19th century, there were over four million Angora goats in South Africa by the early 20th century and we are currently the largest producer of mohair in the world. The South African Responsible Mohair Standard ensures best practice of farmers including both land management and respect for the goats.

Sonja receives the mohair in large rolls, and after stencilling the pattern pieces on the back of the fur the pieces are cut with small scissors one-by-one by hand and then each pattern piece is sealed around the edges to prevent fraying – no mean feat considering that each bear has an average of 23 pieces!  The pieces are then pinned together, and each seam is double stitched with a sewing machine. Once sewn together the pieces are kept separately in what Sonja calls her “incubator” before each bear is jointed and stuffed. After the stuffing process every opening on every arm, leg and body is closed by hand with ladder stitching. All Rovos Rail bears are branded with their embroidered suede footpads, which are cut out and sewn into the leg pieces. The teddies are jointed with a selection of wooden discs and nuts, bolts and washers which allow their arms, legs, and head to move.

The aspect of her work that Sonja enjoys the most is when she gets her creative juices flowing in the idea and design stage of creating new pieces. Much research and planning goes into the conception and production of each bear, followed by the sourcing of materials and finishes to make her ideas come to life.

An exciting step in the process for Sonja is when the bears get their eyes as that’s when they come alive – she says it gives meaning to the saying that the eyes are the window to the soul!

Sonja has created 22 collections of 20 bears for Rovos Rail as well as 50 ShweShwe fabric bears for Shongololo Express. These sets include the popular Engineer (which has taken its inspiration from Rohan Vos!) and Golfer (with a miniature driver handmade by Björn), to teddy bears named after Vos family members all personalised to each one of them.

One of the most popular Rovos bears is the Safari bear with its sleeveless bush jacket and camouflage safari hat. Even the safari fabric was painted and printed by Sonja by hand to create a miniature camo pattern. Artist Manda Theart in Pretoria constructs the tiny camera and binoculars out of polymer clay which is baked in an oven.

Rovos Rail bear collectors can look forward to an enchanting new range of bears to be launched towards the end of this year, one of the new designs is a gorgeous Coal Stoker bear. A practical new touch now comes with every bear purchase – a hemp drawstring bag with the Rovos Rail crest, in which to keep the bear protected during travel.

Sonja’s passion for her teddy bears is contagious, and her talents ranging from imaginative and artistic to resourceful and practical, are inspiring. Proud owners of a Rovos teddy bear can appreciate the time, love, thought and expertise that goes into creating these unique collectors’ pieces. Those who are not yet Rovos bear owners will no doubt agree with the words of much-loved teddy bear Winnie the Pooh: “I know I don’t need one, but I’d like one very, very much, please.”

The Rovos limited-edition teddy bears are available for sale to guests, in either the train gift shop or at the Rovos Rail Station.

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Women’s Month: Daphne Mabala

Written by Linda Sparks

In celebration of Women’s Month in August, Rovos Rail is honouring three of our amazing female staff members.

First up is Daphne Mabala, described by colleagues as “Superwoman” who is one of six of Rovos Rail’s hard working and passionate train managers.

It’s a fitting month to pay tribute to Daphne as August also marks her 30-year anniversary of employment with Rovos Rail – a testament to her job satisfaction and loyalty to the Rovos family. 

After qualifying with a Diploma in Hotel Management, Daphne began her career with Rovos Rail in 1993 working as a waitress at the Victoria Hotel in Pretoria which was then on lease to Rovos Rail as their dedicated overnight offering for passengers.

In 2000 Daphne’s application for a train position as a hostess was successful and she has remained on the trains ever since. She worked through the ranks of admin and deputy manager before progressing to the challenging role of train manager in 2008.

When asked what she likes about her job Daphne responded that she doesn’t like her job she loves it!

She liked her role of welcoming guests into her home and ensuring that all aspects of hosting them is done correctly and in a professional way.

The role of train manager on Rovos Rail is a demanding one, being on call 24/7, and it requires a diverse range of skills and experience. This includes overseeing the staff on board, interacting with guests, and ensuring that all their needs are met, being proactive to prevent problems occurring, and dealing with the multiple technical and logistical challenges that come with travelling across countries and dealing with different railways around southern Africa.

As a train manager Daphne ensures that she is always one step ahead, she makes it her mission to get to know all of her staff in order to lead and support them well. She places a high value on education in all aspects of hospitality to ensure that she and her staff are able to deliver service excellence. This requires keeping abreast with international and local travel developments, being up to date with bar and culinary trends, and having a good knowledge of guests’ cultures and countries. 

This ethos sees Daphne doing research before guests arrive in order to understand their nationalities, customs, likes and dislikes. Meeting and interacting with people from around the world is one of the highlights of her job, she enjoys learning about other countries and how people live. 

