The Desert Express from Swakopmund to Windhoek
I love the desert.
It is perhaps because I was born in the dreaded ‘burbs’ of London, house after house with nobody knowing their neighbours’ names. Desert is about as far from that life as you can get and I relish the space and freedom.
Namibia has lots of it; desert and space, and is one of my favourite southern African countries. It epitomises ‘safari’ in its meaning of ‘journeying into the wilderness’, but since the country is so large and all the natural wonders so far apart, you need time to safari in Namibia.
This usually requires a lot of road travel, and even if you are not driving, the heat and dust, (which somehow manages to penetrate into the car and even through zipped bags), is pervasive. So, when I was invited aboard the Desert Express from Swakopmund at the coast to the capital city of Windhoek, I had no hesitation in accepting. Especially as I had already done a thousand kilometres by road and the sand had by then wormed its way into every crevice of my body.
Getting into the bathroom…
I was gratified by the efficiency of the eight Namibian staff of the Desert Express, all of whom were smiling. This set the mood for the journey as they showed me to my very smart, compact cabin. It would be a tight fit for the three people it is designed for, but for me alone, it was just perfect. It is quite ingenious how the three easy chairs can morph themselves into a trio of really comfortable bunk beds, each with its own reading light. The bathroom – a squeeze for even one person – has a basin that swivels sideways enabling you to carry out all necessary toilette in the minimum of space. Some inventor had fun thinking of all the space saving gadgets, but I did wonder how one of our party – a particularly large, jovial journo called Jacques – would ever be able to park himself on the toilet and close the door.
We pulled out of Swakopmund Station – not the grand old original station, which is now the Swakopmund Hotel and Casino, but a tiny, windswept platform on the edge of town. All the passengers collected in the bar for a tequila sunrise (without the tequila and an orientation speech by Angela the train Manager.
Dressing for dinner
Angela has an African’s way with words, which allowed her to be absolutely candid without being offensive. She addressed us, while looking me up and down, stating that shorts and sandals were not appropriate for dinner. But then added with a smile, that since we were only twelve passengers (and not the maximum of 48 that they can take), she would allow us to be more casual than usual. That was lucky, since my fellow journo’s and I were dusty and dishevelled after our trip across the desert and our clothing was on its last legs of respectability. The schedule, Angela informed us, was that we would stop and get off the train to partake in sundowner drinks at a lookout point in the middle of nowhere, then return to relax before dinner at 7.30pm.
It was early afternoon when the Desert Express pulled away from Swakopmund, and it felt like the right time and place to crack open a bottle of cold bubbly. Train journeys have that effect on me, it’s something to do with giving up control and allowing my destiny to be in someone else’s hands for a while. Shaz (safari tart No 2) and I toasted our good fortune with some particularly fine South African Cap Classique (SA’s version of Champagne). The Desert Express wine list may not be overly extensive, but is nevertheless impressive with a carefully chosen range of good quality South African labels.
Chocolate Mousse Torte to Die For
Dinner was impressive, with creative starters of pumpkin soup garnished with chilli prawns (Mmmm), smoked chicken salad with piquant dressing, and smoked salmon with dill dressing. The main course fish dish was moist and perfectly cooked, the lightly smoked stuffed chicken breast was quite simply the softest piece of chicken I have ever tasted, the rack of lamb oozed flavour and the large chunk of beef filet with veg, further enlarged Jacques’ stomach with no complaints.
I got to taste every dish because Angela told us we could have whatever we wanted, so we asked for a small dish of everything (for review purposes not gluttony you understand). I was seriously and unexpectedly impressed, because it’s unusual that every dish in one sitting is really good. I am not really into deserts – can take ‘em or leave ‘em – but even I had to indulge in some of the best chocolate mousse torte ever. I even dipped into a bit of stunning apple pie with caramel sauce and a South African traditional malva pudding with more than a hint of brandy in it.
Since me and Shaz had polished off the bubbly and I’d had a couple more glasses of wine with dinner, I didn’t feel the need to indulge in after-dinner drinks or talk late into the night. Nor did I want to keep myself awake with freshly ground coffee gurgling through the espresso machine. I headed down the gently chugging train to Kokerboom Carriage, where my bed had been turned down and a chocolate was propped on the pillow. At about the same time as I crawled between the pressed white sheets, the Desert Express came to a halt. It really isn’t that far from Swakopmund to Windhoek (around 4 hours drive), so they pulled into a remote siding to enable passengers to sink into a deep sleep, before pulling slowly away at about 3am at a rhythmic 40km per hour.
Weird Gothic Fantasy at Okapuka Ranch
Breakfast was available from 7am and the next scheduled stop was at 8.15am, when the train stopped to see lions being fed at Okapuka Ranch, about half an hour outside Windhoek. Three lions had been rescued from a farm in 1994 and live on 14,000 hectares of this game ranch. Each morning they chain large chunks of meat onto a pulley beside a viewing hide and daft tourists like us watch them like a circus side show. It didn’t do anything for any of us.
The stop at Okapuka Ranch felt as if we were just killing time, and while we had coffee in their thatched lodge, I perused their dinner menu. It revealed a list of weird gothic fantasy food, how’s this for a starter: ‘Spell-casting oven roasted deep fried olives and sun cursed tomatoes’. Or, Devious lobster bisque, which is ‘a devil’s pact with creatures from the bottom of the sea spell-bound by carefully guarded secrets of cognac and velvety cream’. And after reading the next one, my colleague exclaimed, “Whatever the people who wrote this are on, I’d like to try some of it!” This is what the menu offered that prompted the comment; ‘A legendary prophesy written in the stairs of the enchantress – crumbed and pan friend escalope filled with an almost blasphemous spell of herb cheese, gentle rising to the evening sky with roasted vegetables duchesse potatoes and tomato sauce longing.’
Back to the sanity of the Desert Express Train with only half an hour left before pulling into Windhoek Station. The title ‘Express’ is a misnomer, as we could have done the journey by road in a quarter of the time. Seventeen hours for this little journey is pushing the slothfulness a bit, but hey, who cares, I could have stayed aboard for days. It was so relaxing and I enjoyed every minute of my time on the Desert Express Luxury Train, and can highly recommend it as a superior form of very pleasurable transport.
|Safari Satisfaction Index (SSI)|
|Market:||■ Exclusive||■ Luxury||□ Mid range||□ no frills|
|Cost:||■ High||■ Mid||□ Low|
|Basis:||■ Fully inclusive||□ Full or ½ board||□ Self-catering|
|□ Child friendly||■ Activities extra|
|Ratings: Poor = ■ Excellent = ■ ■ ■ ■ ■|
|Wildlife / Nature Experience:||N/A|
|Ranger / Guiding:||N/A|
|Food:||■ ■ ■ ■ □|
|Okapuka Ranch||■ ■ □ □ □|
|Sunset stop||■ ■ ■ □ □|
|Overall rating:||■ ■ ■ ■ □|