Sunday, 24 August 2014

Lets go by Train (2)

In which we travel on the Trans-Natal.

We seemed to go to Durban every 7 years, and we stayed at the "Coogee Beach Hotel" which was if I recall in Gillespie Street. The overnight train trip (aka "The Holiday Train") was part of the holiday, and about 6 weeks before we were due to leave my father would go to Park Station to book our compartment on the Trans-Natal. It was a very formal occasional too, the bookings for main line trains was run almost like a travel agent, and you bought the tickets as well as bedding tickets and meal tickets there.

Then the long wait which would involve endless imagination, careful choice of clothing and end of year exams. Eventually the big day would arrive and one fine day in December we would pack the red samsonite suitcases and head off to Park Station and down to the main line platforms where we would eagerly wait for the pair of red electric units bringing in the train.

Postcard view of the "European" concourse
The concourse at Park Station was somewhat of a cathedral with its high ceiling, polished floors and islands leading down to the platforms. It was also segregated and in later years I got to know it reasonably well. I revisited it in 2012, and posted about that on my blog.

The first thing we had to do was check the passenger plan on the board at the platform, this would indicate which coach and which compartment your family was placed in. the coaches had a spring clip outside the windows of each compartment or coupe, and a small tag would be affixed to that clip with the passengers names on them. My father was never one for being late so invariably we stood around for hours waiting for the train to arrive. Eventually the electric units would come through, big red heavy machines that made a wonderful noise that is still characteristic of the 6E's today. Sadly  the wonderful wooden coaches had been replaced by the all new Formica clad oval roof saloons on these "crack" mainline trains so part of the fun was gone.


The train would be packed during the holiday season and people would throng the platform and windows, waiting until the departure bells rang and the units suddenly turned on the blowers as they started to inch forward out of Park Station. Some of the images I am using are of a trip I took with Reefsteamers in 2010 when we passed through Park Station en route for Magaliesburg. 


We would wend our way through the peak hour suburbans that headed in and out of the station, the Trans-Natal would leave in the late afternoon, heading east and pause at Germiston to pick up coaches and then head on its way to Natal, arriving after 9.00am the next morning.

We never ate in the dining saloon of the train, but always had a huge hamper of sandwiches, boiled eggs, tea and fruit to munch on. Invariably we were hungry immediately after leaving Johannesburg. Then the ticket examiner would call, and then the bedding boy who would take orders for beds in preparation for making the beds in the traditional blue SAR blankets and starched sheets. A steward would also come around and take orders for the dining saloon.  At Germiston they would shunt on coaches from Pretoria and we would be able to watch the steam engines in action. In 1986 during my last trip on the Trans-Natal the shunt would be done by the steam pilot loco of Germiston, class 12AR "Susan", who is still around and used by Reefsteamers.  Then the blowers would start up and the train would start to move, nary a jerk would be felt and it usually felt as if the platform was leaving the train instead of the other way around.

The journey would formally commence and we would trundle towards Durban. After or during our packed supper the beds would be made up by the bedding boy, and that meant that the bench seats were no longer available to sit on, but we would still lean out of the windows watching the scenery go past. Sleep did not feature in our plans, after all we only did  this every 7 years and only had 7 days to do it all in.

The Trans-Karoo headed by a pair of 5E's

Eventually my parents would pack us all off to bed, first banishing us to the corridor while she changed. My brother and I always in the upper bunks. Alas, sleep never came to me on those trips and it would be a long night of listening to the unique noises of a train and feel the swaying motion as we journeyed to Natal.

A typical SAR sleeper coach. (Reefsteamers)

The modern coaches were very close in design to the wooden coaches although the clerestory roof was gone and the woodwork had been replaced by easy to clean Formica, although the leather seats were still there. The difference between 2nd and first class was that in 2nd class 6 bunks could be made up whereas in 1st only 4 were, and the leather was blue and there was a shower in the first class coaches.

Typical 2nd class compartment

The strange basin was still the same, as was the steam radiator and of course the blue water bottle which stood at the end of the corridors still dispensed water from a silver tap. There were also 3rd class coaches which were mostly sitters, and of course strictly segregated from the rest of the train.

