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Jo'Burg Days: Letter From Cape Town

Memories of train travel in the 1970’s light up this letter to a friend by Barbara Durlacher. And a good memory for faces reaps a dividend.
I’m in Cape Town now, fine and dandy, but dying to tell you about my little adventure on the trip from Johannesburg. Do you remember a couple of years ago when we were at London’s Victoria Station booking for that trip to Germany? The travel clerk was very interested when he saw my South African passport. “You’ve still got steam trains in South Africa, haven’t you?” I remember him asking. “Yes, and people love them, although the railway higher-ups are not bothering to preserve them, they want to convert to diesel and electric.” “I’m a member of the Steam Train Preservation Society in Britain. We often send groups of people to South Africa to travel on the trains; they also loved photographing them, it’s a very popular holiday,” was the young man’s rejoinder. * * “It was terribly hot and uncomfortable in the compartment. There were five of us in a six-berth, and it was impossibly crowded, so I asked the conductor several times if he wouldn’t move me to a coupé. I really didn’t fancy sleeping with all those old tannies! One old girl kept farting, although she tried to disguise it by coughing … fat chance!! The conductor promised that after Kimberley he would see if there was something, but I’d have to wait until then.” We reached Kimberley at about six and it was even hotter. “We’re waiting for the train from Windhoek bringing passengers to catch the Union-Castle mailship in Cape Town,” we were told. I went to the buffet car and had an early dinner. The food was delicious, I was quite surprised! It was nearly nine by the time the guard shouted “All aboard!” and I heard a very English voice saying in a broad plummy accent …”and give my salaams to Mummy and Daddy. Say hullo to Michael for me as well. Hope you enjoyed yourself … byee, have a good trip … byeee!” “Things improved after we left Kimberley and the cool air blew in; it had been a terribly uncomfortable wait at the station in the heat and dust. Now I’m totally bored, and dying to get into my bunk. I spoke to the conductor again when he came round to check the tickets, and reminded him that after Kimberley he had said I could use the coupé.” “Yes, its OK now, those other passengers haven’t arrived,” he replied. So, I quickly collected my things and moved down to the carriage. I was settling down when two young men arrived. “These are our seats,” they said indignantly, blocking the doorway. I started to explain that the conductor had said the coupé was empty, and then I looked more closely at one of the young men. “But I remember you!” I said, “You’re the booking clerk from Victoria in London who is so interested in steam trains!” Perhaps I was more amazed by the coincidence than he was; it seemed so extraordinary that out of all the trains I could have travelled on, and all the coupés I could have occupied, standing in front of me should be the same guy from London who had talked about steam trains in South Africa. Out of all those millions of travellers, he had popped up here. I realised now it was he I had overheard saying goodbye on the Kimberley platform, and here he was, standing in front of me!! Talk about synchronicity! After a bit of prompting the young guy said he remembered me, but really he and his pal were much more interested in the train. Two engines had been hooked on at Kimberley, ready for the long haul across the Karoo. Now they were pulling hard, and the train was moving at speed. Sighing, I sat back, relief flooding across me as I felt the rush of cool air. The boys were in transports of delight. They quickly unpacked their rucksacks, extracting compact sound recording equipment and a stopwatch, shouting excitedly to one another. One was holding the mike out of the window, while the other counted the telegraph poles as they flashed past, timing them with the stopwatch. “We’re doing 53 miles an hour. Not BAD!” the one fellow said, “Just wait until the engines get into their stride, they’ll probably reach 65 when they’ve got a full head of steam!!” Their enthusiasm amused me, but I was rather irritated that they had taken ‘my’ coupé, when to my surprise the guy I had recognised said, “You don’t need to move, we’re going to be recording for the next couple of hours and taking notes, so we don’t need the seats. We’re getting off at De Aar and taking the ‘Up’ train back to Johannesburg.” “Gosh! That’s kind of you,” I blurted out, grateful that at least I would get a decent night’s sleep without having to go back to the crowded compartment with its bad-tempered and smelly old women. I never saw the boys again. Presumably they spent the night doing their thing, enjoying themselves in their own way. But what a strange coincidence and what a bit of luck! I soon fell into a deep sleep; but was woken by the train slowing down. Raising the blind a little I looked out. In the moonlight, I saw a scene of interlinking train lines. They stretched away into the darkness, criss-crossing, meeting, running parallel for a few yards then fading away into the distance. Shunting engines were busy breaking up trains into separate units and reattaching them to trains going in another direction. One carriage over there, another here: a game of noughts and crosses played by experts. This was De Aar, one of the biggest junctions in Southern Africa, the place where scores of lines from all over the Cape Province met, where new steam units were attached to passenger and goods trains ready for the long pull across the Karoo; and the steep gradients of the Hex River Mountains. Backwards and forwards, creak, clunk, and bang … rattle and squeak … “Oh, for Heaven’s sake! I want to sleeeep … don’t they know how exhausted I am?” “That damn engine has been shunting us around for hours,” I muttered with irritation when at last the noises stopped and we settled down waiting for the green signal to drop. Then, across the tracks I saw her. Hair flying, flimsy white nightdress clinging to her legs, winter coat clutched at the breast, she was stumbling towards the Cape Town train. “Wait, wait,” she panted as she ran, “Wait for meeee … Is that the train to Cape Town? …Wait … don’t go, wait for meeee …” Woken by the arrival at De Aar, the woman had gone to the toilet at the end of the adjoining carriage. Unaware of the activity of the busy engines, she had not realised that this carriage had been detached and shunted onto a spur, there to wait for reattachment to a string going off to Port Elizabeth. Suddenly, feminine intuition; instinct – call it what you will - kicked in, and she jumped off the stationary carriage. Starting off in the direction of the only fully formed-up train she could see … she ran, calling out in fright and anguish …“Is that the train for Cape Town? Wait for meeee … Don’t go, wait for meeeee …” as she stumbled and scrambled her way across the yard. Hastily, shrugging on a coat, I slipped out of my coupé and hauled her back on board. Trembling and hysterical, she shivered and shook, tears streaming down her cheeks, while I led her back to her compartment and settled her into her bunk. Shuddering with fright and exertion, it took her a few minutes to settle down, but at last she drifted off into a deep sleep … no doubt to dream. A dream of noisy shunting engines bearing down on her, piercing headlights on full, whistling and tooting, while she stood immobile, unable to move out of their path … what a ghastly nightmare!

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