The International Steam Pages

Steam at Ixopo and Creighton, South Africa 2014

James Waite writes:

It was wet, foggy and windy as I drove up through the hills towards Ixopo, a small market town at the head of a valley in the Umkomaas River system in KwaZulu Natal. Itís a scenic drive, not that I could appreciate this in the fog, and the journey was chiefly memorable for numerous slow moving timber trucks returning from the Sappi Saiccor wood pulp mill at Umkomaas. All along the road were reminders of the old 2ft gauge Umzinto-Ixopo-Donnybrook line which carried the timber until it closed in 1986, forcing the traffic on to the road. Ixopo has the feel of a hilltop town with views down into the valleys all around. On its outskirts is a Catholic seminary and there are pilgrimage sites close by. The Buddhist retreat house in the centre is well known throughout South Africa and beyond; it was declared a National Heritage Site by Nelson Mandela soon after he became the countryís president. Ixopo was also the home of the author Alan Paton. His book Cry, the Beloved Country, published in 1948, laments the structures of South African society which would soon give rise to apartheid. Much of it is set in the hills and valleys around the town.

A branch ran south from Ixopo, passing through Allwoodburn station, overlooked by the high school where Paton taught, up through eucalyptus groves to Stainton, through Carisbrooke and on through cane fields into the Umzimkulu valley near Madonela. The view from Carisbrooke is described in Patonís book. Much of the track in the district was lifted and found a new home on the Welsh Highland, though happily some remained in situ on the branch. In the late 1990ís a small group headed by Julian Pereira set about reopening what was left as a heritage line now called the Patonís Country Railway; the plan was to provide a focus for small-scale enterprises along the route and to create a measure of prosperity in what had always been an impoverished district; indeed it was to alleviate that poverty that the branch had first been built.

The station building from Eston was erected at Allwoodburn and the first trains ran in November 2000. The line is now home to two Avonside locomotives from the local sugar railways and its star attraction, NGG11 no 55, a member of the countryís first 2ft gauge Garratt class. This had been plinthed at Weenen after withdrawal in 1973. It was given to Ixopo council and restored by the Sandstone team. Sadly only a few tubes were replaced and, ten years later, the others are becoming tired but Julian and fireman Snenhlanhla Mthembu very kindly steamed it for me along with one of the Avonsides. Daytime photography in the fog was hopeless so we waited for dusk, set about illuminating the scene with our car headlights and made good use of the pizza oven which is now a valued feature of the station building.

A new arrival is NGG16 Garratt no 156 dating from 1968, the last-ever Garratt to be built. Julian hopes to have it running by July 2015. Like all the locomotives it will become a woodburner; leftovers from the plantations around Ixopo provide an economical source of fuel as well as being environmentally friendly. Julian and his colleagues have worked hard to reinstate the missing track and the line now offers a 26km round trip. Itís open most Sundays, though not always in poor weather when the view canít be enjoyed. The railwayís contact details are at broken by May 2023).

Julian also now has charge of a 19D class 4-8-2 and a GMAM class Garratt at Creighton station, about 20 minutes' drive north west of Ixopo. The Garratt is a world away in size from no 55. Currently the locos can't move much more than their own length away from their shed without venturing onto the state railway's tracks and incurring access charges. The only regular use of steam there is during the district's annual Aloe festival each July though the local council, which paid for the Garratt's restoration, hopes that this will change before too long. Julian, his friend Barney Barnard and their colleagues fired up the Garratt for us. Photographing such a huge machine after dark aided by the headlights of just one car wasn't easy but the sight and sound of this huge beast in steam was a memorable experience. Once we'd finished our photography Julian's colleagues got a braai going, lit up by the Garratt's headlight. That was a rare treat before, late in the evening, we set off on the long drive to Umkomaas and more delights at the Sappi Saiccor mill the following day.

NGG11 2-6-0+0-6-2 Garratt no 55 (BP 6200/1925) in the loop at Allwoodburn station.  The first NGG11ís were ordered in 1914 along with the first Cape Gauge GA 2-6-0+0-6-2.  On the GA at least excessive flange wear led to all future SAR Garratts being fitted with inside carrying wheels.  On the narrow gauge the NGG12ís, 13ís and 16ís and the sole NGG14 were all 2-6-2+2-6-2ís

0-4-2T no UVE2 (Avonside 2065/1933) at Allwoodburn station.  UVE stands for Umtwalume Valley Estate, owned by Reynolds Brothers, one of the regionís most southerly sugar estates near the coast about 10km south of Sezela, whose sugar factory they also owned.  Its railway was particularly scenic.  No doubt it used to burn bagasse.  Now itís a wood burner but can produce similar effects from its glowing embers at night Ė adding a whole new meaning to the Allwoodburn name!

The nearer locomotive is 0-4-0T Avonside 2038/1929.  Its history is unclear but it was rescued for preservation from Darnall sugar factory to the north of Durban.  Most of KwaZulu Natalís sugar railways were self-contained though the Umzinto-Ixopo-Donnybrook line connected with the Esperanza sugar estateís railway a few miles from Umzinto station Ė so the sight of sugar locomotives close to the SARís 2ft gauge tracks canít have been completely unknown.

NGG16 2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratt no 156 (Hunslet Taylor 3901/1968), the last Garratt to have been built, being restored at Allwoodburn station.

Snenhlanhla Mthembu directs shunting operations.  He has an ambition to become the first African steam locomotive driver on a South African preserved railway.

Barney Barnard at the controls of the GMAM at Creighton.

The GMAM in steam at Creighton.  The 19D in the last photo is 2669 which carries a domeless boiler from one of the first 20 of the class to be built.

Rob Dickinson