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.

Steam Trains In South Africa – The Garden Route

The rail line stretching from Worcester in the Western Cape of South Africa Eastwards to George and Montegu Pass traverses one of the most famous and scenic sections of South Africa. Back in 1975 when I travelled the route it was electric from Cape Town to Worcester and then steam trains from there to Oudtshoorn and onwards towards Port Elizabeth.

GMa Steam trains near Wrocester Western Cape South Africa

This GMAM Takes Advantage of Afternoon Lighting in This Classic Photo near Worcester.

After trolling through my photos of the area, I realise I need to split this story into several parts, simply to do the photography justice. This really is a beautiful part of the world, with long sweeping coastlines, rugged escarpments and spectacular desert country.

Coming from Johannesburg to Capetown via the main line, you reach Worcester after travelling through the Hex River Pass. This line has been electrified since 1961. At the time I was there, the section from De Aar to Beaufort West was diesel, so on the mainline, most of the crossing of the Karoo was by diesel.

The Garden Route Railway Line extends from Worcester through Riversdale and Voorbaai with an extension to Mossel Bay, To George. This is the section that is the subject of this pictorial story. I managed to ride behind steam trains over the garden route in late 1975 after my return from Mozambique. It was a memorable journey. I managed to clock up some 3,000 kms, mostly travelling behind steam. At that time there were very few places in the world where this was possible. The long, continuous steam ride began at Worcester.

The World Of The GMAM Steam Trains

Motive power between Worcester and Oudtshoorn at that time was in the form of GMAM Garrats. Lacking water capacity, they always came with a water wagon attached. These were the most modern of the South African Garratts, with the exception of the 2′ gauge NGG 16, used on the Donnybrook Umzinto line in Natal. The last of the NGG 16 was built in 1968, and the last GMAM entered service in 1958.

GMAM Hauls A Freight On The Worcester George Line In Early Morning Light

As can be seen from the above shot, this is a spectacular stretch of line, offering superb lighting, seaside photography and spectacular mountain backdrops.

I was travelling at the time with Kerry James from New Zealand. I met Kerry on my first overseas trip to New Zealand. He was fireman on the Kingston Flyer steam trains, which at that time had just been restarted. This train still operates today.

The Kingston Flyer In 1972 With Kerry James As Fireman

My other compatriot was Mike Grainger from Yorkshire, England who I was to share my Mozambique adventure with. We covered a lot of ground in the 5 weeks we were on the road.

A special spot on the trip was the Gourits River bridge. It is 75 meters high. This is one of the more impressive Railway Bridges in South Africa. We were lucky to be there when it still had steam trains crossing.

GMAM Crosses the Gourits River Bridge Heading East

East From Riversdale

A major town on the route is Riversdale. It is located in a valley and was one of the watering points on the Garden Route. After leaving the town, the line has a sharp curve and in the early morning air, the stillness could leave a steam trail exactly following the path of the steam trains.

A Perfect Steam Trail From An Early Morning Departure From Riversdale

It really was worth getting up in that crisp autumn air for some spectacular lighting. Here the whole side of the Garratt reflects the golden light of the morning sun.

Early Morning Glint Near Riversdale

The Line Hugs The Coastline

From here the scenery changes around Vorbaai, where a branch splits off to Mossel Bay. I spotted a great signpost pointing to the loco depot. I included it here for interest.

The passenger train takes a detour here, snaking along the waterfront with spectacular views. I managed to get a shot looking across the water.

The Passenger Heading Back From Mossel Bay To Vorbaai Pushing The Water Tank

From here to George, the line follows the coastline, and the road travels high on the cliffs. This provided many great photo opportunities for shots with the surf and steam, a great combination most Railfans would love to see and photograph.

Spectacular Would Be The Best Way To Describe This Scene With Vision All The Way To Mossel Bay

As you can see, the beaches of South Africa are beautiful white sand surfing venues. These are some of the most popular surfing beaches around, including Herolds Bay and Victoria Bay. It is worth a visit to South Africa just to see this area.

Montegu Pass

At George, the main line heads north away from the coast, crossing the escarpment. We spent 3 days camped on Montague pass, keeping the baboons away from our food supply was a challenge. There are no roads here, so all of the photos of steam trains were taken by tramping large distances up and down the pass.

A Taste Of The Splendour Of Montagu Pass

George Knysna

The other line from George heads East to Knysna past some other great surfing spots. This line was operated as a tourist line for many years, and there are many photos of steam trains taken I the area. I selected a couple of nice ones from our visit back in 1975, when there was a regular mixed hauled by a 24 class.

24 Class On The Knysna Mixed In Early Morning Light Hugs The Coastline

I know the loco seems insignificant against the magnificence of the area. At dusk that night I recorded a perfect reflection as the train sped on the final sprint into Knysna.

24 Class 3663 Heads Into The Sunset On The George Knysna Mixed

Watch out for some more articles on Montagu Pass, and Oudtshoorn to Kilplaat, two other great stretches of railway line in the days when steam trains ruled.

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

Moved On At The Point Of A Gun – Waterpoort South Africa

We should have learned after our adventures in Mozambique, but Mike and I thought South Africa was OK to travel around in. All, Apartheid was in full swing and the Africans were not really stirring too much at that stage.

