A rail journey ... across South Africa
From cosmopolitan cities to elegant winelands and iconic landscapes, South Africa is a country with majesty and presence. Travel writer Graham Boynton shares his love of the country.
Just over 6km outside of Stellenbosch, South Africa’s wine capital, lies Vriesenhof, a bucolic wine estate belonging to Jan Boland Coetzee, a legendary Springbok rugby hero and revolutionary wine maker. He is both a traditional Afrikaner (his forefathers arrived from Europe in 1678) and a reformist who supported so-called coloured (mixed race) farmworkers’ rights during the apartheid era of the 70s and 80s.
After a civilised afternoon tasting his wines while looking out onto the mountains that form a backdrop to this vineyard, I asked Jan to describe precisely where we were. He smiled and with a twinkle in his eye, replied: “We are on the south-facing slope of the Stellenbosch mountains, close to Stellenbosch town, close to heaven – just four doors away.”
Just four doors away from heaven. Any visitor to the Cape Winelands will see what he means in an instant: row upon row of vines on the lower slopes of soaring mountains, an idyllic landscape dotted with whitewashed, gabled Dutch farmhouses and estate manors, some dating back to the 18th century. Stellenbosch, the neighbouring valley of Franschhoek, and more recently the Hemel-en-Aarde valley and the Swartland are all physically beautiful winelands that are also now boasting a number of world-class, award-winning restaurants offering nouvelle South African cuisine that, thanks to the relative weakness of the South African rand, is the best value food-and-wine experience in the world.
Dutch Reform Church, Franschhoek
As stunning as this landscape is, the Cape’s beauty extends far beyond its wine country. South Africa’s so-called ‘Mother City’, Cape Town, and its dramatic mountain setting also draws one into a round of superlatives. When Sir Francis Drake first set eyes on the Cape in 1580 he said it was “the most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth”.
And so it is, with the city itself nestling in a natural amphitheatre framed by the flat-top summit of Table Mountain and two other dramatic granite outcrops: Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. The mountain ranges, which stretch beyond the city to theatrically beautiful coastal suburbs – Bantry Bay, Clifton, Camps Bay, Llandudno, Hout Bay – where the Atlantic Ocean crashes onto brilliant white beaches. On the long summer evenings this coastline is dotted with partying Europeans escaping the long, dark, damp nights of the northern hemisphere winters.
One of the centrepieces of Cape Town’s cultural, historic and social life is the fabulous Mount Nelson Hotel (now the Belmond Mount Nelson) which has played host to kings, queens, Hollywood legends, pop stars and the rest since it opened in 1899. It is set in over 3 hectares of manicured lawns and meticulously tended gardens, a tranquil retreat from the hustle of the city centre and the clamour of the beachfront bars and restaurants.
Nelson Mandela and South Africa's colourful history
While one is always likely to bump into a famous person at the Nellie, one is expected to remain insouciant. A few years ago I was strolling through the gardens, martini in hand taking in the early evening light, when I saw someone I was certain was Nelson Mandela wandering around beyond the swimming pool. As Mandela had been a regular guest this was no great surprise. On closer inspection it turned out to be Morgan Freeman who was playing Mandela in the film Invictus, and who was clearly staying in character – trademark floral shirt; that stiff, formal gait – while living at the Mount Nelson. I managed to remain appropriately insouciant.
As sophisticated, glamorous and international as Cape Town is, one should not confine oneself to Sir Francis Drake’s “fairest cape.” Beyond the granite cordon sanitaire that surrounds the Cape is southern Africa, red in tooth and claw. In the decade and a half since the end of apartheid, South Africa has flourished as a tourist destination, a cosmopolitan melting pot of viticulture, cuisine, high fashion and fine art. What makes the country most interesting is its rich and turbulent history, from the arrival of the first European settlers in the 17th century to the rise and fall of apartheid, through to the liberation age of Mandela and life beyond the death of the great man. Much evidence of South Africa’s colourful history, in the form of museums, community activities and theatrical productions, can be seen to great effect north of the Cape mountains.
