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The wonder of it all - a slow train through South Africa the best way to golf and see wild life

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
African Pride Champagne
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Those returning from day excursions from African Pride have chanpagne waiting. (.)

ABOARD THE AFRICAN PRIDE, South Africa - Taking a slow train through South Africa, with the moon rising over Pretoria, you watch the dark shapes moving fast in the shadowy vastness of the moonlit Karoo.

Was that a black rhino? A big antelope? Whatever it was, it's gone now and you're left to wonder. That's mainly what you do aboard the African Pride, a Rovos Rail vintage luxury train, as it ambles through the harsh, wide-open South African moonscape - wonder.

You wonder at the almost overwhelming sense of space of the Karoo, a semi-desert region that takes up nearly a third of South Africa, which is itself five times the size of Great Britain. Translated from Afrikaner, Karoo means "great thirst land," and when the African sun pours through your window in the early morning like something taking aim, it's easy to appreciate the meaning.

If you're a golfer - and you have the time and money - this is probably the most luxurious and exotic way to travel and play golf in the southern part of the dark continent.

Air like 'dry champagne'

The Karoo stretches over the South African plateau inland from the Cape coast, and climbs to about 6,000 feet above sea level. When you climb out at Matjiesfontein (pronounced mikey-fon-tane) about halfway through the two-day journey, you're enveloped in air that South Africans like to describe as "dry champagne."

In fact, Matjiesfontein is a former health resort of sorts, founded more than 100 years ago and where British royalty and the South African elite once came to drink in the high, semi-desert sun, which warms instead of wilts at this altitude. Now, it's mainly tourists with digital cameras and camcorders.

It's one stop along the way of the trip, this particular route departing from Pretoria and heading south toward Cape Town, 1,600 kilometers away. Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, is much greener than its larger and grittier neighbor Johannesburg, with jacaranda trees lining its wide streets.

Springbok and kudu

The train passes Johannesburg in the night, the lights of Soweto shining forlornly in the distance, and when you wake up, you're in the Karoo. It's reminiscent of the American West, only with small herds of sprinkbok and kudu, along with sheep, horses and cattle.

You pass small Afrikaner farms with windmills, some with their own private cemeteries. You pass small towns, some squalid, some not. You pass families living in the shade by the side of the tracks, moving in the same languid grace their ancestors did a thousand years ago. All from the comfort of your air-conditioned suite, drinking your glass of champagne that your personal hostess laid on your pillow the night before.

If you're lucky enough to pass through Matjiesfontein on a Sunday, you may hear clapping and singing coming from the tiny church with its corrugated iron roof, and you'll take that ancient rhythm with you the rest of the trip.

In between, there is nothing and everything - the openness of the land, dotted only occasionally by the small, hardy acacia, makes it easy to spot game.

Diamonds and pink flamingoes

Outside of Kimberley, where a mammoth diamond discovery launched the economy that has turned South Africa into what it is today, you see thousands of pink flamingoes congregated on a small lake - never mind the smell of raw sewage, just leave your window down.

Kimberley itself is a clean, modern town of more than 200,000 people and without the sort of violent crime elsewhere in South African cities. No burglar bars or barbed wire fences on homes here - only around the diamond mining operations. The town is dominated by the "big hole," the largest man-made hole in the world, dug back in the days when diamond-crazed prospectors hit town. After the hole widened on its own, swallowing a few houses, they fenced it off and turned it into a tourist attraction, with a museum and "authentic" turn of the century era mining town.

Outside Cape Town, the scenery turns more dramatic until you reach Cape Town itself, crowded around one of the most spectacular locations on earth - a 1,073-meter mountain in the dead center of town, dominating the surrounding beaches and wine vineyards.

'Lost art of conversation'

But Cape Town is the destination - the wonder is in the journey itself. The African Pride is one of two luxury rails in South Africa, the other one being the Blue Train. The difference is that while the Blue Train is sleek, modern and fast, Rovos is purposely slow and old-fashioned. Its Edwardian carriages a throwback to a time when rail travel was meant to be time-consuming.

"The whole idea was to bring back the lost art of conversation," said Rovos official Nicky MacFadyen. "It's meant to be as relaxing as possible."

It's almost impossible not to relax as you lay in your big bed in your big, mahogany-paneled suite, watching the amazing African landscape unfold outside your windows, like a real-time documentary.

Rovos has everything you would want in a luxury rail: superb food, impeccable service, large suites - all in early 20th century decor. There are two dining cars, one done in 1911 decor and the other from 1941.

Seamless, luscious and lingering

In fact, when you're not being awed by Africa, you're probably eating. Dinner is a formal occasion, befitting the menu - ever had "springbok loin?" Maybe you want to start your meal with an appetizer: Try the gratinated oysters parmigiana - oysters encased in a cheesy sauce that has a hint of garlic. Or prawns sauteed in ginger in mint.

Still, the food selection is minuscule compared to the wine - el vino is clearly the star on the African Pride. Try a glass of Pongracz, a "classical yeast and biscuit character on the nose with a full fruit and acid balance on the palate." Or a Joostengberg chenin blanc harvested in late 2003: "The wine is seamless, luscious and ends with lingering acidity."

Golf safari

The two-day trip is only a sample of what golfers get. Rovos offers a nine-day "golf safari" that starts in Pretoria and heads east to the Drakensberg escarpment en route to Nelspruit, with stops at courses like Leopard's Creek - an otherwise private club - the Royal Swazi Golf Club in Swaziland, the Durban Beachwood Country Club and the Champagne Sports Resort, in the foothills of the Drakensbergs, before ending at Sun City.

The package also includes "game drives" at Kruger Park, a truly amazing game park, and two in Zululand. There are also shopping excursions and various tours, including one of Durban and one of famous battlefields. Neither trip is cheap. The two-day trip starts at about $2,000 - it's $10,900 in South African rands, which fluctuates against the dollar - and the golf safari is about $5,000 or $33,500 rands.

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Pink FlamingoesThe Karoo - African Pride

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Things to do

    Jehnavi wrote on: Jun 10, 2010

    The train, however, is called the Pride of Africa and not the Africa Pride and the owner Rohan Voss and his son are both keen golfers and were on the train when I went with my wife. If you can afford to do this just once, then do it.


  • Train freak

    African Safari Vacations wrote on: Jan 1, 2010

    I am,from my childhood days till now,crazy about trains.And this simply is the best idea to explore these amazing places in South Africa.


  • Golf Train on Garden Route

    Zig Nielsen wrote on: Oct 28, 2005

    I just thought I would point out to readers that there now is another luxury golf train, this one on the Garden Route, covering courses from Cape Town through Arabella all the way to George and Knysna. Their web site is at http://www.steamtraincompany.com/


  • Golf Safari

    Ian Henderson wrote on: Apr 25, 2005

    I have been on this 9 day golf safari and it is indeed the best golf tour I have ever experienced. You really do feel like Royalty!! and the golf courses are first class. Everything about this all inclusive holiday is fantastic from the crystal glasses to the caddies with your name on their backs to the safari parks. The train, however, is called the Pride of Africa and not the Africa Pride and the owner Rohan Voss and his son are both keen golfers and were on the train when I went with my wife. If you can afford to do this just once, then do it.