The International Steam Pages
Steam in Botswana, August 2000
Selebi-Phikwe 19th - 20th August 2000
The "Friends of the Rail" gricing team set out once again this past weekend, but this time to Selebi-Phikwe in Botswana instead of Zimbabwe... The team consisted of Graham McWilliams, Nathan Berelowitz and myself (Trevor Staats). The nice thing about Selebi-Phikwe is its proximity to Pretoria, it is "only" 550km distant, about the same distance as Durban, and it can be done comfortably in a weekend.
We set off at 4:00am on Saturday morning and arrived at Martin's Drift border crossing
at around 7:30am, before it was open. At 8:00 we completed the formalities (along with 100
or so truck drivers!) and crossed the Limpopo on a concrete bridge that has seen better
days! There was still debris high in the trees from the floods earlier this year,
photographs on display showed how high the water had risen and the border had been closed
for two months from February to April due to this. The first few kilometres of road on the
Botswana side were ridden with huge potholes, when the speed restriction signs said
30km/h, we soon learnt that they meant it! After the turnoff at Sherwood Ranch, the road
was fine, arrival at Selebi-Phikwe was just after 10:00am.
We trekked down to Selebi Shaft, some 16km away to find that LO805 had almost finished loading. The sturdy 19D hauled the load easily out of the shaft, quite impressive considering the load (800 tons) and that the loco wheels were quite hollow and the loco having no sanding gear! Once the load was underway, the loco ran clear stack as is usual for the 19's there. We raced ahead to the only grade on the line, which the 19D crested without a wisp of smoke! Further attempts to catch the train failed, it beat us easily back to the dumping bins.
We took time to wander around the shed and take some pictures. A set of driving wheels for 807 were standing in the shed, freshly machined and turned. The loco itself appears to have been fully retubed by the look of the front tube plate, whilst Garratt 810 was still receiving attention. 806 was standing by the shed, a fitter was busy trying to remove suberheater bolts in the smokebox. 14A 809 had returned from the stores duty and was also on shed.
Whilst taking some shots at the water column of the Garratt and 19D, a car stopped and a man came over for a chat. Turned out that he was the mine Managing Director Mike Marsden, a very nice guy and a veteran mining man having worked on mines all over Africa. We had a good chat about the locos and the railway, he told us that they had considered purchasing a diesel for the mine but had been talked out of it. It seems that steam spares are still a concern although they have not yet caused the wheels to stop turning. He also said that plans to overhaul one of the locos had been shelved pending the diesel decision, but now the overhaul was going ahead. Not sure which loco this was. He was about to leave for the airport and a flight to South Africa, but before he left he most kindly and generously arranged accommodation for us in one of the mine houses for the night, a real bonus for us. The hotels in Selebi-Phikwe are rather expensive, Syringa Lodge costs around R495 for a night (twin room) and R440 for a single room, and Hotel Cresta Bosele was more expensive. A new Travel Inn hotel is being built there which will be cheaper, and the Executive Lodge was around R260 per person per night. Needless to say, the mine house was a VERY welcome offer!
It took a while to arrange the key and someone to show us the house, during which time the 19D departed tender first for Selebi North. After a quick look at the house (very nice, thank you!) we shot down do the shaft. Loading was in progress, but lighting for a departure shot was not good so we opted for the crossing near the line junction. Standing in the warm sun with a cool breeze blowing, we decided it was time for a Savanna. So there we stood enjoying our drinks (complete with a twist of lemon!), gazing towards the shaft for the smoke indicating the loco's departure. Suddenly the three of us jumped into action as the crossing bells started ringing - I've never finished a drink so fast! We ran to our positions as the train rounded the curve to the crossing. A reasonable shot was had of the long train rounding the curve. The trains stop clear of the junction whilst the helper sets the points back, so an opportunity for another photo was taken advantage of. It seems the only time these locos smoke is when the pull away which was good!
The load was partially dumped at the bins, and the 19D headed back to the shed for shift change, the crew giving be a ride on the loco up to the shed. Locos were coaled during shift change which happened at around 1:00pm which is earlier than on previous visits. After shift change, the 19D was to go back to Selebi North then Selebi again, the Garratt to do stores duties again. The shaft had phoned through to say that the train was required at Selebi North at 19:00 and Selebi at 21:00 - not much good for our photographic purposes, so we opted to follow the Garratt going about its duties.
