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Wednesday 25 March 2009

Letting off steam on the Royal Livingstone Express

The Victoria Falls, a vintage train and fine game viewing – the Royal Livingstone Express has it all, says Kieron Humphrey. Spare a thought for the fireman of the Royal Livingstone Express: the sun is a meltingly hot 35C and he's shovelling coal into a furnace. Meanwhile, the engine driver is keeping an eye out for hazards on the line, particularly elephants. They usually amble out of the way, I'm told, but every now and again a big bull decides to challenge this strange hooting newcomer.

For the passengers, riding the Royal is an unashamed exercise in luxury travel – the perfect end to a day admiring the majestic Victoria Falls. The five-hour excursion is all about attentive service and fine dining, with the chance to view game as a bonus. And vintage rail enthusiasts will find plenty to admire about the train itself – a symphony of steam, steel, polished paintwork, gleaming teak and luxurious leather.

While the experience may feel timeless, the steam safari is quite a recent addition to Livingstone's list of attractions. "I saw an advertisement one day, inviting bids to run a tourist train," says Chris Tett, the man behind the train. "When I was little I used to terrify my mother by telling her I wanted to be a train driver. Suddenly I saw my chance." That was in 2004, when Tett was looking to expand the travel company he had set up in Zambia after six years in the Irish Guards and an unsuccessful experiment with prawn farming in Mozambique.

Tett won the tender and spent three years scouting for rolling stock in marshalling yards all over southern Africa. "Then I got a call from Rohan Vos, of Rovos Rail. 'I've found your train set,' he said."

The "train set" consisted of five carriages in varying states of decay: an observation car, with an open-air deck, elegant lounge car and "Wembley" dining car (named for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition where it was exhibited), a Chesterfield dining car and a club car, which houses the kitchen. Each was given a complete overhaul, blending original fittings and features with modern comforts such as air conditioning units, a humidor and a wine cellar.

The sweaty, sooty interior of the cab, on the other hand, is exactly as it was when the engine first plied this stretch of line, 86 years ago. Built by the North British Locomotive Company in 1922-4, the 10th Class "Princess of Mulobezi" originally hauled timber for Zambezi Sawmills. It was saved from the scrapyard in the Seventies by David Shepherd, the wildlife artist and conservationist, and operated on the Zimbabwean side of the Falls for many years. As the Mugabe regime took its toll on the country's fortunes, so the Princess began to show signs of neglect. She was brought back to Zambia and given the kiss of life by Ben Costa, a veteran railway engineer whose eyes sparkle as he tells how replacement parts had to be scratch-built from the specification sheets.

Even if you're normally left cold by steam, you may well be impressed by a trip on the Express. With vapour from the Victoria Falls hanging above the trees in the distance, the train pays tribute with its own puff of smoke and heads west out of Livingstone, through the teeming suburb of Dambwe. Children cluster at the trackside to wave and tiny fragments of town life can be seen through the window: a stallholder displaying dried fish; a man teetering along on an overburdened bicycle; a young man in sunglasses berating a passing driver for splashing mud onto his trousers.

Soon the corrugated iron roofs of Dambwe are left behind. The train pauses while the guard opens the gate to the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, and now it is no longer children staring as we pass, but impala and an unperturbed giraffe. The park has been restocked with white rhino recently and is also home to buffalo, zebra, monkeys and several species of antelope. Opportunities for sighting game vary with the time of year, but if wildlife is seen the train usually makes a halt for photographs.

Ten miles along the track there is a longer halt for dinner. Five courses, with a seemingly never-ending flow of South African wines, come courtesy of the chef and staff at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, flagship of Sun International's Zambian stable. It's hard to fault the food, and there are rumours that the renowned chef Conrad Gallagher has been brought in to improve the menu still further.
But for me, the most magical element of the meal was watching twilight shroud the mopane trees, and hearing bush birds call their goodnights. If Cecil Rhodes's grand vision for a Cape Town-to-Cairo railway had ever been fulfilled, perhaps it would have been like this.

Source: Letting off steam on the Royal Livingstone Express (22/03/09)