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News / South Africa Insider - Joe Mathala, Train Manager, Rovos Rail

Joe started working with Rovos Rail 26 years ago, and is widely thought of as one of the strongest, most reliable and entertaining characters they have. As the train manager, he looks after both the train and its passengers - who all give him exceptional reviews. He’s almost, if not more, well known than the owner, Rohan Vos!

Carrier caught up with Joe to find out more about Rovos Rail and what makes him tick. Discover his favourite routes, must-see recommendations and how he came to work for Rovos Rail, South Africa.

About Rovos Rail 

Describe Rovos Rail in three words:
Inspirational, entrepreneurial and challenging.

In your opinion, what has Rovos Rail achieved over the years and what do you foresee for the future?
It's not easy operating a privately owned luxury train in South Africa, so that in itself is an enormous accomplishment. With a declining railway network and aging equipment (our locomotives are supplied by South African Railways), there are always challenges, so the fact that we're still going strong 26 years on is pretty incredible. We started with one little journey and now operate eight safaris - we go as far as Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and all the way to Swakopmund in Namibia. It shouldn't work, but it does - and we're happy. The future? Keep going, explore new routes and itineraries and continue moving forward.

Which itinerary/route is your favourite and why?
Definitely the African Collage, it is honestly the most beautiful trip and the pace of it is just so relaxing - the Cape Garden Route has to have some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

What is your favourite element of Rovos? If you had to keep just one of Rovos Rail's's facilities, which would it be?
I think it's the Observation Car with the open-air balcony at the back. We don't travel quickly - never more than 50kms an hour - so guests can sit out there all day just chatting, sipping on tea or a good Chardonnay and soak in the sights and smells of this country. It really is special.

What are some of your top must-sees or dos whilst on a Rovos trip?
Well, we have excursions on each journey so guests experience as much as they can while they're in South Africa. I think that was important to Mr Vos, the owner. I know he's borderline obsessed with history, especially South Africa's, and I know he didn't want the train to just be a mode of transportation - he wanted guests to get to know our country so each journey has historical, cultural or safari (depending on the journey) experiences which guests really appreciate.

What has been your most memorable journey/experience during your career?
Being on three inaugural journeys - Namibia, Collage and Golf. Our African Collage trip was cooked up while I was on the train with Mr Vos. We were in Kimberley and we had returning guests on board who had done all of our trips and wanted something new. So we planned a nine-day route to include the Cape Garden Route, which became African Collage. We sold four tickets straight away to our repeat guests and the rest sold out fairly quickly - the inaugural journey departed the following year.

What has been the most extravagant request from a guest?
I once had Russian guests on board who were travelling on our two-week Dar es Salaam journey. They were quite young, especially the wives, so I think they got a bit restless on board - they asked me to hire a private plane to fly from Lusaka to Zanzibar so that they could go to the beach for the day! We had just travelled through Zimbabwe so trying to organise a private plane and a pilot at the last minute was challenging but we did it!

Royal Suite 

About you 

Describe yourself in three words:
I'm told I'm charming, energetic and a very efficient problem-solver which are essential skills for this job. 

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Who inspired you?
Gosh, I can't remember but I'm very happy here. 

Tell us a little about how you came to work for Rovos Rail:
Wrong place, wrong time! No, I'm kidding. I met Mr Vos at the Victoria Hotel in Pretoria. He had just taken over the lease and was about to start an enormous refurbishment. I walked in and asked if he had work for me, to which he asked if I had any building experience. I said no but he told me to go see the foreman, Donald (who is still with us by the way) and 26 years later I am still here. 

Tell us a secret about you:
That would be telling...

What do you like to do when you're not at work?
Well, being on the train I am obviously away from my wife and three daughters so I just stay at home - I do the school run, argue about cell phones, do homework (although what kids are learning these days is beyond me) and try to get them out of Pretoria to go on little day trips. It's important that my kids learn about our city and country - I don't want them to feel limited at all so I try to show them as much as I can.  

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