– BY BRENDA FITCHET
When asked to pen this piece on the goings on at Rovos Rail Station, especially on days of departure or arrival, I thought what better day to describe than a Wednesday during our summer months. Fondly described by most as ‘Hump Day’ – as in you’ve reached the apex of the week – we see this mid-week milestone as busier than any other and one that earns us a well-deserved beverage as soon as the departure bell rings.
There are many cogs in the wheel of a Wednesday and, if you have been on one of our site tours, you will know that our private station is about 60 acres in size and we have nearly 10 different departments that all stoke the fires – or in our case, pump the diesel – of each departure or arrival.
For a train to leave there need to be passengers, of course. There would be no guests without the determination of our large sales team or the meticulous strategic planning of our digital management. We also value the support of many travel agents and tour operators who over the years have enjoyed productive relationships with our sales team and loyally send their clients to travel with us each year. Our online efforts attract the independent, tech-savvy traveller who delight our digital team by sharing their experiences across various online platforms.
Our competent reservations department cradles all of the above by ensuring that enquiries receive a prompt and friendly reply and that each confirmed booking is efficiently completed so that guests feel welcome and safe.
Then of course we have our fierce financial ladies who manage the continuous ebb and flow of the credit and debit columns. A tough job in such an unpredictable industry.
WHERE THE PULSE OF ROVOS RAIL CAN BE FELT THE STRONGEST IS IN OUR STORES, OPERATIONS, THE WORKSHOPS AND THE LAUNDRY, ALL OF WHICH ARE HOUSED ON SITE AT OUR STATION. WE’RE AN INDEPENDENT BUNCH SO LIKE TO KEEP EVERYTHING WE DO IN-HOUSE. THIS IS WHERE THE TRULY BEAUTIFUL CHAOS RESIDES.
On Hump Day, we typically have two trains arriving back, one from Cape Town and the other either from Durban or Victoria Falls. Sometimes we have another train departing for Cape Town, too. This means that two train sets full of laundry (sheets, pillowcases, towels, facecloths, blankets, duvets, duvet covers, tablecloths, napkins, dressing gowns, slippers, and so on) plus cutlery, crockery, cooking utensils, food, beverages, fire extinguishers, glassware, urns, kettles, and so much more, have to be removed from the train and counted back into stock. It also means that all of the above has to be counted out for the afternoon’s departing train. All of this is executed with military precision by management and their teams.
To hear the odd shouting match is not unheard of – especially on those really hot Pretoria summer days when temperatures can soar to 35°C – so to see young rooming girls scurrying away as a result makes all of the long-standing staff, who are now safely ensconced in office roles, smile at the memories. “It was tougher in our day,” they mumble. Well, it was. Before the big move to Rovos Rail Station, we had to work within the bounds of a busy and very public railway station and either had to carry or drive everything across a chaotic main road. It also took about eight hours to turn the train around as it had to be done coach by coach. But I digress.
On site we have a dedicated team who work on the underbelly of each coach. Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, painters, welders, air-conditioning specialists and general handymen maintain the trains so that they are kept in good, working order. Having vintage coaches that travel thousands of kilometres each year certainly shakes things up a bit so our teams on site play a vital role. To ensure that their hard work is sustained, our energetic on-board maintenance crew see to any rattle, leak or wobble that might occur during a trip.
And finally, we have our frontline staff, the young women and men who serve with friendly discretion aboard the rumbling trains and seem to do so with natural aplomb. They are the ones that carry all that has been prepped on site to the trains and who meticulously prepare each coach for the arrival of our guests. The rooming staff scrub suites until they sparkle, the dining car staff polish the silverware and ensure that every knife, fork, plate and condiment is loaded on board in order to deliver silver service. Laundry ladies wash, press and iron all that is used and tend to each blouse, pair of slacks or dress sent in by guests.
The chefs prepare as much as they can in our on-site kitchens then load it all up to continue their chopping on board. The planning around meals on the train is fastidious. Space is limited and temperatures can radically fluctuate according to the journey and the time of year. There are many discussions and much research with test days on site and in the kitchens to figure out what works, and what doesn’t.
The bar staff, probably the most popular folk aboard, ensure that every bottle of wine, aperitif, cognac and mixer is safely tucked away for those relaxing afternoons in the observation car or the long, decadent dinners in the dining car.
It has taken many years for us to find a rhythm that works. We still have our dramas but hindsight is an exact science so most of the difficulties we experience aren’t of our making but created by things we have no control over – ash clouds, airline strikes, closed railway lines, global pandemics and the like.
There are a few occasions during the year where we down the tools and get together for a bit of a song and dance. We have the opportunity to catch up, laugh, swap stories and toast to the fact that we enjoy what we do, thoroughly, and that working for the most luxurious train in the world is one hell of a ride.