Train yourself to go wild in Africa
WHEN Leon Plutsick and his business partner decided to go beyond their travel agency and restaurant ventures and start their own tourist train, they didn't call in business consultants, bank managers or even their accountants.
They called in a witchdoctor.
"Witchdoctors have extraordinary inner senses and perceptive powers," Leon says.
"If they say go ahead, then you know your thinking is right. If they say no, then forget it."
It was in 1995 that Leon's witchdoctor disappeared into the night from their meeting in Johannesburg in South Africa to return a few days later with the good news.
"I have seen that your venture will be a success," he said.
"But you must call your train, Shongololo."
And such a success has the Shongololo been that it's grown from one train 15 years ago to a diverse collection today.
Doing tours to such far-flung places as Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning "The Smoke That Thunders" as the locals call the eternal mist that hangs over these massive cascades,) Kruger National Park that's often compared with Kenya's Masai Mara for the finest in game viewing, wine country around Stellenbosch and garden country of Mossel Bay, the bizarre desert dunes of Namibia in the south-west, and the Germanically picturesque one-time colonial centre Swakopmund.
"Other tour operators use ordinary trains, planes and automobiles, but we wanted a train with all the comforts and services of a hotel… in reality, a hotel on wheels.
We carry our own mini-buses, and stop where we want for day excursions - so that with our hotel on wheels and our own buses, our tours are, in fact, like cruises on land," Leon says. "And you only have to unpack once."
But why Shongololo?
"When the first trains came to Africa, the village people said the way they wound their way through the landscape and across the ridge tops reminded them of a centipede - a Shongololo in the Zulu dialect.
"That's why our witchdoctor said we had to name our train Shongololo and also because, like a centipede, while all the spinning wheels on our carriages look like they are frantically busy they're really just getting the centipede from one place to another in an orderly and comfortable way.
"We went to South African Railways for help in modelling our first class carriages on their trains, and then built up a set of locomotives, carriages and wagons - flatbeds for our buses, power-generating and storeroom cars, a kitchen car, a dining car, two lounge cars and nine sleeper cars.
"Today we lease engines from Transnet in southern Africa, using diesels mostly but occasionally getting hold of a steam engine."
The first-class sleeping cars feature full-size beds, ensuite facilities, a safe and tea and coffee-making facilities
And 15 years after beginning their venture they now operate six trips a year between Johannesburg and Cape Town, four between Johannesburg and Victoria Falls, two to Namibia, two between Victoria Falls and Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania and eight along the Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
Journeys range from between 12 and 16 days and prices start from $4400 per person twin share, including accommodation and rail travel, daily sightseeing tours with guides in air-conditioned mini- buses, breakfasts and dinners.
"And being in hospitality as well as a travel agent, I'm very aware of the importance meal-times play in peoples' holiday relaxation and socialising. We start the day with continental breakfast and then offer a choice of four to six daily excursions in our mini-buses… culture and heritage of the area we are in, adventure, eco-tourism, wildlife or a look at the general highlights of the region.
"When our passengers come back in the afternoon - and we take a maximum of only 108 on each train - they clean up, take drinks in the lounge cars as we enjoy last glimpses of the countryside before night falls, and then dinner.
"Our chefs create classic African and international fare: curries and seafood, spicy Cape Malay specialties, exotic ostrich steaks and crocodile spare ribs (it tastes a bit like rabbit,) prime beef and, of course, we highlight the excellent wines of southern Africa."