Travel back in time by about 100 years, and you’ll find the African continent defined – and divided – by its railways. While infrastructure has declined over the ensuing decades, the continent has, latterly, plunged millions of dollars into infrastructure. This has led to plans for an $800m Kinshasha-Brazzaville rail bridge and $100bn spent across East Africa as a whole.
This will massively improve the lives of African citizens, but also opens up a huge opportunity for visitors – there are few better ways to experience the length and breadth of Africa than by rail. Some of the best routes are there to be experienced today.
In terms of tourism-centric rail operators, few are as renowned or as luxury as Rovos. More akin to a hotel than a train carriage, Rovos offer routes between Cape Town and Pretoria, while also branching as far afield as Dar es Salaam. This allows rail users to take their travel through some of the continent’s biggest countries, including South Africa and Namibia, while also taking insights from smaller nations like Zambia and the Malawi coastline. Rovos market themselves to the ‘old time’ aesthetic; their design is deliberately made up to feel like older times and there is a theme running on their carriages to stow modern technology – there is no wifi, and creating a hotspot is against the rules outside of your sleeper cabin.
November 2018 saw the opening of Africa’s first high-speed rail line, connecting Casablanca and Tangier in Morocco. This may seem workmanlike, given the utility of the rail line, but there are serious tourist experiences to be had with it.
The line is within breathtaking views of the ocean on one side, and the desert on the other. What’s more, the cities it connects are, while Moroccan in nature, famed for their differences in culture and atmosphere.
You can experience two worlds within a day; the French-Arabic, European-influenced culture of Tangier, replaced by the white houses, extravagant markets and old-world Islamic charm of Casablanca, as you head down the coast.
Kenya has recently experienced an influx of Chinese-led rail investment, and of note is the Mombasa-Nairobi rail, opened in late 2017. Again, like the Morocco high-speed rail, it provides a lot of utility to Kenyan citizens and much-needed travel options.
One report, by TripSavvy, noted the incredible contrast from Nairobi – five thousand feet above sea level – to the tropical Mombasa, a hundred feet below. In addition, the train traverses through huge open areas, giving you the chance to enjoy a type of Safari as you make your way through the natural habitats of countless animals.