Monday, 9 December 2019

A nostalgic journey through Matabeleland on the Rovos train

Just over fifty years ago, in September 1969, Barbara and I said farewell to South African friends who had travelled with us from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and we set off for our new life in Zambia, our first time alone in this vast continent!
The Great North Road took us on a 485 km journey to the Limpopo River, the border between South Africa and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. After an overnight stop in the small town of Gwanda, we passed through the heart of Matabeleland and the anachronistic town of Bulawayo, with its 1950s cars, and roads, wide enough to turn a full span of 16 oxen, lined with jacaranda and bougainvillea. Then on to Victoria Falls along the straight 450km road through unchanging dense bush. At last we came to the mighty Zambezi river and crossed the Victoria Falls Bridge and into Zambia and the start of my now half century in the mining industry.
On the Victoria Falls bridge overlooking the Zambezi
So impressed were we with Rhodesia that a year later we spent a couple of weeks touring this beautiful country (YouTube), the 'bread basket of Africa'. The roads were immaculate, hotels and restaurants of a very high standard and the local people were friendly and accommodating. Rhodesia, like South Africa, was also under white minority rule, Ian Smith’s Government having declared unilateral independence from Britain four years earlier and there was a pervading air of optimism and confidence in the future of this small country, which had everything to sustain it, agriculture, minerals and enormous potential for tourism. Who could have envisaged that South Africa would enjoy peaceful transition to majority black rule under Nelson Mandela, whereas Rhodesia would be plunged into a bloody civil war, leading to the horrors of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe?
Just over 50 years later Barbara and I travelled the same route last month after Flotation '19 in Cape Town, but this time by rail, rather than road, and through a very different Zimbabwe, economically ruined by the despotic Mugabe and his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as 'the crocodile' because of his political cunning. The people of Matabeleland suffered the most under Mugabe, particularly in the early 1980s when he sent in troops to put down opposition supporters in this region.
We travelled to Victoria Falls by the Rovos train, South Africa's rival to the more famous but equally luxurious Blue Train, from Pretoria, the Great North Road running parallel to the train track for much of the route, and we entered Matabeleland as in 1969 at Beitbridge. 
Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn near Mokopane

The first of our three fine dinners, prior to crossing the Limpopo
The following morning we passed slowly through baobab country and almost 30 hours after leaving Pretoria we arrived at Gwanda, our first overnight stop half a century ago.
Baobab country
A short stop at Gwanda
The third day was particularly interesting as we travelled between Matabeleland's capital, Bulawayo, and Victoria Falls, passing through the vast Hwangwe National Park, where passengers could spot game from the train.

A late  afternoon game drive provided many with their first really close encounters with African wildlife, always a very special experience.

And what better way to end a memorable day than a sundowner in the bush before returning to the train to dress for the final dinner.

The following morning, exactly three days after leaving Pretoria, we pulled into Victoria Falls station and said our goodbyes to our fellow travellers and the exemplary Rovos staff and the end of a truly memorable journey. 
Victoria Falls would be the highlight of any itinerary to Southern Africa and can be reached via direct flights from Cape Town, so would I recommend the Rovos experience, a 3 night excursion from Pretoria?
For many of the international travellers on the train, this was their first experience of Africa and without exception they enthused about this mode of travel, a luxurious reminder of a bygone era. The service and food on Rovos were first class, and the journey delivered everything that was promised and more,  unlike the Blue Train from Pretoria to Cape Town, which promised a visit to the diamond museum and Big Hole at Kimberley, something which did not happen, and apparently rarely does.
But don't expect to glide smoothly through the endless and ever-changing African landscape. For most of the route, particularly in Limpopo, and much of Zimbabwe, the train bucks and rolls along the poorly maintained undulating track. However, if you enjoy train travel, meeting people of all nationalities and being transported back to a time of elegance where dressing for dinner was expected, then this is a great option for experiencing this most wonderful of continents, providing you can manage without those modern necessities internet and mobile phones for three whole days. Without hesitation we would recommend Rovos to anyone wishing to experience the magic of Africa in a relaxed and leisurely way.
And a final recommendation: Victoria Falls is not only a magnificent spectacle viewed from Zimbabwe and across the river in Zambia (see The Smoke that Thunders).
The Devil's Cataract, Zimbabwe
The Eastern Cataract, Zambia
The region teems with wildlife (see also posting of 26th November), so an evening sundowner on the Zambezi is highly recommended, as is a day excursion into Botswana to Chobe, perhaps Africa's most impressive National Park (see Nature's Paradise: Chobe, Botswana).

Evening sundowner cruise on the Zambezi
Elusive black rhinos near Victoria Falls
Some of Chobe's resident 120,000 elephants, the highest concentration in the world
If you would like to experience this 'taste of Africa' trip after a Cape Town conference, I would suggest that you contact MEI's excellent agent Rene Simpson ( who will arrange a seamless, custom-made itinerary for you.



  1. Now that is soemthing worth seeing an experiencing... lucky you guys.... regards M

  2. Fabulous photography, and you write so well. Your historical perspective merits a book.

    1. Thanks Franklin, much appreciated, although no plans for a book!

  3. Barry, you have so many facets--wrote such an excellent book on Mineral Engineering at such an young age which is still a must read to students.
    You bring so many professionals of our discipline by organising such focussed Seminars and then summarise the essence in such simple and precise manner.
    Above all, your narratives on history of places you visit with excellent visuals are indeed a treat.
    I am proud to be a Mineral Engineer because I am getting an opportunity to follow you over so many years.
    You and Barbara are indeed networking so many professionals with these narratives--nature to minerals.
    Best to you both.

    1. Thanks TC, we really appreciate your kind comments

  4. Wow what fabulous travel article (thankyou Google). My husband and I did the trip by Blue Train from Pretoria to Cape Town a few years ago. It was our first trip to Africa and like you it was disappointing and we felt cheated that it did not stop at Kimberley.

    We saw the Rovos train from Pretoria to Durban on TV, but having read your article are now planning to take Rovos from Pretoria to Victoria Falls as soon as Coronavirus allows

    Alice Sutcliffe, Ipswich, UK

    1. Make sure that you spend some time at Victoria Falls, Alice, and try to take the day trip to Chobe in Botswana


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