Unusual New Year Steam Train Ritual

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What is different with South African Steam Trains on New Year’s Day?

I was there in 1975 and 1976 to witness this phenomenon. In 1975, I had just arrived from the UK and was settling in to the place. I had taken the place of Robert Kingsford Smith in a flat in Hillbrow where I am reliably told you would be killed these days if you went near the place. Many great Australian Railway Photographers including the Schroeder brothers had resided there.

A number of us headed north to Paarnport on New Year’s Day to photograph some steam not too far from home. When we arrived we noticed something unusual.

Some of the engines had an olive branch on the front of the locomotive.

15CA Paarnport South Africa Steam Locomotive
15CA near Paarnport on the Caledon Passenger New Year’s Day 1975

This was my first adventure since taking up residence in the country. There was quite a gathering of Aussie rail fans there at the time. I think we had 20 or so in the immediate vicinity.

I remember we had a rule at the time. No drinking before midday! That was to ensure we were sober for at least some of the time. Unfortunately, the next year we were not so well behaved.

By New Year’s Day 1976, we had just returned from a trip on the Drakensburg celebrating Christmas Dinner behind a might 25NC at speed. With all the pomp and ceremony involved it was a memorable event.

Charlie Lewis, Alan Jorgensen and a number of other noted South African based railway photographers had organised a get together on the grade between Kroonstad and Bloemfontein to drink and listen to the locos steam up the bank.

With a Brae (Barbeque) burning cooking Boerewors, a traditional South African sausage that comes by the meter, we drank our way into the night. I remember making some tape recordings before I succumbed to the large amount of alcohol. This resulted in a rather unpleasant night.

My car on the left as Greg Tripplet and Warren Doubleday prepare their tent for a wild night of drinking.
My car on the left as Greg Tripplet and Warren Doubleday prepare their tent for a wild night of drinking.

New year’s Day, I don’t remember too much, but I got this shot of a 23, which means I did photograph steam that day.

How do I know? Well, it has a tree in front of the loco.

23 Kroonstad South Africa steam train
23 class on a passenger south of Kroonstad New Year’s Day 1976

I just finished watching a documentary entitled “Slow Train Through Africa” by Rhys Jones. Undertaken recently, it emphasises how bad things have become on the dark continent. When we were there, the Drakensburg rolled across the Karoo Desert behind a 25NC at 120 kph. Apparently now trains just amble across the countryside and many lines are closed.

While I was there, I managed a circular tour of the country including some 3,000 kms behind steam, a feat I only managed once.

I do have many fond memories of South Africa and I will leave you with one more shot (not on New Year’s Day) taken when steam was king in that part of the world.

25 25NC De Aar south african steam train
25NC plus 25 Condensor between Kimberley and De Aar 1975

Here is a movie of the great 25s in action on the main line.

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