Port Elizabeth Sunset (And tales of East London)

Port Elizabeth, 1974

From Cape Town to Port Elizabeth takes about 24 hours' sailing along the Cape Province coast, an endless panorama of mountains moving past on the Northern horizon whilst the ship labours against the great Agulhas current flowing Southwest at a majestic 4 knots.

When the mv Spaarnekerk first approached Port Elizabeth in July 1974 we had to anchor out in the Algoa Bay because again our berth was occupied. South African harbours at the time often incurred delays because of the enforced ship-to-rail cargo work. This reduced overall cargo handing costs, of course, but at the expense of the shipowners who weren't exactly pleased with the arrangement...

...whilst the ship labours against the great Agulhas current...

At Port Elizabeth the railway yard layout is quite different from that at Cape Town. A cramped shunting yard extends along the sea from the main station. This services the harbour sidings, and branches extend around the harbour and to the narrow gauge exchange yard at Humewood Road, where the 2ft gauge Avontuur railway terminates. When I revisited P.E. in 1976 the shunting yard was being reconstructed as a container terminal was being built outside the old sea wall, but in '74 things were still untouched. At the seaward end of the yard were two tiny water tanks and an ash pit to service the shunting locos.

As opposed to Cape Town, here shunting wasn't the exclusive domain of S2 class 0-8-0s. There were at least two 12R class locos at work here, one of them no. 1506, and an unidentified one. At the time I had no knowledge whatsoever of SAR locomotive classes. Later I had to piece together what I had seen laboriously from the photos using the standard work on SAR locomotives, 'Steam Locomotives of the SAR' by D.F.Holland. Our time at Port Elizabeth regrettably was short, but late one afternoon I set out to photograph what I could in the shunting yard. One or two trains came in and I remember distinctly one very beautifully maintained 4-8-2 which looked like having a Belpaire firebox. This may have been an unrebuilt loco with a combustion chamber boiler. I was too late to photograph this loco, nor do I have its number. I have however two (inconsistent) leads. O.S.Nock in his book 'Railways of Southern Africa' mentions an unrebuilt 15A (no.1845) in use at Port Elizabeth in 1971. David Guelpa of South Africa however suggests 12A class no. 1521 which was stationed at P.E. at the time.

Port Elizabeth station is situated right at the sea front near the harbour. Class 24 locos waiting in the station.

Class 12R shunting 4-wheel vans at Port Elizabeth.

Class 19D (no 2668?) arriving with a goods train.

In the brief period of daylight remaining that winter afternoon I took many photos, making maximum use of the clear light of the setting sun glinting off the motion of shunting locomotives. The S2s with their eternal wheelslip were familiar from Cape Town, but the 12R, a small-wheeled 4-8-2 tender loco, was something quite different with its plate frames and low-slung footplate. As the sun set, a 19D came in with another goods train. The loco ran round and disappeared into the direction of the main station. The 12R fussed around some more and then was parked at the water tanks. When dusk descended I wandered round, taking several atmospheric shots represented in this page.

… very quietly the old girl sighed off… - MP3 222Kb

 12R class loco shunting at P.E. - MP3 153Kb

Later that evening, using my old mains-powered cassette recorder with a microphone out of the open porthole, I recorded the hoarse exhaust sound of 1506 as she shunted the narrow quay alongside our ship with the sound amplified between the ship and the warehouses. The night was clear and very damp, but the loads the old loco had to shift that evening were too light for spectacular effects. I remember the great boiler quietly gliding alongside, with a whiff of coal smoke across the deck and the generator softly whining. Then very quietly the old girl sighed off down the quay, her driver opening up in the distance.

The loco propels a heavy load towards the shunting yard.

Late sunlight glinting on 1506's running gear.

1506 simmering at the water tanks. Note the wheelbarow on the heap of ash and a pair of boots left in the foreground...

The last evening light silhouettes the old 4-8-2 standing at the water tanks.

