/ 24 April 2014

Chuffed with railway’s success

Doing the wine route by luxury train.
Doing the wine route by luxury train.

A small group of well-dressed adults huddle around the engine room of a classically restored steam train at Rovos Rail's Capital Park station in Pretoria. Their ages range from about 35 to 70 but the palpable excitement as they "ooh" and "aah" over the gleaming brass instruments is more akin to a group of 10-year-olds who have discovered something covert.

A stout German woman in her 60s pulls the train's whistle – the unexpected noise scatters people on the platform, their hands held to their ears as they break into smiles and shake their heads.

"Thank you, thank you," the woman says as she wrestles her frame down the train's metal staircase and back to terra firma. "That was a real thrill."

That such simple entertainment can cause so much delight among a largely well-travelled and wealthy crowd is testimony to the enduring romance of rail travel in a jaded, package-tour world. The whiff of grease and polished brass and the enormous puffs of thick, black smoke allude to a time when travel was a journey into the unknown and all travellers were explorers.

Rovos Rail plays into this romance, with its colonially clad porters, dark-wood panelled carriages and attention to detail – from leather-upholstered chairs to crystal wine glasses.

The trains follow the tracks on a series of journeys that criss-cross Africa and last anywhere from 48 hours to 28 days. Passengers can embark on a 1 600km meander to Cape Town or a 14-day epic journey through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, participating in activities en route such as game drives and sunset cruises, white water rafting and bush walks. There's also an occasional 28-day trip from Cape to Cairo.

That adventure is attendant to any Rovos Rail trip is a given but the real journey and spirit of exploration lies in the story of railway itself and in Rohan Vos, the sprightly 68-year-old maverick behind it.

Rovos Rail, which will be 25 years old on April 29, has been shaped and buffered by the political and economic fortunes and misfortunes of the continent and beyond, there have been derailments and breakdowns, and it has skirted precariously close to bankruptcy.

Lots of hurdles
"The costs of this operation are really high. When the trains are on the ground [in the station], the costs are contained but, once a train has left the station, anything can happen … there are lots of hurdles on the way," Vos says.

When he launched his first train on April 29 1989, with only four paying customers, a group of friends and handful of press on board, there was no way he could have predicted the hiccups and passion of the all-consuming journey he was about to embark on.

He funded that first train through the restoration and sale of a 1940 Packard and a 1928 Austin but, as time went on, Rovos Rail bit into, and eventually consumed, Vos's other business ventures.

"It was fear of bankruptcy that kept me going in those first five years and we came pretty close. In those years, if someone had said 'Do you want out?' I would have jumped at it, but I was too far in. I would have lost what [business success] came before it and that would have been sad."

The railway broke even in 1994, coinciding with the world's increasing interest in South Africa's new democracy. And it gathered steam and flourished in the years from 1996 to 1999.

"We built up the petty cash box and built two new trains with 20 carriages each. But then things went awry in Zimbabwe in 2000 …"

With 95% of the railways' passengers comprising foreigners, the Cape Town to Vic Falls journey was the railways' biggest money-spinner. The international travel agents loved it but, as the world became wary of President Robert Mugabe's politics and a perceived threat of violence grew, Rovos lost 55% of its business.

The railway counteracted that by launching new trips and slowly rebuilding its passenger base and, by 2005, things were improving. By 2008, it was soaring, with the railway's best year ever, but then came the financial crisis in Europe and the United States.

Retirement plans
"We thought, our guests are rich anyway; it won't affect them. But it affected them in different ways in terms of dividends and retirement plans," Vos says, and people stopped travelling for pleasure.

By 2013, things started picking up again. "People in the United Kingdom and America have started making money again, the housing market is growing, the sun's coming up again and people have a pent-up desire for travel," says Vos, who also attributes Rovos Rail's 2014 upswing to many other things. Among these are the uprising in Egypt and the ongoing political turmoil there.

"Egypt sees about 15-million tourists a year but there are none at present. So where are they? They are going to go somewhere." Interestingly, Vos also believes that the Oscar Pistorius trial is having a positive impact on tourism in South African.

"It's weirdly good for South Africa. Every day, it's putting South Africa on the front page internationally. This soap opera has grabbed the world's attention; it's a real-life drama that provides entertainment and stimulates conversation."

There are no signs of Rovos Rail's journey coming to an end. The railway is a family-run concern and Vos's children play various roles in the running of the business. And it does not seem that Vos has any intention of taking a back seat in the running of the railway.

"I often say I'm the luckiest guy around. I get up in the morning and I can be an engineer, an electrician, a carpenter, a financier, a sales and a marketing person – all departments [required for running a railway].

"It's very important for me, and the nature of me. I've got ants in my pants. This broader vision really is food for my nature."

And so the journey and its romance continues.

Rovos Rail's Durban and Cape Town safaris start from R14 300 per person sharing. For more information visit rovos.com