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Ex Dombe Grande Sugar Estates, Angola 0-4-0T "Bathala"

Decauville 302/1899

Updated - 15th May 2006

The jewel of the Sandstone rail collection, "Bathala" was built in France and is affectionately known as the "Little French Lady".
Prior to the devastating civil war that began after Angola's independence from Portuguese rule in 1975, Angola had a number of operating sugar estates with extensive rail networks. The presence of warring factions, landmines and the destruction of rural areas during the conflict soon led to all these falling into disuse. Many of the sugar estate railways had been dieselised with most of the steam locomotives set aside. Perversely the very conflict that shut down the estates had the effect of preserving old machinery including many steam locos.

The builder of 302,Decauville, began as a manufacturer of portable rail systems for such agricultural areas whereby track could be laid and quickly moved to another area as required. The manufacture of locomotives was an obvious extension of this business. The Dombe Grande Estate had a number of locomotives from various manufacturers, one of which was spotted in a Benguela scrapyard as late as 1974. Number 302 survived as it had been placed in a museum at the Estate around 1930. During the conflict the roof of the building collapsed on to the loco and this, plus the danger of landmines, kept the loco away from prying eyes. Although suffering some damage many of the fittings remained. The works plate and name plate had, however, disappeared.

A visit to Angola in 2003 by a team from Sandstone revealed many rail artefacts still extant including number 302 although its identity was not confirmed. Research into the builder's records indicated that it was number 302 and this has now been confirmed by this number appearing on various motion and other parts.
Nevertheless it took two years of negotiation to purchase the locomotive. Being in the southern part of Angola it was decided to transport it by road via Namibia. It duly arrived in Johannesburg in August 2004. Initial restoration work was carried out in Pretoria but then the locomotive was transferred to Bloemfontein for completion. In what is probably a world record for loco restoration, Lukas Nel and his team returned number 302 to steam in just under four months.

Although well over 100 years old the correct size boiler tubes were readily obtained locally and name plates were made up. The works plates were a different matter though. Armed with a photograph of plates from a similar loco, the Sandstone team obtained the dimensions from a French enthusiast and plates were hand made in Pretoria. The locomotive is now complete and has been commissioned at Hoekfontein. Painted in a rich burgundy colour and weighing only two tons, with limited power, the Decauville is limited to shunting and demonstrations with small cocopans but is nevertheless one of the "finds" of the railway restoration arena in the 21st century.