There are a number of sidings in the mine and smelter area, so the 14A shuffled about collecting wagons from here and there. A few were collected from around the smelter plant itself, an impressive plant full of mysterious pipes, fittings and other paraphernalia with strange noises emanating from deep within. The Garratt appeared between a procession of mine trucks, giving us a very industrial shot with the plant in the background. By this time the train consisted of about 6 wagons - a closed wagon, an SAR lime wagon and three open wagons. After a bit more shunting, the train set off towards the exchange yards (we thought) but as we crossed the BPC siding, we noticed that the gates were open, and the guard was signalling to us that the train was coming. It was only then I noticed that there was a distinct lack of a power station there now! It seems that the Botswana Power Corporation have packed up and gone home, with most of the power station already dismantled... The sidings are still used regularly, perhaps to offload coke or coal for the smelter. A long string of empties was collected, and the Garratt pulling out with this long goods was very reminiscent of regular NRZ steam days, the low sun giving us a fantastic going-away glint shot.
The road from there to the station area was more holes than tar, which made for slow going. The "track" through the sand from the station to the exchange yards was even worse, so when we arrived at the exchange yards, the Garratt had finished shunting as was setting off back to the mine! We scrambled out of the car to get a quick shot of the loco in beautiful light, hauling a "load" consisting of a solitary vehicle!
We arrived back at the shed just after the sun had set, and saw the 19D completing the offloading of the ore, the Garratt having already arrived back. We had a chat to the crew of the 19D and arranged a cab ride on the next run (we had earlier signed indemnities for this). Just on dark we set off tender-first for Selebi-North. It was rather crowded in the cab, with the driver, fireman, two helpers and the three of us! It seems that old habits die hard, because next thing Nathan was in the fireman's seat, working the injector and adjusting the blower while the fireman looked on in amusement! Loading was a fairly quick process at the shaft - we departed with the last four wagons empty due to the ore bins running out! The short climb out of the shaft was accomplished with a bit of slipping (sounded great!) and we were off. Nathan put a good fire on as we worked towards the crossing. The locos are fired with very thick firebeds, the coals being up to the fire door level. It must be pretty good coal, as it burns clean with very little ash, in fact fires are only cleaned at shift change. Perhaps the thick firebed helps here with the coal burning completely. A stop at the junction to reset the points and we were away again, this time at full speed! The cool breeze was blowing into the cab, in stark contrast to the white hot fire and the firedoors that glowed red-hot. The driver's shadow was cast onto the thorn trees by the cab lights, with eerie orange and red fleeting figures in the lineside bush being created as the firedoor was opened and closed.
We left the train at the dumping bins and retired to the local Spur restaurant for a good meal and of course the draught beers we had been fantasizing about the whole day (as usual!).
A reasonably early arrival (around 07:00) at the mine was a fraction too late to see the last of the night shift workings arrive. The light at the shed was lovely just to photograph the loco taking coal and running about. Photography of the early morning operations would be interesting anyway as the 19D had a few steam leaks and disappeared into its own cloud of steam as it departed the shed for the first morning working, due to depart at about 08:00 so we found a nice spot down the line and waited. Then had a cuppa. Then waited. Then talked a lot of nonsense over another cuppa. And waited again. Then returned to the shed.
We found out that the Dolly had apparently popped a gauge glass during the night shift (thankfully after we had left!) and they were awaiting a fitter to repair it. He eventually arrived and replaced the glass, testing the steam and water cocks afterwards as he should. The Dolly then shuffled down a few minutes later to offload. The sun had moved around quite a bit by then and was becoming a bit harsh for the shot we had planned. Offloading was proceeding well when everything stopped - more problems... The conveyor belt motor had broken down, so no more ore could be dropped. Being a Sunday, the crew didn't seem very hopeful of getting a quick repair. When the fireman sat back in the cab and went to sleep, we took that as our cue to leave! A pretty uneventful trip back saw us in Pretoria at around 17:00.
It is interesting to note that petrol in Botswana costs only P1.96 (around R2.60) per litre!