Sandstone Heritage Trust - Rail News

RN 165 - A day to remember - by C.A. Janisch

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16th May 2006

On Thursday 27 April 2006 it was dark, chilly and misty as fellow Pretorian Henry Lazenby and myself headed south towards the Free State to witness a special day of steam. The railway maestro himself David Shepherd along with Sandstone were hosting a series of runs with the artist's 15F 3052 "Avril" stationed at Ficksburg. Having never seen steam operate over this section and with future prospects for steam trains here rather bleak this was a chance not to be missed. We broke through the mist near Bethlehem and were soon heading towards Fouriesburg, the rising sun glinting gold off the sandstone cliffs. Around 9am we arrived in the sleepy hollow of Ficksburg, a sharp right turn bringing us into the station. Hearts skipped a beat as we saw 3052 shrouded in steam at the head of her consist. Swinging on board I greeted the intrepid FOTR train crew of Cliff Petzer, Mike Haslam, John Ashworth, John Dadford and Kobus Steyn. All was well on the footplate, the grumbling stoker warming her up and the crew mingling with the diffusing steam as they fussed over the loco.

Keeping watch was the figure of David Shepherd, clad in BR railway outfit and cap, and delighted to be with his engine once more. Cheery greetings were exchanged as various dignitaries arrived, and the sun rising over the shed glinted off the smoke deflectors and silhouetted the smoke blowing from Avril's chimney. A sharp peep on the whistle and Cliff slowly opened her up and reversed backwards onto the main. With billowing exhaust towering into the cobalt blue Free State sky for the first time in years, she pulled her load of 4 coaches and 2 DZs forward and settled under the main columns. Here it was time for a quick top up and fire cleaning and a little greasing. This completed the train ran into the old station, where 3052 uncoupled and ran around the train. During this move she issued a long whistle at the western level crossing. The most incredible melodious double-echo resounded off the towering cliffs surrounding the station and filled the entire basin. Shortly after 10am she was off tender first, and thick coal smoke rose once more above the little town. We followed her as she found her feet and clattered upgrade towards Vailima, taking shots along the way. All went well and the train descended into Kommandonek, a little halt at the foot of the Witteberg. Here it was decided to detach the dirty yellow DZs as they were hampering the braking power, leaving the brown-red painted mainline coaches in the consist. One coach was a sitter modified with a catering area, the other a 1st class coach, and the other 2 coaches were blanked off.

Tall trees and the mountains dominate this halt, which still has a corrugated shed at the little platform. Smoke towered over the vista as the shunting was completed and the loco ran round to return the train to Ficksburg. David now joined the footplate crew for the return trip. Interestingly enough the Spoornet pilot provided was an old steam driver on this section and he had the time of his life assisting on the engine. We set off to find a photo-spot up the line, which was difficult due to overgrowth of weeds and grass. A lung-searing hike through muddy blackjack-infested fields was rewarded with a nice shot of the train climbing out of the valley, and by the time we returned to the car our clothes had more blackjacks than cotton!

A quick pull on the water bottle and the dose was repeated further down the line, the train crossing a little bridge on a curve. Enough energy had been expended and it was now time to put the feet up. For the next trip we boarded the sitting coach and had Avril's smoke box right next to us as she thundered out of town. David stood at the end of the coach entranced by the sight and sound of his loco pulling hard. In the coach with us were a group of ex-drivers and with beers flowing they regaled us with tales of steam days gone by on this line. Priceless stuff, which should have been recorded on tape and made for fascinating listening.

All too soon we were drifting down to Kommandonek, where the loco ran round again. We waited on the little halt; the midday sun casting warm shadows over the shelter and tracks. A weird eerie feeling came over me as I stood in this desolate spot. Perhaps the ghosts of Anglo-Boer War dead still roam this place, and I for one would not like to be here alone on a dark windswept night!
A few carloads of photographers recorded the departure and I headed for the deserted compartment coach. It is 20 years since I last lay on a bunk and listened to a steam loco attacking the grades up front, and with the windows wide open I took in the smell and sound of a never to be forgotten railway era. There is some beautiful scenery on this line and I took this in along with a healthy dose of eye-soot!

And so it was back to Ficksburg where 3052 uncoupled and turned on the triangle. Here Wilf Mole and Dave Richardson treated us to a tasty lunch on the station platform. I sat down under the palm trees and savoured the atmosphere-the stillness of a country town with the distant puffing of a steam locomotive.

After this I went down to the column to record the tender top-up, which took a while as 3052 has a long 23 class tender. Around 2.30 pm she backed onto the train and it was photo time. David posed in front of his loco while holding his painting of her running through Germiston's mine dumps. When all had had their fill of pics, the loco was warmed up again and whistled out of town for the last time. We headed for Sekonyela where smoke had been arranged for the classic shot with the outcrop of Soutkop in the background. What a sight she made whistling and tearing through the station! We then got a good sequence from the road bridge near Vailima, smoke hanging in the air all the way back to Sekonyela.There was time for one more shot in a cutting before arrival at Kommandonek. Warm late afternoon light bathed the vista as 3052 did her final run-around. A spectacular tender-first glint shot was provided as she pulled hard out of the nek, and our final view was of her drifting down from Vailima with that famous outcrop in the background.

It had been a wonderful never to be repeated day out with steam in the most beautiful settings. What a pity this line was never developed for tourism, in fact it barely survives with 3 trains a week now. Even if I never see steam again on this line I will treasure the memories I made on this day. On our way home we stopped off at Bethlehem shed to see the condemned locos. Cutting is apparently only months away. A sorrier collection of hulks one would not find, their wheels set in khakibos. Pioneer NC 3401 still with a blue Springbok board on her tender-should this loco not have been saved as the class-leader?

Except for the locos there is nothing in this shed to remind one that steam had once been here, the coal stage and even the columns are gone. In the shed stands 3496 in an aborted stage of conversion to oil firing, her stoker lying alongside. There was obviously great hope at one stage for a steam revival here, a dream condemned to the scrapper's heap along with the locos. I know that I will not want to return to this place again.

After a long drive home we arrived back in Pretoria at 9pm, tired but satisfied in the knowledge of a day well spent.

C.A. Janisch

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