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Africa by rail: from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 13/02/2018 David Wishart

a train is parked on the side of a mountain © Provided by Evening Standard Limited Fancy a super spa in Africa? Take the train. Not any train, mind you. The one you want is Rovos Rail, where embarcation begins at Cape Town in South Africa — the fairest cape, as Sir Francis Drake said — and ends 15 days later in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

It is an indulgence of luxury on wheels, involving bush gear by day and Hermès ties at night. Ladies will likely wear Shimansky diamonds they bought in Cape Town. This is new-wave travel, where you (gently) rough it by day and dine in state in the evening.

Two nights in Tau Lodge on the border of Botswana, are en route. The first day we lunched by a waterhole with two white rhinos and the next day in the company of a giraffe, while nearby zebras fought off a pack of hyenas. On game drives we encountered huge lions and had sundowner cocktails, while our cottage overlooked a waterhole thronging with elephants and a crocodile. Equally enjoyable was the spa, where I had the best pedicure ever, followed by a massage that left me begging for more.

But Rovos Rail was waiting, and so was the track through Gaberone, capital of thriving Botswana, where a branch of Barclays Bank appeared to have survived an onslaught of gleaming, newly built office towers.

Then Zimbabwe, land of a brave people who are coming out of the Mugabe years and looking forward to a recovery economy with tourism doing well judging by the full house at the Victoria Falls Hotel, a colonial-style treasure reminiscent of the Raffles of old.

At sundown there are few places to match the terrace bar overlooking the graceful bridge built on the orders of Cecil Rhodes (the same engineers later built the Sydney Harbour bridge).

On our trip, old Africa hands and millennial tourists swapped stories about travel — and what constitutes an adventure. Such as the woman in a tented camp who phones the ranger at midnight to say: “There’s a lion here!” To which the ranger replies: “Madame, is it outside your tent or inside your tent?”

Then came the Victoria Falls experience, which began with a fine statue of David Livingstone, the first European to come here in 1855. Even today, when colonial-era monuments are being toppled from the Cape to Cairo, Livingstone is a revered figure and known to all school children in southern Africa.

Words cannot describe the sight, sound and spray that awaits the visitor at Victoria Falls.

And so the train carried on, stopping briefly on the falls to watch an American tourist bungee jumping to within a heartbeat of the crocodile-infested Zambezi. Rovos Rail trundled across Zambia and Tanzania, through the luxuriant Rift Valley with its baobab trees, and the huge Selous Game Reserve, where a final game drive was offered. Armchair travellers enjoyed comfortable lounges, including an open observation car, where the young staff served drinks in crystal glasses.

Meals brought everyone together — on our trip just a happy band of 35 — in the elegant dining room, whose teak pillars and wall lights delivered a clubby atmosphere that bubbled along on a tide of connoisseur-class Cape wines such as Bouchard Finlayson chardonnay and Diemersfontein pinotage.

Finally, after 3,568 miles, we reached Dar es Salaam. Tantalisingly close were Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti. Not that those were on my itinerary, but going home was hard to do.

Details: Rovos Rail fares for the 15-day journey start from £8,860pp. rovos.com

Related: Take a look inside Japan's new luxury train (provided by Rumble)

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