The International Steam Pages
Steam in Botswana September 2001
Trevor Staats pays another visit to Selebi-Phikwe....
Every now and then comes a weekend when it seems like there is nothing to do. Luckily for us, Selebi Phikwe is a short drive away, situated just right to relieve those boring weekends. So on a Friday night over a couple of beers, Trainman, Graham McWilliams and myself were discussing the only working steam in Botswana, and how we didn't really have anything on for the Saturday and Sunday, and how nice it would be to go there again, and it's only 5 hours away...
Next thing we knew, it was 6:00am on Saturday morning and the sun was rising over Potgietersrus as my trusty Toyota headed for Botswana once more, loaded with cameras, gricers and Savannas. Arrival at the border was just on opening, and a huge line of trucks was waiting to get through. The border was in a bit of chaos as they are busy building new customs/immigration offices and vehicle inspection areas.
So into the fray we went, clutching passports, car licences and pens to try and get through. After lining up with 237 truck drivers, we got our pass stamped, then a quick trip through immigration for another stamp and we were ready. Back into the car only to be stopped at the gate:
"Anything to declare?"
"Um, no, nothing except what a lovely day it is..."
"We want to search your car..."
"Okay, search away."
Opens boot... Sees tripods and camera bags. "What is all of this?! Where is the declaration???"
So off we go back to the customs office. The chap there rolls his eyes and tells us that there is no need to declare personal camera equipment. Back to the car at the gate.
"Where is your declaration?"
"The other guy said we don't need one"
"You need a declaration - where is your declaration?"
More exercise as we traipse back to customs, this time with a note from our friendly gate man explaining what we need. So finally the form is given, we fill it out and get the all-important stamp. Back into the car, 3rd time lucky.
"Where is your declaration?"
"Okay, go through.", without a glance at the paper!
Things were a bit congested on the Botswana side it seemed, and the one-lane bridge blocked by trucks coming into SA, with a line of cars and trucks waiting to go into Botswana. Eventually the snarl was cleared enough for us to cross the bridge, weaving in between trucks on the other side to get past. Then once again into the throng of people in the tiny border post, all trying to get the attention of the staff for stamps, payment of insurance, gate passes, filling out of books etc. Finally we were through that, only to be blocked into the car park area by the long line of vehicles waiting to get in. They are busy rebuilding on that side as well so the vehicle lanes weren't all open.
At last we were on the road again, more than an hour spent at the border. The remainder of the drive was quite enjoyable, with only occasional hitch of a roadblock holding us up, we had to protect our breakfast goodies from the inspectors there! I think they had other plans for our bacon and eggs.
Arrival at Selebi Phikwe mine was at around 11h00 and we set about checking in with security. We stopped by and had a chat with the mine MD and some of the other people there. One of the accounting guys there is a keen wildlife photographer and the hallways in the admin building are lines with his work - very impressive. We had actually warned the mine in advance of our arrival so they knew we would be there and also arranged our accommodation through the mine, so we waited for someone to direct us to the place where we would be staying.
There was little happening on the train front at that point, there is usually a lull at around midday, so we went to our house and sat under the big rubber tree in the front yard, relaxing and enjoying a cold Savanna. Yup, that's the life!
A little later we returned to the loco shed for a look around. Unfortunately I had left my spare film at the house so I went to retrieve it. On reaching the mine gate, the security guard came to speak to me and asked what I was doing. I told him that I'd be back in 10 minutes, but he told me to wait because he had to get his "ball bag". As you can imagine I was quite puzzled (not to mention a little uneasy!). He strolled back to his guard booth and came back with a calico bag. He told me to reach inside and select one of his balls. I did as asked and pulled a yellow rubber ball out of the bag. He said "Okay, you can go. Red ball means search, yellow ball means you can go. International rules." Okay, I thought, I'll play along with those rules! An interesting method of determining who is searched and who is not!
LO901 0-6-0 Diesel 28 tonne loco, working Phikwe #3 shaft ? 0-4-0 Diesel Funkey, owned by BPC Standing at shed - not operational.
So it was an all-Dolly operation. We learned that LO806 would be going to Selebi North to load, and LO805 would be doing the stores train. The stores loco left first, so we followed it around to the smelter, where it picked up a solitary wagon and made for a magnificent shot as it passed the smelter (see February's picture in 2002 - The Essence of Steam Calendar for a Garratt in the same area). Another shot out the back gate of the mine (how do you get that huge smelter chimney nicely into the shot?!), then we took up position on the power station spur to shoot the train as it left.
