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Soot in my eye – a nostalgic steam train ride in South Africa

Updated on October 3, 2012

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.

Checking in at the Hermanstad depot
Checking in at the Hermanstad depot
The train awaits
The train awaits

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.

"Avoid black smoke" the sign reads. How?
"Avoid black smoke" the sign reads. How?
Power and dignity
Power and dignity
Lovingly restored gauges and controls
Lovingly restored gauges and controls

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Rachael and Caitlin in front of one of the enginesRachael, Catherine and Caitlin looking expectantly out of the window
Rachael and Caitlin in front of one of the engines
Rachael and Caitlin in front of one of the engines
Rachael, Catherine and Caitlin looking expectantly out of the window
Rachael, Catherine and Caitlin looking expectantly out of the window

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.

This 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.

House at Pretoria Central Prison
House at Pretoria Central Prison
Derelict Bon Accord station
Derelict Bon Accord station
Steaming through the poort
Steaming through the poort
Hot and tired at the end of the trip
Hot and tired at the end of the trip

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!

Copyright Notice

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


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    • John Gaydon profile image

      John Gaydon 

      5 years ago from Gosford, New South Wales

      Wonderful description. It brings back mem0ries of my grand tour of South African rail back in the 1970s. 3,000 kms behind steam. I recorded my experiences photographing the mighty Garratts on the western cape fruit season at

    • Sally's Trove profile image


      7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Thank you for sharing your train memories and this delightful adventure with your family. The last picture of the tired girls made me smile...the initial excitement had certainly worn off!

      I'm curious about the steam locomotive with the JO-ANNA name plate on the front. Is this the name of a place, or a person?

      Wonderful read. Voted up and awesome.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Merlin - thanks for your wonderful comment. There is a special magic about steam trains. I love them, noisy, dirty, hot as they are!

      As for that breakfast - well, I guess I haven't truly lived yet! Maybe one day....

      Thanks again for stopping by with such an interesting comment.

      Love and peace


    • Merlin Fraser profile image

      Merlin Fraser 

      7 years ago from Cotswold Hills

      Hi Tony,

      Brings back a lot of memories for me, my grandfather was a mainline passenger steam engine driver for the LNER in Scotland and as a kid I got to ride up front.

      Fortunately there are many 'Steam Nuts' around and many preservation societies here in the UK determined to keep steam alive. An old friend of mine belongs to one of them, he too used to work on steam engines in Scotland, a fireman but he has since graduated to become a driver and needless to say on special occassions this big kid gets to ride up front once more....

      You just can't beat the smell of hot oil, the heat of that firebox and the sheer power of the beast as it moves off.

      Plus, if you have never had a breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked on the fireman's shovel then you have never truly lived....

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Ssaul - glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for stopping by.

      Love and peace


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      thanks for the info. really needed this!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Maita - thanks for taking the ride with me and I hope the nostalgia was pleasant not unpleasant!

      Love and peace


    • prettydarkhorse profile image


      8 years ago from US

      I rode in train in Europe and this hub reminds me of it, I remember it with my bf and we eventually separated, you've got me here, nostalgic of a lost love for me. Thank you, Maita

    • Rik Ravado profile image

      Rik Ravado 

      8 years ago from England

      Tony - love this hub. I also had the pleasure of spending 2 weeks working in Simons Town recently (the naval dockyard near Cape Town that you probably know better than I do!). What an amazing country South Africa is. Thanks for sharing this and linking to my (Train!) hub. I've linked you back!

    • mulberry1 profile image

      Christine Mulberry 

      8 years ago

      Sounds like a fun excursion. It's really sad that here in the US few of us have ever ridden ANY type of train. Some city dwellers have the subways but that's about it.

    • Raven King profile image

      Raven King 

      8 years ago from Cabin Fever

      I enjoyed reading your hub about the most pleasant way to travel. Just wonderful. Tony, Happy New Year!

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 

      8 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      This hub was an absolute delight to read! Here in the States, I have been called-proudly-a 'train fan' for many years, beginning with a cross-country trip on the Southwest Chief in the 60's. Now, of course almost all train travel is Amtrak, an unfortunate turn of events, to be sure!

      But thank you so much for sharing your travels!

    • profile image

      Nancy's Niche 

      8 years ago

      I love riding the train; it brings back great childhood memories...Great article and pictures, thanks for sharing...

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      @Lady - thanks for your comment, I appreciate it very much.

      @SXP - yes the demise of rail travel is sad, but it can't be laid at the door of the present government only. The decline was started already in the early 80s or even 70s when road transport became so much cheaper and more efficient that rail. The same thing happened in many other countries around the world especially the move to "privatise" everything gained momentum. Rail travel in the US, Britain, and much of Europe declined until governments again stepped in to revitalise it, France being perhaps the best example with their GTV and the upgrading of their regional rail services. Britain was a particularly sad example of the "privatisation" madness which saw rail passenger services become simply too expensive for the ordinary person and so rail passengers just left in droves to join the ranks of the bus commuters.

      In the US the private companies are trying to make rail travel viable again. Hope they succeed.

      Love and peace


    • SXP profile image


      8 years ago from South Africa

      Tony, it would be such a great thing if rail travel become the norm again in South Africa. We use to have all this, but somehow the new government just failed to keep it in tact. Little prosperous town, became ghost towns because of sad.

    • Ladybird33 profile image


      8 years ago from Fabulous USA

      Tony, this was very, very good. I have been on a train with my family when I was younger and you brought back some wonderful memories. Just great, Thank you!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks all for stopping by and reading. It was a fun day. I also think that steam trains are wonderful and it's important that young people have some idea of what travel was like in previous decades.

      Love and peace


    • Dame Scribe profile image

      Dame Scribe 

      8 years ago from Canada

      Only train I ever been on was a subway train and electric street car, which I love, but I know the sensations are definitely to be enjoyed. Great info!

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      8 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Remember steam trains in the UK, just.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      We share the love of trains, Tony. I wish I could have experienced the old steam trains in South Africa. Railroads face many obstacles to growth, but should have a prominent place in any future transportation system. I have linked this hub to my hub titled "Railroads Trying for Comeback." Thanks for the ride.

    • amillar profile image


      8 years ago from Scotland, UK

      “It was an extremely hot day but we had a great deal of fun anyway.”

      Gosh Tony, I hope you weren’t complaining. Wish you were here - and I was there. Nice hub though.

    • hafeezrm profile image


      8 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks for the hub about steam train ride. It brought back old memories. I had a memorable experience of riding the Choo Choo train near Knysna. South Africa. Another pleasant ride was on Serra Varde Express starting from Curitiba, Brazil and going down to Atlantic rain forests.

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 

      8 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      There will always be something wonderful and intriguing about trains. I found your hub quite nostalgic and very enjoyable. Thanks, Tony.

    • Putz Ballard profile image

      Putz Ballard 

      8 years ago

      I loved them old soldiers but only got to see one at an amusetment park.


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