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Leaving the Ordinary Behind When Heading for South Africa

South Africa

Many golfers think of South Africa as the most attractive golf destination in the world today. The combination of top quality golf courses and accommodations, an unsurpassed service level, the safari alternatives, top local vines and food, mostly temperate climate and not the least the ’value for money’ aspect, makes for an unbeatable product.

There are an abundance of different places to go in this country, and various ways of going. There is a way that allows you to get around virtually the whole country (and beyond) without having to pack and unpack and rush to, fro and through exhausting airports. A way that factually allows you to lie in bed and watch the countryside pass by.

It even allows you to watch some of the country’s unique wildlife from your bedroom window. Seems even the elephants are waving their trunk at you as the train slows down when passing!

Two train services to consider in South Africa

There are two services in South Africa offering you this facility, both operated by Rovos Rail, a privately owned train operator that claims to be running the world’s most luxurious trains.

It’s hard to believe that such services can be done better or that the standard of its coaches can be nicer than on Rovos Rail. It is really privately owned and operated: Do not be surprised being met by the owner himself. Mr Rohan Vos is always at the station to shake hands both at the start and at the end of each trip.

Rovos Rail also has a sibling, the Shongololo Express. It was until a couple of years ago operated by a competitor as more of a backpacker alternative to the more illustrious Rovos Rail.

When Shongololo ran into hard times, Rovos bought the company, stripped the coaches and refitted them to higher standards. Yet it’s still a class below Rovos, in order to distinguish the two products.

The class difference is hardly noticeable. The main difference we found is Rovos requiring formal attire for dinners, whilst Shongololo is more relaxed in this respect. And also that Rovos is an all-inclusive proposition whilst Shongololo offers options.

Both Rovos Rail and Shongololo Express offer a variety of tours, all starting from Rovos’ base in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa. Most trips include going into neighboring countries such as Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia, and are pure sightseeing trips. A few trips each year are golf and safari packaged.

No need to worry

Knowing the exquisite Rovos Rail service, there is still no need being doubtful as to what to expect on a service labelled ’a class below’.

A train, is a train, is a train. That is the dimensions of coaches are uniform, only the appointments will differ as perhaps also the level of service. The make-up of the passenger cabins are as comfortable as is possible within the rather limited space.

Though there are three different cabin configurations, they all have ensuite bathrooms. Dining cars, lounges, bar areas, smokers lounge and the open observation deck at the very back are all there. And well done up also on Shongololo Express.

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South Africa

HAVE A DRINK, SIR! The bar is in a separate bar area. Photo: Louis Røren

13 days golf and safari adventure

This particular Shonglololo Express trip is a 13 days golf and safari adventure starting from Rovos private and nicely appointed departure station and lounge. The journey starts towards the well known Krüger Park. With golfing options at the famed Leopard Creek Golf Club.

From there on to Swaziland, onwards to Kwazulu Natal and Durban, through the Drakensberg Mountains down to the coast via Port Elizabeth. Then back into the mountains and down to George.

From here  the train is heading towards Cape Town, which marks the end of the 13 day package. The train, however, will continue beyond Cape Town and into Namibia. Before turning back to South Africa and Pretoria via Cape Town, for those who wish to extend their stay onboard. Though this is a separate package.

An icon in South Africa

Durban Country Club is an icon for golf in South Africa. And it is clear to see why. It is positioned more or less in centre of the city, by the sea, with a stately entrance and clubhouse. Due to a relatively confined space the course is tight, walkable, though surprisingly hilly and quirky in places. But a joy to play, not the least for its near impeccable condition. After the round there is time for a quick luncheon prior to boarding the train at the nearby train station in Durban city centre.

The cabin is one of the more spacious ones, made up with quality textiles, oak panels, art deco lamps and lovely carpeted floors. Shortly after boarding the train takes off for its next stop, which is the town of Ladysmith near the Drakensberg mountains. This was a central venue of the Boer war, with local museums and monuments to show for it.

Exquisite meals

Whilst the train is running, an exquisite dinner is served in the nicely appointed two dining coaches. The service is unsurpassed, extended by the numerous staff and waiters, this being so typical for South African hospitality.

Just before to midnight the train reaches the train station at Ladysmith, where it stops for the night. Giving us the opportunity of a good nights sleep.