Once again sleep would evade us and the night would drag on, the Trans-Natal was an express so did not stop at each and every station, so occasionally the outside light that shone through the steel shutters would change as we hurtled through a station. Every now and then a sliding door would open as somebody headed off to the loo down the passage, and occasionally the units in front would sound their horns. We were safe in those trains, we knew the driver and his assistant were awake and secretly I really wanted to be a train driver driving the units, although I ended up in the Telecommunications Department instead. 


The next morning would see us meandering down the long hills of Natal, calling at some of the sleepy stations along the way. Marionhill was very memorable because the train seemingly stopped in the middle of nowhere, and heaps of African children would throng around the train hoping that people would throw coins or sweets for them. Then we would slowly pull away again and continue on our journey to Pietermaritzburg with its circular platform and strange unfamiliar steelwork. It was a very pretty station, and nothing like the concrete monoliths in Durban and Johannesburg.

Then we were off once again on the final downhill stretch to Durban, by now the air felt very different, a touch of humidity and heat? those trains were not air conditioned and opening a window was the best way to keep cool. The holiday feel was in the air.

The cuttings and greenery started to give way to houses and industry and soon we were wending our way into Durban Station. I think I only went into the new station in 1986, our other arrivals may have been at the old station.  Our holiday had begun!.


There are at least 3 reels of 8mm footage from our Durban holidays that have survived. Unfortunately though, they are random and don't seem to have any real theme. Just a family, on their holidays. Actually its more about 2 boys on their holidays with the occasional shot of my father in them. That means my mother must have been playing cameraperson.  There is one image that came out which I am particularly fond of, and which I would love to have as a still image. 


Naturally there are no images of the train trip itself, but then film was an expensive commodity and while I do recall taking photographs one year, they were never developed and the film was lost forever.


Those seven days flew by in 2 days, and eventually we would be dropped off at the station by my uncle and board the train for the trip back to Johannesburg. It too was a identical trip, except for one odd thing which always confused me. In the morning it always felt as if we were heading in the wrong direction, instead of going towards Johannesburg it felt as if we were heading back to Durban. I always secretly hoped that this was the case, but it never was.  Arriving at Park Station was an anti-climax. It did not feel good to be at home, although none of us missed the heat and humidity. The only real thing we brought back was sunburn, sand in strange places and a bottle  of sea water for the maid. It was really time to start counting off another 7 years on the calender. But first it was Back to School!


The last time I caught the Trans-Natal was in 1986, I had resigned from Transnet (as the SAR was now known) and had a weeks holiday. I traveled 1st class on my annual free pass and it was almost exactly as I remembered it from my childhood, the only difference was that I ate breakfast in the dining saloon.  It was also the last time I traveled on a mainline train in South Africa. 

Reefsteamers still operates two sets of original ex SAR coachsets in their original livery. They have saloons and sitters and the experience is very good for nostalgia sake. 

Train travel as part of the holiday was fun when you were young, although I do not know how my parents coped with us in that compartment, fortunately the trips were only overnighters. We never went on the Blue train, or even the Trans-Karoo, so those experiences are not in my field of knowledge. I did use the train when I was doing my national service, traveling from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein, Kimberly and Jan Kemp Dorp. That one involved a change at Warrenton and a 4 hour wait for the Mafeking train with its steam loco in front. I wish I had paid more attention to those trips but then we were more interested in getting home to civvy street. I also saw a troop train leave Johannesburg bound for the border, and it was a very memorable occasion, long lines of uniformed soldiers waving as the train pulled out of the station, the noise and emotion were very tangible, and very sad too. 

Those days are gone. The railways that I knew no longer exists, it has moved on, but whether it has improved I cannot say as I have never traveled with Shosholoza Meyl, I believe that it is still fun, it is just slightly different. 

Special credit must go to Reefsteamers who has managed to maintain their fleet of nostalgia which helped me so much to recapture some of my lost memories. SAR Menus courtesy of Brian Bunyard.

DR Walker 2014. Created 24/08/2014.



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