Sandstone Heritage Trust - Rail News

RN 202 - The Sandstone Heritage Trust "Lyndie-Lou's" trip with Rovos on the Tzaneen-Groenbult line - by CA Janisch


Friday 23 June 2006 was a monumental day for steam traction in the preservation era. Not since regular steam ended in South Africa has any operator attempted to do the Tzaneen-Groenbult section, until Rovos Rail, strengthened by the acquisition of a GMAM Garratt, put their hand up and did what no-one had anticipated. The freshly commissioned splendid green machine No.4079 was rostered to work the train all the way from Tzaneen to Pretoria. Having just returned to service with a minimum of testing she was sent out to Springs on Monday 19 June to work the leg to Waterval Boven. She ran and steamed well but water problems caused delays and she had to overnight in Witbank. It was decided to minimize the risk of breakdown by sending her up to Tzaneen with 2702 to double head the train. And so early on the Wednesday morning I was trackside at Pyramid to see 4079 snorting through bunker first towing the dolly northwards. All went well on this trip and I made arrangements to be up there on the Friday.

Leaving home at some ungodly hour I greeted the dawn near Haenertsburg, the mountains shrouded in mist. The sun filtered through the mist as I descended the escarpment and dipped down into a decidedly warm town of Tzaneen. I arrived at the station at the scheduled departure time of 7am to find the Garratt being attended to on a siding, while nearby stood a cold lifeless dolly. Glum expressions were all around-apparently a steam leak had been detected in the firebox and her fire was thrown out. Hasty repairs were effected and the crew were readying to light up again. Meanwhile the Garratt's troublesome sanding apparatus was being mended with a piece of wire!

Bursts from the mechanical stoker sent thick coal smoke drifting over the engine, the weak sunlight bathing her in a ghostly glint. A word with the crew revealed that she would be taking the train single-headed as originally rostered. There was considerable speculation amongst the crew, train staff and linesiders as to whether she could make it up to Groenbult with 2 tankers and 15 coaches. The crew believed they could do it-and so the stage was set for a drama-filled day! Cylinder cocks opened and the great green hissing monster eased forward chimney-first before backing onto her load at the station. Slow moving black smoke forced its way from 2702's chimney nearby as she started to warm up. Meanwhile the Garratt's two feeder tanks were topped up from the hydrant on the station. A triple-34 combo ambled in from the Pietersburg line and greeted us with a honk.

Lyndie-Lou was nice and hot now and was blowing off continually. Over 2 hours later she was given the road, and for the first time in a decade and a half a steam train whistled out of town, smoke and steam lifting triumphantly into the air. We headed up to the Tzaneen dam where train passengers were waiting to record the crossing. A disappointing cloudy setting with no smoke was all the reward they had for their long wait.

A proper run past was held over the next viaduct, which was better but also clouded out. Passengers then boarded the train and soon the Garratt was barking purposefully through the pine forests and logging sites. Just before Politsi the sun burst through and a classic sequence was taken of the loco working very hard around a long bend. At Politsi the station is still neat with pretty trees, and a storming run past was held here. We then moved up to the Merensky Dam where the line hugs the water's edge, surrounded by thick bush not unlike the Banana Express. After this good shot we watched her hammering through the plantations up to Duiwelskloof, the double exhaust beats resounding through the woods. Duiwelskloof has now been renamed Modjajiskloof and looks nothing like it did when I was last here 22 years ago. I still spotted the Diesel pass from the road bridge back then.

The train drifted into the station which still features double water columns on both sides, covered in a slivery-rusty sheen. If one attempted to open them they might just fall to pieces! A short stop for orders and then she was off again. Here the countryside changes to bushveld dotted with hills, and the train hugs a mountainside as she climbs steadily up towards the Mooketsi plains. We could observe the train heading through the hillside bush, and the Garratt seemed to be pulling well. She disappeared from view before curving back into Brandboontjies station. Here we waited only to see her stop in the distance, just before the passing loop. From the north came a low grumble and a single blue 34 sidled into the station with a goods. I drove down the line and got a crossing sequence, the green train pulling into the loop to allow the hasty diesel to be on its way. Some more gradual climbing took the train away from the distant mountains and into the heart of the Mooketsi plain.
It was past midday as the rusty old water tank and columns of Mooketsi greeted a steam train once more. How sad that these relics of the steam age still stand here, waiting to replenish the tenders of locomotives that will never come. Perhaps on a stormy windswept night there is still a ghost train, which uses these columns....

