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Soot in my eye – a nostalgic steam train ride in South Africa
Memories of travelling by steam train
Lying on the top bunk in the compartment watching the lights outside flash past and listening to the steady “clackety-clack” of the wheels over the joints in the tracks I always felt a sense of adventure, a sense of moving into the relatively unknown, a feeling of anticipation tinged with a little fear.
Travelling by train in South Africa was always exciting, always interesting, always wonderful.
I have travelled over almost all the main lines in South Africa, from Cape Town to Johannesburg, from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth and East London, from Queenstown to Bloemfontein, from Johannesburg to Durban, from Johannesburg to East London.
I travelled the rails as a schoolboy, as a reluctant South African Navy rating, as a university student and as a parent, and always trains were a fascination to me.
There are special memories of travelling on South African Railways – the rattle of the conductor's key at the compartment door as he came to examine our tickets, the similar rattle of the man bringing bedding for the night and again a similar rattle of the steward bringing that very welcome cup of not-so-good coffee which nevertheless tasted wonderful in the cold early hours of the day.
Then there were the meals in the dining car – chops and over-cooked vegetables served into heavy porcelain plates from even heavier silver platters, the never-to-be-forgotten “cabinet pudding” served with lumpy and very sweet custard, followed by more of that coffee – coffee which, had it been served in a restaurant, would have been quite unacceptable, but on the train it was like nectar! There was magic in sitting and eating while the scenery whizzed by – sometimes majestic mountain passes, sometimes great flat plains of grass the colour of a lion's flank.
Life going past the window
One of the special things for me in travelling by train when I was in my teens was the unaccustomed sense of freedom, of responsibility. I was doing things on my own, without my parents (who had, though, paid for the whole experience!) supervising everything I did. I always felt like a little king, a great explorer, a daring adventurer facing the whole world on my own, with the chuffing of the steam engine and the clacking of the wheels as the great symphonic soundtrack to it all.
Then there was the experience of a different side of life going past outside the carriage windows.. The sudden view of someone else's backyard which felt like being let into something intimate, yet safe and distant. The wide open veld flowing past in ever-varying vistas. The little sidings with sad-looking people standing around seemingly without purpose or hope. And sometimes the sheep tied up to a post evidently awaiting transport to the abattoir. The view was a vivid slice of life, but at a safe distance.
Friends of the Rail
Of course, as in much of the rest of the world, the magic of the steam train belongs to the nostalgic past in South Africa. It is a by-gone era, a distant memory to those of us of a certain age, a quite unknown part of life to those who have been born and raised in later years.
With electric and diesel engines train travel has somehow lost the magic, the sense of being part of a pioneering endeavour, that the steam train had. I think that even as a boy when I travelled by steam train I had the sense of being involved in something that had no future, something that was coming to an end, somewhat like the era of the great ocean liners of the Union Castle Line in which I also had the great privilege of making many voyages around the South African coast (regretfully not any further afield!).
Luckily there are several organisations in South Africa trying to keep something of the steam era alive on the rails, even though it is necessarily but a pale reflection of the glory days of this very special mode of travel.
One of these organisations is the Friends of the Rail (FOTR), based in Pretoria. This organisation was formed in 1986 and lists its objectives as:
The restoration, preservation and display of heritage rail equipment, including steam locomotives and historic rolling stock.
The utilisation of restored heritage steam locomotives and rolling stock to provide an opportunity for the public to experience the thrill of travelling by steam.
The provision of an environment where its own members and members of the public, can experience and become involved with static and live Heritage Rail Operations.
To make a contribution to tourism, by providing affordable and interesting tourism activities, which act as a feeder to the local tourism economy.
To acquire and share technical and operational knowledge needed for its increasing rail preservation operations, and to provide platforms for the public dissemination of various aspects of railway knowledge and history appropriate to Friends of the Rail's environment.
The Tshwane Explorer
The organisation has managed to collect some seven locos in varying states of repair and serviceability. These are on semi-permanent loan from the Transnet Foundation - Heritage Preservation. Transnet is the para-statal company which now runs South Africa's rail network.
In addition the organisation has five day-sitter coaches which were used in the 1950s and 1960s on suburban train lines as well as a sleeper coach of the type which I remember so fondly. The organisation has many other coaches which are in need of extensive refurbishment.
week my wife and I took our daughter Caitlin and her friend Rachael
on an excursion on the “Tshwane Explorer” train around Pretoria.
It was an extremely hot day but we had a great deal of fun anyway. Tshwane is the name of the metropole of which Pretoria is a part.
Soot in my eye!
The train left the Hermanstad Depot in the Pretoria suburb of Hercules on a trip which took us through suburbia, past interesting sites like Pretoria Central Prison, Loftus Versfeld rugby grounds (the “holy of holies” to the supporters of the Blue Bulls club), through industrial areas and into the countryside. It puffed through a “poort” (a gap between hills or a pass) and into a now-derelict station.
We saw cows and horses and even a rather bedraggled-looking ostrich! This last was in the yard of a factory of sorts – I guess it did duty as a watch-dog. I know I would think very hard before attempting any mischief in a place guarded by a large male ostrich!
The trip was a nostalgic one and I enjoyed the sense of re-living some of the experiences that I had loved on train trips before – not least the smell of the coal smoke which was incredibly reminiscent.
The coaches were pulled by two locos, number 2650 which was built in 1938 and number 3664 built in 1948. The sounds of the engines and the whistles really brought back wonderful memories. I missed, though, the old familiar “clackety-clack” which is much reduced by the longer rail lengths used now.
Also the engines were never given their heads, as it were. So there was not the sense of speed that used to be so special.
And of course I got some soot in my eye. Just like old times!
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010