Secreted away in a flat, dusty corner of the Germiston shunting yards are two old running sheds belonging to Reefsteamers, Gauteng’s sole steam engine operator. Reefsteamers is made up of about 60 volunteers, mainly men, who clean, repair and fuel steam locomotives and rolling stock, all of which happens in the two shadow-crossed, sagging sheds. Such enterprise is important, for without out it growling old locos wouldn’t be able to pull happy weekend tourists and their delighted children around the Reef once a month.
Some of the volunteers — call it a splinter group within the broader group of 60 — have even been known to rebuild rusty boilers and profile their locos’ own wheels, a time-consuming job requiring high levels of care and accuracy. These guys are prepared to drive halfway across the country on a weekend so they can rescue a part rusting in a meadow overlooking the sea, or prise something important from reluctant hands. Their grease-stained striving is easy to parody but it’s also selfless and therefore strangely heroic. The volunteers deserve a medal.
Reefsteamers’ Sunday morning jaunt from Park Station to Magaliesburg Village is probably the most popular item on its menu, but the company has been known to cruise the Germiston line too, heading from Heathfield (near OR Tambo airport) via Midrand to the lazy Saturday afternoon joys of the Irene market.
"People don’t realise it but we’ve been going for 30 years," says Greg Zurnamer, Reefsteamers’ public relations man. "Our plan is to create an emotional attachment with Jo’burg’s own steam train — that’s important for us because we’re hoping people will have a bond with something that they see as uniquely their own."
Zurnamer was introduced to the steam bug when he was a boy. His father, Bernard, was a professional locomotive photographer, whose work culminated in the seminal book, The Locomotives of the SA Railways. Though only 138 pages thick, it is nowadays rare and therefore precious, containing some lovely old photographs of steam engines easing beneath the mauve arms of jacarandas as they roll towards water and refuelling.
Because his dad photographed locomotives, some of Greg’s early life was spent chasing long-departed trains. He and his mother would be bundled into the car to shoot down the road, looking for a likely verge or rise for dad to mount his camera. A long wait would invariably follow, with the price of the effort to get there invariably unequal in Zurnamer junior’s young mind to the roll of film that came from these hot afternoons in the veld.
Unbeknown to Zurnamer (the younger), however, the romance of steam was quietly thickening in his blood. It wasn’t long before he had developed a full-blown habit.
A steam engine is a quixotic, subtle beast, needing careful tending to see that fire and water combine in exactly the right way to create steam. It is difficult not to be speechlessly admiring of their animate energy if exposed for long enough. There is a kind of life that jets hotly through their veins and it is this very life that inspires steam railway enthusiasts to photograph the beasts and record the specifications of the vanishing breed.
It all works via steam-carrying rods through the boiler, which crank pistons; in turn, these lever the engine’s wheels up and down and so the engine is on her way.
"Two guys traditionally stand on the footplate in the cab," says Zurnamer. "A fireman and a driver. It’s the fireman’s job to see that the fire in the firebox is smoking properly. Stoking the fire might look easy but it can take up to eight hours to get it to what we call ‘steamed up’ and nearly 24 to start the entire process. If we’re using one of the locos for a Reefsteamers outing on the Saturday, guys have been known to spend all Friday night with an engine, shovelling coal and seeing to it that the heat slowly intensifies."
The relationship between the men in the cab and the steam locomotives themselves were frequently longstanding, often tempestuous, sometimes mutely loving. Engines were often given nicknames — Worshond is one — and Zurnamer tells of the convention where the driver used to pick up "tokens" from designated station platforms down the line.
These tokens authorised the driver to take the train to the next junction or watering stop, with five or six tokens being exchanged on a one-way trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town, for instance, with crews working in four-hour shifts before heading home in the opposite direction.
"You always had characters on the engines," smiles Zurnamer. "There were grumpy drivers, drivers who drove too fast, drivers who loved their engines. Drivers tended to bond with their engines. They wouldn’t drive anything else."
For all of Reefsteamers’ romance, here is a nonprofit organisation on a shoestring budget. It doesn’t — to coin a phrase — always find itself on the same track as Transnet and Prasa, from whom it rents line, and it also has to provide its own water when undertaking weekend specials out to, say, the Magaliesburg. On top of all of this, it also needs to pay what are called Y/Q fees in the argot of the industry — as I understand it, a payment that formally lodges its route with the relevant authorities.
More pressingly, the group’s human stock is dwindling. It takes about five years to train a driver to the point where he — or she — can be certified, and Gordon Bennett is one of the few who has stepped into the breach. A former auto-electrician, he’s been with Reefsteamers since 2009 and, as he tells it, had to move sharply: "The old guy who was driving the Hunslet [Hunslet-Taylor, an old English locomotive much used on the local mines and sugar cane plantations] was only coming in every second day and he was getting on a bit, so I had to get myself certified quickly on the Hunslet so I could drive it."
Reefsteamers does have drivers other than Bennett in its midst but they are ageing and not being replaced. Here is an organisation of volunteers, people who give of their time without expectation of remuneration. Their numbers are shrinking to the point where people with an eye on the future are becoming slightly twitchy.
Unless there is an infusion of new blood — and a substantial one at that — the entire system is going to be one of diminishing returns. For all of steam’s languid romance, proverbially the track is narrowing in the distance.