John’s Jaunt: A visit to Reefsteamers

Image copyright Jorge Borralho.

Spurred on by the excitement of another photographic opportunity, approximately fifteen EPC members got together at the Germiston Depot and shunting yard to photograph a bygone piece of our country’s heritage. It was Saturday the 27thJuly 2019 and a rather frigidly cold morning, the promise of mist and drama set against a distant scarlet red rising sun created an air of anticipation.  To everyone’s delight, the weather did not disappoint, thick mist shrouded the yard like a blanket of palpable white vapour reducing visibility to several metres, from a photography perspective the light initially was a little challenging but with the morning sun rising things changed, the mood and dynamics of light constantly changing created for some impressive opportunities.  If only we could capture what we saw, the challenge was on and everyone was looking for different scenes.

EPC members ready to shoot.
Image copyright Jorge Borralho.

The natural drama was unbelievably beautiful, a sight to behold and natures canvas to release all those creative minds with a host of long stowed-away ideas. We all eagerly waited for the Steam Loco “SUSAN” to show up. Soon however the unforgettable sights and sounds of an old steam engine slowly shunting to the yard presented itself almost surrealistically. A black soot covered mechanical beast spewing steam from beneath its myriad of plumbing complexity arrived, with polished brass and copper piping set against a ghost like misty morning with the sun peering in the distance from within a thick blanket of mist resembling a diffused light from afar. 

“Susan” at sunrise.
Image copyright Jorge Borralho.

Photographing steam trains is not everyone’s cup of tea but it’s certainly something to acknowledge and appreciate as well as realise its potential for dramatic and sometimes awe inspiring photography.  By way of an example have a look at Matthew Malkiewicz web site “Lost Tracks of Time”.  A self taught photographer who spends his spare time photographing these beautiful “Iron Horses” in North America.  Obviously we don’t have the same sort of countryside and weather etc. but we do have some amazingly beautiful places where these magnificent machines and their caretakers can be seen, like the Western Cape as an example… 🙂 For a bit of our own magical steam heritage have a look at the Red Devil commissioned back into service albeit as a tourist attraction mostly.

Incomprehensibly, these iconic and historically steeped locomotives are in the hands of privateers like the Reefsteamers whose members dedicate their spare time to maintaining and restoring these works of art and invaluable part of South African heritage. Sadly, government has all but forgotten these amazing machines and the fact that the steam era formed a significantly important part of the industrialisation of South Africa.

In 1845 the Chairman of the Cape of Good Hope Western Railway, banker and merchant Mr. Harrison Watson, announced his company’s planned railway, stating that “This Railway is calculated to be of immense benefit to this flourishing Colony; and as it is confined to the more populous districts in the neighbourhood of Cape Town, the enterprise is certain to return ample remunerative profits to the shareholders.” The reaction towards this notice was, in general, negative and the Attorney General of the Cape Colony, the Hon. William Porter, asked Mr. Harrison Watson not to associate him with a venture of this kind. Eventually the Cape of Good Hope Western Railway did not go ahead with its planned railway.  The honour of the first running railway in Southern Africa would not befall Cape Town. The first railway line in Southern Africa was laid along the Bluff in Durban, capital of Natal, and was not hauled by a steam locomotive but by oxen. The Natal Railway Company was formed in 1859, and its line from Point into Durban, barely two miles long, was opened on 26 June 1860. The first ever steam locomotive in Natal is today standing in the Main building of Durban station. So our Railways are 160 years old if you go back to the first line laid back in 1859. 

A BRIEF ON REEFSTEAMERS (Courtesy of Ian Morison)

Reefsteamers is a non profit Company.  We are affiliated to the Transnet Heritage Foundation (Railway Museum) and are controlled under their auspices.  When Transnet discontinued daily steam operations during 1991, Reefsteamers was established at the old loco shed in Germiston. The main objective is to preserve and rebuild old steam locomotives. We also run special day and weekend trips for private persons and Companies to various destinations in order to fund our activities.  This organization comprises people from all walks of life such as business executives, engineers, accountants and pensioners, most of whom spent many years in the employ of the Railways.  All work is done on a voluntary basis and no one is paid any remuneration whatsoever. 

We currently have 100 members both local and overseas. Twenty-five people are actively involved in restoration during weekends.  We aim to offer a very competitive, comfortable and efficient service to our passengers as the success of the organisation and consequently the preservation of steam relies heavily on our ability to fund our projects. We believe wholeheartedly that it is our duty to preserve steam to make this pleasure available to our grandchildren.  We welcome any interested persons to join Reefsteamers. One need not necessarily have technical skills to be a working member. There are many opportunities for members to become involved in activities such as the organizing and controlling of the train trips, polishing, fitting, cleaning, advertising or even assisting with general tasks such as administration.  

There is definitely a growing demand for steam since this method of traction was phased out years ago. One will often see steam trains featured in advertisements on television, in movies or recently in South African musician’s videos. People are yearning for this mode of travel from a bygone era. We at Reefsteamers, offer this privilege. To sustain this endeavour, however, we require a wide range of sponsorships to support the huge tasks of restoration, maintenance, storage and running of steam locomotives.  Many of our current members may never see the completion of some of our projects in their lifetime; but we persevere in the hope that future generations may derive benefit from our efforts.  The main aim of Reefsteamers is based around preservation of steam locomotives. We are a technically focused organisation to preserve and restore locomotives. To fund the organisation and to keep it going we run day trips for public at large and when we have an opportunity we run longer tours for steam enthusiasts to generate revenue to plough it back into the preservation of locomotives and rolling stock.  We have technical excellence focus and make sure our Rolling Stock look as good and clean as new.  Your support is essential to safe this part of South Africa’s unique industrial history heritage!”

Thanks to all those EPC Braves and Squaws who attended and specifically those that went out of their way to make the necessary arrangements, John, Clare and others.  Looking forward to the next outings scheduled.

The Reefsteamers Depot in Germiston is approximately 9.3 kilometers from the Edenvale Community Centre.

GPS Coordinates to Reefsteamers Depot and Shunting Yard in Germiston – S 26° 12′ 35.125” E 28° 10′ 36.271”

Article and photographs by Jorge Borralho.

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