Mr. Vos bought up old old railway carriages and converted them to his own exacting specification but was unpleasantly surprised by the fees demanded by the railway authorities for use of the track. They told him to 'sell tickets' and this proved a red rag to a bullish entrepreneur.
More than two decades later and Mr. Vos claims to be impoverished but to have the best train set in the world. Each carriage has been rebuilt with under-floor heating, air-conditioning, ensuite shower and toilet, permanent real beds and electric blankets.
Boutique hotel on rails
Actually Rovos Rail looks a superb business with up to four trains out on tour at anytime, more like a boutique hotel chain on wheels and acquired for the cost of renovating disused rolling stock. You also can not fault the service at the operational level.
In Pretoria the railway even has its own station, where the waiting room is straight out of a BBC drama series and passengers quaff champagne before getting on the train.
Then you are taken to your luxury suite on the train. Every detail is finely considered. You fill out a form to order complimentary drinks for your mini bar. There is a safe in your wardrobe and a bathrobe and slippers. The shower is full-size with branded toiletries. Flowers and a fruit basket are on the table.
All meals and drinks are included in the fare, and the standard of cuisine is outstanding. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are taken in the beautiful 1928 Shanghai dining car with full silver service, and serving the finest South African wine vintages.
The length of the train varies according to the number of passengers. We were only 39 in number but by adding another dining car and carriages the accommodation can double in size. At the rear of the train is an open bar in the Observation carriage which gives panoramic views over the passing countryside.
We made two stops on our trip. At Kimberley to visit the largest diamond mine in the world, home town of the legendary De Beers company; And at Matjiesfontein, a small Victorian railway hamlet with a transport museum. Both provided an interesting opportunity to stretch your legs.
It was all great fun and the staff on the Rovos Rail work hard to ensure that passengers get the full five-star travel experience. Try the 34-day trip from Cape Town to Cairo if you are feeling really adventurous!