Vintage locomotives: Building a head of steam
The increasingly popular Stars of Sandstone festival offers a unique peak into SA’s rail heritage
Every Autumn, on a functioning 6,000ha farm spread across bluffs above the Caledon River in the eastern Free State, a heritage steam event takes place that has become the envy of the world.
"Stars of Sandstone" spans 10 days, attracts 3,000 guests and is alive with the hiss of steam and the whiff of fired coal. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the country.
"We reach parts of the [country] that SA Tourism hasn’t even heard of," says Wilfred Mole, the dynamic force behind Sandstone, with a combative growl.
As in previous years, the 2017 festival — held early this month on the Sandstone Estates farm — featured restored and salvaged steam locomotives from across Southern Africa, as well as demonstrations of old farm equipment, military hardware and a fleet of old buses, pickups and tractors.
Angola is quite perilous with land mines, so we had to walk down an old track to find her — there were mines on either side. The elephant grass is so high that I didn’t see the engine until I was upon herWilfred Mole
The estimable and rare gathering of steam was rounded off by the careful antics of six or seven vintage aircraft parked at the cheekily named Sandstone International Airport on the edge of the farm, close to the Lesotho border. Swooping through the air with graceful ease, these planes provided a kind of literal backdrop to the steamy straining and snorting on the ground.
If you rode a train pulled by an old narrow-gauge Garratt or Hunslet locomotive through the fields of mauve cosmos and buttery sunflowers, you’d likely also have heard the overhead roar of Harvards or Tiger Moths. It all made for a wonderful, oddly self-enclosed experience, as if you’d stepped through a looking-glass into another slickly running dimension that unfolds with all the precision of, well, a train timetable.
The little loco that could
This year’s event was the best and biggest yet, with pride of place given to the official unveiling of a chunky little locomotive called Josefina. The locomotive — believed to be one of only two remaining Arn Jung locomotives left in Africa — was shipped from Germany to what was then Portuguese West Africa in 1905.
After a life of virtuous toil on the Bom Jesus Sugar Estate in Angola, the loco was rescued by Sandstone’s Mole and his team in 2003.
"We realised that with [former rebel leader Jonas] Savimbi gone there might be some opportunities for restoration," he says. "We made some inquiries and the authorities were happy for us to come in — they said they had more pressing matters to deal with.
"Angola is quite perilous with land mines, so we had to walk down an old track to find her — there were mines on either side. The elephant grass is so high that I didn’t see the engine until I was upon her."
Very little of the old loco remained: only her frame, axle-box and wheels survived. New tanks, boiler mountings and motion rods had to be fashioned, and these were rounded off with a small driver’s cab and a polished brass plate marked "Josefina".
Amid cheering, the restored locomotive was presented to Angola’s ambassador to SA, Josefina Pitra Diakité, on the opening day of the festival.
According to Mole, Diakité told him afterwards that it was one of her more enjoyable days in a job that is better known for fulsome handshakes and false pleasantries.
Spanking new, with her fluttering Angolan flags, Josefina was the star of Sandstone 2017, but of almost equal weight were the appearance of several rare, narrow-gauge Garratt locomotives.
In the heady days of SA steam, the country’s wide functioning network was supplemented by an economically vital, smaller network of narrow-gauge tracks on Rand mines, fruit routes to Avontuur in the Eastern Cape and sugarcane estates in KwaZulu Natal.
"The reason so many of these European photographers are here is our Garratts," says Mole. "Here at Sandstone we have the second-oldest narrow-gauge Garratt in the world, ex of Rustenburg Platinum, and it’s created a great deal of interest," he says.
"These guys [the photographers] can be pretty demanding. I had one of them shout at one of my drivers this morning [groups of photographers are ferried across the farm by bus drivers] because he didn’t stop in the right place and one of them wanted a windmill moved because it made for a better photo.
"They don’t seem to realise that to have a locomotive ready at 6am you have to start steaming her up at 2am."
Mole says most of the manpower on the railway comes from volunteer drivers and firemen.
"We don’t always have the numbers to take care of every whim," he adds.
With craft beer tents and a talented chef replacing communal suppers cooked in massive potjies, Sandstone has recently grown towards what one senses is a tipping point.
The festival has expanded phenomenally in the past five years, and this year it attracted a contingent of Australian drivers and firemen, a family from Finland, a couple from the Czech Republic and two young Belgian drivers who managed to stall a train several times while negotiating a deceptively difficult incline — much to Mole’s chagrin.
Indeed, such is the event’s expansion that Mole and Mike Myers, his quietly effective second-in-command, are beginning to fret about the future.
Both realise only too well that one of Sandstone’s unique selling points is that it offers — in a sense — a thrilling working museum with a remarkably generous attitude to touching, feeling and climbing aboard.
However, a working museum comes with wear and tear.
Damaged wheels need to be remachined and tracks can be time-consuming to replace. Worn parts on rare locomotives are, in certain instances, irreplaceable.
No fan of the more tawdry photographers, Mole has also begun to dread open days on the farm.
"The public herd in and I find wing mirrors ripped off cars and trucks," he says. "I had to confront a member of the public with farm security as he was putting something he’d stolen into his boot.
"I threatened him with a police cell in Ficksburg if he didn’t leave. He’s still writing me letters."
This all speaks to the possibility of more niche events in the future — bespoke outings catering for upmarket clientele paying good money.
At the same time, chichi weekends for corporates may make a mockery of the lively fun to be found at Sandstone, the hustle and bustle on the roads, the clatter of rolling-stock as it shuffles down the narrow track, the buzz overhead ... the very things, in other words, that make the experience of visiting such fun.
Ordinarily, the answer to Sandstone’s bright future might lie on the outer edge of the farm, where its narrow-gauge track brushes against a siding called Vailima on the once-functioning Bloemfontein-Bethlehem line.
Stretching east from Bloemfontein for 303km, the line rolls through gently captivating sandstone country as it heads amiably towards the Lesotho border.
While Mole admits that his relationship with Transnet is as good as it has ever been, there is too much to do on the mainline track to resuscitate it, with degradation, pilfering and decay having taken their toll. Neither Sandstone nor Transnet is prepared to foot the bill, which will run into tens of millions of rand — perhaps more.
The two parties have reached an impasse for the time being.
But imagine the tourist potential of a boozy mainline journey from Bloemfontein to Vailima on standard gauge, before transferring to the scaled-down delights of Sandstone for a bespoke weekend.