South American Steam Train Escapade Pt 1 Brazil

By Easter 1976 I was fed up with living in South Africa. I had been there 1 ½ years, and spent a good deal of time photographing in the surrounding area. Considering when I left home, I expected to be away for less than a year, it was time to move on.

Since returning from Mozambique I had been hard at work. My first project was an internal telephone exchange in the African Eagle building, at that time the tallest in South Africa. The engineer in charge walked out part way through the project and I volunteered to finish it. It left me highly regarded in the company and just before Easter, the boss offered my supervisor’s job. He had gone off to fight against the Cubans in Angola on a secret mission the government kept secret.

I was working up to 100 hours a week, and in between visiting the local pub in Hillbrow and making the occasional foray to record some steam action. I sort of fixed my car, but it was still tending to crumble. I made around 1100 Rand a month.

Three of us lived in the flat in Yeoville, Martin Pemble from England, John Allerton and myself. We were part of a thriving railway group, one of whom was Greg Triplett who had ventured to Angola and got shot at, and sent to Mozambique just before I did. Greg went off to South America and came back with such wonderful photos we had to go there too!

troley bus johannesburg 1975Every Wednesday night we visited the Ambassador Hotel for a drink to reminisce and listen to an excellent band. The main song I remember was a Captain and Tenille song, “Love Will Keep Us Together.” It was a good night out and a venue for planning future trips. Hillbrow is now the Harlem of South Africa, a place where it is unsafe for white people to visit.

I travelled to work on the Trollybuses that went to Rissik street. Every afternoon in summer, just as we were about to board the bus, there would be a huge thunderstorm, and everyone got soaked.

Fond memories of my time in this now forbidden city.

We Prepare For South America

Lindsay Rickard from Melbourne, and Mike the Pom who had been with me in Mozambique decided to be part of the South American expedition, and we started planning. Even in those days there was quite a network of railfans reporting from all parts of the globe on steam movements. The book “World Of South American Steam” had just been published. This is now considered rare and very hard to obtain. The pictures made us want to go even more.

Being one who wanted to be prepared, I enrolled in Spanish lessons from an Argentinian lady who lived nearby and started learning the lingo. This was to prove very useful for a number of reasons, not the least getting around in South America. Another godsend was an amazing guide book, “The South American Handbook”, a hard cover publication with incredibly detailed information on the continent. It was a bible to us on the trip.

There were months of careful planning, mapping out all of the remaining steam lines on the continent and deciding where we should spend most of our time. Speaking of time, steam was disappearing fast, so we had to get there ASAP! When Greg returned, he told us about a couple of hire cars he had destroyed. We laughed, but found out why during our adventure. The roads were nothing short of atrocious.

The Last Great South African Steam Trek

datsun 1200 johannesburg steam train storiesBefore we left, we had planned a couple of final journeys in South Africa. The first was over the Easter weekend, when a group of us headed south. On this occasion we hired a Datsun 1200 as my car couldn’t make the distance. During the trip we were travelling on a dead straight road at around 100 kph when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. We drifted across and flew over an embankment, only to land in a creek. You can see from the photo a rail bridge just behind the car. This is where we landed. As you can see the car was not in too good condition. The front wheels were out of alignment, but we managed to drive it back to Johannesburg.

In all fairness, we were moving along the Kimberly De Aar main line where trains reach speeds of up to 100 kph.

25 class south africa steam engine condensor de aar

25 Condenser on an afternoon freight between Kimberly and De Aar makes use of available lighting

These are massive engines, with huge coolers on the tenders to reduce water consumption for the trip across the Karoo desert. In later years, many of the condensers were converted with a Vanderbuilt type tender, which looked half like a water carrier. There were 3 types of 25 class, Condenser, NC and converted.

One more indulgence before we leave this part of the world, an African sunset silhouette of a mighty 25.

25 class south africa steam engine condensor kimberley

Mighty 25 silhouetted against a typical striking African sunset in the Karoo

We nurtured our broken car back to Johannesburg, satisfied with our haul of photos, then handed it back to the hire car company. In those days it cost R10 a day with no insurance excess. How different to today’s rules. I went back to work after Easter and handed in my resignation much to my boss’s disgust. He really couldn’t understand why I had done the hard yards and was leaving just when my star was rising in the company. I could see the future for South Africa, and it didn’t look that rosy! By this stage I even had my residency papers, so I could stay if I wished. They vowed never to employ an Aussie again!

I know, I haven’t left South Africa yet. I thought this story was about South America.

