South African Steam Trains – Mighty Bethlehem

No, this is not the holy shrine in Israel, but it is a magical experience for rail fans from South Africa. It was the place to head to on weekends in 1974-6 when I was living in Johannesburg, although petrol on the weekends could be a little tricky.

25NC, Bethlehem steam train, south africa steam loco
25NC 3415 on a cold winter’s morning on the Bethlehem Passenger

county clare innn broadway sydney

How I Came To South Africa

My South African Adventure started at the County Clare Hotel in the middle of Sydney, Australia. Here on a Tuesday night a group of desperate rail fans met and talked about the good old days of steam. This was around 1973, the year main line steam ended in NSW, and between beers, many of us dreamed of visiting the remaining countries where steam was still in abundance.

An undue influence was one A E (Dusty) Durrant, who unfortunately is no longer with us. Amazingly the last time I saw him was in Laurenco Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique where he went past on a bus. We were going to try to get a photographic permit and he told us not to waste our time.

25NC Bethlehem South Africa steam train
A taste of what is to come as a 25 pours thick black smoke as it races along the Bethlehem line

I think Dusty had come to Australia to witness the last of the 60 class Garratts. The final one was built in 1956, and made a great display climbing Fassifern bank on a full coal load. He competed his landmark work on South Africa, “Steam On The Veld” in 1972, and spoke eloquently of the amazing railway system in that country.

great western hotel broadway sydney australiaDusty returned to South Africa and we moved our drinking hole down the road to the “Great Western”. Like the County Clare this was sandwiched in between the Tooths Sydney Brewery. We were rather partial to a drop of amber ale in those days.

I fondly remember Becky the Barmaid, who took it upon herself to experiment with our group, preparing a wide range of cocktails. My memories of these are kind of vague, as at the end of the night we would roll out on the street and somehow find our way home. You just can’t do this sort of thing anymore! I do recall the “blue Angel” was one of my favourites.

The Trip Over

One by one the group diminished as everyone started moving to South Africa. By mid 1974, we figured if we wanted to see our friends again, we might as well join the crowd. I resigned my job and headed west. It was a long flight in those days on a Boeing 707. We stopped at Melbourne, Perth and Mauritius. Nowadays you fly direct from Sydney. The plane was heavily loaded leaving Melbourne. The pilot took every inch of runway and we watched the wings flex as speed slowly increased to eventually have us airborne.

20 hours later we arrived in South Africa. The pilot took us for a tour around Johannesburg, circling the city while we waited for a clearance to land. Back in those days these things were possible. Our friend Rags met us at the airport and offered a hearty breakfast. Unfortunately we had been fed so many times of the plane and my body clock was completely out of sorts, so I didn’t eat much.

The Background

In 1974, there was an oil embargo on South Africa. The Cricket and Rugby teams were being excluded from world competition, and the rest of the world was trying to squeeze the country to abandon Apartheid. There were petrol restrictions and you could only carry 10 liters of extra fuel and you couldn’t buy petrol on weekends. The rail Fans were well organised and had carefully placed jerry cans at strategic spots to enable weekend photography.

Pardon me recalling the circumstance by which I landed in this amazing country. Now to the subject at hand, the Bethlehem line.

bethlehem bloemfontein railway line
South African Rail Map

Steam Trains At Bethlehem

The distance from Bethlehem to Bloemfontein is around 260 kms. From Johannesburg to Bethlehem we had to drive around 230 kms. Due to petrol restrictions, the maximum speed was 80 kph, so it took around 4 hours for the drive.

bethlehem loco depot south africa 1976
Bethlehem Loco Depot 1976

This line ran close to the border with Lesotho, a country completely encircled by South Africa, and was near the Drakensburg Mountains. Possible the biggest attraction of this line was the use of 25NC class 4-8-4s. These were magnificent and powerful machines, mainly used for crossing the Karoo Desert prior to electrification. A number of them were assigned to Bloemfontein and Bethlehem Depots.

25NC Bethlehem South Africa steam loco
25 NC in full flight catches the early morning light

For me the lighting was the most amazing feature of this stretch of Railway line. Sure, the motive power was superb, and the scenery spectacular, but some of the early morning and late afternoon shots really drew on those magnificent African sunsets, a feature unlike anywhere else on the planet.

25NC Bethlehem South Africa steam locomotive
Early morning light, cold weather and steam, make for a spectacular scene

One of the 25 class, 3415 had its smoke detectors painted blue. Interestingly, a recent commenter on this blog says his dad was in charge of the engine at that time. The enginemen at Bethlehem took pride in their assigned locos and kept them in immaculate condition.

25NC Bethlehem South Africa steam train
3407 with blue smoke deflectors storms out of a stop in brilliant sunshine

Occasionally you would see a double header on the line. I only managed to chase one of these, but got a great shot with the Drakensberg in the background. I think this mainly happened for engine transfers.

double 25NC bethlehem line south africa steam train
Some of the scenery on this line renders a photograph more like a painting

As in all parts of the world, weather plays an important part in the appearance of the landscape. Because the winters in the Free State were cold and dry, most people spent the winter photographing in this area. I have a habit of going out of season. While this produces many challenges such as getting bogged in mud, and being rained or snowed on, it provides for some great shots.

You will notice some of my shots are taken in the dry, Cold winter, while others are in summer where it rains frequently, but the scenery is much greener.

25NC Bethlehem South Africa steam loco
The backdrop is much greener on this summer shot taken in brilliant sunshine

On my grand tour by rail, I was lucky enough to ride in the cab of a 25NC on this line for quite some distance. This was the fastest trip I had in South Africa, at least in the cab.

25NC Bethlehem South Africa steam train
Yet another brilliant scenic spot on the Bethlehem line

While most of my shots are of the passenger trains on account of they were regular and ran at the right time of day. There were a number of freight movements too.

25NC Bethlehem South Africa steam loco
25NC hauls a freight on the Bethlehem line

You can see that this line really was fabulous and a rail photographers paradise. A friend of mine, Mike Carter, spent a few years in Bethlehem and eventually became a steam driver. It was good to meet up with him while in the area.

25NC Bethlehem South Africa steam train
We bid farewell to this essay on one of the most photogenic lines in South Africa with this early morning trailing glint

There are many more stories to tell from my South African adventures.



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