ESME’s ‘Adventure Scot’ In South Africa

It was June 1996 when Driver Twakies Barnard and myself were booked to work a train from Voorbaai to Knysna and back.  Our loco today was 19D 2683 which was not the best 19D in the fleet but somehow, I loved her.  She may have sounded like she was falling to bits with her rods knocking and all, but she always steamed well and was a pleasure to work on.

We coupled onto a few wood carrying trucks in Voorbaai yard and after packing the firebox we were on our way to George.  Today was to be one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong.

On arrival at Great Brak River (Groot Brakrivier) we stopped to top up the tender. I opened up the large water valve and the water went pouring in.  All seemed well and good until I went to turn off the water valve and the main spindle on the valve went “pong” and snapped off.  Water was now pouring over the tender and the whole place looked a lake with a railway running thru it.  Lucky further along the pipeline there was another main valve higher up but as this had not been used for years it meant oil, grease and everything were required to get it loose and finally shut off!!

After all that excitement I again packed the firebox and we finally got on our way.  The great climb from Great Brak starts from the minute we leave the station and before long 2683 is barking hard to get this load up this rather steep grade.  On arrival at George we were signalled into the yard where we uncoupled the load and got on with shunting the sidings right away.  After shunting the sidings we headed off down to the shed area and turned the loco before running under the coal stage to refill the bunker.

With Twakies careful driving we had not used up much coal at all, so it was not really required to re-fill the bunker but both of us felt too much is better than too little!  After that it was a quick trip to the water tower and then onto our load for Knysna which consisted of 11 trucks of all shapes and sizes.  Vacuum up and brake test done, pack the firebox and we await the green flag from the shunter.  Once that was done, we were off down the wonderful scenic branch line to Knysna.

The line here starts off running through some wonderful hills and forest but soon comes out on the cliffs above Victoria bay and hugs the cliff edge all the way down to Kaaimans Bridge.  It really was a beautiful scenic railway to work.  As we head slowly through the tunnels around Kaaimans and onto the bridge I, as usual, have my camera out and take a few photos of the train etc heading over Kaaimans.  With the tide well in it sure makes the whole area look beautiful.

Onwards we head into Wilderness where it’s time to shunt off a few trucks for the locals and then again at several other stations/sidings along the way.  As we head down the steep bank towards Goukamma there we see another steam loco with the daily Choo Choo train for Knysna.  That train is already in the loop and awaiting our arrival.  As we get closer, I notice the loco is 19D 2753.  There hanging out the cab is Driver Pomper and his mate.  As we pass a few joking words are exchanged between us all.

From here on it’s a long spiral climb ahead and so its back in with the shovel and time to get this firebox warmed up.  Fire packed up and steam right on the red line it’s time to let the engine start barking once again.  This spiral is one of the best and steepest banks on the whole line and certainly makes the engines work.

I of course always liked to video the engines working hard up this section and with a good driver such as Twakies I knew he would not mind.  Most of the time I take a few video clips and then throw another round of coal on the fire and continue with my photos but today I wanted to be different and get shots from a different angle.  This angle was from the cab roof of the loco.  I packed the fire once again and with my good driver’s permission I climbed up onto the tender and then onto the cab roof.

While I took video Twakies kindly looked after my fire and kept the boiler going.  Looking down through the roof vent and I managed to capture some great shots of him firing from above.  Over the top and heading down the other side of the mountain towards Belvedere when we notice the whole bank along the line is on fire which must have been started by 2753.  Brakes on and blowdown valve open, we reverse up and down a few times and try our best to kill the flames but this fire was stubborn and only after the 3rd attempt did we finally managed to kill those flames.

We were now running late and knew we had loads of shunting to do in Knysna so it was a bit over speed and into the station as quick as possible.  There did not seem to be many trucks around, but this shunting seemed to go on forever.  We must have shunted every siding in the whole area and by the time we finished we were well overdue and passed our departure time.

With our return train made up it was time to turn and service the loco.  We puffed off along the one side of the triangle and as usual I jumped out to switch the points, but something was wrong and that was the points!!  For some reason the switch rail would not go over totally and we both struggled to get it to move.  Hammers, spanners and all were brought out and only after a few hard bangs with a large pole did we finally get that stubborn rail to move.  Now well behind time we raced over to the ashpits and gave the fire a quick clean and finally filled the tender before coupling onto our train.  While I packed the firebox Twakies was out greasing up the motion and inspecting the engine for the road home,

With the engine all ready to go we sit and wait on the shunters and so it’s time to grab a few photos.  It’s been a wonderful sunny day with not a breath of wind and just right for photography.  The smoke from my packed firebox is simply going straight up into the sky and makes for a great photo.  With the lighting so good I arrange with my driver to pick me up at the end of the yard so as to get a clip of the train leaving.

Shunter out and the green flag is waved.  Right away a good long whistle is heard from the engine and almost instantly steam starts hissing from the cylinder cocks as 2683 starts to make her way towards me.  With a few photos taken of her departure I grab all my gear and stand ready to grab the handrail as she passes.Back on board I quickly grab the shovel and give another sprinkle of coal around the firebox just to liven up the fire before heading onto the long bridge over Knysna Lagoon.  Now the sun is just going down I always liked to video the shadow of the engine on the water as we puff over this long bridge.

Onwards up the bank through Belvedere and Keytersnek the engine is working hard but all is going great.  Over the top and it’s a long slow coast down the bank to Goukamma and with time on my hands it’s time to boil up some water and make another cuppa for us both.  The whole journey back seems to be going great and as normal 2683 is steaming wonderful so Twakies and I sit here laughing and having a good bit of banter between us just to pass the time.

