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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