Caledon Line South Africa Steam Trains

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.

S2 steam loco saouth africa cape town table mountain

S2 shunts near Cape Town docks with the famous”White Cloud” over Table Mountain

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.

19C table mountain steam train cape town south africa

Suburban Goods Passes in Front of Table Mountain on a rare clear day. Probably a 19C

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.

GEA steam loco sir lowrys south africa cape province locomotive

GEA Starts The Climb Of Sir Lowry’s Pass April 1975

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

GEA near the top of Sir Lowry’s on an empty fruit train

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

Steenbras is at the top of Sir Lowry’s. Here a GEA crosses another GEA while a 14CRB is waiting to return down the hill for another double headed fruit train

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.

14CRB and GEA steam up Sir Lowrys on a fruit express from Elgin

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.

GEA crosses the famous bridge on Hoew Hoek pass Ap,rlil 1975

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Winter On The Caledon Line

GEA bot river caledon cape town cape province south africa steam train

GEA on a freight in August 1975 west of Bot River on 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.

hoew hoek gea caledon south africa steam locomotive garratt

GEA crosses the Hoew Hoek bridge in winter

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.

caledon south africa steam train GEA garrat

Spectacular Summer lighting makes for a painting like photo as a GEO crosses the wheat belt west of Bot River

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.

A Luxurious Trip To Bitterfontein Western Cape South Africa

For Christmas 1975 the Aussie rail fans living in Johannesburg decided to make the trip across the country to Bitterfontein travelling behind a might 25NC on the Drakensburg for Christmas Dinner. There were quite a few of us on that memorable trip and I remember the silver service in the dining car and the 7 course meal including such things as sorbet and soup.

glenn damn south africa bloemfontein 25nc steam train south africa

Glenn Dam Was Known For Perfect Early Morning Reflections. Here The Johannesburg Train We Would Have Caught Passes With A 15F Just Before The Overhead Wires Were Erected

 

Leaving Johannesburg on Chrismas Eve, we travelled to Bloemfontein, with steam from Kroonstad, probably a 15F or 23 class. The group included noted Australian Railway Photographers Geoffrey Higham from WA, Warren Doubleday and Greg Tripplett from Victoria and myself and John Allerton from NSW. This was truly a step back in time to the days when mighty steam trains ruled the rails.

16E south africa steam engine bloemfontein

16E No 857 Outside Bloemfontein Station. In Recent Years This Engine Has Been Restored To Working Order

At Bloemfontein early Christmas morning we ventured out into the streets and spotted the magnificent 16E plinthed outside the station. These were South Africa’s premier passenger engines, Pacifics with large driving wheels designed for hauling express trains. By this time, there were none in regular service. When the old wooden Blue Train carriages were replaced by modern steel versions, the 16Es could no longer handle the load and were replaced by the huge 25 class.

25nc south africa steam loco drakensburg express kimberly

25NC 3234 Attaches To The Drakensburg At Kimberly Christmas Day 1975

 

One thing for sure, the South Africans knew how to put on a good spread back in those days and it was like stepping back to the British colonial era. Our bedding was supplied with attendants in every car, and the dining superb. Dinner was quite a ritual with a proper British 7 course meal complete with a lovely menu. It was truly a step back in time to the luxury trains of old, with the carriages being resurrected from the original Blue Train. There was polished timber and the whole thing was very formal. Steam hauled the train from Bloemfontein where we boarded, to De Aar, a distance of around 340 kms behind mighty 25NCs at mainline speeds.

 

25nc kimberly de aar south africa drakensburg steam express train

A 25NC hauls the Drakensburg at speed between Kimberly and De Aar

 

The Drakensberg stared its journey in Durban and made its way up the escarpment to the Highveld, then on to Bloemfontein where it picked up its steam power. Another engine change was made at Kimberley, then a major steam depot, and finally De Aar in the middle of the Karoo Desert. From there it was diesel to Beaufort West, and electric through the Hex River Gorge to Capetown.

de aar 25nc 3441 south africa steam train engine loco drakensburg

At De Aar, Steam Gives Way To Diesel After A Memorable Christmas Lunch 25NC No 3441 Arriving At De Aar Christmas Day 1975

We Head To Bitterfontein

We arrived in Cape Town well rested. South African trains included sleeping accommodation. You travelled in compartments and even in second class on long distance trains, the seats converted to bunk beds. Other railway systems could learn from this! The Drakensburg was First Class only which meant an attendant on each car, linen service, and a colonial type experience. It was second only to the Blue Train in status, but the most important train with steam haulage at that time. Those days have long gone, except on the Blue Train which now costs a small fortune to travel on.

cape town steam loco south africa

At the station in Cape Town, South Africa’s oldest loco, dating back to 1859 is plinthed.

