The Cape to Cairo dream never did come to fruition, but its spirit persists and encapsulates the enduring love affair that South Africa has with luxury rail travel. Two of its train services regularly features among the top five most luxurious in the world, and although Cairo remains firmly out of reach, options abound for train journeys that weave their way around the awe-inspiring mountain ranges that dot the continent, traverse arid desert landscapes, or make their way through untamed savannah grasslands teeming with wildlife.
The first and still one of the best, the Blue Train was the trailblazer that set the tone for luxury rail travel in South Africa connecting the dual capitals of Cape Town in the South with Pretoria in the North. This magnificent, moving five-star “hotel-on-wheels” is the only in the world to feature a deluxe cabin with a full-sized bathtub. Because nothing quite says luxury like soaking in bubbles at 100km an hour.
Although it doesn’t boast the long heritage of the Blue Train, Rovos Rail matches it on luxury and indulgence and is in a class of its own when it comes to the variety of destinations on offer. These wood-panelled 5-star choo-choos can scoot you to Cape Town, Victoria Falls or even take you on a rail safari as far as Tanzania. All, of course, with your pampered posterior seated firmly in the lap of luxury. The birth of these luxurious beasts also has an interesting backstory. The company had a humble beginning with the purchase of a single coach shortly after Founder Rohan Vos fell in love with steam trains. Inspired by a Wilbur Smith novel heroine with her own private railway coach, he set off on recreating the ultimate steam train journey. Today, Rovos Rail still offers a limited number of steam train journeys, but their longer routes now run on a fleet of efficient diesel and electric locomotives. Keeping the nostalgia of the golden rail age alive, Rovos has one of the most extensive collections or restored vintage coaches, many of which are actively in use.
The Shongololo Express is another train from Rovos Rail. It’s "only" billed as a 3-star experience relative to Rovos’ usual 5-start fair, but The Telegraph boldly states that it offers the best affordable rail adventure in Africa. The Shongololo offers three key routes that snake through Southern Africa on tours that take between 12 and 15 days. The train mainly travels at night and guests are taken on day tours to see the major sites and experiences as they move along their chosen route.
Okay, so this may not be a luxury train experience, but it definitely is vintage and a great way to spend a day. The Franschhoek Wine Tram is a hop-on-hop-off tour that only stops at vineyards in the picturesque Franschhoek Valley where you can enjoy breath-taking scenery, warm hospitality, world-class cuisine and award-winning wines. All while you soak up the more than 300-year history and outstanding natural beauty of the oldest winemaking region outside of the Mediterranean.