The International Steam Pages


Long Distance Steam in South Africa, 1973

Roger Griffiths describes a journey from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, from 21st to 23rd October 1973.


As a preface to the story of my journey I should admit that it was made in the days of South Africa’s Apartheid regime. They say wisdom comes with experience, so over 40 years on, I now feel that I should not perhaps have taken part in such segregation. But, in those days this was one of the railway journeys I most wanted to experience, so I put it out of my mind, just as I did when I travelled on the railways of other oppressed nations - by my values, anyway - for example, Rhodesia, Syria and just about every Communist-run country in the world. Some would say that is no excuse, but I think others might understand....

Anyway, on the 168th anniversary of Admiral Nelson’s victory – and death – at the battle of Trafalgar, we gathered at Cape Town’s magnificent station for the scheduled 4pm departure of the daily Port Elizabeth Mail, which was scheduled to take 40 hours for the 930km, 580miles, rail distance. Pretty slow going – so much so, in fact, that we were told it was quicker to travel by Union Castle mail boat between the two cities! Remembering my words about racial discrimination and using the terminology of the time, the make-up of the train was at the rear, a full baggage and mail brake; three, modern, steel bodied 2nd class, 4-berths per cabin, couchettes for Whites Only, two “half-diners” restaurant/kitchen combined, with Whites Only in the rear diner and Blacks Only in the front. Then came a mixture of elderly, clerestory roofed, wooden coaches and more modern steel ones, all for Blacks Only – two 2nd class 6-berths per cabin, couchettes and three 3rd class sitting only. The restaurant/kitchen cars are worth mentioning as they also were clerestory roofed, with open end-balconies and 1920s products of Metropolitan-Cammell. In the Whites Only diner was a magnificence of white linen, brass fittings and polished mahogany, the whole vehicle softly rumbling and tinkling as the train moved along.

We had a few minutes so a stroll to the front of the train saw a class 4E electric locomotive back down, the only 1Co-Co1 electric type on South African Railways and built by the North British Loco Company in 1953. Then it was walk back along the train, take our seats and we were off, dead on time. The steady 45mph/72kph running in the evening sun enabled much to be seen: many aged 4-8-2s of Classes 3BR, 12A, 12R and the rotary cam 19C, and some GEA Beyer-Garratts, working in yards and on freight, while off the railway, the beautiful wine growing districts that lie north of Cape Town.

The sun set and we made our way to the dining car for a cold, Castle beer which we dawdled over until the approach to Worcester, where expectations immediately rose. Pulling into the long, single platform, the 4E quickly came off the train and disappeared into the darkness. All was quiet for a few minutes then a headlight suddenly came on and the unmistakable sound of hissing drain cocks and a long blast on the hooter, heralded the appearance out of the gloom of a shiny, black Beyer-Garratt of Class GMAM, built by Beyer Peacock in 1954. We immediately made ourselves known to the crew, who were from Worcester shed and friendly, so they said to come and see them during the stop at Ashton.

The departure was noisy with the characteristic double exhaust sound of a Garratt until it synchronises, then with some whistling to, and responses from, Worcester depot, we descended into blackness. The next few hours cannot be explained in detail, other than the train was constantly twisting and turning on super-elevated track, with speeds often down to a few miles per hour as the massive Garratt had to exert every ounce of its 61000 lbs tractive effort to haul its load over the difficult route. Every now and then a dim light or two appeared as we passed through small stations with in the associated houses, electric lights in a few and oil lamps in most – doubtless again a difference dictated by the inhabitant’s race.

Just before 11pm came the signs of a town of some size; Ashton, which was a scheduled halt of an hour. Why? Simply because the stoker-fired GMAM had used most of its 14 tons of coal in covering just 70km! It thus needed to be refuelled from a coaling stage that was strategically placed in sidings beside the station. As suggested by the crew my friend and I made our way to the engine and then enjoyed the next 40 minutes or so from the footplate as the Garratt came off, went to the coaler, refuelled and returned to its train. Rather more manoeuvring than necessary was done though, as we each were given a good turn on the regulator and mechanical stoker – a magical time, but the noise must have annoyed the trainload of passengers trying to sleep! However, our treat had been noticed by the train’s guard and a heated conversation took place in Afrikaans, between him and the footplate men. The driver winked at us and waved us back to our carriage, but the guard had his way as there were to be no more footplate experiences during our journey.

