The South African Fruit Season

GEA steam engine south africa
GEA Sir Lowry’s Fruit Train March 1975

I arrived in South Africa for the second time on late December, 1974. Following 4 months in Europe including two weeks riding the Rheine Norddeich line with 012 three cylinder Pacifics, which consistently clocked up 120 kph or 75 mph speeds for sustained periods, I managed to get myself a job in Johannesburg with the intention of leaving in time for the Cape Fruit season. As it turned out, 1975 was the last year there was a full steam roster with many 14CRBs and GEA Garratts heading trains.

I moved in to a flat in Hillbrow, a place I believe is totally off limits and the crime capital of South Africa now! I was staying with an Aussie and a Pom, both railfans. Anyway, I worked hard for 3 months, spent very little and used the opportunity to build up my cash supply. I was very lucky because the Afrikaans supervisor was on leave and when he came back he made the job very difficult. By mid March, it was time to leave, so I quit, purchased a 2 year old Peugot 404 wagon off another Aussie who was heading home for just $1600 rand and took off for Capetown as fast as we could go.

The rail line from Capetown ran across the flats through a lush valley. Then it hit the escarpment. At this point there was a steep, fabulous climb to the top of Sir Lowry’s pass that really tested the GEA Garratts.

GEA steam train south africa cape town
GEA tackles Sir Lowry’s pass from the Cape Town end. March 1975
GEA Cape Town South Africa steam loco
Nearing the summit of Sir Lowry’s heading east

Fortunately, most of the time the climb from Capetown included empty cars on their way to pick up a load of fruit or other produce. This area supplies a huge portion of South Africa’s grain and fruit production to the port of Cape Town.

By all accounts, this is an incredible stretch of railway line. It was absolutely freezing with heavy frosts in the morning, the fog often only lifting by lunch time. The line crossed two mountain passes, Sir Lowry’s and Houw Hoek. Both were spectacular.

Ascending Sir Lowry’s, the line snakes up the escarpment in spectacular fashion. It is a real cliff hanger. In the morning you could see the mist rising, which, in itself led to interesting photos.

The main motive power were GEA hand fired Garratts, I think at that time they were the largest hand fired engines in the world. The second main class of locomotive power was the 14 CRB, at that stage only working in this area of the country. One of the challenges of latter day railfans was the lack of variety in steam motive power. For instance, in the early 1960s I photographed many classes of steam on my local area, the Short North of NSW Australia. By 1970 half of those were no longer hauling trains. Except for the fact they are a lot older now, I envy those who were taking shots in the 1950s when steam was king.

After crossing Sir Lowrys, the line descends to the orchid areas and then crosses Houw Hoek to the Eastern plains of the wheat belt. This is perhaps more spectacular than Sir Lowry’s as the line winds through a narrow gorge flanked by high mountains.

I was travelling with Mike Grainger who went with me on my famous Mozambique expedition, and Kerry James an engineman from New Zealand I first met while riding the Kingston Flyer in the south of that country.

Everyone Was There

kerry james, sir lowrys, railway road
Kerry James surveying the locked gate with 8 padlocks

The crew descending on the area at that time included some of the best known railway photographers of the time. I met Dusty Durrant, Charlie Lewis, Peter Stowe, Alan Jorgensen, Greg Tripplet and many others. All of these have many books and photos published. It was quite an occasion for we steam buffs.

Charlie and Peter had high positions in the South African Railways, and could organise many things. The “cade” road which followed the line was for railway personnel only, but by arrangement we were able to obtain a key to the padlocked gates from the Sir Lowry’s station master. This made life a lot easier. Some of the gates had 5 or more padlocks, but one always fitted our master key.

In reality, this was the beginning of the big adventure. At this stage we had no idea what was in store for us later on the trip.


Our first stop was the rail town of Bethlehem. Nothing to do with the bible, or Israel, but a town famous amongst railfans for the spectacular line from there to Ladysmith and on to Bloemfontein. I visited this line several times as it was relatively close to Johannesburg. Here is one of the pictures from this particular trip.

