I must have been three or four years old when I first travelled by train.
That three-hour journey with my mother still tastes of home-made egg sandwiches, yet what I remember even more vividly was that the train moved either forwards or backwards depending on where in the compartment I sat (and which way I faced). Magic, I tell you.
Two decades later, the train magic continued as, armed with a Eurail Pass, my husband and I set on a two-month honeymoon across mountains and forests and fjords. With the French Riviera morphing into Italy outside the train's third-class window, I vowed that one day I'd do it right. No more sleeping upright in yesterday's clothes, no more egg sandwiches. One day, I'd sip champagne and eat truffles – both the chocolate kind, and the weird mushroom variety I've only read about in the kind of magazine I couldn't even afford to buy.
Fast forward another – ahem – years, and finally here we were. The same two honeymooners, now plus two kids, about to embark on a Rovos Rail train from Pretoria to Cape Town.
Champagne was flowing in the station's first-class waiting room as the owner of the company, Rohan Vos, delivered his welcoming speech. You have to admire a man who tuned his boyhood love for trains into a multi-million business venture. You have to admire that he didn't let what-is-now-work kill his passion. And you also have to admire the fact that he greets every guest on every train with a handshake.
Naturally, Rovos Rail is not your usual tourist train. To say it was luxurious would be an insult to its comfort and opulence. The rich wood panelling in our suite made an impression even before I glimpsed the full bathroom with a claw-footed bathtub in the middle. Taking a full bath on a train must be right up there with beluga caviar and diamond-studded BMWs.
Three days on a train without Internet access could be either paradise or hell. This was paradise: writing letters by hand, playing chess on a real board (not online), reading, talking to fellow passengers from countries as distant as Sweden and Australia. To quote Johnny Cash's opinion of riding a train: It was a good way to travel when things didn't move quite so fast.
For sure, there was something soothing and zen-like about the regular shake-shake-rock of the train as it rolled through African scenery, across the fragrant dust of the Karoo Desert and along a lake that's home to thousands of pink flamingos. You couldn't work or do chores. A raised eyebrow brought you another pot of red-bush tea or a sweet creamy liqueur made from yellow marula fruit. You had a lot of time to think, to take in, to experience with all the senses. You had time to ponder whether the liqueur smelled more like grapefruit or more like pineapples. And you had time to thank your lucky stars that you had all this time.
Wise people say that it's usually the hardships in life that shape you. They say, there is no education like adversity. They say, it's the flaws that make things interesting. And you know what? They're wrong. It was the lack of flaws, the sheer perfection of the experience, that made the journey a talking point at parties.
And as to educating and shaping? The three days and two nights on Rovos Rail changed me in ways I couldn't have predicted. At one of the Gauteng stations, we pulled up next to a metro train. The train, used by commuters, had no doors and no windows, which probably would have made for a windy journey, if it weren't for the fact that it was crammed full of people. Arms, legs and heads protruded from every opening – there were even people standing between carriages and hanging onto the front of the locomotive. As I watched from the plush green sofa in the club car of my train, one of the commuters smiled, pointed at us and rubbed his belly. "Enjoy your smoked salmon sandwiches", he seemed to say. Not a smidgeon of envy or bitterness in his gesture, just pure joy at making contact across the platform, across the race barriers and across the wealth levels. And then they were gone, on their breezy trip home, to corrugated roofs of their township and to meals of corn porridge with condensed milk, while we changed into eveningwear to dine on ostrich fillet and grilled hearts of palms.
As I sipped Silverthorn bubbly, I didn't feel guilt. I did feel a burning need to share my good fortune with others, and I made a mental list of the charities to sponsor. But I realised the smiling commuter had taught me something far more valuable than any money I could possibly donate: he taught me the beauty of being content with what you have, even when faced with someone who has so much more.
Train journeys can be educational in unexpected ways. On the last night on the train, we had cocktails in the observation car, where I finally learnt how the pointer stars work with the Southern Cross to indicate which way is south. I also learnt the true meaning of hospitality, when one of the train hosts said to me: "Ma'am, I see you're not drinking. Is there anything else I could bring you at all?"
My mind was on my very first train journey, under a different set of stars. "I know this is weird," I said, "but could I trouble you for an egg sandwich?" Apparently, on Rovos Rail, an egg sandwich at midnight is no trouble at all.