Panpoort – Steam Action Close To Home

I took up residence in Johannesburg just after Christmas, 1974. After a week riding trains on the Rheine Emden line in northern Germany at speeds of 120 kph, I returned by boat a few days before Christmas.

In 1974, Express trains on the Rheine – Norddeich line in northern Germany still regularly clocked 120 kph.

On the boat from Hoek of Holland, it was a real party. There were a bunch of Scottish Soldiers partying, and I do recall one lady dancing on a table with 2 crossed swords. There were a lot of hung over people that switched from the boat to the train at Harwich the next morning.

Back in London, I decided to go to the famous King’s Head on Christmas Eve. It was in full swing with Aussies everywhere. While drinking they put a surfing movie on the TV to great cheers from the Aussies. It reminded us all of home.

After that there was a live broadcast of an Elton John concert. Funny how you remember these things.

I had been living on the cheap in London. I paid 2 pounds a night for a dorm bed in a back packers dive, and ate a meal of Roast Pork every second day, relying on breakfast and nibbles the rest of the time.

Christmas day was very quiet. Everyone stayed home and the underground stopped around 3 pm. So different from our 24 hour culture these days. I had a return ticket to South Africa on the 27th, I purchased for just over 200 pounds from one of the Aussie bucket travel agencies. It was a cheap time of year to travel. As it turned out, the day after I left my mother and sister arrived in London. Due to the price of the air fares, I could not afford to wait for them! Crazy stuff missing your family half way around the world by a day. It was nearly 2 years before I saw them again.

With the cheap air fare, we flew from London to Paris, Paris to Kinshasa, and from there to Johannesburg. My friend Rags, who I travelled with in Europe, was not returning, so I took his place in the famous flat at Algarve in Hillbrow. There were many well known Rail Fans who stayed in that unit. It became quite famous. I am told that if you went near this neighbourhood now, you would almost certainly not come back alive. Back then it was very safe. Cleaning was included in the modest rent!

There were quite a few Aussie Railfans living in the area. They came from all over Australia and we formed a friendship group. We would venture out on weekends, and spend time drinking together. One Western Australian said he had a rule to not drink before noon, but made up for it later in the day. I am still in touch with some of them.

A few days later it was 1975, and a few of us headed for Panport one of the closest main lines to Johannesburg with steam trains still running. This line headed from Mozambique to Pretoria and the “International” with double headed 15Ca’s was what we came to see.

The International was often double headed

It was good to get into the steam action so soon after my arrival. It is amazing these days to image lines with no diesels and no wires, but I guess that is why I headed overseas in the first place. Steam had finished in Australia apart from some coal railways, and mainline steam in the UK finished in 1968, before I had any money to save up for an airfare.

Panport was a very nice place, great for photos. It was also near the junction of the Cullinan Line, one that used by “Friends of the rail” for day trips until someone stole a section of rail! If only we had this sort of spot as close to home in Australia. We were so spoilt in South Africa with sunlight, sunsets, and great scenery.

The Cullinan local meant plenty of trains to photograph during the day.

As it was New Year’s day, some of the locos were adorned with wattle branches. This was a New Year tradition, and I witnessed it the next year as well.

In those days some of the locos were assigned to a specific crew who really looked after it, keeping the cab polished and the engine clean. You could tell these locos by their sparkling appearance. As in other places in the world, this particularly applied to Express Passenger locos. Senior drivers were assigned to these duties, as operating a steam locomotive at high speed was an art form. Back then schedules were tight, and pushed the crew to the limit. If the train ran late, there was pressure to make up the time and get to the destination on schedule.

15Ca belches smoke as it accelerates after a staff exchange

Panpoort was a crossing loop, and you could witness the staff exchange at the signal box before the trains accelerated away. I rather like this shot with the signalman in his Safari Suit.

There was plenty of freight on the line as well, often double headed. Interestingly each line in South Africa seemed to have a specific class or two of locos. I am not sure why that is, but it meant lots of travel to achieve coverage of a wide rang of these magnificent machines.

Double Headed 15CA’s head towards Pretoria

Of course, those are distant memories. Instead of several hours loco preparation before departure, now you turn the switch and your Diesel or Electric starts up ready to go.

Wattle adorned the front of some locos on New Year’s Day

All in all after Europe with its dodgy weather, and limited steam action, this was a refreshing change. Satisfied with our coverage, we made our way back home. Soon after this I went searching for work,


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