Sunday 4 September 2016

Goodbye - eventually - to Rovos Rail

With thanks to Adventure World for this tailor-made holiday.
It was a noisy night. Squealing wheels, vibrations, rattling doors in the suite requiring folded-tissue inventiveness in the dark, the sudden loud pre-dawn descent of a metal window shutter… but we made up lost time and in the morning were on track for our scheduled 6pm arrival in Cape Town. Our only official stop of the day was at Matjiesfontein, a quaint little Victorian folly of a town, the work of an enthusiast who created not much more than a single street with hotels, post office, café, museums, the railway station and very little else, other than stillness and silence.
It was very odd, to look at well-maintained cars including a Mini and a Rolls Royce in such a place, feeling so far from anywhere. Even stranger was the Village Museum, a wonderfully eclectic collection of things from a stainless steel speculum to a slave shackle, by way of, well, just about anything you could imagine, all roughly organised and packed into an entertaining series of rooms and cellars.
I walked to the front of the train, past aloes and cactus (the one real reason for the establishment of the town in 1884 is the dry climate, prized by those suffering from TB and similar) for a closer look at the engines, ugly modern orange diesel-electric jobs, nothing like the splendid Shaun on Day 1. Nothing like as powerful, either: they both failed that afternoon. Joe, the train manager, looks a little like the sainted Mandela and shares the great man’s intolerance of the nonsensical regulations imposed on him. “We’re required to have two State-supplied engines on the train, but one wasn’t working and now the other has failed. Meanwhile, Rovos Rail has 10 shining, beautifully-maintained locomotives in the sheds that we’re not allowed to use in South Africa,” he said, exasperated.
So, we sat, and sat some more, drinking gin and tonics on the open observation deck at the back of the train and gazing out over the vineyards and occasional locals towards the spectacular mountain ranges getting more richly coloured as the sun dropped. No-one had a plane to catch, fortunately, and there was much laid-back jollity and wide-ranging conversation, from sea-horse breeding in northern Tasmania to English curry houses to the toilet arrangements on Canberra’s golf course to Oprah Winfrey’s unreasonable requirement for special water in the tanks under her suite’s carriage on the train (Phil Collins was apparently a much more amenable guest). 
There was presumably some behind the scenes agitation by the staff - especially since the big boss himself, Rohan Vos, had come aboard just beforehand to greet us all - but all we guests were completely relaxed about the delay. “After all,” shrugged the Tim Robbins lookalike, “it’s only a broken-down engine. It’s not as if they’ve run out of booze.”

There was telephoning and radioing ahead to waiting transfers, a very acceptable extra meal of smoked chicken, salad and icecream magicked out of the kitchen, more drinking and, eventually, two and a half hours late, arrival into Cape Town, its famous views hidden by darkness. And, after being such a leisurely (and thoroughly enjoyable) journey, it was all over just like that, everyone whisked away into the night.

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