Rovos Rail celebrated 30 years of luxury rail travel in 2019. Over the years we’ve included wonderful journeys such as the 8-night Rovos Golf Safari and the 9-night African Golf Collage in our packages, offering our clients the chance to experience the romance of luxury rail travel in Africa reminiscent of a bygone era.
To attest to the incredible experience Rovos Rail offers, many of our clients have returned to South Africa and once again included a journey on Rovos while visiting previously undiscovered regions and golf courses of our beautiful country.
In addition to the fabulous golf journeys on Rovos, the shorter 2-night Pretoria to Cape Town or the 3-night Pretoria to Vic Falls journeys also remain firm favourites amongst Golf 2 Africa travellers.
Memories of my first visit to Rovos Rail Station 15 years ago will remain with me forever. As I stood on the platform waiting for our clients to disembark, I noticed the tall figure of the owner of Rovos Rail, Mr. Rohan Vos, personally greeting the passengers as they stepped off the train. One of my friends at Rovos remarked that it has become a custom of Mr. Vos over the years to meet and greet each individual who travels on his trains. Most impressive indeed.
Since its first overnight journey with a seven-coach train to what was then the Eastern Transvaal, Rovos Rail has expanded exponentially and now offers eight trips around Southern Africa with more trains that can accommodate 72 passengers.
Also in the Rovos fleet of Pride of Africa trains is the Shongololo Express that was purchased and renovated in 2016. Three journeys are on offer ranging from 12 to 15 days with the train travelling for over 300 days of the year. “That train just goes and goes with very few issues – mostly I think due to the relaxed itineraries. It’s quite amazing,” comments Mr. Vos.
Asked if he ever thought Rovos Rail would progress this far, Vos responds: “Not at all. We lost so much money in the early days and we knew nothing about hospitality. In my naivety I believed what we were offering was so unique that tickets would sell easily. Boy, was I mistaken.”
With his wife Anthea at his side, Vos travelled the world attending travel shows and calling on leading travel agents and tour operators.
“It was both invigorating and exhausting,” says Anthea. “We were starting out at the same time as the Vartys from Londolozi and the late Liz McGrath as well as a few others. We all used to lose our voices from punting our offerings so vigorously!”
It took a decade for the company to break-even. “We managed to side-step bankruptcy more than once,” says Vos. “I was inexperienced and had no idea just how expensive trains would be to operate.”
An auspicious moment arrived in 1993 when Vos formed a relationship with Phillip Morrell from Jules Verne in the United Kingdom. Together they plotted a route from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. “We had no money at the time for any advertising, but we placed an ad in the Sunday Telegraph nonetheless. It was December and I didn’t hold much hope.”
However, much to his surprise, the advertisement worked and the maiden voyage sold out. When Phillip called to share the good news, Vos’s words to him were: “Send cash!” The new Victoria Falls journey proved successful.
The business now employs 440 staff members at Rovos Rail Station, the impressive private railway station and headquarters in Pretoria. In 1999, the derelict 60-acre property was rehabilitated and renovated to become the home of everything from the on-site laundry and kitchen to the locomotive and coach maintenance workshops, reservations and the finance department.
“We also have our own little museum that pays homage to our 30 years of operation and also South Africa’s railway history,” says Vos.
The company also has long-standing, amicable and prosperous relationships with many travel agents and tour operators around the world. “Without them we would not be here, so I feel this is as much their celebration as it is ours,” says Vos.
Like many in the hospitality industry, Rovos Rail has had to weather its fair share of turbulence and even though the company has grown substantially, the determined and family-orientated spirit that started the business 30 years ago is still very much at its core.
“We have staff members here who have been with us since the beginning and over 100 employees who’ve been here for over 20 years,” says Vos. “It’s quite incredible and unheard of these days so for this I am truly thankful,” he smiles.
Having worked with the family at Rovos Rail for more than 15 years and experiencing great occasions onboard Rovos firsthand, I can highly recommend including a journey on “the most luxurious train in the world” on your next African adventure.