I felt it only appropriate, since the acquisition of the Shongololo Express by Rovos Rail, and after the huge amount they spent in refurbishing the train, that myself and Thandi personally made the trip to do a site inspection and make sure that they really were offering a new and improved 4-star experience at affordable pricing. I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive at first, with visions of getting cabin fever, being on a train for six days. However, my experience could not have been more different, and I thoroughly recommend this train journey as an add-on to your Africa vacation!
I met the train in Hoedspruit in South Africa, which was on Day 7 of the 12-Day Shongololo Southern Cross journey, starting in Victoria Falls. I was welcomed on the platform by the staff, and a table had been set up with a choice of complimentary fruit juice or Amarula for all the guests returning from their morning activity. In fact, this was done each day after an excursion, the drinks changing daily, and refreshing cold cloths also being available. After being shown to my Gold Cabin, and given an overview of the facilities by my friendly cabin attendant, I did the obligatory train walk from one end to the other to see for myself just how much had actually changed. The first things I noticed were that the train was repainted in the regal Rovos Rail green, the carpets had all been replaced and were the same as those on Rovos, the fabrics in the cabins had been replaced, the dowdy curtains had been removed and were replaced with solid blinds, and the amenities kit in the bathroom was beautifully presented in a little bag similar to those on Rovos. In fact had I not known better I would have thought I had actually just boarded a Rovos Rail train.
The most noticeable differences were the addition of an observation carriage which allows guests to sit outside and watch the passing scenery while the train travels, as well as an extra lounge. The dining carriages have also been redone to match the elegance of those on Rovos Rail, however still maintaining the relaxed atmosphere that Shongololo is known for. This is still an “adventure train” after all, and a casual dress code is observed.
My adventure began as we headed towards Melalane, where there train was to be stationed for the night. Chimes are rung to indicate meal times as the train has no Wi-Fi or telephones. It was so rejuvenating to literally unplug completely. The food on board was outstanding. Needless to say, the chef is from Rovos and the serving staff are professional and attentive. 3-course meals are served at dinner, along with freshly-baked bread. Every night there was something different and exciting on the menu… an absolute treat on this Africa vacation. Breakfast is a selection of fresh fruit, yogurts and cereals, and eggs of your choice. Lunches are on guests’ own account, as most of the time it’s had while out on the daily excursion. Guests can either choose where they would like to eat, or a carefully selected restaurant is chosen for all. Guests also take care of all drinks on board, thus ensuring a lower overall fare.
The following morning we all boarded one of the 10 Mercedes Sprinters, which travel with the train and are used for excursions, each conducted by a driver/guide. Complimentary water is provided in the vehicles and cabins. We headed to Swaziland, a scenic mountainous kingdom in the middle of South Africa, known for its traditional culture. A stop was made at the well-known Ngwenya Glass Factory before heading to Swazi Candles, where there are a number of other arts and craft shops, so a fabulous place to pick up unusual gifts and curios. The next day we made our way to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, where we did a city tour, before heading to the beachfront for a fabulous seafood lunch.
Day 10 of the journey was a much anticipated highlight for most on their Africa vacation, as it included a game drive in open vehicles in the iconic Kruger National Park. Although very dry due to a severe drought, the wildlife was plentiful, and we saw the Big 5, along with 3 different rhino sightings!
The Panorama Route was the following day’s excursion, an area I had not visited since my school days but equally as beautiful as I remember. Stops are made at Bourke Lucks Potholes, the breathtaking God’s Window to see the 3 rondavels, and the spectacular view of Blyde River Canyon. Our lunch stop was in the charming town of Graskop. Later we visited Pilgrims Rest, an old mining town that is now a national monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we also had a chance to do some gold panning!
The final night on board the Shongololo Express featured a black and white cocktail evening. Guests were invited to wear black and white, and the staff did so too. After dinner, a variety of cocktails were on offer in the bar and music played late into the evening with a few impromptu sing-alongs too!
I can honestly say that not only was I pleasantly surprised by how much the Shongololo has improved, but that I truly enjoyed my time on board the train immensely! It is a fun way to travel, as you only have to unpack once but get to see so many different places. It’s also a wonderful way to meet new people from all over the world, and it is safe and relaxing. The Shongololo Expess is a great option for any Africa vacation!