Steam Trains In South Africa – The Garden Route

The rail line stretching from Worcester in the Western Cape of South Africa Eastwards to George and Montegu Pass traverses one of the most famous and scenic sections of South Africa. Back in 1975 when I travelled the route it was electric from Cape Town to Worcester and then steam trains from there to Oudtshoorn and onwards towards Port Elizabeth.

GMa Steam trains near Wrocester Western Cape South Africa

This GMAM Takes Advantage of Afternoon Lighting in This Classic Photo near Worcester.

After trolling through my photos of the area, I realise I need to split this story into several parts, simply to do the photography justice. This really is a beautiful part of the world, with long sweeping coastlines, rugged escarpments and spectacular desert country.

Coming from Johannesburg to Capetown via the main line, you reach Worcester after travelling through the Hex River Pass. This line has been electrified since 1961. At the time I was there, the section from De Aar to Beaufort West was diesel, so on the mainline, most of the crossing of the Karoo was by diesel.

The Garden Route Railway Line extends from Worcester through Riversdale and Voorbaai with an extension to Mossel Bay, To George. This is the section that is the subject of this pictorial story. I managed to ride behind steam trains over the garden route in late 1975 after my return from Mozambique. It was a memorable journey. I managed to clock up some 3,000 kms, mostly travelling behind steam. At that time there were very few places in the world where this was possible. The long, continuous steam ride began at Worcester.

The World Of The GMAM Steam Trains

Motive power between Worcester and Oudtshoorn at that time was in the form of GMAM Garrats. Lacking water capacity, they always came with a water wagon attached. These were the most modern of the South African Garratts, with the exception of the 2′ gauge NGG 16, used on the Donnybrook Umzinto line in Natal. The last of the NGG 16 was built in 1968, and the last GMAM entered service in 1958.

GMAM Hauls A Freight On The Worcester George Line In Early Morning Light

As can be seen from the above shot, this is a spectacular stretch of line, offering superb lighting, seaside photography and spectacular mountain backdrops.

I was travelling at the time with Kerry James from New Zealand. I met Kerry on my first overseas trip to New Zealand. He was fireman on the Kingston Flyer steam trains, which at that time had just been restarted. This train still operates today.

The Kingston Flyer In 1972 With Kerry James As Fireman

My other compatriot was Mike Grainger from Yorkshire, England who I was to share my Mozambique adventure with. We covered a lot of ground in the 5 weeks we were on the road.

A special spot on the trip was the Gourits River bridge. It is 75 meters high. This is one of the more impressive Railway Bridges in South Africa. We were lucky to be there when it still had steam trains crossing.

GMAM Crosses the Gourits River Bridge Heading East

East From Riversdale

A major town on the route is Riversdale. It is located in a valley and was one of the watering points on the Garden Route. After leaving the town, the line has a sharp curve and in the early morning air, the stillness could leave a steam trail exactly following the path of the steam trains.

A Perfect Steam Trail From An Early Morning Departure From Riversdale

It really was worth getting up in that crisp autumn air for some spectacular lighting. Here the whole side of the Garratt reflects the golden light of the morning sun.

Early Morning Glint Near Riversdale

The Line Hugs The Coastline

From here the scenery changes around Vorbaai, where a branch splits off to Mossel Bay. I spotted a great signpost pointing to the loco depot. I included it here for interest.

The passenger train takes a detour here, snaking along the waterfront with spectacular views. I managed to get a shot looking across the water.

The Passenger Heading Back From Mossel Bay To Vorbaai Pushing The Water Tank

From here to George, the line follows the coastline, and the road travels high on the cliffs. This provided many great photo opportunities for shots with the surf and steam, a great combination most Railfans would love to see and photograph.

Spectacular Would Be The Best Way To Describe This Scene With Vision All The Way To Mossel Bay

As you can see, the beaches of South Africa are beautiful white sand surfing venues. These are some of the most popular surfing beaches around, including Herolds Bay and Victoria Bay. It is worth a visit to South Africa just to see this area.

Montegu Pass

At George, the main line heads north away from the coast, crossing the escarpment. We spent 3 days camped on Montague pass, keeping the baboons away from our food supply was a challenge. There are no roads here, so all of the photos of steam trains were taken by tramping large distances up and down the pass.

A Taste Of The Splendour Of Montagu Pass

George Knysna

The other line from George heads East to Knysna past some other great surfing spots. This line was operated as a tourist line for many years, and there are many photos of steam trains taken I the area. I selected a couple of nice ones from our visit back in 1975, when there was a regular mixed hauled by a 24 class.

24 Class On The Knysna Mixed In Early Morning Light Hugs The Coastline

I know the loco seems insignificant against the magnificence of the area. At dusk that night I recorded a perfect reflection as the train sped on the final sprint into Knysna.

24 Class 3663 Heads Into The Sunset On The George Knysna Mixed

Watch out for some more articles on Montagu Pass, and Oudtshoorn to Kilplaat, two other great stretches of railway line in the days when steam trains ruled.

Comments

  1. Dawie Kuyler says:

    Hi.
    Thank you for sharing these photos. Your photos are really good. I rode on trains pulled by garrets since I was a small boy,
    over the Montagu pass. The sound of those beasts will never be forgotten. I pity those who never
    experienced it. If you have any more, please let it come. – Yes – Those were the days.
    Looking forward for more.
    Dawie.

    • John Gaydon says:

      HI Dawie,

      Thanks for the feedback.

      I have a whole article to do based on my 3 days walking up and down Montague pass. I am really enjoying reliving the days of steam.

    • Dear everyone as u know i got a photo from mi brother when he was 5years old when mi mother stand on jhb station when they took a photo when the drakensberg express train ready to go to durban anyway could someone explain what hapen to this green drakensberg train please regards theunis

  2. Les Bray says:

    Hi John
    looking at that photo of the 24 coming out of the short tunnel brings back memories of one our best holidays about 15 years back at Victoria Bay. We stayed at a cottage about 50 metres below the track, 3 trains a day in both directions, it was great.

  3. Charles says:

    Hi John,
    Great impression of a fabulous stretch of railway. Looking forward to the next episode.
    Regards
    Charles

    • John Gaydon says:

      Thanks Charles.

      Probably Montagu Pass will come up soon. More GMAMs, but some amazing scenery and shots from tramping up and down the mountain for 3 days.

      Cheers,
      John

  4. I remenber when I was about 7 years, we travelled from Mosselbay to Cape Town with a GMAM Garrit. On the pass the garrit could not pull the train. Rember it was only one garrit. The driver let the train move backwards and then forward. And he got it moving again. I tried that stunt when I was a driver on an electric 3E between Kazerni and Booysens on the reef.

    • John Gaydon says:

      What a great memory. Fortunately when I rode the train it didn’t stall! Would have been real fun with a GEA with hand firing!

  5. Dennis Mitchell says:

    More memories mate!! Iwas fortunate to travel over the pass [MONTAGUE ] in 74 behind a GMA although some freight was still GEA , in 77 we camped up there for a couple of days ,used a 50′ reel of super 8 on 1 GMA climbing up to Topping .Finally travelled over the pass in 85 on the R.S.S.A.s Trans Cape Limited behind 19D and GMA .It was one spectacular piece of “Railroading”.
    Dennis

  6. hi john where on internet can i look for the drakensberg train as i got the hoscale in hobbies but the boddys is not being casting perfect kindly theunis please gmail me theunisjohannesvolschenk@gmail.com

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