Day trip to Loerie

1 - On the 2ft gauge Avontuur Branch

To my complete surprise, and contrary to normal practice which keeps ships out of harbour to avoid harbour dues on non-productive days, the mv Schielloyd came into Port Elizabeth early one Saturday morning in November 1976. In South African ports no cargo was being worked on Saturdays, so I supposed (correctly, as it turned out) that this might give me an opportunity to have a look at the Apple Express which I knew ran on Saturdays. After some asking around I found out that the train would depart from Humewood Road station at about 8:30 a.m.

I hurriedly summoned a few interested shipmates who could be spared from duty, and after a quick breakfast we piled into a taxi. We only just made it in time, and found out that this days' train had been organised by a party of expatriate Greeks living around Port Elizabeth and effectively was a private outing. Greek people being who they are, however, they took us in on the trip without thinking twice.

At the head of the 8-coach train was NG118, a NG15 class 2-8-2 tender loco. We had no time to look at the loco as the train took off without delay. First we climbed stiffly out of the terminus and skirted an old quarry, at the bottom of which was a maze of narrow gauge track, and then we passed through pleasant suburbs before coming out into the country. Here the loco unsettled the horse of a young rider who promptly was thrown, scrambled to his feet and made us a very international gesture… It didn't take the train long to reach Chelsea station, where an industrial branch swings off to the right.

NG15 class no. 118 pausing at Chelsea.

The NG15 is a powerful-looking engine for the narrow 2ft gauge.

Here at last we could take a look at the loco, which was very smartly turned out. The NG15 is a big, low-slung outside frame loco dwarfed by a massive boxlike tender. Some of these locos had tenders of a different pattern, but roughly the same size. NG 118 was built for the Otavi branch in SW Africa by Franco-Belge SA in 1939. They have a tractive effort of 16,610lbs, which is about 2/3 of the 'broad' gauge S2 class shunter: a formidable narrow gauge loco indeed. A peculiar detail on the 2ft gauge locos is the swing-out seats enabling the crew to sit outside and flee from the heat of the cramped cab in warm weather.

Climbing away on a short rise from the Van Stadens viaduct.

Nearly at the summit before the descent towards Loerie.

NG118 on the turntable at Loerie.

Next, we were back on the road, climbing steadily towards Van Stadens station, where the fire was cleaned thoroughly after the long climb. Here the peculiar South African type of ash pit could be seen: a shallow tray where the track was led across on concrete blocks, enabling the ashes to be shoveled out without too much effort. The loco then was coupled up again and we set a brisk pace to the brink of the great ravine crossed by the famous Van Stadens bridge, a steel structure 254ft high and the highest 2ft gauge railway bridge in the world. The viaduct is reputed to have been constructed to 3'6" gauge standards at a time when plans were made to convert the Avontuur branch to the Cape gauge. The train slowed to a walking pace and crept out across the ravine, where we looked down straight into the water of the stream far below. Immediately afterwards the line curved sharply left and a short climb began towards the summit, where a beautiful panorama awaited us.

The Van Stadens viaduct.

If I remember correctly, we paused a few moments at Sunnyside or Thornhill while a village store was raided for the few items available there. By this time we had found out that at the turning point at Loerie there were no catering facilities, so we were out on a limb without any food or drink. In the end, Greek hospitality even had an answer to that. Finally, after crossing a diesel-hauled eastbound goods at the summit, the train started to drop down the long descent of Loerie Bank, a difference of 647ft between the summit and Loerie station. Here we paused for an hour and a half, having a picnic on the goods platform and between the yard tracks whilst the loco was being turned and serviced. Our Greek friends shared their plentiful supply of food with us: from what I could see they had enough to spare to feed an army...

At the water tank.

The fire has been banked up for the return trip.

Swing-out seats.

One of my favourite views.

2 - A wild ride

Prior to climbing Loerie Bank on the return trip, a big fire had been prepared on NG118's grate, and when the train moved out of the station a merry smoke screen blew across the countryside. The big narrow gauge loco played with its load up the steep 1 in 40 bank with its sharp curves, steaming so well that the safety valves blew off repeatedly. Once the summit had been reached we bowled along at considerable speed, and at this point the blow-down valve was opened to get rid of some of the dirt in the boiler.

MP3 sound of a NG15 crossing the Van Stadens viaduct and climbing to Van Stadens station (600Kb, courtesy Ian Turner).

Then followed an easier stretch of line towards the Van Stadens bridge which again was crossed with reduced speed. During the return trip downhill to Chelsea we must have touched 35mph, with the carriage jolting up and down alarmingly. Suddenly we were almost thrown off our seats by violent braking. A wild whistling concerto up front made us lean out of the window, and there a group of cows galloped ahead of the train in a blind panic, one by one clearing the path for that terrible snorting beast close behind. I bet the milk turned sour that day…

Late in the afternoon we came into Humewood road station, and with a wave to the loco crew we returned towards the ship.

Battling up the incline, with the safety valve blowing.

Safety valve blowing once again.

The Avontuur railway

The Avontuur branch of the SAR is 177 miles in length (see area map), which is quite extraordinary for a 2ft gauge line, and services an extensive farming and fruit producing area to the west of Port Elizabeth called the Longkloof. The farming produce is transported to the warehouses of Port Elizabeth. Loerie is only 44 miles from Port Elizabeth, a quarter of the entire distance to Avontuur, the terminus of the line.

A rural narrow gauge railway like this inevitably acquires its own character. The line's history has been eminently described by the late Sidney Moir in his book 'Twenty-Four Inches Apart'. Apart from the book's historical and technical value, it tells many tales of daily operation. A typical example is the way a hot bearing on a locomotive was dealt with when under way. The toolbox on the tender always contained a few spare fishplates, two of which were put on the rails in front of the offending wheelset. With a bit of steam the wheels would ride up on the fishplates. Repeating the performance would eventually force them up far enough to enable an iron pipe to be put through the spokes and the frames, keeping them clear of the railhead. The coupling rods then were disconnected, enabling the crippled loco to continue to the next station on its remaining wheels, under its own steam...

Transporter wagon for 2ft gauge stock on 3ft 6ins gauge.

Humewood Road shed on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

Smokebox of an NG15.

In the inspection pit.

NGG13 no. 80 standing in the shed with a run out boiler certificate (end date 1975).

Bunker end of the Garratt, showing the end number plate.

Humewood Road shed

Later the ship put into P.E. for a second time during that trip, and during the weekend I retraced my steps to Humewood Road to wander through the narrow gauge yard and explore the deserted loco shed.

To my surprise, here I found a Garratt, NGG13 number 80 (identified by the small plate on the bunker end), with its boiler certificate run out. Note the large headlamps which hadn't been replaced by the usual sealed beam lights common in SAR locos from the early 1970s. At the time I thought all Garratts had been phased out, until much later I learned about the Alfred County Railway. Clearly on the Avontuur line, diesel traction was steadily taking over from steam although several Kalaharis were still waiting in the running shed. All regular trains I saw there both in 1974 and 1976 were worked by big Class 91 diesels towering over the original 2ft gauge stock.

Later that day I made some sound recordings and filmed some of the Cape gauge operations in the harbour yard, and on Monday morning there was work to be done, so that was the last I saw of SAR steam at Port Elizabeth.

Towering Class 91 diesel inside the narrow gauge goods shed in the harbour area.

A 1974 view of a long train drawn from the sheds towards Humewood Road.

1976 film with dubbed sound: click on image to start.