Monday, 27 August 2012

61 Mech AGM

It was August last year that I seem to have started this blog thang, and my fourth post dealt with the 2nd AGM of the 61 Mech veterans Association. I served with the unit from December 1980 till December 1981 and consider it to be my "home unit". 


As in previous years, the AGM was held at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg.  The museum is home to the 61 Mech Memorial as well as a display room dedicated to the unit and it's exploits. The weather was turning to summer on the day of the AGM, and it was reasonably well attended, although I had seen more members in previous years. 

First on the agenda was the AGM which was quickly dispensed with, and it was good to hear that the definitive 61 Mech book is still on track. It is long overdue, and should be a good read when it appears, possibly in 2014.  From there we held the Memorial Parade with all the pomp and ceremony that goes with it. 

Guard of Honour
Placing the banners

The message was delivered by the former commander of the unit during my era: Gen Maj Roland de Vries (SD, SM, MMM, SA, st C). 

Roland De Vries.

If anything, a memorial parade is always an occasion for reflection, I knew 3 of the men who names on the memorial, and while we who are left behind get older, they will always be young.   My old company "Bravo Company" is reasonably well represented,  although there are always people that you wish you could see once again. 

Following the service by Chaplin Pieter Bezuidenhout it was time for the two minute silence and the laying of wreaths.


Once the wreath laying was completed, we all attended a briefing on Operations Makro, Meebos and Yahoo in the Lemmer Auditorium.  I always find it interesting to hear the many stories that get told. This year Jan Malan spoke about the loss of a Ratel in an ambush during Ops Yahoo. And, as a war grave photographer many of those names are familiar to me, but understanding the way that they died is a different story altogether when it is told by somebody that was there.




Our South African War Graves Project Border War List  only provides the following information on these casualties: "Whilst on patrol the Lt sent out a section (1 Ratel) to follow a couple a tracks that the tracker had picked up. The Ratel hit an ambush just after 10am. By the time backup had formed up and went to their aid a group of soldiers had been killed."

We were also given a briefing on the logistical side of some of the operations, and two things came out of it: 61 Mech was extremely efficient when it came to logistical support, and that our Tiffies were the best on the border! 

For the first time though, Roland De Vries was not able to complete his words, when he described the death of one of  the men involved. We all forget how the deaths of so many of these men have stayed with those who were in command of them, and how the deaths affected the families and futures of those left behind.  It was a poignant moment, and one that will stick with me for a long time.

Then it was over, and after some quick photography I was heading back home. On the way I remembered what the national co-ordinator of SAWGP had said about 61 Mech; "While we were at war 61 Mech was a fighting unit, but during peace it lost it's reason for existence"     


The unit was disbanded in March 2005, today it is part of history, but what a proud history it has. 



Monday, 13 August 2012

Johannesburg Park Station. A 2012 view.

On 2 January 1980 I started to work for what was then known as "South African Transport Services", it was only for 2 weeks though as I departed shortly thereafter for my 2 year sojourn in the SADF. But, being a member of SATS, I was now entitled to all the privileges that went with working for a bloated organisation that was responsible for moving large amounts of people in various states of comfort or discomfort. I was employed as an "apprentice telecommunication electrician" in the Telecoms department, my depot being on Johannesburg Station in what was then the Telecoms building. The theory was that we would do our practical training there until we qualified and would then be posted to the depot as a fully qualified artisan.  The Telecoms building had a big South African coat of arms on it, and the access was gained through a lift tower on an island just outside where the plinthed steam loco was. 

The Telecoms building with Paul Kruger Building behind it.
The building housed a 10000 line electro-mechanical exchange as well as a telex exchange that served the many railway and SAA offices that were scattered around Johannesburg city.  The local section I eventually ended up working at had offices in 22 buildings. There were also dedicated technicians at Airways Centre, Union Square and Paul Kruger Building. Between when I qualified and when I came out of the army I learnt a lot about the interior of the station, but never really viewed it as a place of interest. 
Many of the offices were  old dingy spaces, and the concourse was a cold impersonal place that we used to catch trains from. The best part about catching a train was when you caught a main line train at platform 16, but that only happened on rare occasions. 

Rissik Street runs past the station as the western boundary with the South Station Building entrance facing Eloff Street. Wolmarans Street formed the northern boundary of the station precinct, and Wanderers the eastern boundary.    


Rotunda and Airways Centre were on the opposite side of Rissik. These were home to South African Airways and Rotunda was also the main booking area. Towards the end of my days at SATS they also acquired Airways Centre which was on the corner of Wolmarans and Rissik. 

The main "entrance" was at South Station building, which was somewhat of an odd building, its original use no longer in context with what it was at the time. Part of the original Park Station was a wedding cake of glass and steel that can still be seen in Newtown

 
The original vision of the architect was of a grandiose structure festooned with themes depicting animals and transportation, but the finished structure really ended up as being somewhat of a tired hodge podge instead. Granted, it may have been a different story when the original station existed. But from 1955 till 1959 a whole new platform and station complex was built which rerouted lines and  must have caused havoc. The end result was what I grew up with, and which is still a close approximation of what can be seen today. 