That first time at Port Elizabeth I saw virtually nothing of the 2ft gauge, except for a towering great diesel loco working the 2ft gauge exchange sheds near the harbour. When looking across the tracks from the overbridge leading to the harbour, I once saw a NG15 class narrow-gauge loco minus its tender piggy-back on a transporter wagon, riding in a regular goods train. Was that the last narrow gauge steam loco, being carried off for scrap? I wasn't to know until two years later when I rode the Avontuur line to Loerie.

My visit to Port Elizabeth and East London in 1976

That first South African trip we were destined for East London, however this proved not to be. We cut the trip short on orders and went to Durban to complete loading before returning home. Two years later however we went to both Port Elizabeth and East London in the mv Schielloyd.

This time at Port Elizabeth I also shot some film of a a cowcatcher-less class 12R 4-8-2, possibly the same no. 1506 of last time. The old loco was busy under the overbridge leading to the narrow gauge exchange yard, whistling to warn anyone at work beyond the overbridge which blocked the driver's sight. There was an S2 shunting in the reception sidings near the sea wall which was driven by a character who must have favoured sports cars. Time and again he came barreling past at great speed, and I had great fun whilst he was breaking up a train, dispatching one vehicle after another down the sidings. He must have been in a hurry as he was stressing the shunter, furiously using the whistle. It is as well that I didn't quite understand the shunter's reply in angry Afrikaans...

Two S2s at work at the entrance to the narrow gauge exchange yard.

S2 no. 3770 in one of its usual slips at Port Elizabeth.

At East London, railway-wise we had an interesting time, with great amounts of Zambian copper arriving by rail. This was shunted alongside our berth on the East side of the Buffalo River by an unidentified large-boilered 4-8-2, which was rather roughly handled to manage the heavy loads involved. My photos of East London shed show a large complement of 14CRs, which suggests this may have been another 14CR.

One afternoon we came on deck from our lunch when the loco appeared alongside. Without thinking, in unison we lined the rail and started waving our arms in the same manner as the shunters used to: carry on, carry on… The driver noticed us, grinned and pulled the regulator wide open, spinning the loco's wheels violently. This sent a pillar of smoke to the unsuspecting crane driver 30ft above the loco, who hung half-suffocated out of his cubicle and hurled a string of curses at the driver in shrill Afrikaans. It almost prompted a strike for which the management didn't thank us…

East London harbour in an old postcard: the ship in the foreground is the mv Arendskerk of my old company. In the distance the Buffalo River bridge.

Late that evening in November 1976 I went ashore with my cassette recorder and made the best sound recordings ever, with the big loco being thrashed up and down the narrow yard along the quay, collecting the empty gondolas that had been used to bring out the copper to our ship. During a pause in operations, in the still night air, in the distance one could distinctly hear a train labouring up the steep incline from the river yard towards East London main station. It was very humid and the rails offered little adhesion which resulted in endless slipping as a string of empties was removed down the river bank. Finally, the remaining empties had been marshalled into another long train which then was drawn away from the quay towards the connecting line.

Next morning I heard that during the night our shunting engine had been put into the ballast, stalling all cargo work for hours...

 14CR class loco working hard - MP3 240Kb

Line-up of stabled 14CRs and the breakdown crane at East London shed. Photo taken from 2028's cab.

I had the next afternoon off and went in search of more locomotives. Not very far away was the East London running shed, where I asked permission to photograph the engines. From one thing came another, and soon I boarded the shed pilot, 14CR no. 2028, from the footplate of which I filmed some of the shunting inside the shed area. The driver remarked that unfortunately I had just missed the daily 'storming' of the trestle leading to the loco coal loader. Regrettably I was not able to see this the next day as we were due to sail then. When the loco's duties moving about her 'cold' sisters had finished, her boiler was blown down and her fire cleaned. Then it was time for me to return to the ship.

A regular spectacle at East London was the train towards an industrial estate on the opposite side of the Buffalo River. This involved climbing a steep incline from the river up to the level of the surrounding terrain. Usually this was announced by a smoke screen over the low hills near the river mouth, then the (often double-headed) train appeared, racing uphill, furiously whistling for a level crossing halfway and finally disappearing around a curve over the skyline far to the right.

After a few days at East London we completed loading there and departed up the coast to Maputo in the then newly independent Republic of Mozambique.

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