Touring southern Africa by train
From train to train, our adventure "whipsawed between luxury and something closer to freight-hopping"
Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is a train trip across southern Africa.
"To board a train in Cape Town is to follow a well-trodden path," said Ted Conover at The New York Times Magazine. In the late 19th century, British colonists built a network of tracks stretching from that South African port to present-day Congo. Trains and the bloody history of colonialism remain inseparable, but these sprawling railways offer one of the best ways to make sense of Africa's past, its epic scale, and its wild beauty. My wife, Margot, and I spent two weeks riding 3,000 miles from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, crossing Zimbabwe and Zambia en route. From train to train, our adventure "whipsawed between luxury and something closer to freight-hopping."
After arriving in Cape Town, we checked into a dreamy hotel overlooking the sea and watched as pods of whales swam past. The Blue Train, our first ride, was easily "the fanciest train I have ever seen." Walking from our private waiting room in the station was like feeling "the 21st century collapse into the 19th." Our experience on board, courtesy of an all-black staff of butlers, was likewise "both comfortable and discomfiting." After a formal dinner that belonged in a scene from Downton Abbey, we fell asleep watching the stars as the tracks clicked beneath us, and I woke to "a flurry of pink and white" just as the train rolled past a lake where thousands of flamingos flocked. "As the day unfolded, landscapes, all different, appeared outside our window."
The Blue Train spoiled us. Our next train, from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, was filthy. The lights didn't work, and the windows didn't shut. Once we arrived in Zambia, though, we lounged in a first-class waiting room, where we exchanged stories with a group of friendly Zambian women. They traded us some fresh fruit for our Clif bars and showed Margot how to wrap fabric into a skirt. Our final ride into Dar es Salaam was much nicer, but somehow arrived 11½ hours later than it should have. Miraculously, our driver had waited for us. "I practically hugged him. His car was old and beat up. It was beautiful."