25NC Bethlehem South Africa
A magnificent 25NC 4-8-4 on the Bethlehem line

Motive power on this line was the 25NC, a 4-8-4 locomotive and the largest non articulated loco in the country. An Aussie, Mike Carter, worked as a steam driver there for a few years and photographed the area. As you can see from the above shot, it is a great area for railway photography.

There was no time to waste as the fruit season was underway, so we headed straight for Capetown from here. We had a small tent we all snuggled into, and a gaz camping stove for cooking. The menu varied from delicious Barb-Que steaks cooked on the Brie and purchased from local butchers to Kerry’s famous cheap dish of rice and milk. The meat was amazing. Best I ever had. We really lived on the cheap in those days and this was how I managed to cover so much of the world before running out of money.

Every morning there would be a thick frost and it was freezing as we headed for the spot to photograph the morning fruit express. Sometimes it was a single GEA, and if we were lucky, a 14CRB headed the Garratt. The picture below was on one of those occasions.

14CRB and GEA on Cap Fruit train sir lowrys
Double header GEA assisted by a 14CRB climb Sir Lowry’s on a frosty morning

You can see the thick frost on the ground. After getting the shot of this train near the bottom of the hill, we would rush up the dirt road nearly colliding with the rest of the motorcade to Sir Lowry’s station to get a second photo. Fact was that it was a really hard climb for the locos with a full load of apples, so the train went fairly slowly.

This gave us time to scurry up the dirt road, through a couple of gates and get set for the next shot.

On this occasion, the sun shone under the shadow of the smoke to provide a spectacular photo opportunity.

GEA steam loco 14CRB engine
Fruit train approaching the summit of Sir Lowrys after we chased it up the hill

Sir Lowry’s was a relatively straight, though steep climb. The helper loco detached at the summit and the GEA continued on to the Port of Capetown with apples bound for Europe.

Houw Hoek

West of Sir Lowry’s the countryside changed. Instead of forests and open spaces, the line entered a steep gorge. This was on the section between Elgin and Bot River.

A feature of this pass was a magnificent open girder bridge where the line crossed the gorge.

GEA Houw Hoek Pass South Africa steam loco
GEA crosses the gorge in Hoew Hoek pass

In some ways the view leaving the gorge was even more spectacular. This shot and the next were both taken during the Cape fruit season in 1975.

Hoew Hoek pass gea steam loco south africa
GEA on general freight leaving Hoew Hoek pass

After leaving Hoew Hoek, the line continues to Bot River, where the engine takes on water. From there it is a journey over undulating plains and wheat fields.

I came back to the Western Cape after my Mozambique adventure. On my return to civilization, I wanted to get a job and save up for travel to South America the following year. My first thought was to get a job as an engineman at Port Elizabeth. At that stage suburban trains were still hauled by 16CR Pacifics. I was told you could sign on as a cleaner for $170R a month and then graduate quickly to fireman. In the end, the pay got me. I managed to get a job as an electronic technician, my chosen trade at a much higher pay. This turned out very well for me as at one stage I was earning 1100R a month on a special project and filled my wallet for the next trip!

Anyway, All these years later, I am having trouble recalling the exact route of my grand trip by train. I had a couple of weeks before starting work and spent the time doing a grand rail tour. I recall there were some 3,000 kms behind steam on this trip, something that just can’t be done now!

On my arrival in Cape Town, I hired a car to photograph trains on the wheat belt beyond Hoew Hoek. The catch was that there was a 250 km daily limit, after which excessive mileage was charged. I got around this by travelling up the dirt road beside the track in reverse. I am sure the loco drivers found it very amusing seeing me chase them backwards!

GEA steam train near bot river south africa
West of Hoew Hoek in July 1975

At this time of year, the lighting was softer, and the scenary quite brown, typical of a wheat growing area.

I think you might agree that this was a very special part of South Africa, perhaps after Natal, the last place with amazing scenary and hand fired garratts. I am left with fond memories, and in my opinion, some great shots of history.

western cape south africa gea steam engine
GEA in spectacular scenery of the Western Cape South Africa



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