'One of the great experiences': Griff Rhys Jones on exploring South Africa by rail

Adrian Bridge
·3-min read
The Karoo - getty
The Karoo - getty

Griff Rhys Jones talks to Adrian Bridge about the highlights of his rail journeys across South Africa

It doesn’t take Griff Rhys Jones long to get into his stride. “If you want to see the glories of Africa, there’s no better way than taking a train in South Africa!” And he should know. While making a series of programmes about travelling through the entire continent by train, he had a number of rail adventures in the Rainbow Nation, and they weren’t confined to the luxury options so beloved of tourists – the legendary Rovos Rail and Blue Train.

“Most of those I travelled on were public trains,” he says cheerily. “We took a night train from Johannesburg to Kimberley and for me that was one of the great experiences. 

“We did stand out, though. A lot of people wondered what we were doing on board.” 

Rhys Jones was there to tell stories about South Africa: about the extraordinary discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold further on – the foundation of the country’s immense wealth; about how farmers here became so expert at plucking ostrich feathers; about the apartheid era and about the history of the railway itself in this part of the world – a story that dates back to colonial times and the vision of Cecil Rhodes (“Now discredited, I know, I know”) to build a line from Cape Town to Cairo.

“The idea was that people who were working in South Africa would be able to get on a train to Cairo and be home [in Britain] for Christmas, then take a steamer down to Cairo and be back in South Africa for the new year. 

Griff Rhys Jones on the drivers platform of an old African Steam Train - CHRIS GIBBIONS
Griff Rhys Jones on the drivers platform of an old African Steam Train - CHRIS GIBBIONS

“That incredible journey started in South Africa with the train from Cape Town to Johannesburg and then up into Zimbabwe, through to the Victoria Falls and right up into Kenya.

“Travelling by train in South Africa confronts you with South Africa both as an incredible place, but also as a historical development.”

Like all travellers before him, Rhys Jones was palpably struck by the astonishing beauty of the country. “Some of the vistas in terms of the landscape are fixed in your mind forever because they are so majestic, so incredible. Think of the semi-arid Karoo desert and the beautiful garden landscapes around Cape Town. There you see you have entered a temperate world which bears resemblance to parts of Switzerland.”

It was on his way to Cape Town from Matjiesfontein that the actor, presenter and Sunday Telegraph columnist made his sole concession to luxury train travel by hopping aboard one of the signature Rovos Rail trains from Pretoria. 

“Oh yes, I went out to that open carriage at the back of the lovely green train and simply drank it all in – wonderful. It was also on that train that I was filmed scrubbing myself in a bath while we were passing through some of the townships and the less successful bits of South Africa. 

A Rovos Rail train - alamy
A Rovos Rail train - alamy

“We wanted to experience all forms of train travel in the country and show some of its many sides.” Would he recommend it to readers of The Daily Telegraph? “Absolutely. South Africa is one of the few places on the continent where you can still experience the railway fully – in parts of central and east Africa it has been eclipsed by travel on the roads.”

Is there any particular favourite?

“If I were to go back with Mrs Jones, I wouldn’t mind travelling on the epic Rovos Rail journey from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam. I do love a good long-distance train journey…”

Griff Rhys Jones – Slow Train Through Africa is available on DVD (£14.99; amazon.co.uk).

Rovos Rail (rovos.com) offers a number of adventures by rail in South Africa and beyond, including a 15-day Cape Town to Dar es Salaam trip with fares from about US$12,000 (£9,125).