Next morning the golfers group is taken by minibus to the Champagne Sports Resort, an hour’s drive into the beautiful Drakensberg Mountains. The course is naturally hilly and requires golf carts for most players. The course  could have been in better conditons, but its natural beauty makes for a spectacular golfing experience.

The beer on the clubhouse terrace after the round, overlooking the surrounding mountains, tastes fantastic. Back on the station platform, the train crew have rolled out the red carpet, serving champagne and fruit juices. A lovely welcoming back.

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South Africa

THE RED CARPET: Coming back from the excursion of the day, the staff greats the passengers with refreshments on a red carpet at the station. Photo: Louis Røren

The seat of the South African judicial system

Bloemfontein is the next stop. This is yet another site central in South African history from the Boer War.  This is also the seat of the South African judicial system, and used to be the capital of the Old Boer Republic of The Orange Free State.

The next day the train has taken us to the town of Kimberley. This is the capital of the Northern Cape and the historic centre of South Africa’s diamond industry. But we’re heading for the local golf course: Kimberley Golf Club. We had been warned about its conditions.

Rovos had actually taken this course off its program, but reinstated the visit due to ’popular request’ by our group. We could not stand the thought of another day without a fairway walk. As we all know, hunger is the best cook, and we therefore gladly play the course, even enjoying it.

True to style the faithful train staff is again waiting for us at the station, serving drinks on the red carpet. Somehow it makes us feel appreciated. A wonderful touch after the travails that a round of golf sometimes can be.

To the coast again

The train starts soon after boarding, now heading for the city of Port Elizabeth, arriving the following afternoon. After a few hours stopover we head for the town of Oudtshoorn were we arrive next morning. Oudtshoorn is located at the foot of the majestic Swartberg Mountain Range. The town is well known for its ostrich farms and the Cango caves.

We are taken by bus on a two hours scenic and memorable bus ride through vast ostrich farms and vineyards. Before decending through the Outeniqua Mountain Pass towards the coast. It takes us to the town of George, where Fancourt Golf Estate is located.

After the golf round at Fancourt’s Outeniqua course we had only a 10 minute ride back to the train, that had moved to George train station. There are two more courses at Fancourt; Montague and The Links. The Montague and Outeniqua courses are beautiful parkland layouts in nearly always impeccable conditions. While The Links is a very tough Gary Player designed links style course.

You would be hard up not to appreciate the beauty of Fancourt. The main building, the Manor House, apartments and surrounding private houses, oozes rich, and with greenfees among the most expensive  in South Africa. The cost is however still less than half of comparable courses in southern Europe.

Playing at Ernie’s course

That night’s dinner at Fancourt is the only meal taken outside the train, where we also get to test  the three available wines from Ernie Els’ vineyard in Stellenbosch. Part of the reason being that the following day we are going to play the Els designed Oubaai golf course. Which is about half an hour drive from George.

Next morning we arrive at the golf club on a splendid sunny, windless day. Because of the cliff-high setting overlooking the Indian Ocean, the weather factor and the blue skies against the azur waters is a striking view.

The waters are renowned for the whales playing their games there. The only critical remarks to this course will be that one could wish for more drama. That could be achieved by bringing the cliffs and ocean more into play. Especially on the finishing 17th and 18th holes.

The other holes were indeed well made and at times tough, some even very tough and all in all it was a highly enjoyable round of golf. This is one of the courses that you feel you will do far better playing a second time. A shotmakers course requiring proper course management to do well. One will easily agree that Ernie Els is not only a very likable person, and an excellent golfer, but also a maker of superb wines and golf courses.

Going west

Heading back into the mountains for the last stage of our train journey through South Africa, a sense of ’why already’ seems to creep in. And it is not an enjoyable feeling. The solace is that tomorrow we there will yet another round of golf at an excellent track at the outstanding Arabella Golf Estate near the town of Hermanus.

This is truly a place of beauty. Even more than before. The condition of the course, location by the lagoon, flowers, colours, smells, all make up for a highly memorable golfing site.

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South Africa

A TOUGH TEST: The 17th at Araballa is a very challenging par 3 when the wind is blowing. Photo: Arabella

The ambiance onboard the train during dinner was somewhat muted this evening, all knowing that a wonderful journey would end the following day. However, the wines and the service remain impeccable.

Early the next morning the train starts up for the last few hours ride into Cape Town. We all appreciated the gesture by Mr Rovos himself. Mr Rohan Vos was meeting us at the station as we disembarked, to shake hands and happy to find out that we had enjoyed the trip.