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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.