So many stories appear in the media about the sorry state of South African national railways – trains that don’t arrive, crash and get torched, railway tracks and signals that are stolen, new engines too tall for the network, the rail company in charge of them, Prasa, bankrupt – it is astonishing to see what the small private Rovos Rail has quietly achieved over the past three decades. It makes one want to see what owner Rohan Vos could do to put the country’s railways back on track. (President Ramaphosa, are you listening?)

Consider the map below, for instance. In 30 years, as South Africa’s rail system – once one of the best in the world – was systematically allowed to fall to pieces and be plundered, Vos started with just one short train journey out of Witbank and now his trains go almost halfway through Africa! That is no small feat.

The routes of Rovos Rail’s trains through Africa. Photo: Instagram/rovosrail.

He has negotiated with other countries like Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia and the DRC to get his trains into those countries and then across them. (South Africa’s national carrier, if it can be called that, doesn’t even run passengers across the border into Mozambique, a line created more than a century ago and was a lucrative link between Johannesburg and Lourenco Marques, now Maputo.)

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A photo from 1975 of the train between Johannesburg and the Mozambican capital. Photo: David Wardale.

In August, Rovos completed the first-ever trip by a passenger train (possibly any kind of train) across Africa from east to west – 4,339 kilometres from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Lobito, Angola – and back again. Few in the local media carried the story, despite the incredible frustrations and obstacles Vos must have faced, and the stamina and vision the project – now to be one of Rovos’s growing number of journey offerings – must have demanded. (Several Angolan media outlets, however, made a big deal of the news. See the video below.)

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Ponta da Restinga, Lobito. Photo from Youtube, Jaime Leite Velho.
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The Shongololo Express. Photos by Rovos Rail, unless otherwise stated.

Vos was quoted last month saying the transcontinental trip had taken “over two years to acquire permission and have our proposed itinerary approved by the respective authorities.” But he did it.

“Competitively, Rovos comes out far ahead.”

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One of the Rovos staterooms. Your home as you travel in style.

According to Railway Gazette International, the journey from Dar carried more than 50 passengers and first travelled over the Tazara railway line from Dar to Kapiri Mposhi and then went via Ndola to the Zambian border with the Democratic Republic of Congo at Sakania. From there it continued through the Copperbelt, the first passenger train to complete the journey, using the 1067mm gauge railways built to serve the mines in Zambia and the DRC. The Rovos train then headed for Lubumbashi and Dilolo near the border with Angola, and crossed to Luau, where it joined the Benguela railway, which was rebuilt by Chinese contractors in 2008-17. The train then made its way for Lobito on the Atlantic Ocean.

“Rovos is known around the world as one of the best five-star trains.”

It all began in 1985, when Vos, who was living with his family in Witbank, had the idea to buy up some old railway coaches and renovate them for his family to use. (The Rovos history is worth reading, if only to get an idea of how much red tape Vos had to go through with the South African authorities. Rovos and the Blue Train have both often aired their grievances to Transnet, the company that runs the country’s rail networks, over delays and inefficiencies.) The first trip with paying passengers in 1989 was to the Lowveld, and then there was one to Cape Town. The rest is history.

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Rovos traverses the Western Cape.

Today Rovos has Durban and Namibian safaris, a 15-day trip from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, shorter trips between Pretoria and Cape Town and up to Victoria Falls. Now Rovos Rail has its own private railway station in Capital Park, Pretoria, and employs at least 440 people.

Rovos is known around the world as one of the best five-star train companies, ranking alongside the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, the Flying Scotsman and the Eastern & Oriental Express in Thailand. Almost four years ago, Rovos also acquired the lesser-known luxury train company Shongololo Express, which now offers three 5-star trips of between 12 and 15 days through South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and Swaziland. The company also has a number of guesthouses in St. James, Cape Town.

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Those who complain that Rovos’s prices are prohibitive should first check the competition in other countries. Competitively, Rovos comes out far ahead. One only has to compare what the company offers – not only the length and uniqueness of its trips, but the comfort and service along the way, and the luxury sidetrips, as well as the hurdles the company has to overcome to keep the trains running – and you can see that what Rovos has achieved is nothing short of miraculous.

For Rovos Rail journeys, click here.