South Africa is a place of spectacular scenery, with sweeping coastlines and rugged mountain ranges. Back in the 1970s, steam locos traversed many of these areas by means of spectacular mountain passes, travelling through breath taking countryside.
In my years of travelling the world in search of steam, I spent a couple of years in this part of the world, working in Johannesburg for a time and travelling the country to photograph as much of the steam action as I was able.
As the years have passed, I eventually decided to go over my photos from those days, scan them, and then write my memoirs of the days of steam. It struck me that the Caledon Line, domain of the GEA Garratts back in 1975, was one of the more beautiful parts of the country scenery wise.
My three visits occurred in the 1975 fruit season in April as part of my grand tour, a visit during a grand tour by steam train in August of that year, and finally a visit around Christmas 1975, not long before the GEAs were permanently retired from regular service.
The interesting aspect of this for me was that the scenery was very different on the three occasions. December provided harsh light giving amazing colour displays, the fruit seas had plenty of traffic, and the winter proved green, something not often seen in photos of steam in the area.
Cape Town is one of the largest cities in the country and the seat of government. A short distance away by sea is Robin Island, where Nelson Mandela was held in prison for many years. Overlooking the town is Table Mountain, possible the most famous landmark in South Africa. Being a seaport, S2 steam locos used to shunt the docks and I managed to get a shot in front of the mountain. You might notice the dual language sign at the foreground of this photo. Everything was written in Afrikaans and English back then.
Back in those days you could move freely, visiting any spot you liked. I believe it is quite different now. This final picture of an S2 in the Cape Town region really shows the mountain that is often covered in cloud.
The journey to Caledon commences at Cape Town along a flat plain following the Steenbras river until it reaches the Hottentots-Hollands mountains, a range that proved difficult to cross as the country opened up. Once trains hit the foothills of the rang rising to 420 meters at Steenbras. At the time we visited there were no passenger trains. Fortunately most of the load was hauled towards Cape Town, so many of those climbing the Eastern end of the range hauled empty wagons. Above you can see a GEA start to open up as it starts the climb
Towards the top the line snakes alongside the road, an engineering feat of its own. The road you see here was built in the 1950s. The top of the pass is a popular hang gliding spot for adventurist South Africans.
The Cape Fruit Season
The station at the top of the pass is called Steenbras, probably after the river. There is a steep climb on the rail line from either side of this station. This place has the feeling of being on top of the world.
For we rail fans, the Station Master at Steenbras was very useful. A friend of the South African Railway Heirarchy, he would lend us a railway key while in the area. This unlocked all the gates and allowed us to follow the railway roads, giving unprecedented access for photography. The photo shows Kerry James from New Zealand, with “The Key” perusing the many padlocks at one of the gates. Kerry was a train driver at Mt Hamersley in Western Australia prior to his adventure with us. I first met Kerry on the Kingston Flyer in New Zealand where we cleaned up the local pool sharks at the Lumsden Hotel. To play pool you had to front up with the coin for the game and challenge the current champions. I credit Kerry with the victory. Suffice it to say, the local were not happy!
I did another article about the Cape Fruit Season. We headed straight there after I quit my job in Johannesburg. I believe I purchased my car from someone who had just been there and then went back the 1,000 kms as fast as possible. We were not disappointed.
While the short climb with a fully laden fruit train was spectacular, I was told that it would be worth venturing a little further west to Hoew Hoek pass. From Elgin, where the fruit trains are loaded, the line moves thorough a wonderful gorge via this pass. It is the gateway to the fertile plains that spread from Bot River to Caledon and beyond. This area is totally different to the Cap side of the mountain, with wide open plains and fields of grain.
Winter On The Caledon Line
As you can see from the above picture, although the weather isn’t as sunny in mid winter, and the harsh lighting making for spectacular sunsets is absent, the beautiful green countryside and wildflowers make up for this!
On my grand tour by rail I took a day out at Cape Town and hired a car to get some more photos of Caledon, basically because I was in love with the scenery in this part of the world. My hire car included 250kms and then a mileage charge, so I decided to keep within the limit to save money. This meant I travelled in reverse along the railway tracks following the line in between trains. It had the effect of winding back the speedo and reducing the mileage.
Even famous Hoew Hoek pass looks completely different in winter with the mountains coming alive with a carpet of green. Personally, I think it was worth the effort.
My Last Visit
My last trip was in December 1975, just before New Year. I went to Cape Town on the Drakensburg with some Aussie mates and we celebrated Christmas behind a 15NC crossing the Karoo. This is something else that is now distant past. The Drakensburg used the old wooden Blue Train carriages and was something special. We had a 7 course Christmas dinner in an event that went back to the grand old days when steam was King and luxury train travel was more than a special train.
The summer has its own special features. It made for very bright lighting and spectacular sunsets, the type South Africa is known for.
I just love the lighting in this shot, taken long after the wheat was harvested. It was an ideal way to say farewell to this part of the country. I will remember it forever.
My Caledon Slide Show
Below is a slide show of some of my better photos from those days.