Monuments and Steam Trains

Pretoria - Rovos Rail

Entrance walkway to the Alpine Attitude reception

It’s our first morning in Africa, or Pretoria to be precise and we are excited and nervous at the same time as we have no idea of what lies ahead of us in our African Adventure and whether it’s going to like us or not. 

We make ourselves look presentable and head downstairs for breakfast. There’s activity in the kitchen and Lucky, who got us settled in last night is there ready to take our order. There’s a fantastic range of cereals and fresh fruit, eggs are on the menu and we do our best to sample a range of offerings.

Today we have to be at the Rovos Rail Station in Capital Park by 2 pm to sign in and prepare for our 3 day 2 night “Pride of Africa” train voyage to Cape Town, and to say we are excited would be an understatement. We've decided to do a bit of sightseeing before our Rovos deadline and have asked the manager to see if she can book a taxi from the same company, Rixi Taxis, we used last night.

Prior to the trip my personal trainer, Phil Cunningham, or “Evil Phil” as I like to call him, told me about his time in Pretoria and some of the mis-adventures he got up to, including a trip out to see the Voortrekker Monument, which he described as a bit of a “Raider of the Lost Ark” moment. So first on our schedule would be the monument.

We had just finished breakfast when the manager came over and let us know our taxi was waiting for us outside. We grabbed our gear and there was our yellow taxi, looking a little like a London cab, we had a bit of a chat with the cab driver, whose name was Joseph, and told him that we wanted to have a bit of a look around and off we went.

Our Yellow Taxi

It’s about a 20 minute drive from the hotel up to the monument but the damn thing is so big you can see it way before you get there as it’s seated right on top of a hill. We pay our entrace fee and David drives us up to the main entrance stairs to the monument. We ask Joseph if he’d come back in an hour and a half to pick us up and take us to some other spots we want to see.

Voortrekker Monument

We start climbing up the stairs to the monument and as you get closer you realise what a huge building it is. It was built to honor the Voortrekkers who left the Cape Colony between 1835 and 1854 as a “monument that would stand a thousand years to describe the history and meaning of the Great Trek to its descendants”.

There is a second set of stairs that take you into the monument and once you are in there you really feel like you are in a set from Raiders! The first space you walk into is the Hall of Heroes, in the centre of the floor is a large circular opening where you can look down at the Cenotaph. There is an opening in the dome where on the 16th of December at 12 noon a ray of sunlight falls onto the centre of the cenotaph striking the words ‘Ons vir Jou, Suid-Afrika’, which is Afrikans for ‘We for Thee, South Africa’.

There is a lift, and stairs, up to the top where you can look down from the dome into the Hall and down into the room with the Cenotaph. Being the fit and healthy older folk we are we took the stairs! I have to say it’s a long way down from the dome viewing area and there was a wee bit of vertigo when I leant over.

Looking down into the Hall of Heroes from the dome

On the way up to the dome you pass through an area like a battlement around the monument. On the way down I stopped to shoot a 360 Panorama from there and as I was setting up Kelly got a shot of me preparing.

Tony setting up for a 360˚ panorama

It took a while as people walked in and out of the shot as they do. Finally, with Kelly pacing up and down, I was done and off we went. Back down at ground level we took a bit of a walk around the base of the monument, on each outside corner there is a statue, this is Piet Retief, one of their leaders, each statue weighs around 6 tons.

Piet Retief statue

Further out around the base is a beautifully maintained garden and it's a joy to walk around on such a lovely day. We had a chat with one of the gardeners, named David, about the garden, what it took to maintain and he told us how much he enjoyed working in it.

David the gardener

I realised, after viewing some of the panorama shots I'd taken that there were a couple of mistakes in the exposure, so I told Kelly I had to go up the monument again and reshoot them. She said she didn't want to go up and that she'd go walk in the bush areas past the garden. This time I took the lift up, too many stairs. After I'd finished I headed for the bush but couldn't find Kelly anywhere, finally I came back to the car park and there she was leaning on the yellow cab talking to Joseph. Later she told me she found out he'd been a ranger up at Kruger National Park, but had recently moved, with his wife, to Pretoria.

