Vos and Rovos Rail
a locomotive and seven carriages, Rohan Vos launched
his rail business on 29 April 1989. That was the day
that he set off for the Eastern Transvaal with four
paying passengers, friends and press. Thankfully against
all the odds faced by any train operator or airline
and narrowly avoiding bankruptcy, he turned this venture
into arguably the most luxurious travel experience
in the world.
For Rohan Vos, his passion for trains began with a
combination of influences and events that led to the
purchase of the first coach, the start of what would
become Rovos Rail. A Wilbur Smith heroine with her
own private railway coach, a man called Phil Acutt
with a passion for trains and the presence of the
Witbank Steam Railway in the coal-mining town where
Rohan Vos ran his successful auto spares business,
all played a part. His wife Anthea says that "Rohan
has always been obsessed with things mechanical,"
the signs were there in 1985, when Rohan and Anthea took
up a last-minute invitation on a Magaliesberg train trip
for business suppliers. Anthea found herself alone while;
Rohan spent most of the time in the engine with the driver;
that was also the day when they experienced some of the
hiccups of running a railway business - the train broke
down and they were bussed back to town!
were purchased and taken to the Society's yards in Witbank
to be rebuilt. One of them, Private Saloon 15063, is still
in service and another, an engineer's caboose, stood at Cape
Town's V&A Waterfront for many years where it served as
the marketing and reservations office.
if that was not clear enough, that same year, influenced
by his friend Phil Acutt's love of trains and the
work done by the Railway Preservation Society in Witbank,
Rohan attended an auction to buy a coach or two -
the intention was to restore four carriages and hitch
them to a South African Railways train as a family
caravan. Steam-train enthusiast, Geoff Pethick, was
present at the auction and assisted him. Geoff says
that "It was the 26th of September - a cold day
with rain in the air - and I'd hoped Rohan wasn't
another penniless lunatic with grand ideas".
"As we chatted, I quickly realised that here
was a man of vision."
The complications of working with
the South African Transport Services administration soon
convinced Rohan that he needed to be self-sufficient where
possible. As a result, he purchased a 1938 Class 19D locomotive
from Lowenthal's Scrap Metal in Johannesburg. It was rebuilt
by Rovos Rail and named BIANCA after one of his daughters.
a power cut, so musing by candlelight about the consequences
of turning a hobby into a business; I let my imagination float
around in delusions of grandeur. But I knew that launching
into the arena of tourism and trains, of which I had no experience,
held many dangers. It was an uncharted course and I had little
idea where to start, let alone where to aim. However, a unique
challenge was right up my street and the decision was made
to go ahead. This was - unknown to me at the time - a life-changing
moment and sadly, during the next few years or so, I had many
agonising thoughts regretting the move. I could never have
imagined how all-consuming the business was to become both
financially and emotionally.
began with Sam Taute of SAR and Rohan was granted
permission to run his train in December 1986 - the
idea of running a vintage train as a business venture
was born. The tariff quoted by the authorities for
hauling the train was, however, extremely high;
he objected to this charge and the Railways returned
a well thought-out curve ball by giving Rohan the
right to sell tickets.
"I remember the occasion very clearly:
on a wintry evening I was subsiding into a hot bath
with my Red Heart Rum and coke close at hand.
the engines acquired for Rovos Rail have been named
after the Vos children - Brenda, Bianca, Tiffany and
Shaun - and nothing could be more appropriate as the
family's history and memories are so tightly interwoven
with the Rovos Rail story of acquisition and expansion.
On the 10th anniversary of Rovos Rail, the magnificently
restored and rebuilt locomotive - 25NC 3484, which
had been converted from coal-firing to oil - was christened
MARJORIE by Rohan's mother, Mrs Marjorie Vos.
It is not just family who make life at Rovos Rail
delightful, loyal employees like Joy Strydom who joined
Rovos Rail as its first employee in May 1988 and is
still with the company.
a special magic about Rovos Rail. "Many of us in those
early years didn't believe that Rohan would ever achieve
what he'd set out to do," says Pethick. "It's
wonderful to see that, despite ups and downs, Rovos
Rail is doing so well and has helped preserve much of
our railway history."