The Loco Yard, South Africa

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
A visit to the mining town Krugerdorp in South Africa left me with some unexpected and lasting memories of a South Africa that is gone now.

Submitted: October 17, 2012

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Submitted: October 17, 2012




The Loco Yard, Krugersdorp 

(Sunday 19th May ‘02, South Africa)


Although an admirer I’m not really a train boffin, but somebody somewhere told me that they’d seen dozens of steam locomotives parked in sidings outside Krugersdorp.  Nothing else would have encouraged me to visit so depressing a place, about forty-five minutes from Johannesburg and comprising one high street that stretches for a few kilometres, so being curious and having nothing better to do one Sunday, I went to see.

Graced with the usual cluttered array of liquor stores, cheap clothes shops, supermarkets and used car lots, the single street leaves the town between giant mills and steel works and heads off into the ruined lunar landscape, a direct result of the gold and tin mining operations that begat the town. Leaving at last the acres of mining hostels on the outskirts I turned up a dirt road, a sign advising  that I was approaching Mill Siding, the only reference to railways that I could find other than the active sidings serving the industries in the town.

Mirroring the wind the way water does, the long golden grass stretched away across the veld either side of me to the distant, unnaturally symmetrical hills of the mine workings on the horizon. Leaving a trail of orange dust behind me that quickly caught up with the car, I came at last to a railroad crossing. I established that this was a well used mainline by the shiny surface of the rails and was about to cross when I glanced to some buildings on the far side of a line of trees opposite. It was obviously a railway yard and in amongst the buildings, and stretching out along the sidings to the open country behind them, were the silent hulks of dozens of giant steam locomotives. Getting as close as I could, I aimed my camera and fired off a few frames and was about to leave when an elderly black man signalled me to wait whilst he stiffly crossed over the tracks to me.

He spoke to me in Zulu; I had to explain that I didn’t understand. He grinned toothlessly and waved vaguely across the tracks to the yard.

“Ehhhhhh, yew ken goh in,” he said, pointing to the entrance.

I noticed that he wore a South African Railways badge on his overalls and asked if he worked there.

“Yiss sah, I wek heah meni yeahs’, he replied.

I asked if any of the engines worked now.

“Diss diesels are up de fah end, I wek on diss now”, he explained, pointing to the still operational end of the yard.

I asked if any of the steam trains were functional.

“Ohh nooohhhhh, he chuckled. Mebbi yew ken see stim tren in Cape Town now”, he said, making a vague reference to the Rovos Rail train that regularly leaves from there under steam power.

We stood silently for a while facing the yard in the warm gusty breeze.

“All dis stim tren” he said at last, clearly having wrestled in the silence with the fact that he felt I needed more of an explanation, and waving his arm to encompass the rusty horizon, “all diss stim tren, iz aaaaalll……….” He searched the sky for the right words, and we were both silent again for a while. Then he nodded vigorously and grinned. “fucked-up!” He nodded again. “Yisss, all diss stim tren is all fucked-up now!”

We again stood for a while gazing at the rows of giants standing in the weeds. I gradually gathered from him that he had worked in the yard when they were all active. When they were decommissioned, some as recently as five years ago, they were simply shunted to the farthest corners and left there whilst diesel power took over. He explained this rather wistfully I thought, then shook my hand and left me lost in my imagination, watching these leviathans in my minds eye, rhythmically hissing and clanking their enormous weight back and forth across the complex network of now weed strewn and rusted rails, pluming the sky with thick columns of roared breath. I waved him off and entered the yard. These are some of the largest steam engines I’ve seen. Presumably due to the recent decommissioning (SA was one of the last countries to abandon steam altogether from the mid ‘90’s) and the dry climate, many are relatively well preserved. It was a beautiful day well into the dry season, so the grass was tall and had completed its annual growth around and through the huge rusting wheels and valve gear. Many of the pistons and their connecting rods are still coated with black oil, in fact the air is still full of the sweet smell of coal and steam, and the ground covered in the black burnt dust that you only ever find in railway yards. Broken only by the occasional fleeting birdsong and the sighing of the wind, the silence was almost engulfing, absorbing all sound as I wandered up through the ranks of these giants, occasionally climbing up the flaking iron steps onto the footplates, scattering lizards and startling small birds as I went. I could settle into the driver or fireman’s seats, still situated amongst the few rusted handles and levers that remained, all the brass gauges and dials having long since been removed, and get a drivers eye view of life.