And so the Garratt limbered up and set off on the last leg before her destiny with the great escarpment. A wrong turn saw me heading up the direct route to Pietersburg; from on top of the pass there was a lovely vista of the plain with Euphorbia and blooming aloes in the foreground. However this was not my destiny and after consulting my atlas I stormed back down the mountain. Fortunately the line is very twisty and I caught up with the train soon enough. After climbing northwards the line suddenly veers off westwards towards the golden mountains. In the middle of a field the train was halted and it was time to replenish the twin tankers. This was accomplished using a trackside irrigation hydrant belonging to the vast triple Z agricultural estates. Passengers came up to view the engine and over an hour was spent watering here. I decided to move on up the line to find the legendary old watering and fire-cleaning station of Goudplaas. This is situated against the hillside at the foot of a mountain pass.
As I drove along a narrow path through thick bush, I felt a sense of anticipation, as I was about to visit a sacred steam site of yesteryear.

For years I had wanted to make a pilgrimage to this spot, and only now had the opportunity presented itself. Having seen intact columns at Duiwelskloof and Mooketsi I was somewhat taken aback to find no watering structures left here. Two neat lines ran past the station name board, with the old office and possibly the pump house standing alongside on a small platform, stripped of course of all fittings. A pole with hook stood between the lines and building, probably used to hang the token or a lamp. I walked down the line and found the old column masts, and ash pits still exist under the passing rails. Over to the right you could see remnants of the ash thrown down the slope, and now mostly covered in vegetation. Farther up, the line curves away to the right - but this is obscured by vegetation, making the famous station departure shot impossible. I settled down alongside the station and awaited the arrival of the train. A warm sun baked the scene and the hill hugging the south side loomed silently over the scene. It was hard to imagine that this was once the scene of frenetic activity, carried on constantly around the clock as engines were serviced and fires stoked while the pump house kept up its beat, bringing life-saving loco water up from the depths of the earth.
Presently a whistle was heard and the train rounded the bend into the station, where she halted over the ash pits. Here the ash pan was emptied of its contents and the fire lightly shaken. We were anticipating a quick departure but it was not to be. Rohan informed us that he had been instructed to wait for 2702 to join up before the climb. She was on her way following a freight upgrade. While we waited a run past was organized through the station, the thick smoke towering above the hillside. Shadows were lengthening as eventually the diesel pulled in, a single blue 34 making a nice crossing scene. Soon she was on her way up the pass and we awaited the dolly. Half an hour later the word came over the radios-the dolly had failed in section with a locked trailing axle on the front bogie.

The drama had now really begun. Daylight was rapidly running out and the train had to get to Groenbult. Pilot driver Jan Steenberg had no qualms-he reckoned the Garratt could handle this easily. A long time diesel driver on this section, he had fired Garratts in Krugersdorp along with the Rovos driver on the footplate. There was nothing for it and Rohan gave the all clear to leave. As soon as the diesel reported arriving in Groenbult, the stoker was turned on and safety valves lifted. With all the aplomb of years of experience Jan moved into the driver's seat and opened her up. I got a nice shot curving out of the station, and then drove back to the main road and up the pass. There was a stunning view of the train snaking away through the valley below, curving and glinting round the bends. The road moves away for some distance but higher up I managed to find a road taking me back to the line. I set up on a cutting overlooking a dam and farmhouse with the line heading off down into the mountains. After a long wait the sound of a loco working hard and steady was heard, and soon smoke was seen behind the nearest hill. The gallant Garratt clawed its way round a sharp bend, never once losing her feet, before hitting the straight below me and gathering speed. The tranquil pastoral setting was then absolutely shattered by the smoke-belching behemoth dragging that long train past me, a stunning spectacle in this day and age. All too soon it was over and she rounded a bend above me while I scurried off to my car. I found a spot next to the Louis Trichardt line on the approach to Groenbult. It was getting near the end of the climb and the low sun glinted off the train as she slowly but surely ground past me.

A quick drive up to Groenbult and I was there to see 4079 triumphantly draw into the station, tired but still pulling hard. Happy faces lent out of the windows, none more ecstatic than that of Rohan Vos himself!
Groenbult still retains all her water tanks and columns, along with numerous loops. It is still quite a busy junction. "Lyndie-Lou" had earned a good break and shuffled off down the line, backing up alongside the train where a Garratt feast awaited her. A huge pile of coal served up by a TLB and a whole tanker of liquid refreshment were on the menu tonight. A few glint shots were possible as the sun set, and then a chilly dusk fell over the scene. In the fading twilight I headed away from the station and on to Pietersburg, reflecting on a day full of drama and full-blooded steam action. Not in recent history has a steam locomotive had to put in such a sustained effort single-handedly, and it may never happen again. But for just one glorious day, the Garratt was king of the mountains again.
CA Janisch