Then we were off again, on the 133km stretch to Riversdale, with more thunder in the night from the Garratt, and not a little slipping telling vividly of the difficult route being travelled. Some dozing was done, but at about 4am the lights of Riversdale appeared and we drew into the station to a cacophony from a Class 15BR 4-8-2, shunting and generally being noisy – sleep well, you passengers! The hard-worked GMAM came off the train and retired to the 3 road engine shed, from which emerged our next locomotive, another absolutely spotless Garratt, this time of Class GEA built in 1946 by Beyer Peacock. This type had two differences from the GMAM in that it towed no auxiliary water tank and was hand-fired, so the fireman was in for some hard work!

After a short stop, we restarted for the next halt, at Hartenbos, 94km away and just inland from the Indian Ocean coast. Twisting and turning through numerous horseshoe curves, while climbing and descending, slowly getting lower down and closer to the sea, there were a number of rivers crossed but the most spectacular – I was told, because it was in the dark! – was the very high, spindly bridge over the Gouritz River, east of Albertinia. Dawn came about half an hour out from Hartenbos and standing on the dining car’s open balcony in the lightening sky, you could really appreciate how much the train followed the contours of the land, with frequent turns of 90 degrees or more and very sharp undulations, all taken at no more than 15mph/24kph.

An early breakfast was just finished as we slowed for the station at Hartenbos and ran in, past a busy Voorbai engine shed with outside, gently simmering away, another immaculate GEA – our next locomotive. Before we experienced that haulage though came a lengthy layover which we enjoyed from the line side by the loco depot, while our train’s engine ran round and departed west again, this time down the branch to the pretty coastal resort of Mossel Bay. At the terminus the Garratt would run round once more, before hauling the Port Elizabeth Mail back to Hartenbos. Riversdale’s GEA then retired to Voorbai depot to be replaced by her sister locomotive that would take us through George, to Oudtshoorn.

The 37km onward to George is one of the prettiest stretches of railway I have travelled upon with the line on cliff tops a couple of hundred metres inland for much of the way and crossing the Hartenbos, Kleinbrak, and Grootbrak rivers, and even passing through a station called Reebok! After Outenique Strand station the line headed inland again, twisting and turning through continuous sharp curves and crossing yet more bridges over deep river gorges, before finally halting at George. There, the little engine shed housed a few Class 24 2-8-4 which were quite the cleanest locos we saw in all of South Africa – and that is a huge distinction! Spotlessly turned out and much decorated with brass ornamentation – unofficially added by their regular crews - they were used on the breathtaking branch line to Knysna and for shunting in the busy yards. There was a wait while our GEA had its fire cleaned and water was taken, in readiness for the highlight of the whole Cape Town to Port Elizabeth journey – the ascent of the Montagu Pass, as part of the 60km to Oudtshoorn.

Much has been written about this incredible piece of railway. In all the line climbs from just above sea level at George to a height of 1363 feet/851 metres, on a punishing steady gradient that has a steepest stretch of 1 in 36. There is only one respite for the loco and crew, at Power, where the mountainside ledge was made wide enough for two tracks and water cranes were installed, allowing trains to cross and also take on water. The climb begins a mile or so after leaving George when the railway starts twisting and turning through a forest to gain height. This took some time and it was difficult to keep one’s orientation before we emerged from the tree line and thereafter started clinging to the mountainside on a continuously curving, narrow ledge, that presented changing vistas of mountains or the sea, some miles away and many hundreds of feet lower. The train literally crawled along the side of this sheer drop, through six tunnels, exiting one of which on a very sharp curve, found we observers on the restaurant car balcony, literally coming from darkness, to hanging over a massive void – spine tingling! But, all good things must come to an end and I am sure the GEA’s fireman was very pleased (!) when we reached the summit at Topping - another tunnel and the realisation, for me, of a long held wish, that had been exceeded in all its expectations. (That makes it even more sad for me to say that this marvellous piece of railway today sees no regular trains at all). After passing the summit then it was an equally steep and twisting – and somewhat faster! - descent to Camfer, where trains just about to climb up to Montagu Pass, had their fires cleaned and tenders refilled. We took water there and following that, the line’s contours, though picturesque, were much gentler, passing through little settlements with charming names like Zebra, until arrival at Oudtshoorn, in the middle of ostrich farming country and junction for the branch line to Calitzdorp.

