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Murder on the Pride of Africa

Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein.

Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein.

“The little grey cells they are hard at working amid le clackety-clack,” I reflect, tapping my right sideburn.

Africa rumbles under us. Botswana rattles by. We are in Matabeleland-Bechuanaland. We have passed Bulawayo, the former kraal of the Lobegula and etymologically “the place of slaughter and bloodshed”. But no murder has taken place.

The sea bass is not a corpse. It is perfect. It is superbly cooked. It is not the abomination as often found in Britain where barbaric actions in the kitchen are contrary to the civilised European norm.

We sit at an elegant table adorned with freshly cut flowers and the finest and heaviest silverware and ‘singing’ cut crystal speaking of a bygone era of luxury travel and grand romance.

The curtains are tassel-tied, the lighting Art Nouveau and teak-pillared, cherry-panelled dining saloon is gleaming Belle Epoque.

We have enjoyed a fine four-course table luncheon and dinner served by uniformed stewards. For days, we have partaken of ostrich, springbok, ‘biltong’ and ‘Koeksisters’. We have drunk the best of the Paarl and Stellenbosch terroir.

We have discussed the events of our lives and our careers. We have enjoyed le café Kenyan, Western Province port and finest Huguenot cheeses, stating our views on Brexit, Mr Trump and Mr Mugabwe. And enjoyed the English high tea.

I was expecting it to be a murder most foul. A mausoleum for the living. But my prophecy remained unfulfilled. But, enfin (or, in Afrikaans, Ten stotte), in my role as the investigator “formidable et unsurpassed”, comes le denouement! Alors (in kitchen Dutch ‘dan’), the dramatic finale!

Where other men have failed or faltered I shall succeed, I shall this very day solve once and for all the riddle that has puzzled mankind for eternity. 

Why do some holidays cost so much?

And what do you get for your hard-earned sou. Or Johnny-come-lately euro?

Rovos Rail’s 15-day, 3,568-mile, almost all-inclusive (not included are visas, jabs, malaria tablets, flights, bungee-jumping, helicopter rides and off-train alcohol) chugs from Cape Town to Dar es-Salaam in Tanzania. And costs £12,000.

Per person. Sharing quite small Pullman cabins and more spacious Deluxe  with en-suite showers and WCs, air-conditioning and hot and cold running maids. And a minibar full of survival drinks like Cap Classique champagne. And louvred windows with views of far horizons, veldt and more veldt, scrub and more scrub, baobob thickets, waving children, African mudhuts (You can no longer use the word derogatory ‘kaffir’) ‘inselbergs’ (rocky hills), anthills, incurious flightless birds and sheep. The occasional kudu. And flamboyance of flamingos.

It is very expensive. It taxes the grey cells. But I detect no signs of anger or unease among my fellow passengers. No motivation to cavil or kvetch. They are far from grieving. It is a trip-of-a-lifetime. And worth every South African rand, Zimbabwe dollar and Botswanan pula.

The Great Karoo Majiesfontein.The Great Karoo Majiesfontein.

Cecil Rhodes dreamed of a railway from Cape Town to Cairo. Rohan Vos, who was in auto parts, founded  Rovos Rail in 1989. And achieved that dream. He bought abandoned engines and carriages and lovingly restored them. Rightfully, Rovos is now one of the top luxury train travel brands in the world. It offers trips throughout southern Africa and into Namibia.

But the Pride of Africa trip up the spine of the continent is its flagship. It has revived the romance of rail travel and a bygone age of tourism, first class.

The guest list on what purports to be ‘the world’s most luxurious train journey’ reads like a sequel or prequel to Murder on the Orient Express.

There is a doctor from Argentina. An English lord and lady living in Switzerland. They had the Royal Suite with Victoria clawfoot bathtub. Two Russian lady lawyers. Several Americans with placidly smiling, kindly faces. As Agatha Christie might have described. Two CEOs, a retired English schoolmaster from Salisbury, a Titanic heiress, a Swiss Air ambulance nurse, a South African nougat millionairess and Henk from near Utrecht in the Netherlands whose family business was ‘abnormal transport’.

To my “Pardon?”, he says simply “Megatrailers with 50 tonne payloads.”

Japanese newly-weds are the youngest by far. He is a professor of accountancy and she a pupil. He learned his English in Barnet. We also have with us an Italian travel agent and a mute gentleman from Senegal who tolled his beads all day in the observation deck, mumbling prayers. There’s also a lady from Arizona who thinks the whole trip “a blast”.

There is no dapper Belgian under a Homburg who walks like he has a fissure. But, collectively and with great camaraderie, we are all engaged in collecting the evidence and clues to work out what we were getting for over £1,000 a day.

The verdict is unanimous: five countries; gourmet meals giving “plaisir most substantial”, the great Karoo (‘Land of Thirst’); two nights and four game drives at the Tau Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve on the border of Botswana; one day at the Selous game reserve in Tanzania with its big-maned lions and big-tusked elephants; many rivers; many almost exclusive-feeling, starry African night skies; full board at the £1,000 a night B&B 1904 Victoria Falls Hotel; a photo beside David Livingstone; a tour of Pretoria and a photo between Nelson Mandela’s legs or in front of his giant sculpture at the government buildings; the smell of Lusaka; the Chinese-built Tazara line-up, down and around the Great Rift Valley. 

And above all, the chance to forge friendships and over-dress for dinner.

To wear butterfly bow ties, backless silk gowns and bouttonniers or, in the case of the on-board doctor, a clan ‘Gunn’ kilt. There is a tragic absence of cummerbunds. Aussi, the train is devoid of well-tied cravats.

The ladies also have the services of a hair stylist. Provided too is a resident historian, Count Schofield. He is so called that because he counts out and counts us in from every excursion.

PretoriaPretoria

Sixteen nationalities are represented and many species of personkind. In my mind’s eye I wax my moustache, smelling my imaginary sirop de cassius. Like Poirot, I am “the dog on the scent”. As Hastings would say.

But having begged most earnestly for opinions most forthright, I am disposed to believe everyone is optimally happy. And that it is wildly impossible there is anything like such an adventure with so many wonderful travelling companions.

We travel a route rarely travelled, the operational and logistics none of us can ever conceive. Examining the evidence presented, the sharp and roving eye having been at work daily and the brain busy on the case, the smiles and laughter are convincing and though wallets may have been depleted, the claustrophobic size of some couchettes notwithstanding, no one threw themselves off or were pitched overboard.

All survived to Rovos again.

Mr Vos did it. He was behind the perfect time.

No crimes were committed. In the kitchen or anywhere. No reptiles came on board. And, sadly, not one verocious man-eater.

Factbox

Emirates flies Malta-Capetown/Dar es Salaam-Malta (from €762). Both the Malta-Dubai and Dubai-Dar es-Salaam services operate once per day, seven days per week. The Malta-Dubai services operate via Larnaca, Cyprus in both directions. Transit time in Larnaca is 1 hour 10 minutes in each direction before continuing onwards to Dubai.

www.emirates.com

For more information about Rovos Rail Tours visit www.flightcentre.com

Pride of Africa (excludes flights)

July 17; September 4; October 16

Royal Suite – $21,550 pp (single supplement upon request)

Deluxe Suite – $16,500 pp (single supplement $7,130)

Pullman Suite – $12,450 pp (single supplement $5,530)

2019: Cape Town to Dar es-Salaam: June 29; September 28

Recommended stopover hotels: The Silo, Cape Town (www.theroyalportfolio.com)

Leeu Estates (www.leeucollection.com), Franschhoek in Cape Winelands, 50 minutes from Cape Town Airport.

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