Its impossible to remain unmoved by the sight of so much dormant power, or fail to feel the twinge of nostalgia that such grand scale mechanical decay always instils. Although quietly dying out there on the veld, these locomotives still have life. They are grand old duchesses in their now silent crumbling mansions, left alone to reminisce on bygone times full of noise and crowds, when they were frequently the focus of attention, their dramatic arrival in clouds of steam and smoke was the days, and sometimes the week’s main event, so they played a major role in everyone’s lives. No-one could ever have foreseen that it would all come to an end. Forged in dark foundries amongst hanging chains and heavy lifting gear, from showering sparks and rivers of brilliant molten metal, they emerged in times that created history, they were part of it all, blasting their fiery way across a landscape that saw everything from tribal to civil and finally political wars. Many were British built, the articulated Garrat locomotives, built in the 1930’s by Beyer-Peacock and shipped to South Africa, were so successful that they became synonymous with the countries steam power. A forlorn example sits at the very end of the coaling siding, the rails that steered it there lost now in deep undergrowth. Here vast quantities of coal were shunted up a long ramp to the top of the now weed ridden tower, tall enough to be a landmark, and dropped with a roar like thunder in clouds of black dust, filling the tenders needed to keep the locomotives fed before each commenced its turn of duty. These locomotives would have commanded entire maintenance crews in several shifts to keep them in good health. The service intervals were short and overhauling was heavy and dirty work, requiring several days per locomotive. Each working day would have required their drivers and support teams to begin preparing them for duty up to five hours before they were needed, so its obvious that the diesel engine, needing little maintenance and only one operator, would eventually win the day.

Subsequently, what was once a crowded and noisy centre of hissing, dripping and simmering activity is now silent, the buildings all empty, only the occasional distant glimpse of a single person, or the far away pulsing of a diesel engine giving any indication that there is still life there at all. With the demise of steam, in a single economic stroke, the yards’ soul was also exorcised. It’s obvious that this entire way of life was dismissed with evident indifference, judging by the destruction of some of the locomotives’ cabs caused by the impact of the next victim of casual dismissal rolling up the siding, twisted and collapsed plate metal bearing testimony to the combined meeting of several hundred tons of carelessly shunted iron. They remain out there now, come rain or shine, slowly being absorbed back into the landscape from which their very elements were mined, the occasional patches of once proud livery diminishing with each year and the rusted patches gradually becoming holes large enough to accommodate wildlife, which in turn will hasten their decay. The rusting remains will be as unfamiliar to the small boys of the not too distant future as a computer would have been to those of the past, to those for whom waving at a train was something worth running for, those who never tired of the unique sight of all that movement; wheels, pistons and valve gear, white fluttering rags of escaping steam and towering pillars of smoke signalling the presence of a train to everyone for miles around. With it came the unfathomable mystery of travel and travellers, of transient people who had probably already seen more that day from the other side of the carriage window than most of the wavers would see in their entire lifetimes.

In the late afternoon I left the locomotives to the birds and lizards, their silhouettes against the setting sun and lengthening shadows in the orange light providing an appropriate last photo opportunity, and I drove back to Jo’burg in thoughtful silence. The effect of being amongst such impressive motive power was not lost on me and a soft melancholy followed, as if some of the spirits in that elephants’ graveyard had escaped with me, to haunt me for a while with the distant mournful echo of a lone whistle and the panting heartbeat of an age gone by, never to return.





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