Strict segregation was in force and the "European" concourse was generally a very quiet spot except during rush hour when hordes of white passengers descended onto the islands that led down to the platforms. The general hubbub being punctuated by the voice of the heavily accented announcer who would breathless announce: "dietreinopplatform5isdietreinnaflorida". The "Non-European" concourse must have been chaotic all the time, with thousands of Africans trying to catch their overcrowded 3rd class suburbans to Soweto and environs. These trains departed mainly from Platform 1 and 2, and were sometimes overflowing with humanity in transit.

A "suburban train". Photographer and era unknown.
The main "European" concourse hall was a large open space punctuated by the islands for the platforms and a "restaurant" on a small mezzanine that had a spiral staircase situated in a wishing well, leading up to it. "Pie gravy and chips" being a house specialty.

Postcard view of the "European" concourse
Of course, being the "old South Africa" the whole station would literally die as the country stopped work at 1pm on a Saturday. The only people to be seen were those who came into town to visit the bioscope, or who may have been working weekend shifts. 

The station precinct also was home to Tippet Building, and the Systems Managers Offices, as well as Railway Police, The Taal Bureau, Stores and many other minor departments and their offices. All manner of functionality could be found if you knew were to look amongst the many hidden nooks and crannies. 

Tippet Building and the System Managers Offices
There are portions of the station today that have not changed in years and a recent discovery of old  travel and advertising posters in an unused tunnel makes me wonder how much is still sitting there waiting to be found. 

Between the Systems Managers offices and South Station Building is a courtyard that now houses a KFC as well as an office of the police. In my day the display cases were often used to showcase exhibits that were used in recruiting potential employers to work for SATS. There was also a pedestrian subway that crossed under De Villiers Street and came out next to what is now "Attwell Gardens", a park that is now used by the many children that live in the area. The subway is boarded shut and an informal market is now found at its exit.

 

The one interesting artifact we found was one of the station clocks that had been manufactured in 1870 and removed from the original station in 1933 and re-erected in 1958. There were 2 sets of these clocks, but the one on the corner of Rissik and De Villiers is gone. These clocks, like all the clocks on the station, would have been controlled from the master clock in the exchange in the telecoms building.   


The original station building (pre-1955) was the work of Gordon Leith and Gerard Moerdyk, and the foundation stone was laid on 11 December 1928.   The ornamental facade and original South Station building still survives today, but the facade seems lost, and the three closed entrances lend this long structure a desolate look.


If you could go in through this entrance you would find a staircase that leads downwards into what used to be the old concourse that connected to the original 1930's station.

The modernisation of the station rendered this area obsolete, and it became the home of the Museum, Tea Room and Blue Room. Although I am still not 100% sure where the Blue Room actually was situated. This area is beautiful in spite of its emptiness and feel of abandonment. When I was young and we had time to kill we would come down here and stare at the contents of the museum.

The Museum used to be on the right of the staircase and the tea room on the left with a preserved heritage locomotive sitting in the area between the two fountains. This locomotive, the Emil Kessler,  was the original locomotive that ran as the "Rand Tram" between Johannesburg and Boksburg from 1890 until it was withdrawn in 1903. 

Emil Kessler. Photograph by Ronnie Lovemore.

She still exists today but is now located at the OuteniquaTransport Museum.

The area of the lower concourse is devoid of anything except dust and shafts of sunlight that penetrate the gloom. The tea room with its blue and white tiles is empty, as is the museum and the bar and toilets.

The former tea room
It is a fascinating area to explore, but a space that realistically would be very difficult to re-open given the change in demographics of the station


The problem with this particular building is that you could demolish it and nobody would really notice. It's original use has been superseded a long time ago, and much of the offices could easily be accommodated in other station buildings. My memory of the offices here was of cramped "government issue" styled rooms with poor ventilation and lighting, occupied by rude clerks and minor functionaries.

Bidding this almost Moorish area a farewell, we headed back to the concourse, and from there homewards. Photography is not allowed inside the concourse, although you would struggle to find signage that tells you this if you entered from the parking lot. Today the platform islands are gone, the old ticket office no longer exists, and the train departure board stands empty.  There more people here now, and there is quite a buzz. The old CNA still stands where it did when I was young, but the wishing well is gone, and there is a new mezzanine level around the sides. The former main line booking hall is no longer there, and today people queue for inter city buses or to travel on the Shosoloza Meyl or Premier Klasse.  The old steam loco that used to be plinthed outside the telecoms building was removed to the Outeniqua Transport Museum and the whole outside parking was finally decked over.  The former "non European" concourse now houses that Metrorail concourse and it is no longer segregated.


On the other side of the Rissik Street Bridge, the old Rotunda stands empty and silent. Today it is easier to book a flight on-line.


Close to the old Telecoms building is the Gautrain station, and the Reya Vaya stop is within walking distance of the old station and Gautrain. The old gulf red and quaker grey trains are all gone, repainted yellow and grey many are still in service under a new guise, but a shade of their former selves.


I left SATS in 1986, and made 3 more trips by train from Park Station, my last probably around 1988. The station is not quite the way I last saw it, it is the same station, just different.
  
The tour was organised by Past Experiences who operate walking tours in and around the city.