The things I do for you, LOF, in the name of research! (Check it out and drool on the Rovos Rail website).
Expect to see a scene set on this train, which prides itself as the most luxurious in the world, in my sixth book.
I can see quite a bit of skulduggery happening on board. Perhaps not ‘Murder on the Pride of Africa’, but certainly a bit of running along the tops of carriages, and what Muriel would term “gratuitous” sex.
Regular readers will recall that I am a big fan of ostentatious luxury in the wilds of Africa and Rovos Rail is certainly that. The best thing about RVR – and I’ve explained this in more detail on my other blog at Getaway Magazine, is that this train trip is just as good, in every detail, as what I hoped it would be. Think of every fantasy or favoured preconception of what it must be like to travel on a long-distance train ride in the lap of luxury, and this is it.
So good is every aspect of this journey, LOF that Mrs B and I have even taken to doing something that we have rarely done and, when we have, hated intensely.
I speak, LOF, of the dreaded “Group Tour”.
As part of the trip, guests are offered two sightseeing excursions, the first to the very aptly-named Big Hole, in Kimberly, and the second to the quintessentially cutesy and remarkably well-preserved 19th Century town of Matjiesfontein (pronounced, for the Aussies among us, as mikey’s-fontane).
How often, I asked myself, had I snickered and scoffed at gaggles of elderly people in plaid shorts or designer safari outfits trooping on and off coaches, video cameras in hand, blindly following the instructions of someone carrying a sign and wearing a name tag?
Many, I’m ashamed to say.
And here I was, dutifully filing off the train, on to the platform at Kimberly station, and thence on to the bus, cheerfully following the instructions (hanging on every word, in fact) of a man named Frick (not his real name), a local tour guide.
Frick had a well-rehearsed patter of borderline sexist jokes relating to diamonds and woman (the word ‘women’ does not exist southern Africa and ‘woman’ is both the singular and the plural for this gender), obviously designed to establish him firmly as a Man of Men, and a bit of a charmer of the ladies (and most of them on board Rovos Rail were of his generation).
Not that Frick confined his attention to the more mature woman of the group. He seemed to direct more than a few comments at two young ladies in their late teens (who, by their presence, lowered the average passenger age on the train to an acceptable 60ish) and the next youngest person in the group, Mrs Blog.
Normally, I would have anyone fraternising too closely with Mrs B horsewhipped (and that goes for you, too Val Kilmer, if I ever see you), but now I was part of the group and the one thing we don’t do in the group is horsewhip the tour leader.
No, LOF, we follow every command to the letter. We do not talk while Zee Leader is talking; und vee laff at every joke.
It was actually pleasant, seductively so, to potter along like a sponge on two legs for a while.
First, Frick made us watch the introductory fill-um about diamond mining and the Big Hole of Kimberly. This was lavishly shot and borderline informative, but the highlight, for me at least, was seeing the South African guy who played Cordell in Blood Diamond (Leo DiCaprio’s nasty mercenary mate who smashes his TV) playing a very camp Cecil John Rhodes, complete with an impressively false moustache, which I do believe he may have even curled, Snidely-Whiplash-style, when plotting to buy out all the small mining claims in Kimberly.
After the fill-um we rendezvoused with The Leader and walked out on a platform thing over the Big Hole. And big it is, LOF. Hugely massive, and very deep.
Frick tried to explain the intricacies of open-cast diamond mining, but the teenage consort of one of the young ladies, a beefy boy who looked like a member of a Springboks’ captive breeding program, was far more interested in the effects of jumping off the edge of the Big Hole into the alluringly green waters that have part-filled it. And so, quite frankly, was I.
“You die,” Frank said, hoping he could return to his monologue.
“Cool,” said the boy and I in unison.
“Eventually, a shaft was sunk so that diamonds could be removed horizontally from the diggings…” The Leader began again.
“So, like (or laaak, as he pronounced it), you couldn’t crawl down the sides of the hole and dive into the water for the last bit, then?” the mini-Bok asked. I nodded in support of this very valid question.
“It’s 170 metres down,” Frick said, impatiently. “You dive, you die. Now, diamonds are formed by volcanic activity deep below the earth’s…”
“No, but what if you took a helicopter down there and jumped in. How cold is that water?” my fellow passenger persisted. If he hadn’t have asked the question I would have.
“You jump in there…” and by this time I’m quite sure Frick was looking for a young volunteer to prove his point, “and they’ll be pulling you OUT with a helicopter two weeks later when your body bloats and you float the SURFACE!”
Sheepishly, we both ceased our quest for true knowledge on the Kimberly digs.
Next stop was the diamond vault, which boasted hissing sliding doors and security worthy of a James Bond movie. “Don’t take pictures, or lean on the glass of the display cabinets,” The Leader warned us, “Or else...”
“Or else what?” asked our inquisitive junior member. He just couldn’t help himself.
I was starting to slowly distance myself from the boy now, not wanting to incur Frick’s wrath – even though I still silently supported his sensible line of questioning. I am such a chicken sometimes.
Once we were all accounted for, and safely behind the double air locked doors, Frick resumed his informative tour. “Now here we have biggest diamond in….”
“How much is it worth?”
Another good question.
Frick sighed. “I can’t tell you… it’s priceless.”
“No, but is it laaak, millions? Billions?”
We all – myself included, I’m ashamed to report – turned away from the boy then. With rolling eyes, muted tut-tuts, and knowing nods we shunned the non conformist and returned our gaze, respectfully, dutifully, to our Leader.
At His command, we left the vault and allowed ourselves to be herded towards the souvenir shop, where an impressive array of Big Hole salt and pepper shakers, teaspoons, post cards and coffee cups awaited us.
“Look,” I said to Mrs Blog, “here’s a nice wide-brimmed floppy khaki safari hat with faux zebra skin puggaree and an embroidered Big Hole logo on it. Shall I try it on, dear?”
“RUN!” cried Mrs Blog, as she seized me by the hand and dragged me towards the exit. “RUN!”