Of steam trains, holidays and a bygone era

The Jessica, one of the grand old ladies of the steam age, that serviced the Karoo and the Northen Cape in days gone by.


When Somerset West resident Les Hurwitz called me about the photograph of the Jessica on Bolander’s July 4 front page, I had no idea that call would lead me to the most delightful story of an age long-gone, but rich in history, a time when life was more measured, and moved at a manageable pace.

The Jessica is a 1932 Class 19D No332, once familiar, now largely forgotten, steam locomotive manufactured in 1948 in the United Kingdom.

Now owned and operated by the Ceres Rail Company, Les recognised it instantly from his childhood days, when he travelled on steam trains drawn – who knows, possibly by the same Jessica – between Monument Station in Cape Town and remote Karoo towns and sidings during the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and on up to the 1970s.

Les takes up the story. “My parents lived in Paarl, and I was at boarding school in Cape Town from 1953 to 1958. Many children from the Karoo attended boarding schools like SACS, Rondebosch Boys’ and Wynberg Boys’ in Cape Town, Bloemhof and Paul Roos in Stellenbosch, and Paarl Gym in Paarl.

On many holidays, I was invited home by friends and we travelled on those trains on the Karoo line. Real Puffing Billies, with four or five passenger coaches and sometimes a goods van.”

All finely tuned, these steam powered coal burners would transport boarding school boys and girls from Cape Town schools back home to their remote Karoo and northern Cape towns and farms for the school holidays, stopping at sidings like Cocopan, Wallekraal, Doringlaagte, Stirling, Peerboom, Bakensklip, Langkuil, Blousyfer, Swawel, Kootjeskolk, along the way, where parents would collect their children.

“When the train arrived at a siding to drop off children, the parents would be waiting. In those days, the trains were always on time,” Les says.

All along the Hantam-Karoo escarpment, past the Pramberge and Hantamberg, passing through Karoo poorts and ravines like Pampoenpoort, then along the flat plateaus like Biesieslaagte, and crossing many non-flowing rivers.

Usually these Class 7 – No 487 coal-burners would draw four passenger carriages, and at times an additional bogie or two for livestock.

On the Williston – Sakrivier line the Class 24 – No 368 was used, and there was a one-of-a-kind steam-powered heavyweight giant, aptly named “Die Blou Gevaar.”

Hostile in appearance, it roared over the Karoo plains, full throttle, belching steam and smoke as it made its way to Williston, drawing livestock, farm produce, machinery and anything else that needed heavy hauling.

Highly-skilled railway men, drivers and boiler stokers manned these Karoo workhorses. The Cape Town Caroline Class 7 and 8 would usually top up with water and coal at Touws River, Beaufort West and Hutchinson.

“An alternative school train, as we used to call it in the 1950s, was the Cape Town to Bitterfontein or Klawer via Maurib railway line,” says Les.

“Most of the boarding school pupils from Calvinia, Hantam, Loeriesfrontein, Nieuwoudtville and Agterveld would get off at Klawer and then make their way on a South African Railways bus to Calvinia station over Vanrhyns Pass.

“This journey was shorter they say. Passengers made their way to the Williston areas by connecting with the Hutchison/Calvinia train.”

The Conroy Karoo, or Bo-Karoo line, also a popular school train, left Monument Station to De Aar and Prieska, filled with boarding school boys and girls from prominent Cape Town schools like Jan van Riebeeck, SACS, Paarl Boys’, Rondebosch, Bishops, Wynberg, Rustenburg Girls’ High, Good Hope Seminary, Paarl Girls’ High and La Rochelle.

“Memorable journeys were made home and then back to school again,” Les says with a wistful smile.

And perhaps the most beguiling steam train story Les tells is of the commercial travellers of that time, who plied their trade in the Karoo and the Northern Cape.

“Their journey took them from De Aar station to Cape Town for the weekend.

“It went like this, the reps would drive their station wagons laden with suitcases filled with samples of clothing, shoes, Manchester and other goods to remote Bushmanland and Northern Cape towns and hamlets and call on shopkeepers and general dealer stores,” Les says.

“This was a two-week journey and weekends became too boring to stay over in a remote Karoo hotel.

“Four of them worked out that they should make their way to the De Aar Hotel, leave their cars, then walk over to De Aar station and catch the Trans Karoo Johannesburg to Cape Town passenger train, which steamed in to De Aar just before midnight on a Thursday.”

“Once settled in a compartment, out came the pack of cards and bottle of whisky, and they would play poker or Klaberjass through the night until the train steamed into Cape Town station on Friday afternoon where their wives would collect them.

“They would spend the weekend with their families and on Sunday afternoon catch the five o’clock train from Monument Station in Cape Town back to De Aar, once again fuelled with poker and whisky all the way.

“The next afternoon they would collect their vehicles at the hotel and continue their rounds of calling on rural shopkeepers. This ritual was kept up for years until well after the steam locomotive was replaced by diesel.

“Do commercial travellers as we knew them still exist, or have they vanished, with steam trains, into the sunset, like a puff of smoke?”