Beautiful gardens surrounding the monument.

Our next destination was the Union Buildings, this collection of buildings form the official seat of the South African government and also house the offices of the President of South Africa. The grand Union buildings sit on Meintjies Kop, a hill in Pretoria, and overlook the city.

Union Buildings

From the top of the stairs there was a beautiful view down from the main buildings looking over a huge park and well maintained garden and beyond it downtown.

Kelly looking out over the city

Walking through the garden we met a young Nigerian artist, called Sanusi Olatunji, who was sketching in the gardens in front of the buildings. We stopped to have a chat and we bought a pen and ink drawing of an African mask that we will have framed when we get home.

Sanusi Olatunji  

By this time we were hot and sweaty and ready to head back to the Alpine Attitude to take it easy and pack. Fortunately I had enough time for a swim in the very cool pool and catch some sun before it was time to head off to the Capital Park Station to meet up with Rovos Rail.

Lazing by the pool

Before we knew it it was time to go and the lady who brought us in from the airport was back. It didn't take us to get to the station and we arrived there around 1.30pm for a 3pm departure and were greeted with champagne and porters who tagged and loaded our luggage.

We waited on the upper balcony of the station...

Kelly on the balcony of the station

...while the carriages of the train were shunted into place.

Rovos Rail Steam Train

During the wait a lone Ostrich made it’s way out between a row of carriages and across the tracks and passed in front of the station where everyone was waiting, much to the delight of everyone. I called out to Kelly, “Emu”, she gave me one of those, your so dumb, looks and said “Ostrich”. Hey, I just realised this was our first game sighting of the trip!

Ostrich on the tracks

We were called to gather in the main station room downstairs and Rohan Vos, the owner of Rovos Rail (see the connection) welcomed us all and gave us an introduction to the train, the service and what we may encounter on the way. He gracefully explained the sometimes frustrating business of running a train in Africa and mentioned that quite often the power lines are removed by those looking for copper cables. In fact due to some congestion on the line we would be taking a more circumspect route out of Pretoria to avoid Johannesburg.

Finally we were ready to board and were called up carriage by carriage, given a farewell handshake by Rohan and ushered off to our carriage.

  Rohan saying farewell to the passengers

We were greeted by Precious, a young woman who would be looking after our carriage for the journey, who showed us to our suite.

Our incredible suite

Our incredible suite

Now our original booking was for a Pullman suite, this is the smallest cabin and during the day has a sofa seat that converts to a bed at night. While we were being checked in I noticed that they had us down for a Deluxe suite, I didn’t say anything not wanting to anger the upgreade gods, as the deluxe suite has a double bed, lounge area and en-suite bathroom with shower and plenty of room to move around in, I was blown away! One of the best features is that all of the windows on the train can be lowered so you can stick your head out for a great view, in fact each cabin comes with a set of goggles you can wear to protect your eyes.  

(Note to self: Next time, if there is one, be careful when you lean out of the window because all the collected soot around the windowsill will not come out of your clothes)

In no time we were heading out of Pretoria for Cape Town and we were like kids, leaning out of the windows trying the bed, checking out the on-suite. After settling in and unpacking we took a stroll through the train to check out the Lounges and Observation cars meeting some of the other travellers on our journey.

Pulling out of the station in Pretoria

The lounges are very comfortable with overstuffed lounges, magazines, and a barman waiting to take your orders. A couple of gin and tonics seemed to be the order of the day and we were soon sitting back watching the African landscape slip on by.

Dinner is announced by a young man walking up and down the cars with a set of chimes, service starts at 7pm sharp and a jacket and tie is compulsory for men. I have to say there is nothing better than sitting in lovely antique dining car, having a wonderful dinner while watching the sun set over the horizon, heaven.

After dinner we returned to our cabin to find the bed turned down with chocolates on the pillows and both Kelly and I exhausted from our very busy day were soon in bed rocked to sleep as the train made it’s way across Africa in the middle of the night.

Turndown Rovos Rail style