Once I finished work, Lindsay and I hired a Volkswagen. We had 2 weeks before we were due to leave. First a quick trip down to the Western Cape via Lootsberg and Avontuur, then we back tracked to Rhodesia, and spent some time on the West Nicholson line. Got some great photos before returning the car to Johannesburg (intact for a change), and hopping on a plane to Rio.

14A rhodesia fort nicholson steam engine

14 Class 516 on a West Nicholson freight Rhodesia

We Arrive In South America

MY first impression of South America has never left me. In those days, South Africa was a quiet, slow paced country, where you could travel freely and feel safe. I know it is not like that anymore, but it was back then. We arrived in the evening at Rio, and I remember walking under the nose of the Concord on the way to the terminal.

Once we passed immigration and customs and hit the outside, we were besieged by Taxi Drivers, tour operators, and all sorts of scam artists offering to take us to the best or cheapest hotel in town. It was totally overwhelming.

We Get Out Of Rio As Fast As Possible

sao jao del rei cathedral churchIn the light of all of this, we decided the best thing to do was to get out of town as quickly as possible so we could adjust to the new continent. We caught a public bus to the main railway station and caught an overnight train to São João delRei. This was the terminus of a 2′ 6″ railway line somewhat similar to that at João Bello in Mozambique. The first night, we spent the most we ever did for a room, $4US! Yes, in those days, accommodation in that part of the world was very cheap. We met a group of girls who were collecting on the street, and they showed us around. We loved this little town, and the hospitality of the Brazilians.

This place was free and easy and no one minded us wandering around the loco depot and taking a few photos. So different from Rio. I was definitely starting to like Brazil.

Brazilian Narrow Gauge

sao joao del rei cab 41 steam engineOh, in those days I was young! I took the obligatory pose in the cab of one of the narrow gauge engines. The main line went from Antonio Carlos to São João Del Rei and was built in the late 1890s. The main traffic was limestone and the line was closed when this traffic stopped in 1983. Now there are still steam trains operating from São João Del Rei as a tourist railway. Of course, when we were there, it was a regular steam operation.

This line was a bit like a miniature railway. It really didn’t seem like an important rail link. The trains were very slow, the whole place was so relaxed, even the water tanks were in the middle of nowhere.

60 steam loco sao joao del rei brazil steam engine

No 60 takes on water

One of the main differences from our trip to Jao Belo in Mozambique, definitely a sister railway to this one with the same gauge and similar motive power was that it was so relaxed. We could move where we wished amongst the friendly Brazilians.

The line wound its way through the Brazilian jungle, so it was difficult to get good photo opportunities. For the most part this happened at the many stops along the way.

60 sao joao del rei campolinde steam train narrow guage 2' 6"

We pause at Campolide to pick up and set down passengers

Campolide was one of those stops. In South America, watching the activities while in the train station are often a highlight of the trip. Street vendors descend on the train plying their wares. These days, I wonder how they make a living.

60 sao joao del rei steam mixed train brazil

You can see the limestone on the first two wagons of the regular mixed

At this stage we had only spent one day of our adventure, and Lindsay had an appointment with a plane back to Australia in September, so despite our love for this little town, it was time to move on.

2-4-0 no 22 sao joao del rei brazil steam engine

2-4-0 no 22 cleaning the ash at night

That night, we obtained a few more photos at the depot. I remember chatting to a few Brazilians in a combination of Portuguese, Spanish and English on the bus back to Rio. I was really warming to these people.

42 41 60 sao joao del rei brazil steam loco

Three peas in a pod. A beautiful site at São João del-Rei loco depot

After this little adventure, we travelled back to Rio and stayed in a cheap backpackers. When I say cheap, I mean really basic. Dorm rooms and a single shower with the wonderful “live” shower head which has bare wires carrying high voltage to heat the water.

Rio, to be fair, is an incredible beautiful city, with hills, cable cars and trams.

rio de janeiro tram

A typical Rio tram climbing the hills

One of the most interesting aspects of this city was its buses. Nothing unusual about the buses, but the bus drivers were completely mad. They would brace themselves as they slid around corners at high speed. On one occasion another bus decided to overtake ours on the right. Our driver took exception to this and they proceeded to keep side swiping each other down the road for a while! They really take their job seriously.

While on the subject of buses, when we eventually headed from Rio to Sao Paulo on a coach, it made us very wary of doing bus journeys in South America as all along the freeway there were ruins of coaches which ran off the road! Totally crazy. Later in Sao Paulo, I had another hair raising experience with a Brazilian driver.

In the next South American story, I will cover the sugar mills around Campos.

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