As a manager of Rovos Rail trains it’s necessary to think out of the box and to be able to make an alternative plan when things don’t turn out as expected. Just one example of the many quick solutions that Daphne has had to find was when a trip had to be improvised due to a train derailment that obstructed the journey. Passengers were offered a variety of alternative options, one of them being to remain on the train waiting for the track to re-open, and this turned out to be a bonus for guests who ended up getting additional nights on the train that they hadn’t expected.

In response to my asking her to list three words that she feels describe her, Daphne came up with “ambitious,” “professional” and “organised”.

Her ambition is clearly evident in how far she has come from humble beginnings in a 4-roomed house in a township near Polokwane. Daphne always wanted to succeed in her career, and it is because she enjoys working with people that she chose to pursue a career in hospitality, she realised that succeeding in life is not based on a person’s background but rather hard work and determination

One of the hallmarks of Rovos Rail is the attention to detail that is applied to every aspect of the company. This is something that Daphne is proud to have learnt from Rohan Vos himself when he was hands on in running the trains.

Daphne loves travelling across Africa and visiting different destinations which all have their own beauty and appeal. One of her favourites is the Namibia Safari due its remoteness and the unique landscape of the sand dunes.

Daphne’s achievements in successfully managing Rovos Rail trains for the past 15 years have taught her the importance of hard work, making sacrifices in order to get results and that it is possible to start at the bottom and grow from there.

When she’s not working Daphne likes to spend her holidays visiting family and pursuing her hobbies of hiking, swimming, reading, and researching. One of her future goals is to eventually own a safe place to accommodate the elderly and disabled.

Daphne’s passion for her work and her pride for Rovos Rail is palpable. Guests travelling on a train with Daphne at the helm are privileged to be taken care of by someone who clearly gives her job her all whilst most importantly loving doing it.

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Rovos Rail, we’re back on track

Rovos Rail founder and CEO, Rohan Vos,
with his daughter and COO, Tiffany Vos-Thane

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.

Rovos Rail is back on track
Oh, the places you’ll go!
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East to West Success!

Images courtesy of Jos Beltman 

Our train arrived back from its mammoth journey on Friday, 6 September and we feel quite proud of this success. This train essentially travelled six different journeys, each with its own group of guests, and is the first passenger train in history to travel the east-to-west Copper Trail, from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Lobito, Angola. We called it the Trail of Two Oceans and did we mention that our maiden voyage was a success?!

The six journeys included:
* Pretoria to Cape Town
* Cape Town to Dar es Salaam
* Dar es Salaam to Lobito
* Lobito to Dar es Salaam
* Dar es Salaam to Cape Town
* Cape Town to Pretoria

Our one train travelled a distance of 23 400kms!

Daphne Mabala, our ever graceful and fearless train manager, over saw the operations of our new east-to-west route and we feel that the journey’s success was in large part due to her dedicated management. She was supported by her management team and our owner/CEO, Rohan, who seemed to spend most of his time shaking the hands of dignitaries, politicians and tribal leaders whilst posing for photographs.

Also on board were historian and raconteur, Nicholas Schofield, hair stylist and guest liaison, Craig Geater, a formidable management team, our own locomotive drivers and mechanics, hostesses, dining car staff, barmen and women, an excellent kitchen team, a strong maintenance duo and of course our laundry team who, together with the barmen and chefs, are the real stars of the show.

The trip was a great success in both directions with minimal adjustments to the running schedule. The receptions at Lubumbashi and Kolwezi were a surprise while the officialdom and huge crowds meeting the train in Angola was unbelievable. Governors, ministers, tribal leaders, mayors, railwaymen, clergy and many other dignitaries all dressed up in their finest were on hand to meet the train at all major stations, accompanied by numerous musical groups and tribal dancers.

The tourism department and railways went way beyond the call of duty to ensure a safe and successful journey, while the journalists and TV crews had a field day giving our visit huge publicity. Our thanks to everyone who met us along the way with such enthusiasm and support – you added a memorable and touching element to the journey that we could not have anticipated or hoped for.

The saying goes “save the best for last” and the best of this entire experience had to be our wonderful guests. Our band of intrepid travellers who braved this new route with us! Thank you for travelling with us and helping make it the success that it was. Thank you too for your wonderful feedback and constructive suggestions on how we might improve the itinerary all of which are being fiercely debated between Rohan and journey coordinator, Regárdo! The journey is sold out in 2020 and our commitment to a memorable and once-in-a-lifetime experience for our guests is almost stubborn so your feedback is much valued and appreciated.

Our motto at Rovos Rail is to celebrate our wins but never rest on our laurels so planning for 2020 and beyond is well underway. And because Rohan is not one to sit still and because Research and Development is his passion, we suspect that not only will he tweak the Trail of Two Oceans itinerary to perfection but that he’ll be flying all over Africa exploring additional routes too.

Stay tuned!

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