If your philosophy is that ‘it’s the journey, not just the destination’, then the four-hour steam locomotive trip to Victoria Falls from Livingstone is perfect for you. From the moment you step onto the red carpet and are promptly handed a chilled drink as you board the Royal Livingstone Express vintage train, it becomes apparent that the journey will include platinum service and fine dining. As you surrender to the pace of a bygone era and the rhythmic, gentle swaying of the carriage, your mind settles into a meditative state.
This is one of the excursions from the Royal Livingstone Hotel by Anantara, a beautifully styled hotel on the Zambezi side of the Zambezi River and a short walk from Vic Falls.
It is from here that guests are transferred to the old Mulobezi Railway Offices in Livingstone, from where the Royal Livingstone Express departs. The transfer is a short but slow journey as the driver stops for a giraffe grazing nonchalantly on the Acacia trees or a herd of elephant crossing the road. After all, the hotel, the road and the railway line are all in the picturesque Zambezi Valley, in the heart of the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. Both the railway line and train cars are steeped in history. The bridge, completed in 1905, was built as part of Cecil John Rhodes’ ambitious plan to build a railway line from Cape Town to Cairo. The gracious Wembley Dining Car shipped to the Union and entered service on 19 May 1926.
Chugging along in the lovingly restored Pullman-style coaches, nibbling on canapés, it’s a challenge to find a more perfect setting for enjoying the cuisine that is prepped by the Royal Livingstone Hotel by Anantara and plated by the chefs on-board. The trip is perfectly timed to reach the bridge, suspended over the gorge between Zimbabwe and Zambia, as the sun starts to set. You disembark and, straddling two countries, watch as the mesmerising African sun dips over the falls. Known as the “Smoke that Thunders”, the five million cubic metres of water that cascades down the gorge and its cloud of mist acts as prism, refracting the light into an arced rainbow.
As the last of the soft, burnished light drops below the horizon, you board again and are formally invited to dinner. The opulently restored dining cars are an invitation back in time, to nostalgia and grand travel. The fine China, crisp damask linen, polished silver cutlery and crystal glassware, leather seats, teak tables, brass fittings, the sash windows and tassel-tied draperies are the setting for the exquisite five-course gourmet meal.
As you sip on curated South African wines and the locomotive slowly pulls away from Vic Falls, the last of the light reflects off the inside of the dining car. It is seamlessly replaced by the intimate warmth from the individual, antique lamps above each table, gently illuminating the beautifully detailed wooden interiors.
The liveried waiters begin the silver service. First on the menu is chilled Zambian cucumber soup presented in a thin porcelain cup and saucer. This is followed by perfectly seared tuna with salad and wasabi mayonnaise. Next is a deliciously smooth butternut squash crème brûlée with carrot crisps and Parmesan Julie. Pumpkin seeds round off this excellent dish.
As you relax and enjoy the gentle swaying of the carriage, the next course of braised lamb shoulder with carrot puree, pomme, boulangere, oyster mushroom and pan juices arrives. It is delicious, tender, succulent and plated beautifully – worthy of a fine-dining establishment. The wine flows freely as you savour these courses, then wait for dessert.
Dark chocolate torte and cream is the decadent final course of the meal and the iconic journey is rounded off with the serving of petit fours and a selection of teas and coffee.
As you disembark, satisfied with gourmet food, magnificent experiences and indelible memories, the hedonist in you sighs contentedly.