 

In Capetown, we hired a couple of cars and headed north to the line to Bitterfontein, on the way to South West Africa, now Namibia. The weather was amazing and so was the steam.

This section of line was the preserve of 19C Poppit Valve 4-8-2s. This valve was used in the original James Watt steam engine in the 1770s. In locomotives, Chapelon in France, the Pennsylvania Railroad in the US and some British steam locos utilised this method of releasing steam. For the most part, these locos were restriced to this part of the country due to special maintenance required for the valve mechanism. They had a distinctive staccato beat, unlike the 19ds. You can see the centre rod in the picture operated the Poppit valve in the cylinder on the 19C.

Surprisingly, this line has spectacular scenery. Starting in Capetown, and heading north for some 465 kms, quite a distance. For us there was plenty of steam, including a few double headers. We didn’t get all the way to Bitterfontein, but we managed to get some shots in magnificent scenery.

19c eendekuil south africa cap province steam train bitterfontein

19C Working Hard Against A Magnificent Mountain Backdrop North Of Eendekuil

 

The best section of the Bitterfontein line was from Malmsberry to Klawer, which is where much of the steam action was. It was great few days, and we were fortunate to get plenty of trains over the Christmas period. I was very happy with some amazing photographs of the Express Passenger in late afternoon light.

19c bitterfontein express south africa cape province steam engine passenger

As evening approaches a 19C with Van der Bild tender accelerates on the express. Only in mid-summer could you photograph this train in daylight

 

You may notice a difference with this loco. A few of the 19c’s were equipped with Van Der Bild tenders. These tenders carried more water and were also used extensively by 19Ds on the Oudsthoorn to Kliplaat line where water was scarce. Up here in the northern desert they hauled passenger trains over longer distances.

malmsberry south africa 19c express passenger steam train

Spectacular Scenery Abounds As The Passenger Heads Towards Nightfall. Much Of The Express Run Was At Night.

 

For some reason traffic on the Bitterfontein line was pretty busy at this time of year, something we had not expected. This meant a number of double headers to chase. We considered ourselves very lucky to have picked such a good time to be there, as there was not much happening in the rest of the country.

eendekruil cape province 19c goods train frieght steam loco

The Scenery On This Line Was Truly Magnificent As Double Headed 19Cs Head North Near Eendekruil

 

For two days we worked hard chasing everything and frequently stopping for photos in the harsh summer light. Early in the day and towards sunset, it really makes for some great shots.

19C mixed steam train north cape town bitterfontein line

Backlit Lighting Makes For A Spectacular Glint Against The Dark Mountains As This 19C Heads North

 

Satisfied after 2 days of photography on Bitterfontein, we returned to Cape Town and then on to Caledon to get some last shots of GEA Garratts. These were all withdrawn from service in 1976, so we took some of the last photographs of GEAs in regular operation during this trip.

GEA claedon freight steam train south africa

GEA On Caledon Line Heads Towards Capetown Dec 1975

The summer lighting late afternoon was rather special and contrasted with my other visits during winter and the Cape fruit season earlier that year. I had a soft spot for the Caledon line. The GEAs were a welcome change from the GMAMs that were everywhere at that time.

GEA Garratt south africa steam loco caledon cape province

GEA Caledon Line Steam Train Freight

We dropped off the hire car, farewelled the Western Cape for the last time (I haven’t been back since) and headed back to Johannesburg. It was a Christmas I will never forget.

Below is a slide show of the many photos we took on the Bitterfontein line and the rest of the trip, accompanied by South African Steam sounds. I hope you like it.

This was the only time I visited the Bitterfontein line.

