This Train Trip Was Like A Spy Story

Arrested As A Suspected CIA Operative While Photographing Steam Trains

It is a story that needs to be told. Back in 1975, I was living and working in South Africa. One of my friends had just returned from a steam trip to Angola and Mozambique and was raving about these last Colonial relics of Portuguese rule and the steam action to be found there.

To be fair, we were told of gunfire from the various groups fighting it out in Nova Lisboa on the famous Benguela railway in Angola. The situation had deteriorated to the point we were refused visas due to personal safety concerns. We missed out by a week, but lived to tell the tale. The place completely disintegrated into war soon after, and much of the railway line destroyed.

Mozambique was a different kettle of fish. First, there was only one main guerrilla group. After a protracted fight which destroyed much of the infrastructure and forced droves of people to flee the country, the Portuguese had enough and decided to pull out and hand over to the FRELIMO, or freedom fighters, a marxist regime led by Samora Michelle.

Having obtained precious visas for a week long stay, we headed off into the unknown via Swaziland and the Valley Of A Thousand Horseshoes.


700 Class Climbing The Valley Of 1000 Horseshoes

As you can see the iron ore railway in Swaziland was spectacular to say the least. It was the home of the white Rhino, and a few rail fans had close encounters with these monsters. Then in summer, there were the Black Mamba and Boomslang snakes, some of the deadliest on the continent. Natives were friendly on the other hand and we camped in the valley to the sounds of the 700s puffing away.

After this short camp, we loaded up the Peugot 404 and headed east to Laurenco Marques (Maputo), the capital of Mocambique. We were well prepared. the official rate of exchange was 35 Escudos to the SA Rand. People at the time were desperate to get their money out of the country, so there was a thriving currency black market. We headed to an Indian owned shop where we knew we would be safe and obtained a wad of local cash at 65 to the Rand. Our money instantly doubled in buying power.

While walking down the street, a bus passed by. This would have bee innocuous but for the appearance of the legendary Dusty A. E. Durrant in the window. Dusty yelled out a few tips to us as he passed by. He was a drinking mate back in Sydney and a big part of my reason for heading overseas.

We visited the Portuguese home office and extended our visas for another month and were ready to go when on a morning photo shoot, we were nabbed by soldiers and detained for a day. In the end, we were interviewed by the Minister For Security and Told we could go on our way providing we didn’t take pictures of trains. Naturally we ignored the latter.

The rest is history and forms the material for my book, “The Holy Grail of Steam” the quest to photograph the world’s last remaining Atlantics in regular service. A side benefit were the Henschel passenger Garratts of the Beira area.


We tramped through some vines which felt like poison ivy to get this shot and itched for ages afterwards.

We did eventually get shot of the Atlantics as you can see in the video below.


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