Coal from Sumatra

2 - Adventures in the interior, and a look at the South Sumatran system

When I retraced my steps towards the harbour the sun was setting over the coconut trees on the hill behind the harbour, and a long train was being assembled in the station with both locos in evidence. I decided to wait beside the incline out of the station for the train to depart.

Within 10 minutes a chorus of whistling and great clouds of smoke announced the train's departure. Spitting and clanking the first loco approached, working quite hard despite considerable steam loss on her left-hand side, and after the train had groaned past, the wheezing banker (for what she was worth with her reduced pressure) creaked by. Feeble spurts of vapour came out of her cylinder cocks, and only some distance away there were signs of furious firing. Despite this the train didn't make much speed.

Heavy train preparing for departure from Teluk Bayur. Note the little girl balancing on the railhead: a game favoured by children anywhere in the world.

The same train working up the gradient towards Padang.

Rear view of the not-too-efficient banker passing under the bridge.

Into the interior

Being an apprentice has its advantages: a few days later, together with the apprentice engineer I was invited to join the Captain on a sightseeing trip into the interior. The mountainous landscape is fascinating, the route tracing the Anai river valley and the railway inland towards Padangpanjang and Bukittinggi. Here there are several rack sections worked by big E10 class 0-10-0 rack tanks. I saw none of these close by but managed to photograph one from a distance in the paddy fields. Halfway we stopped to swim in the Singkarak lake close to the Solok branch of the railway, where I encountered another of the C33s on a train clattering by. Regrettably I saw nothing of the big F10 2-12-2Ts reported as stationed at Solok at the time by A.E.Durrant.

Rack section in the Anai Gorge on the line to Padangpanjang, unfortunately without a train in sight.

The placid waters of the Singkarak lake. I actually paddled the canoe out into the lake for a short distance, but it was rather unstable.

Beautifully restored Minangkabau longhouse in Bukittinggi, now in use as a museum.

Mixed train from Solok to Padangpanjang approaching at Singkarak Lake, behind an unidentified C33.

Behind the modern bogie hoppers, the mixed trails the only passenger vehicle I saw on the West Sumatran system.

E10 class 0-10-0 rack tank at work in the paddy fields on its way to Padangpanjang. These modern locos sported flat Giesl ejectors.

Through the paddy fields to Padang

The next day I had both the afternoon and the night shifts from 12 to 6, which meant I could skip an evening's sleep and board the evening train to Padang, leaving into the dusk at about 7 pm. Although this was a light train hauled by the worst loco of the pair, it was a magical trip, jogging peacefully through the darkening paddy fields and coconut trees for half an hour until we came into Padang station. Here I said good-bye to the crew and looked into the loco shed where a cold C30 2-6-2T was standing together with a C33 and another smaller loco. There must have been other locos in these main workshops of the West Sumatran system, but it was pitch dark by then and I remember only these two or three. Venturing further into the unlit shed would have been unsafe on account of the inspection pits and cluttered tools and gear. I wonder what treasures may have been hidden there? Another C30 was shunting in the yard, and again the driver didn't mind me coming up. The atmosphere in the enclosed cab was stifling but I didn't notice any discomfort as this was the first big loco I had travelled on. I remember the sloping boiler backhead and a big fire roaring on the grate. The driver leaned out into the darkness and I wondered how he could see what he was doing, with nothing outside but perhaps a shunter's oil lamp.

By 9 o'clock I started worrying about returning to the ship, and when I asked at the station they told me to go to the bus station. How would I get there? 'Oh, very easy, tuan, take a carriage'. The man went out of his way to find me one, and before I could thank him my transport moved off behind a tough Sumatran pony trotting through the spaciously laid out streets of Padang. The 'bus station' proved to be a place where all kinds of garishly painted vehicles, most of them converted light trucks, were waiting for passengers. Each one carried 20 or, who knows, even 50 slightly-built Sumatrans on wooden benches fitted athwartships, real death traps of vehicles especially on the rough roads through the hills.

When I finally found one going to Teluk Bayur I was sitting with my chin on my knees between a crowd of giggling Sumatran people: Have you seen? An 'orang belanda' on our bus! Of the remaining trip I remember very little, being scared to death that I would be too late for my shift because the horrible contraption would fall into a ditch. Just imagine being left marooned in the middle of a tropical night in an unknown place where I didn't speak the language! Miraculously however, I was back on board ship about half an hour before midnight. I shot into my boiler suit and went on deck to find the second mate whom I was supposed to assist. The night passed in a blur climbing in and out of crowded 'tweendecks checking on stowage and the illicit smoking of the strong Indonesian 'kretek' cigarettes smelling of cloves, favoured by the harbour workers. Going 24 hours without sleep didn't put me off then, but I wouldn't care to repeat the performance nowadays.


The Palembang Mail

The next afternoon we left Teluk Bayur for Panjang (see overview of Sumatra) in the Sunda Straits, and I was rather sorry to leave the dilapidated little C33s which I was never to see again. It took us about 24 hours' sailing towards Telukbetung Bay, where we anchored in the roads off the tiny jetty of Panjang. Here we would load from lighters towed out to us, and during our stay there we saw and heard the mail service from Tanjungkarang arrive each day around noon.

mv. Nijkerk at anchor at Panjang.

Very American-looking C3079 at Panjang, having just arrived with the mail train from Palembang.

Rear view of the big Hanomag-built 2-6-2T.

Pretty-looking tank loco: C1134, a 2-6-0T by Hartmann, also at Panjang.

...probably taking a nap in the shade...

The South Sumatran system isn't connected to the West Sumatran one at Padang although the the Dutch Colonial Government once had plans to do so. A daily through train from Tanjungkarang, hauled by a C30 2-6-2T similar to the one at Padang, carried a parcels van from Palembang and connected with an island steamer at Panjang. Each day we heard the big C30's hooter roar out across the bay, except once or twice when there was a diesel loco. I went ashore once using the shipping line's agent's motorboat, and managed to be in time to see the train come in. It consisted of a modern bogie parcels van and not much else. The big tank loco was beautifully kept, and across the road opposite the warehouses the shunting loco, an ancient C11 2-6-0T built by Hartmann, simmered in the vertical tropical sun whilst the crew was away. Probably taking a nap in the shade! Regrettably I couldn't spare more time as the agency's motorboat was due to return to the ship.

Again I missed some of the bigger types of locomotive reportedly stationed at Tanjungkarang in those days. These were the D50 and D52 classes, both 2-8-2 tender engines. But perhaps these didn't work into Panjang. The next day we left Panjang, and although we put into Belawan on Sumatra's North coast, there was no steam to be seen out there. Thus ended my brief, but unforgettable experience of the railways of Sumatra.

Flaming sunset just after clearing the northwest tip of Sumatra near Pulau Weh, on the way home.

The same view, 5 minutes later.

From memory I have drawn up a sketch plan (click to enlarge) showing the approximate arrangement of various buildings and installations. The track layout is only indicative, i.e. four sidings may be represented as two, and please don't pin me on the pointwork as drawn!