As the loco reversed past, the fireman got off and came over to us. It seemed that the crew had taken the wrong key for the power station gate along with the wrong safeworking token, and the crew for the Selebi North loco had the wrong one as well. So we dashed off to the loco shed to swap them over, luckily the train for Selebi North had not departed yet, so we were able to get the correct keys to the correct locos!
After a bit of shunting, the Dolly departed the power station siding with a long rake of empties and headed out towards the exchange yards, with beatiful afternoon light shining on the loco as she laboured past.
Back into the car and away to Selebi North, where the train was still loading. Just as the loco whistled her departure, a number of donkeys appeared out of the bush and stood on the line. Most of them then walked away but one stood defiantly on the tracks facing the loco. Having demonstrated his bravery, Mr. Donkey then stepped aside for the train to pass. A weak glint as the loco passed, then we were away to try and get another shot before the sun set. After a bit of pacing we headed to the main road crossing for a dead side on which was great, as the loco really moves along that stretch.
Then back to the house the freshen up, and a lovely dinner at the local Spur which of course involved the usual draught beer, the name of which we could not quite grasp from our waitress. Sounded like Simdlos or Sindless or something. It was only on the way out that we spotted the promotional flyer for "St. Louis" that we realised the proper name! We had hoped for a cab ride after dinner (better than dessert!) but on arrival at the shed we found that they'd run their last train already, not at 9:00pm as planned. Oh well, a good excuse for an early night.
Early on Sunday, LO806 was in steam, whilst LO805 was sitting under the column with her fire dropped. The night crew were just coming off duty. One of our requests to the mine management some time before our trip was to turn a locomotive for the Sunday morning trains. When the morning crew signed on,we took a ride with them to the BPC triangle (on the old power station spur) to turn the loco. There is a second triangle in the smelter area but it is usually buried in dust and dirt from the many trucks using the area. Got some interesting shots of the mine complex, especially by standing in the tender and shooting over the loco roof and boiler with the video camera as we rode through the complex.
Back at the shed it was time for loco requirements, so they took water and cleaned fire with Trainman getting involved in the hard work. We noted that the smokebox front had burned through presumably from the char accumulation. The crew saw us looking at this and decided to clean it out. Quite a bit of ash and char was removed in the process! The locos were quite clean but we asked the fireman to hose the loco down with the hose pipe for that extra shine.
While the crew prepared for departure, we headed for our footbridge shot which we had reconnoitred a year previously but didn't get. The shot is quite nice, with the smelter, mine works and dumps in the background, and an upgrade for the loco. Normally this is a tender first working but we hoped that the "right way" working would make the shot. It did. The 19D was working hard and making good smoke as she slogged out of the mine complex and up towards us. The low speed made for plenty of time for shots to be taken. The weather was a bit grey, but the shot was brilliant.
After a leisurely drive through town, we caught up with LO806 along the airport road and took a few pacing shots, and then set up on the Selebi Nth. junction for a shot on the curve. We then waited at the shaft for the train to load.
Whilst we waited, Graham undertook a scientific study into the calorific value and volatility of certain semi natural fuels in the area. Dried, processed and compressed grass nuggets a-la donkey were set alight, and we were surprised by the heat of the fuel. The smoke left something to be desired, especially when the entire car became fumigated with the stuff. 3 weeks later you could still smell it! But then it was a company car that has since been repossessed by the liquidator, who is probably wondering what the stink is!!!
A reasonable tender-first departure, with the crew yelling and waving at us, as the well-smouldering pile of donkey-doo near the car made it appear that the car was burning. They looked a bit perplexed as we laughed and shook our heads. The crew seemed amazed at our flippant attitude towards our burning means of transport...
While they off-loaded we returned to the house for a bacon & egg brekky which was most appreciated, then packed up and found another spot near the mine area. A pleasant curve with a nice tree beside the line was chosen, but a couple of small shrubs needed removal first. Shrubs?!?! They were the most vicious plants I've come across! We tried to bend/break/kill/murder/savage them but to no avail. We finally used concrete blocks to smash the branches off so that I could cut them with my Leatherman saw before knocking them over. After much blood and sweat (and torn clothing!) the spot was cleared enough.
Was the shot worth it? I don't know, my film isn't processed yet, but the video was okay. Next time we'll have a chain saw with us... A few more pacing shots on the Selebi line, then a final shot of the loco approaching the airport road crossing. We said cheers to the crew at Selebi Shaft and gave them a video of what we took last year which they were pretty pleased with.
Then the drive home, nice and easy, 15 minutes in total to get through the border, and back home at a reasonable hour with the smell of cremated donkey droppings ever-present to remind us of Selebi Phikwe...