Out of Africa: Quest to reach Victoria Falls by rail leads Danville man to book tour
Out of Africa: Quest to reach Victoria Falls by rail leads Danville man to book tour (Photo contributed / October 9, 2011)
Grabill, of Danville and a lover of trains, called the African train ride “the vacation of a lifetime.” The two-week, 5,742-kilometer, 3,568-mile journey wound its way from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Cape Town, South Africa, passing through Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana along the way. Victoria Falls is located at Livingstone, Zambia, and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and is the largest falls in the world.
The Pride of Africa tour is billed as the “most luxurious train in the world,” Grabill said, and was staffed with 26 young employees for up to 72 passengers. The passengers were about 20 percent North American, 20 percent German, 20 percent South African, 20 percent Australian, and 20 percent from elsewhere — mainly Europe, according to Grabill.
He’s battled Parkinson’s Disease for the past 15 years, and that provided his biggest challenge during the trip. Grabill has what he calls “act up spells,” which cause him to lose his balance or unexpectedly have his knees lock.
“My travel partner walks in front of me and knows that I may grab on to his shoulder at any time,” Grabill explained. “Soon, the other passengers got on to what I¿needed and offered any help I¿might need. The train was designed so that we all functioned as one big family as well as got to better know each other.”
He added the dark-skinned, rural residents he observed were eking out an existence with small gardens and whatever work they could find.
“The father south we progressed, the friendlier and more prosperous the residents became,” Grabill noted. “We observed no incident of aggression or violence, or petty destruction of property.”
Grabill said the most common “custom” he observed was “everybody loves a train.”
“The local schools in the poorer areas let students out of class to observe the Pride of Africa pass. ... Another custom was afternoon ‘high tea,’ seemingly wherever we were, even in the bush in search of wild animals,” he explained.
They also dressed for a 7:30 p.m. dinner each evening.
Stops and side trips included Chisimba Falls, Zambia; Victoria Falls; and two days on a game preserve, viewing and photographing wild animals of Africa.
“The nights were spent in bungalows with pre-hung mosquito nets, heated sheets and a fully-plumbed outdoor shower in a silo-like structure attached the bathroom, where one could bathe comfortable at 40 degrees under a star-filled sky,” Grabill said.
Another stop was a fifth-generation cattle ranch named Wayside. Passengers on the train observed the workings of the large operation and viewed more animals while there.
At Kimberly, train passengers visited a diamond mine museum, and were told about the discovery, mining, production and marketing techniques for diamonds. At Pretoria, the train was pulled by steam engine into the Rovos Rail headquarters and shop complex. The travelers toured the complex, dined on a catered lunch, and participated in a guided bus tour of the capital city.
Traveling the tunnels of snow-capped mountains through wine country and into Cape Town finished the tour. The next day-and-a-half, according to Grabill, were spent with a private guide, who gave the travelers a bus tour and took them up a cable lift to the top of Table Mountain. There, they had “spectacular views” of Cape Town, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and Cape Horn, where 6,700 documented ship sinkings have been recorded throughout history, Grabill said.
He said there were too many interesting experiences in Africa to choose just one as the most interesting.
“The animals, the scenery, Victoria Falls from a helicopter, business class on a new 540-passenger airbus 380-800 airliner, Cape Town, my fellow passengers themselves and their life stories,” Grabill noted as a few interesting aspects to the trip. “But being a lifelong rail fan getting a long ride in the ‘Prides’ locomotive, and a friendly engineer who let me handle the air horn duties, and trading my UK Wildcats T-shirt off my back for a cab ride in an all-electric locomotive had to be my biggest surprise.”
Grabill said his favorite souvenirs are his memories and the more than 2,000 digital images he has from the trip. He definitely would take another train trip through Africa, he said.
“The organization was flawless. The staff was always helpful and courteous and so willing to help any person at any time,” Grabill noted.