One area not visited too much was northern Transvaal. There was no steam as far as Pietersberg, but definitely a few trains north of there. The line passed through a magnificent gorge called Waterpoort. In any case this section of line on the way to Tzaneen, a place we found out was one of the best spots in South Africa for both scenery and steam.

Figure 1 A 15F Passes Through The Waterpoort Gorge

Now being a gorge in a remote area presented a few problems for us. Like, how could we get into the place and gain access to the railway line. We drove to the north of Waterpoort and found a dirt road that led back into the gorge. Then we set up camp.

Our method of attack was simple. Start walking down the line until we found a great spot for photography and then wait. Well we managed to get two pictures in a couple of days, plus one high up from the road.

Figure 2 The Passenger From Pietersberg In The Gorge

Down in the valley there were some ponds, or stagnant pools of water. Now we had been warned to stay away from these, and we did so, even though it was very hot and humid. We noticed some of the native workers were camped around one of the ponds and happily washing their clothes in the water, swimming in it, and using it for drinking.

Stay Out Of Stagnant Ponds In Africa

The issue was Bilharzia, a nasty bug that once it gets into your system, usually contracted by touching contaminated water, it starts eating away slowly at your internal organs. I don’t think there were any cures at the time either, making it even more important not to get infected.

Figure 3 A 15F On A Freight In Waterpoort Gorge

Anyway, we managed to take a couple of photos and headed back to camp. Not long after a jeep appeared. As it neared the camp we noticed a rather large man touting a shotgun! He was really agitated and had us in his sights. What were we doing on his land.

Flushed Out At The Point Of A Gun

We explained we were taking pictures of trains in the gorge and he looked at us even stranger. I could have shot you two as poachers, he said. Anyway, we were escorted off the property. Along the way we asked about the natives in the pond. Yes, he said, they all have bilharzia!

Mighty Tzaneen

From here we went on to spend a few days at Tzaneen. We got some incredible pictures as you can see from those in this story.

Figure 4 Double 15Fs On The Tzaneen Line

It was always a dilemma when venturing onto farm land. Often gates were not locked and the roads were built to serve several properties, so they were more or less public. You could take the risk, or Ask permission. If you asked permission someone might say no, and then you were really in trouble if you went in anyway. That is why we usually didn’t ask first!

Figure 5 A 19D Leads A 15F Climbing A Bank

While on the subject of farmers with shotguns, there was another incident in Rhodesia where we camped quite near the Victoria Falls railway line. At the time there were constant incursions by Dr Robert Magabe’s Guerrilla fighters, who were stealing property and causing general mayhem.

On this occasion the farmer was much friendlier when he found us. He was initially suspicious it might have been a terrorist raid. When he saw we were white, he realised we presented no threat. Then he told us of the raids, and explained if the terrorists didn’t get us, in that area we might be eaten by a lion or leopard, or squished by an elephant while we were asleep! We did notice elephant footprints near or tent on one occasion in this area, so we suspect he was genuine in his concerns.

Figure 6 15F On The Tzaneen Passenger

As it turns out, one night I did see a leopard run across the road in front of the car, and there was a report of an Elephant stomping on a mini minor and destroying it! There were certain parts of the country where even then you had to travel with an armed escort because of the danger. Fortunately for us, the rest of our visit went without incident.

Steam In The World’s Most Volatile Country – Syria!



By Robert Kingsford-Smith

Figure 1 Steam Train Set To depart Damascus Syria 1976 – Robert Kingsford Smith


In January 1976 two Aussie rail fans parked their car outside the main railway station in Syria’s capital, Damascus, and walked through the main hall onto the platforms. They had planned only to gather information about when the trains ran and, suspecting that photography might be frowned upon, had hidden their cameras. The sight of a loco sizzling in front of the station’s magnificent façade, however, made their shutter fingers itch. They realised they would have to risk drawing attention to themselves by asking permission to take photographs.


Their caution was not misplaced. Three years previously, shortly after Syria’s most recent war with Israel, another couple of Australians had travelled through by train and had been warned against photography in no uncertain terms.


Fortunately, by 1976, the situation had eased. The two hopeful photographers entered the station master’s office and asked if anyone spoke English. Negative incomprehension was the reply. Remembering both his history and some fragments of school-boy French one then asked “parlez vous francais?” This time there were smiles all round, the station master asked how he could help. Permission to photograph was requested and readily granted although a further request to have this permission in writing was politely refused. So they had the freedom to use their cameras around the station, elsewhere they would have to take their chances.


The accompanying photo is one result of these negotiations. The loco, 2-6-0T No. 130.755, was built by SLM in Switzerland to the unusual gauge of 1050mm and is about to depart for Sergayah on the Lebanese border. The station was the Damascus terminus of the Hedjaz Railway built by the Ottoman Empire to carry pilgrims to Mecca. The line ceased to serve Mecca after Lawrence of Arabia famously attacked it in what is now Saudi Arabia.

The next instalment tells of our heroes passing an invasion force on the way to spectacular shot of this train on the way to Lebanon!

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