Mainline Steam In Natal

Superb Photos In Garratt Heaven

When it comes to Garratt action, Natal in South Africa was the place to be.

Regrettably, most of the steam action ceased on the main lines in late 1974, so it was with a sense of urgency that I headed that way with a friend in August 1974.

This was my first big trip, and a 6 month tour turned into nearly 3 years photographing steam around the world.

We left Australia in a Boeing 707. I remember leaving Melbourne, the pilot went to the far end of the runway and opened the throttle. The plane must have been heavily overloaded (I know I had taken too much luggage) and as we slowly accelerated, I watched the wings flex to a ridiculous angle before the plane slowly started to gain height.

We arrived in Johannesburg around breakfast time. The Pilot decided to give us a tour and tipped the plane sideways as we flew around the city before landing. Back then you could do these things.

A couple of days with our friend Rags and then down to business. We headed straight for Pietermaritzburg and Garrett territory.

At this time, there were petrol restrictions. You couldn’t purchase fuel on weekends, and you were restricted to 10 liters in containers. The rail enthusiasts had stored petrol at appropriate places so they could cover larger distances of their weekends off from work.

We found 10 liters carefully hidden at City View, one of the most amazing photo locations.

GF and GMAM Climb City View Note the shanty town in the background

Suitably inspired with these early morning shots, we made use of Rags’s local knowledge and set about travelling all the way to Franklin and beyond during the next few days.

Part of the charm of this part of the world was that it was Zulu Territory, and the railway line weaved amongst their huts.

Double GFs head towards Donnybrook through the Zulu Homeland. Each “chief” has a number of wives and had to build a hut for each of them.

These Garratts were fairly large hand fired versions, but we shouldn’t forget the GCA’s which were also on their last legs.

Double GCAs near Donnybrook

While on the subject of double Garratts, a more unusual combination was a GCA and GF. We managed to get a shot of this one as well. What a week.

GCA Leading GF heads towards Donnybrook

Enough of Garratts already. Not quite. I have a couple of more shots I just have to put in here.

NGG16 on a freight heading through the cane fields between Donnybrook and Umzinto

You may recognise this 2′ gage Garratt. At least one of them has made its way to the UK, working on the Welsh Highland Railway, and to the other extreme, Puffing Billy in Australia.

The last of these engines was manufactured in 1968, so when we visited it was only 6 years old.

So we have 4 classes of Garratts in Natal so far. Early morning there was a passenger from Franklin heading north which was often banked with a GF on either end.

We decided to be smart and slept near the line ready for the dawn shot. When we awoke with ice on the car and on our sleeping bags, we couldn’t start the car. That meant we watched the train roll by just before sun up on a perfectly clear crisp day.

We did get this shot of a GF heading south soon after though.

GF Near Franklin

One more shot before we leave the GFs for the last time. This one was on the Underberg passenger which headed home around sunset.

GF On Underberg Passenger

One of our favourite places was the Bulwer Hotel, where we were offered various delicacies to wash down with Lion Ale. I think we abandoned the sleeping bags for a night or two of comfort there as it was really freezing outside.

Well, we are not finished. In the north of the state, we saw another 2 classes of Garratt! First up is a GO, which at the time of my visit were only operating in Northern Natal. One was preserved for use on many excursion trains.

The second, used on the Eshowe branch, was a GEA, the largest of the hand fired Garratts.

In the end, I am pretty happy with my coverage of Natal steam.

Regrettably all I have left of this time is a couple of mates to reminisce with, these photos, and the memories. Oh for steam days.


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