The Montagu Pass – The Route Over The Outeniqua Mountains

Montagu Pass Introduction

South Africa has amazing geography including the Montagu Pass. From miles and miles of beautiful beaches to the Highveld it offers great desert scenery, and wonderful mountain passes. The Montagu Pass takes you from sea level at George to Oudtshoorn at 2,486 feet, quite a climb.

montegu pass gmam south african steam railway george sa

GMAM Climing Out Of George Starts The Montagu Pass Ascent

The Garden Route

The railway line from Capetown East follows the coast for quite a way from Mossel Bai to George. This offers some great photographic opportunities. From George a branch to Knysna offers great scenery as well and this line was a steam tourist line for many years. Currently it is not operating.

GMAM George Mossel Bay steam passenger south africa

GMAM Heads West Towards Mossel Bay Near The Southern Coastline

The main line headed north through the Montagu Pass and then on to Kliplaat and eventually Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. I believe passenger trains are no more on this section of line, which is a great pity. I managed to ride a steam hauled train up the Montagu Pass in 1975 headed by a GMAM. A few years earlier, hand fired GEAs were used. I can only imagine this would have been back breaking for the fireman. By the time I was there GEAs were restricted to Northern Natal and the Cape lines to Sir Lowry’s and Hoehoek passes.

GEA steam train western cape caledon freight garratt

GEA From Caledon Western Cape Heads Towards Hoehoek Pass

Montagu Pass Photography

On my grand steam tour of South Africa, along with Kerry James from New Zealand and Mike Grainger from the UK, we decided to spend some time on this spectacular climb. The historic roadway, built in 1847 by convict labour, runs up one side of the valley, while the railway line snakes its way up the Eastern side of the pass. There being no road access to the railway line, we parked our car at the summit and walked down complete with food, tents and cameras for a 3 day camp.

GMASM Montagu Pass Outeniqua Mountains south africa steam train

GMAM Descends Montagu Pass Taken From The Road

Possibly the most difficult challenge was the Baboons. There were a few around and if you left your food unsecured, it would vanish! I know a friend of mine caught, cooked and ate a snake at the Montagu Pass.

GMAM Montagu Pass Passenger Train Garden Route South Africa

GMAM Climbing Montagu Pass On The Daily Passenger

Being on foot represents its own challenges. First, you can’t chase the trains even though they go rather slow. That means reconnoitring the line by foot, picking out the best spots, and then co-ordinating the light with the train timetable. With only a few movements a day, it was not easy. Fortunately for us, we picked good weather with 3 days of total sunshine. This is almost unheard of on this very green part of the country. The Montagu Pass is quite a contrast to most of South Africa which is very dry.

GMAM Descends The Pass On A Freight. Note The Road On The Other Side Of The Valley

This photo below was on the short list for “The Great Steam Trek” well known as one fo the very best pictorial books on South African steam.

GMAM montagu pass steam train south africa

GMAM Climbing Montagu Pass

 

I put together all of my photos from the 3 days on the pass in a Youtube clip. The sound track is a South African steam loco accelerating from a standing start. I hope you enjoy it.

We really enjoyed our 3 days camped on Montagu in April, 1975. The scenery is so brilliant it was well worth it. I think you will agree some of these photos taken on the Montagu Pass are rather special

Pictures From The Days OF South African Steam

I put together a few of my photos into a video with accompanying sound track. There is an audio of a 14CRB + GEA on Sir Lowry’s Pass on a fruit train, and an NGG 16 on the Umzinto – Donnybrook line. Regrettably, I wrote the information on most of my recordings on the cardboard insert and they have faded away!

14crb, gea, south africa steam train, western cape fruit season

A 14CRB double heads a GEA on a Western Cape apple train

I will be doing a few more of these, probably by region, as I think that adding steam sounds brings the pictures alive.

As always, your comments are appreciated. Suggestions too will be investigated.

Enjoy the video

Swaziland Steam Train Railway Lament

A story about the picturesque Swaziland Steam Railway

By Dennis Mitchell

All photos not credited are taken by the author.

swaziland white rhino steam train 700 class

4-8-2 no 706 leaves the tunnel where the rare white Rhino was often spotted

Map Of The Swaziland Railway

Swaziland rail map steam train stories africa

Swaziland Railway Beginnings

The Swaziland railway was completed in 1964 to haul iron ore trains from the mine at Ngwenya, near Ka Dake through Sidvokovo and the port at Laurenco Marques in Mozambique. In the 1970s, the line was operated by Henschel 4-8-2 locomotives loaned by the CFM. The grey line on the map represents the railway. Possibly the most scenic part was the valley of a thousand horseshoes situated near Nkanni, not too far from the capital Mbabane.

