Lootsberg – Superb South African Steam Action

Lootsberg pass is situated in the center of South Africa, between Graaff Reinet and Rosmead. With a 1 in 40 ruling grade, it was a steep climb in steam days, particularly before the Gmam Garratts took over the line in late 1975.Originally opened in 1898, this is the highest pass in the Karoo and often receives snow in winter. The line was eventually closed on May 31, 1993, although recently it has recently been revived as an alternate route to Port Elizabeth.

The trip north from Graaff Reinet with double 19b’s on the through passenger train was a special experience as they crawled their way up the mountain huffing and panting. The engines were lovingly cared for, with the lead engine on this train named “Rosie”.

On my great steam trek, where I managed 3,000 kms behind steam in a week without repeating any trips, I travelled over the pass behind double 19Bs. It was a very slow climb with lots of wheel slips. An experience to cherish.

A map of the area gives us some idea about the grades and curves. You can see it was anything but straight, meaning no momentum leading up to the climb.

The summit is nearly 6,000 feet and a climb of over 200 meters in each direction. This was a brilliant spot for train photographers, despite not having many trees and the desert feel.

The line between Jagpoort and Lootsberg featured some long straights with a spectacular gorge just before the final climb to the summit. As with many locations, the lighting and sunlight were not always friendly to photographers. It was a case of having a train at the right time of day, and in this particular region, having the sun come out as well! We spend 3 days there, with mixed results.

As this section was not a main line as such, there were only a few train movements a day. Of course this is where passenger trains are extremely handy. In latter years on most railways passenger trains were either diesel hauled or replaced by railcars, meaning that photographers had to rely on the random freight movements. In 1975, 19 class were in full swing with no diesels in site on this section of track.

As an engineman, with a long climb from the south it must have been a real relief to finally reach the summit. It was quite dramatic in that once the engine reached the top, the grade immediately went from a steep climb to a rapid descent. Not much work for the fireman on this section.

In fact, although I never saw it, you could get some good snow on Lootsberg Pass if you were lucky. Mind you that would turn the roads to mud too! Speaking of the roads, they were dirt. It was rather lonely up there, and we hardly saw a soul in the desert. Fortunately there were plenty of trains to keep us busy. After our first gloomy day, the weather gods shone on us.

Frieghts were not always a single engine. They were generally restricted to 19B and 19D class when we were there in May 1975. We camped near the summit in our small tent. I had Englishman Michael Grainger and Kiwi Kerry James with me to share the costs. Kerry used to cook rice and sultanas with honey and milk. It kept us warm and full on occasion when food was scarce.

19B lootsberg pass steam train
I don’t know if readers can remember the days when enginemen were proud of their charges. Often a crew would have their own loco and lovingly cared for it. On this occasion, fire set, the 19B is polished while climbing the pass!

These days you can take a ride over the lass in a small cart. It is like a little bus in wheels. At least you can get a feel for what it was like. Lootsberg for us was one of the more interesting mountain crossings because of the absence of Garratts.

19d lootsberg pass
Banked freight pulling and pushing its load towards the summit. Both 19Ds.
19B lootsberg south africa steam loco
The Karoo is a special place. Here a 19D leads a 19B on the passenger heading towards Lootsberg Pass.

While Lootsberg was a great place to visit, Rosmead turned out to be an important railway junction. I live in Australia where in my day, most lines with steam ran North – South. The Rosmead to Stormberg branch ran East West and there was a regular passenger with double 15AR’s which headed East every morning. We would go to meet it at sunrise, and were very satisfied with the photographic results.

15AR rosmead stormberg south africa steam train
Double 15AR’s on the Stormberg to Rosmead passenger in May 1975

I visited the line again in 1976 with Lindsay Rickard and Howard Stokoe, By then Gmam’s had moved in, and there were no more bankers or double headers. It really demonstrated how quickly things change in the team world. We were continuously chasing motive power before its demise. One of the good things about South Africa was the pride the crews took in their engines, at a time when steam in Australia was all but finished.

gmam steam loco lootsberg pass
Gmam climbs Lootsberg from the south with a freight in 1976.

The site of a Gmam, although still spectacular, was just not the same. Still steam at Lootsberg is no more, so I am grateful for the few days I spent there with my cameras. What do you think? Garratt or double 19Bs.

Here is a video of a Gmam climbing Lootsberg Pass


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