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Great African train journeys

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The fast-paced rhythm of modern life means that our travel experiences can feel like a whirlwind; a rush to check off destinations from our lists, compressed into the limited time that we have. We’re rediscovering the lost art of savouring the journey and allowing each moment to breathe and unfurl. This is the essence of train travel – a deliberate and mindful approach that invites us to fully immerse ourselves in the places we visit.

This more sustainable means of travel is perfect for exploring the vast continent of Africa. It has a well-established rail network, and many long-distance trains offer comfortable and often luxury accommodation, including sleeping cabins, dining cars and observation areas. Even on a regular sleeper train or on a shorter journey through one of Africa’s fascinating countries, the experience will be all the richer for travelling by train. Relax and watch the views of the diverse African landscape unfold, as you tread lightly on the planet and absorb some of the highlights that the continent has to offer.

We’ve looked into some of the best journeys traversing a single country, as well as a handful of epic trips crossing several nations.

Steam train over the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe

The Big Five: Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa

This epic African sojourn begins in Tanzania’s bustling coastal city, Dar es Salaam, and ends in Cape Town, South Africa (or it can be done in reverse). Crossing five countries over 15 days, this iconic rail experience combines opulent accommodation on a vintage-style Rovos Rail train – one of the most luxurious in the world – with a journey through some of the most spectacular and diverse scenery on the continent.

Your first destination is Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, the largest in Africa at 55,000 sq km, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the Big Five – the lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. From here the train negotiates the tunnels, switchbacks and viaducts of the Great Rift Valley, carved out of the surrounding mountains and winding between two of Africa’s great lakes. Gliding onwards there’s a stop at Chishimba Falls, before you cross the mighty Zambezi River and on to Zimbabwe to experience sunset at Victoria Falls, the largest body of falling water on Earth. Venturing into Botswana, you’ll spend two nights at the Madikwe Game Reserve, a prime Big Five wildlife haven, before crossing the border to South Africa. After a stop at the historic diamond capital of Kimberley, it trundles through South Africa’s winelands before your journey concludes in Cape Town.

Start or end in Tanzania, where the winning combination of the most famous wildlife reserve in the world – the Serengeti, tropical beaches and relaxed, friendly people make it an outstanding holiday destination in itself.

Winelands of Stellenbosch in South Africa

Zimbabwe: the Elephant Express

If your idea of the perfect safari experience involves sipping a gin and tonic while spotting zebras in an uninterrupted view through an open train window, step closer. The Elephant Express is a unique safari experience, launched in 2015 in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, one of Africa’s largest protected areas. The purpose-built rail car is open to the elements – and the elephants – and accommodates just 22 people, making it easy to move up and down the carriage to get a good view or take photographs. And boy, will you want to!

The park is home to elephants, giraffes and zebra, and successfully reintroduced rhino in 2022. The animals are quite used to the train so do not shy away from it, giving you the opportunity to view the incredible scenes from the window. You might see a troupe of baboons or spy some grazing giraffes, and be sure to take your binoculars in case you spot an African fish eagle, a white-backed vulture or a secretary bird. Currently the train runs only between the two lodges of Bomani and Camelthorn in the park, with the 80km journey typically taking two to three hours, depending on wildlife sightings.

Zebras drinking in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Egypt and the Nile Delta

There’s a reason why Egypt appears on so many bucket lists. Visitors from across the globe travel to see the wonders left by its ancient civilisations – the Valley of the Kings, the astonishing pyramids, and the temples at Abu Simbel. As these top three sites alone are spread between Cairo, Luxor and over 200km from the nearest city of Aswan, it makes sense to build some travel into your itinerary. Even more so given that a scenic train runs through the heart of Egypt, from Cairo to Aswan. In Cairo, even the railway station is named after Ramses II, the pharaoh who built the famous temples at Abu Simbel. It’s almost as if the pharaohs themselves are trying to tell you something.

The journey is over 800km, takes around 12 hours and offers an overnight sleeper service with cosy private cabins, en-suite facilities and dining services. But the best thing about this trip is that it follows the Nile River, the lifeline of Egypt. You will enjoy the stunning scenery of the Nile Delta and the surrounding desert landscape, as well as the lush green fields of Upper Egypt. As you glide along the tracks between archaeological wonders, you can soak up the vibrancy of contemporary Egyptian life.

Lush landscape of Upper Egypt at sunrise

Classic journeys across South Africa and Namibia

If you like the sound of Tanzania, you might find yourself torn when you discover its seductive southerly cousin, with its rich blend of southern African culture and international influence. South Africa raises the stakes with Kruger National Park, another premier safari destination and home to the Big Five, and raises them again – quite literally – with the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, the dramatic Drakensberg or ‘Dragon’ mountains. The ace up its sleeve is cosmopolitan Cape Town, home to a dynamic arts scene, picturesque waterfront, the iconic Table Mountain and wild Atlantic beaches. South Africa’s wildcard is definitely the world-class vineyards of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, an easy visit from Cape Town.

See all this and more in relaxed style aboard the romantic Blue Train, a five-star hotel on wheels that has been running between Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg since 1946. The journey takes in mountains, wine country and diamond mines, and climaxes with a visit to Kruger National Park. It also runs a longer trip from Cape Town to Windhoek, Namibia, a 13-night journey taking in some of Namibia’s highlights, including the world’s highest sand dune and Fish River Canyon – the second-largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon.

On a 10-day trip from Pretoria to Namibia’s Walvis Bay, you could soak up the very best of train travel aboard the Rovos Rail, for a journey filled with classic, old-world charm and wonder. Fine-dine in style, enjoy a highly attentive level of service, and revel in the comforts of a plush suite throughout this nostalgic and glamorous experience. From the gold fields of the Witwatersrand, through the vast arid Karoo and the southern reaches of the Kalahari Basin, the journey covers an epic variety of landscapes. It’s also peppered with incredible experiences along the way: scenic drives through the Namibian sand dunes at sunset, the chance to visit a cheetah conservation centre, and unforgettable safari game drives through Etosha National Park, to name a few.

Namibian sand dunes in Walvis Bay

Vintage luxury through East and West Africa

The ultimate in deluxe transportation and relaxation, another Rovos Rail experience offers a leisurely 15-night sojourn covering over 4,000km from East to West Africa (or vice versa) by vintage train. Travel on a locomotive antique, with teak wood panelling, opulent suites, and an observation car with an open-air balcony. It’s designed to capture the spirit of a bygone era and encourage you to enjoy the experience at a slower pace.

Crossing three time zones, the trip begins or ends in Angola or Tanzania, and crosses Zambia and the southern fringes of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Relax and enjoy the views as the train winds through countryside thick with woodland and raffia palms, trundling between two of Africa’s Great Rift Valley lakes to Chishimba Falls, and onwards into Tanzania’s jungled Udzungwa Mountains. It finishes in Dar es Salaam, from where you can enjoy some relaxing time on Tanzania’s tropical beaches, or head for the paradise island of Zanzibar surrounded by the Indian Ocean. Aside from the opulence of the train, what makes this trip so special are the opportunities for two safari experiences in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, and in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with excellent wildlife-viewing and boat safaris.

Storks on a branch in Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve

Make it happen

Are you feeling inspired to embark on an exciting railway adventure of your own? Our locally-based African experts will craft your perfect itinerary, for a memorable vacation in this most fascinating and diverse of continents.

  1. Tanzania
  2. Zimbabwe
  3. Botswana
  4. South Africa
  5. Egypt
  6. Namibia

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