Swaziland to this day is a kingdom, and the King has wide powers. At the time of this story King Sobhuza II ruled the land. It is a very interesting country situated between South Africa and Mozambique who were enemies for a long time.

In 1974, I first encountered the Swaziland railway, with the A.R.E. tour group. At that time the locos were being sent to Mozambique for servicing, as the Portuguese were still in control of Lourenco Marques, the main servicing centre for the delightful 700 class 4-8-2 s of the C.F.M. Over a few days we managed to photograph 702 703 and 706 on ore trains and a few of the ex-Rhodesian railways 12B 4-8-2 s on hauler services. The locomotives at this stage were being looked after and were a delight to behold. At Sidvokodvo we saw 707 the only Geisel injector equipped 700 at loco.

swaziland railway steam loco africa steam train

Giesel Equipped 707 hauls an empty ore train through the “Valley Of A Thousand Horseshoes”

Second Swaziland Railway Visit

In 1977 on a return visit – what a shock .We encountered 705 at Ka Dake mine in a state reminiscent of the worst of B.R. loco condition (or N.S.W. 1972) ,The next day we drove into MBABANE , Capital of Swaziland ,nowhere near the railway ,but where the HQ of said railway was .

We met the manager of the locomotive department, a Canadian, who explained “Man, since the war, we ‘ve had to look after these locos as best we can at Sidvokodvo as we can’t get them looked after in Mozambique. Half of them haven’t had a boiler inspection in years. We have taken the brick arches out to try and make them steam. The quality of the coal is rubbish, and the new drivers since the Portuguese left are hopeless.!”

On the question of the timetable he said “If Mozambique sends us wagons, the ore loader is working, the locos can steam, the crews aren’t on strike, and the train controllers turn up for work, we can run trains.

matsapha swaziland railway steam train mozambique 700

706 at Matsapha 1974

That night in a display of sparks that would have done a wood burner proud 705 passed our campsite on the Mgwili curves. The coal that the fireman threw out would not burn on our campfire it appeared to be more rock than carbon.

We ventured forth next day to try and get some shots through the tunnels that were atop the game reserve, on a steep road . A young Rhino decided he didn’t like our intrusion and charged at our van ..luckily Mick Statham saw him coming, took evasive action and he just scraped the Kombi. A young lady was coming the other way in a Kombi and despite our hand signals didn’t understand and got rear ended by a ton of uptight young Rhino. Apparently the road was between him and his harem!

Swaziland railway sidvokodvo 1974 steam train

706 on a loaded ore train near Sidvokodvo 1974

While we didn’t get any trains at the tunnels we managed to photograph 701 703 705 708 over the next few days .702 and 706 were at Dunns boiler works at Witbank getting rebuilt after a head on at Nondvo.

Swaziland railway 702 steam locomotive africa

702 nears the summit of the valley in winter 1975

By 1980 the 700s had all worked themselves to bits and were replaced by South African 15ARs also in indescribably filthy state. How that railway kept running was a tribute to steam if you had treated a diesel like that it wouldn’t have lasted.

Happy Steaming

Additional Information

 

702 swaziland steam train horshoe iron ore mine

Another winter shot of 702. You had to be careful in this area as there were black Mamba and Boomslang snakes around – not to mention the Rhinos.

swaziland railway lusuttu river steam locomotive 700

702 Passes by the Lusuttu River rapids in May 1975

valley of a thousand horshoes swaziland mbabane steam train

Yet another shot in the valley

Alas the mine was closed in 1980 resulting in the abandonment of the line from Matshapa and the end of steam.

We leave you with this late afternoon shot with superb lighting.

swaziland railway africa steam train 706

702 with a nice smoke trail in the late afternoon

 

We had some great times in Swaziland, and it is such a shame to see the demise of the Swaziland Iron Ore Railway.

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