By now dusk had fallen and following an engine change the onward journey during the night, was in the care of a Class 19D 4-8-2 which would take the train over the 247km to Klipplaat. Because the country through which we would pass is very dry, the 19D (from North British in 1948) was one of the type fitted with the Vanderbilt – or “torpedo” – tender, a very long tank on two 6-wheel Buckeye bogies, holding 6,500 Imperial gallons/29000 litres of water and 12 tons/12220kgs of coal. The Class 19D was always acknowledged as a “noisy” engine and this was heard to good effect all through the night, first in the restaurant car, drinking beer with a group of South African soldiers and later, while trying to get some sleep! It was particularly loud when the train traversed the spectacular (in the dark again, but I had been told!) defile of the Toorwaterpoort, with the sound of the loco’s exhaust echoing back and forth in the narrow canyon – a night to remember!

In that very dark hour just before dawn we arrived at Klipplaat and had our last engine change, this time for a superbly clean Class 15AR 4-8-2, built by Beyer Peacock of Manchester in 1921. Though aged 52 the old lady could certainly “lift her skirts” and run, making light work of the relatively easy 182km to Port Elizabeth, with two stops for water. The second of those stops was at Uitenhage, where upon departure we passed the locomotive works, long since demolished, with standing outside, a 2 foot gauge Class NG15, 2-8-2 on a Cape gauge wagon, ex-works and waiting to be transported back to the 2 foot gauge shed at Port Elizabeth, Humewood Road – also since eradicated.

Uitenhage was the outer destination for a portion of the Port Elizabeth suburban service, most of which trains terminated at Swartkops Junction. It was fully daylight by the time we got to Swartkops, where the main line from De Aar via Alicedale, trailed in and the railway hence became four-tracked. This was very necessary because of the intense and amazing Port Elizabeth suburban trains, all steam-worked, mainly by the pretty 4-6-2s of Class 16CR, with 2-8-4 of Class 24 and 15AR also being seen. Those trains were usually of eleven coaches and had to cover the 21 miles between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage in either direction, in 50 minutes, including eight intermediate stops, all calling for first class – and noisy! – running. The suburban services that terminated at Swartkops, eight miles out, were similarly, smartly timed and we were racing one such train when it slowed for New Brighton station while we swept on, past the huge marshalling yard, where we counted no less than twelve steam shunting locos in action: 2-8-2 of Class 11, 4-8-2 of Classes 12A and 12R, 0-8-0 of Class S2 and as we were to find out next day, the very last Class 10BR 4-6-2 in use – altogether, an incredible sight! Then, it was past Sydenham’s large locomotive depot, brimming with steam, including GMAM Garratts for services over the Klipplaat route and on to Graaf Reinet, before slowing down to enter the terminus at Port Elizabeth.

Sandwiched between the docks and the city’s high rise buildings, the station was a disappointingly nondescript place that lay almost totally beneath a newly built elevated roadway. As such, it was nothing remotely like the grand station at Cape Town, from which we had started our epic journey, so many hours ago. Sic Transit Gloria!


A few of the pictures below were taken on the journey, it wasn't a photographic exercise so some others are included to illustrate the classes mentioned in the narrative:

GEA 4018 has arrived at Hartenbos from Oudtshoorn and is departing to Mossel Bay on the shuttle run before returning and then retiring to Voorbai shed; another GEA took the Cape Town-bound train to Riversdale., 22nd October 1973:

GEAs cross at Power in the mountains, the passenger one is 4015. 22nd October 1973:

GMA 4122 has worked from Hartenbos to George, had the fire cleaned, will ascend Montagu and come off at Oudtshoorn. on 18th October 1976:

GMA on a passenger train near Tunnel 5 bound for Port Elisabeth, 18th October 1976

19D 3324 flies out of Oudtshoorn at dawn on 15th July 1999, alas by now it was no longer 'real'.

GEA 4023 at Zebra at work on the same day.


Rob Dickinson

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