The sunlight pushed through the slats in the blinds while the birds danced and sang outside making the striped sunlight in the room flicker across the walls. Their song was full of promise for a beautiful and exciting day, so we wearily (it was 5am) pulled on our clothes and bundled outside into the blindingly bright but freezing day. Ben and I had opted for our most appropriate safari gear, which happened to not include a jacket – a true rookie error. It was only then that we realised the train had pulled up in what can only be described as a railway layby with tracks on one side and an open area on the other. In the open area stood three safari jeeps with the rest of the passengers already aboard.
Piling aboard the jeeps, we were incredibly grateful for the blankets that were thrust into our laps along with bottles of water for the day. Bitterly cold, we set off towards the Nambiti Game Reserve with our guide and driver for the day and as soon as we entered the Jurassic Park-esque entranceway, the excitement started to build, the tiredness dissipated and we weren’t feeling quite so cold anymore. As we turned into the park along the dry dusty track, to our left was a huge male African elephant elegantly moving between the trees and stopping every so often to eat. Then, to our right a baby giraffe appeared, followed quite a way behind by its mother. They strutted across the sandy ground as Guinea Fowl scattered and shouted out to them beneath their feet. And then, nothing.
We drove for a while without seeing anything, before there was a commotion and we spotted two jeeps side by side ahead of us. It didn’t take us long to spot the tell-tale sign of two long lion manes only just visible through the long grass. Our guide pointed down an overgrown track between the long grass and we swerved down it before switching off the engine. The Jeep silently rolled down the track and we could see the grass to the right parting as the two male lions cut across and emerged onto the track right in front of the jeep. I could practically hear my heart as its beating pounded in my ears. As they once again disappeared into the grass on the left, not even paying us any attention, the Jeep let out one single breath in relief.
We started up the engine again and wound through the stunning African countryside. Huge vultures flooded the jeep into shade as they flew over, before landing ridiculously on the tiniest of dead trees that groaned under their great weight. Following the river, my eyes were darting left and right up onto the banks and down into the river beds before I spotted a slight movement and shouted to the driver to stop. Under an archway of thorns, up on the bank was a fat lioness crouching as though a cat would do before it pounces. Following its eye line, we spotted two wart hogs rooting around on the ground. They hadn’t spotted her and she knew it and they weren’t bothered by us as they looked up, still chewing, before their noses were back to the ground again. She stood poised and still for a while longer, before seemingly getting bored and giving up. It was then that we realised she wasn’t fat, but heavily pregnant and we could all understand her lack of effort for a small meal.
After watching the lioness for a while, we continued up into the hills of the reserve. Leopard country. Now in all the years that my dad lived in Africa, the one animal he never saw was a leopard so I was desperate to see one. Alas, after straining our eyes, we pulled up at the top of the hill overlooking the reserve and our guide jumped out to check that the coast was clear.
When he signalled that we could get out, two of the Rovos staff jumped down from the Jeep and immediately set about putting on an incredible spread of cakes, cereal bars and to our utter delight steaming cups of tea and coffee. In the middle of an African game reserve, at 10am in the morning, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more British than surveying the countryside with a cup of tea in my hand.
By this point, the day had warmed up and as the sun beat down, we chatted and laughed while elk stared at us from the bushes wondering what we were doing.
One of the group spotted movement in the distance; a large shape was making its way down one of the dirt tracks in front of us and we all agreed it was time to pack the breakfast picnic away and jump back into the Jeep to chase the shape that had been confirmed by our guide as a white rhino.
The Jeep leapt over verges and ducked into valleys before we spotted the tell-tale sign of Rhino from its dung pile left on a corner on the track. Apparently Rhino’s have one toilet spot that they share with others and always come back to. It’s almost like their personal gossip spot as they can tell which other rhinos have been there and what’s been going on. Dodging the spot, we rounded the corner and came face to face with the white rhino in question. A huge mass of powerful muscle hidden beneath rough skin and a sharp horn between his eyes. Seemingly bored of our presence, he continued grazing and slowly waddled away from us.
Throughout the morning we were lucky enough to see a lot more Rhino, Wilder Beast, Giraffe, Elephant and a lot more Warthogs. Feeling ridiculously content, the Jeep took us safely back through the Jurrasic Park style entrance and straight to a decadent brunch on the train.
After brunch, it was all aboard once more as there was just time for a cup of tea in the room, while we chugged our way through the beautiful countryside to Ladysmith.
Our Safari exploring wasn’t over yet, as we had another in the afternoon at a different park. This time, we were spying zebra, giraffe, rhino and various types of deer as we drove around the most beautiful lake. The Spioenkop Game Reserve is such that you can really get close to the wildlife. Bring a tent and you can camp right down at the waters edge, sharing your breakfast with the rhinos and evening G&T with the animals that come to the water to drink.
We drove throughout the park with zebra darting away from the jeep and Giraffe peeping out from the camouflage of the trees, before watching the sunset from one of Rovos Rail’s Guesthouses with a cooling gin and tonic in hand.
Exhausted and fulfilled from a fabulous safari day and brimming with knowledge about the animals, we welcomed the sight of the train once again so that we could change out of our stale clothes and into suits and dresses for dinner.
Fresh flowers were pinned to our lapels as all the guests arrived in more elaborate black tie than they had the evening before. The Rovos staff all looked incredibly smart in their dinner suits and candles lit up the carriage.
Another incredible spread of Butternut and coconut soup which I could eat every day for the rest of my life and be happy.
Seared loin of Springbok with a port and black cherry demi-glace set on stir-fried vegetables and a creamy Parmesan cauliflower mash.
A duo of Rovos cheeses locally made from goats milk infused with peppadew and biltong served with a medley of fruit and a honey and oat biscuit.
Malva pudding with Rooibos creme anglaise – this tastes incredibly similar to a sticky toffee pudding and is just amazing!
When dinner and the wine courses were over and everyone had start to make their way down the train. We did the same, meeting everyone in the bar carriage for endless charades and glasses of sparkling wine. Our last and only second evening on the train and already I felt as though I’d known these people for weeks.
A bottle of champagne nestled in our bed amongst rose petals, just calling to be climbed into – a service every passenger receives on their last night. On a cloud of contentment, we slipped into the best sleep in that gorgeous bed.