As the line is quite level along this area its easy work for the fireman and so as usual I use this time to clean and polish Twakies wonderful shiny kit.  Every tool in his box from his shifting spanner to the oil bottles are all polished to perfection and its always a good thing if the fireman keeps them looking like that. This of course is how many drivers in the old SAR days kept their kit.

As we approach Wilderness the easy gentle grades end and the climbs begin.  I get in with the shovel and start packing the firebox for the long climb ahead through Victoria Bay and onwards to George.  We may only have about 9 trucks or so in tow, but this bank still makes these wonderful 4-8-2s work hard.  As we pass thru Wilderness Twakies pulls the reverser back slightly and gently opens the regulator.  2683 gently starts puffing and starts making her way up the gentle bank towards Kaaimans.  Here at Kaaimans the regulator is eased simply to slow down for the bridge but once across its wide open almost all the way to George.  With all the train over the bridge I get another load of coal into the firebox and set the injector to half and simply control the steam from there.

2683 really is barking now and must sound amazing to anyone in the area.  As we continue up this long steep bank I just keep feeding the fire with about 8 or so shovels at a time and simply keep the fire white and bright.  By the time we pass Victoria bay its well dark and the dynamo is humming away to keep the cab lights and headlight on.  As we head into the forest area everything is just going great and at this rate we will be back in George with a right time arrival.

Onwards up the bank we head and surrounded by trees when there is suddenly a lot of clanking and banging coming from under the engine. It was like something had got caught underneath and was being dragged along the track.  We brought the train to a stand and using the paraffin lamp I went out into this rather dark area to investigate.  On inspection I found the ashpan slide had come out and is now dragging along the middle of the track below the engine.  Hell, it’s now well dark out there and all we had to give us some light was a paraffin lamp!!!  With lamp and shifter in hand I squeezed between the engine and tender and like a snake slid my way along the track under the bogie and finally up to the ashpan.

I was now right under the ashpan hopper and could see the burning red fire above me. I just had to be so careful to steer clear of any hot cinders that decided to drop out.  While I’m under here Twakies is at the side of the engine handing me tools etc and giving me a hand where he can.  Of course, everything here is rusted and solid, so it took quite a while and lots of work to unbolt the slide but thankfully I finally managed to get it loose.  Finally, out from there and back in the open space of the cab.  Working under a steam loco in such cramped condition with only a paraffin flame was no easy task to say the least and I felt like I had fallen off a cliff by the time I got out.  Slide removed and safely back in the cab we make our way onwards to George where we uncoupled the load headed for the steam shed to dispose the engine!!

It was now time to pack away the driver’s kit and get on our way home.  As we would not be taking this engine tomorrow meant that everything of ours must be taken off and put into our kit locker at the depot.  This meant unloading the kit and while handing it all down to Twakies he suddenly noticed something was missing. “WHERE’S MY SPANNER?” were his words!!

Instantly I knew where his spanner was and so did he!! I knew I was in trouble!!  “HELL….it’s down on the track where the slide fell out!’’  He looked at me with a smile “Well, you better get down there and fetch it” were his words.  He stood there looking at me smiling as though he was joking and then said “Go on then, get yourself down that track and get it!!’’  “Are you serious?” I asked, “I cannot walk all that way down the track”.  He replied “don’t be a bloody fool, take the bloody engine and go find the bloody thing”.

At first I thought he was kidding but after a while I realised he was being serious.  On that note he got hold of the shunter and sure enough while he and the shunter sat there having a cuppa I packed the fire and plodded off down the line into the darkness of the forest.  Going down that dark line on a steam loco all alone really was a scary feeling.  Everything was going thru my mind.  What if something happens or something broke on the engine.  It was certainly a worrying experience.

Finally, down in the area where the ashpan fell out I brought the engine to a stand and walked up and down the tracks a few times.  Again it was very scary being out here in a big dark forest with a big steam loco looking down on you and not another person around.  I moved the engine up and down a few times but just could not find this spanner.  With it being polished one would think it would be quite easy to see in the light of the headlight.  After a number of movements up and down the line I found that stupid spanner.  I threw it into the cab and left it on the floor but the way I felt I would rather have thrown it into the firebox!!

A quick round of coal and I released the hand brake and moved the reverser into forward gear I gently open the regulator.  Puff puff puff went 2683 as we made our way back up the line to George.  It felt like I had been out there all night and all just for a stupid spanner.  As I approach the junction at George the shunter comes out and signals me on and then switches the points so I could reverse back into the shed area where I packed the fire and filled the boiler for its night stand.


After a few jokes and laughs with the shunters we finally board the microbus for our road trip back to Voorbaai.  As usual, it had been yet another great day on the railway with another great driver.  It’s amazing how much better a day on the footplate was if you had a good driver who drove the engine correctly and had a good sense of humour!!

Good old days indeed!

Have a look at this old clip I found on YouTube.  Its all SAR steam and a few of my old mates but its from the 70s and one little bit I love is where the fireman is boiling his eggs in the blowdown valve….


Kaaimans Bridge, Cape Venturer 1986

Triple heading 3627-3669-3684

Kaaimans River bridge in 1989

Kaaimans Bridge, 23-09-00

25NC-3501 passes 3411on Rooidam bank in 1991

19D-2683  Pretoriouskloof on 15-08-96

19D-2683 & GMAM-4122 approach Camfer 0n 06-07-1996