The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - Steam in South Africa Part 1
Bloemfontein and De Aar

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

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In January 1977 I had the opportunity of a brief stopover in South Africa. Being summer I knew that photo opportunities were limited so opted to travel by train. At the time I did not think would have another chance as air travel was expensive and my holidays were restricted. It turned out to be an interesting experience. This is a travelogue, not a history, if you want see excellent photos visit Charlie Lewis and friends’ site, “Soul of a Railway” -  Charlie was a professional rail worker, his father was also a rail enthusiast. Charlie takes a critical view of management and Apartheid policies and how they affected the rail system. 

15F 2931 approaches Bloemfontein, before continuing to Thabu Nachu, 12th January 1977.

My first train ride was the 07.45 Bloemfontein to Ladybrand passenger. 15Fs operated local passenger trains to take Black workers to and from Bloemfontein. Blacks were expected to live outside the city in places like Thabu Nachu. Boarding the train I had my first direct encounter with Apartheid as I was asked to leave the front carriage, whilst it had 1st class accommodation it was for non-Whites. Accommodation for Whites was towards the rear; away from the dirty locomotive. 

15F 3031 had been spruced up with a white smokebox and blue deflectors. Departing Sannaspos, 13th January 1977.

After 3031 departed I wandered over to the village store in search of sun tan lotion, they did not stock that but did have skin whitener products, silly me!

Local freights had 15Fs as power, through workings to Bethlehem were worked by 25NCs. A 15F on a local freight from Bloemfontein drifted in and was held by signals. The restart was to a series of loud barks. 
The Aliwal North trains took centre stage in the late morning, 19D 2963 appeared off the branch to be joined by 2628 with the train from Bloemfontein to to Aliwal North. Both locomotives did some shunting before making simultaneous departures.

I walked to the top of the grade for a train to Bloemfontein. A break in traffic was broken by urgent whistling as a 25NC train rushed a freight up grade, the 25NC piling on the coal as it rushed a freight uphill. Once the freight cleared the section, it was followed by a 19D which had come in from Aliwal North. 2539 was heavily fired, smoke poured from the chimney as it got its ballast working up the steep grade. This was a bonus working.

Amidst thunder and lightning, 3031 returned from Ladybrand - the passenger stock had been turned so accommodation for Whites remained at the rear. The locomotive was worked hard up the gradients with a good strong exhaust. For a steam starved fan this was a good start.

3445 “Durban” leading 3443 depart De Brug for Kimberley, 25th August 1984

3438 and 3489 head for Kloofeind on a freight to Bloemfontein, 25th August 1984

During 1984 I had a more extended tour of South Africa using a hire cars in parts. Steam was still active on the lines to Kimberley. After a night spent sleeping in the car lineside I found a freight at De Brug at 6.30 am. The NCs being serviced .The crews still had tarps over the cabs and some spilt water had frozen, no wonder I was cold during the night!

6.50am, now that’s what I thought a winter morning should be like, both locomotives powered out of the station, a long plume of steam and smoke stretching back, lit by a brilliant winter sun.

The train was held at Immigrant for a double cross with another steam freight and a troop train. South Africa was fighting undeclared wars on several fronts, many young men were conscripted. In 1977 I had also seen troop trains. The Whites I talked to were blasé about any threat to their way of life, whereas in 1984 the security situation was now more worrying. There was also a labour shortage, perhaps caused by the need for more troops. Observations on the line to De Aar saw Black firemen on some locomotives, something I did not see in 1977. Charlie is critical of the failure to bring the ”Other Colours” into important positions, leaving the country with a skills shortage in the 1980s.

Graspan with its station gardens and trees provided shelter from the warm the sun and the strong winds blowing through the Karoo, 24th August 1984

In 1977 I rode the Kimberley to De Aar passenger behind Condenser 3500, of course there was no stack talk! I spent the afternoon at ORANJERIVIER where locomotives were serviced. I saw 16 freights in the period to 17.40, 5 were double headers, 2 were diesel hauled. Despite it being hot most locomotives were emitting smoke, the crews had auto stokers on as they got stuck into the grades on either side of the station.

At 17.30 a Converted NC arrived on a passenger from Kimberley, this was the “Rhodesia Mail” which would pause for water before running to D.A. and then on to Cape Town. A South African told me this train was “the chicken run”; because Rhodesians were running away from the fighting in their own country. Even the mighty Republic eventually succumbed to radical change in the years ahead. 

3500 on its return working, 14th January 1977.

At 17.40 3500 returned on a freight to Kimberley, it joined “Kimberley Queen” at the head of the yard. I think the crews were working out and back, if so most were doing 12 hour shifts.
“Kimberley Queen” was the first to get the road, it slipped a bit on departing and again when well under way sending up columns of black smoke as I took some super 8 film. 
At 18.50 with its turbine whining 3500 made a smoky departure, again filmed on super 8.

Retiring to the station lawns I listened to yet another NC depart for De Aar, its exhaust could be heard in the still night air for a considerable time.

In 1984 I spent time near Modder River chasing double headed freights De Aar bound as they accelerated to 80kmph, which they easily maintained. 

Late afternoon and 24 class, 3654 “Ansa” provided a bit of variety, it had arrived at Modder River on the branch freight from Douglas, 24th August 1984

I arrived at Witput as the double headed coal train I had been chasing slowly entered the loop, the shadows were lengthening. Another NC Kimberley bound was being held, the signals are pulled off for the parcels/freight. It rushed past whistle blowing for the crossing; and roars past. I stayed at the lineside hotel which offered all a train fan could want, excellent food, plenty to drink and rooms with a view! 
The other lineside hotel at Kraankuil offered similar pleasures. On a summers day I walked up the grade to photograph The Orange Express as it topped the grade, the 25NC at speed roaring past on a long train, what a sight!

In 1977 De Aar still had sizeable allocation and a few Condensers remained in use, although in two days lineside I only saw one in use each day. The super shine pilots at De Aar were well known, that was the drawcard for a shed visit. 

De Aar, 14R 1911 on pilot duties, 15th January 1977.

The coal stage pilot was a gem, 12A, 1547 "Stephanie", it was silvered and polished for its menial work as coal stage pilot. It is seen gingerly descending back to terra firma, 15th January 1977.

The pilots lived up to expectations being in superb condition and decorated. They were operated usual frantic pace I associated with SAR. Shunting moves seemed hard on the hapless shunters and the carriages which swayed as they hit the points at speed.

A 25NC separated from its tender gives a view of the cab.

Rob Dickinson