Interior of the Rovos Rail train
One of the most relaxing and rewarding ways to explore South Africa is by rail, particularly on Rovos Rail’s collection of heritage trains. Their 'Cape Town Journey' heads north from Cape Town to Pretoria. You will stop at Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape province, which boasted Africa’s first Stock Exchange in 1881, and in the following year became the first city in the southern hemisphere to introduce electric street lights. Its global fame, however, came with the discovery of diamonds and Cecil Rhodes’ consolidation of the diamond mines to create De Beers, which once had the monopoly over the world’s diamond market.
The Union Buildings, Pretoria
A visit to the Big Hole and the Kimberley Mine Museum is essential. The hole is the largest hand-dug excavation in the world (it yielded 2,722 kg of diamonds in its 40 years of operation), is more than 200 metres deep, and today is surrounded by the original buildings of the day, relocated to create an atmospheric open-air museum. Also the Real Diamond Display, which is housed in the vaults, exhibits the celebrated 616, the largest uncut octahedron in the world.
Between Kimberley and Johannesburg is the emptiness of southern Africa at its most magnificent, and from the Northern Cape you move through the Free State, a succession of flat grassy plains that seem to go on forever, interrupted only by the occasional kopje (small, rocky hill), which serve as hiding places for leopards. Out there the plains wildlife, such as wildebeest and springbok, are dots on the landscape and vividly demonstrate the vastness of the countryside.
Leopard Resting in Shade
After this endless emptiness the sudden arrival in Johannesburg – the vibrant, buzzing city that is the commercial engine room of sub-Saharan Africa – comes as something of a culture shock. Joeys as we used to call it in the old days, Jozi as it is now known, is also the New York of Africa, a pulsating, vital, almost round-the-clock city that was built on the wealth extracted from the gold mines. At one time it produced 40% of the world’s gold, but now thrives as an international commercial hub.
You feel the buzz in the restaurants and bars of Sandton, Rosebank and Melville, all northern suburbs locales that serve up great food and atmosphere. And you get an insight into the culture at the Market Theatre, which in the 1980s was known as The Theatre of the Struggle, and which carried the flag for racially integrated theatre at a time when the authorities were pursuing segregation with cruel fervour. To that end, visits to both the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto and the Apartheid Museum near Gold Reef City are necessary if one is looking for meaningful insights into South Africa’s history.
Sunset in Johannesburg
Thundering Victoria Falls
There is one further stopping-off point on this southern African journey that completes the adventure and that lies across the border in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Nobody should visit this part of the world without seeing Victoria Falls. In the local language the falls are called Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning ‘the smoke that thunders’; a far more apposite title than our twee colonial appellation. This is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and however jaded an international traveller you are, they will take your breath away.
I have spent a lifetime visiting Victoria Falls and each time that first sighting of the clouds of spray rising up from the deep ravines ever fails to astonish. David Livingstone, the first European to see the Falls in 1855, quite rightly raved that these were “scenes so lovely that they must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
Today, microlight flights over the falls allow you the vantage point once reserved for those angels.
As clichéd as the soubriquet ‘Land of Contrasts’ is, if it applies to anywhere then it most certainly does to southern Africa. And, of course, there is its proximity to heaven.
Recommended C&K tours
Rovos Rail from Pretoria to Victoria Falls
3 Days & 2 Nights full board from £1,250
This 3-night adventure departs from Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria. The train winds its way north across the Tropic of Capricorn en route to the border with Zimbabwe. Traverse Hwange National Park before disembarking at Victoria Falls on the mighty Zambezi river. See more about Rovos Rail >
The Cape, Rovos Rail & Victoria Falls
13 Days & 10 Nights from £5,295
This luxury private journey combines some of the most spectacular sights in Cape Town with 2 nights on Rovos Rail. Spend some time exploring Johannesburg, before flying to the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls. See more >