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The Ladismith branch, by C P Lewis ©

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We are indebted to Rosalind Jones for permission to post this work by Jan Volschenk who was born in the Riversdale district and painted this view of the entrance to Tradouw Pass on the Zuurbraak-Ladismith road c 1910.  As we shall see, the artist has portrayed his sense of the remoteness and beauty of a world that could be harsh and uncompromising.  

Little more than half-a-lifetime ago there were no paved roads within 100 miles of Ladismith.  To get there one had to endure hours of twisting, narrow, dusty gravel or take the train. Small wonder that most citizens of the western Little Karoo chose the "Makadas"(1) as they called it - it was slow but at least it was comfortable. This state of affairs continued until that pacman-like destroyer of remoteness (and branch lines, for that matter) - the paved highway - arrived in Ladismith in the early 1960s, whereafter there was a gradual decline in goods and passenger traffic until the line's demise as a result of the 500-year flood of January 1981.  Even so, right up to the end there were sidings along its 89-mile length that could only be reached by primitive farm tracks. 

(1) For possible origins of the local folk's name for the train you could do no better than refer to Piet Conradie's comprehensive coverage of the Ladismith branch.  Piet has three explanations for the name "Makadas":
  1. It is a corruption of "Make a dash" 
  2. It is a corruption of "Muck and dust" 
  3. It was a name used by local volkies from the sound made by the engine pulling their train (a suggestion by Pierre de Wet that seems good) 

Thanks, as usual, to Bruno Martin for his ever-reliable and accurate map.  The rail distance from Touws River to Ladismith was 89 miles or 143 kilometres.  

1. We start this chapter at Touws River, which we visit perhaps for the last time on "Soul of A Railway".  The well-preserved CGR home signals at the Cape Town end of Touws River (note also part of the old locoshed) were photographed in 1951 by one of SAR's unsung heroes, the late Helmuth ("H") Hagen.  He and Duff Conradie were the engineers in charge of the construction of the new locomotive depot and repair shops for the condensers as well as the interchange sidings for the changeover from electricity to steam.  Many years and adventures later H went on to become Braam le Roux's right-hand man as Assistant General Manager Operating while Duff, an equally competent engineer was content to see his career out as District Engineer at Oudtshoorn.  

2. H was more than just a professional railwayman.  He was a railway enthusiast who loved steam - which he discreetly kept to himself in an environment that became increasingly hostile to our favourite traction over the years.  It is hardly surprising that he knew the rarity of class 7F 1359, one of the three NCCR 7s custom-made by North British in 1913 seen here on the south end shunt in 1950.  

3. In the shadow of Touws River's monument to bad planning, 7E 1348 was being prepared for the Ladismith Makadas in April 1962.  NCCR class 7s became SAR class 7E No's 1347-9. They were long-lived, the last two, 1347 and 1348 being withdrawn three years after this photo was made.   

It is not known what motive power opened the Ladismith branch in 1925 but a likely guess is that it was class 7s.  Thus they almost saw 50 years of service to the town.  There is a certain irony in the use of NCCR engines along here because when the Minister performed the opening ceremony at Ladismith he hinted that a connection with Calitzdorp via the Huis River Pass was under consideration - how serious he was has never been established but it would certainly have put the wind up the NCCR management.  

4.  A last bit of attention for 1348 class 7E before taking that day's Makadas to Ladismith in April 1962.  Note the deserted look of the place, with a solitary condenser poking its nose out of the shed and one of the Touws River yard pilots, class 3R No 1448 on the left - a long way from its original stamping ground, the Natal main line. 
Ever since this world began, there is not much sadder than a class one depot that's downgraded to a branch-line shed (to paraphrase Johnny Mercer).  By April 1962 steam on the main line was confined to block loads of power-station coal and export grain in dwindling numbers and Touws River, having lost all its 50 condensers, was only entertaining them as visitors from Beaufort West.  Within six months these visits had dwindled to nothing (except for light engines on their way to or from the Salt River workshops) and cold winds would whistle through the lonely shed. 

5. All of a sudden, towards the end of 1962, there was an influx of the classes 7 at Touws River, all from recently dieselised South West Africa.  Among them was No 1032, a wide cab class 7BS (the S stood for "superheated" and it was so designated on its numberplate).  The photo was made at Ladismith in September 1963 when, to my astonishment, she still had her original Imperial Military Railways brass dome as supplied by Nielson Reid in 1900 - somewhat battered and dented by this time.  She also had a wide cab as fitted by the CSAR and superheater as equipped by SAR.  Frank Holland provides us with insight into the history of this class in Volume I of "Steam Locomotives of the South African Railways", as well as the numbering details.  No 1032 started life as Neilson Reid 5835; IMR 128; CSAR 373.  

Upon seeing this, Leith Paxton sent us a photo of 1032 at Port Elizabeth to where she had been transferred after her tour of duty on the Ladismith branch.  Les's allocation list tells us she was at Sydenham in March 1966 and that all the 7s were retired by late 1971 so she might have made her three score years and ten.  What a pity she couldn't write her autobiography.  

6. A superb early morning portrait by John of class 7A No 1011, another of Touws River's SWA hand-me-downs, in May 1971.  It would have been more appropriate as a late evening picture for this was almost the last shout of the Touws River 7s - the last two, including No 1011, were withdrawn in January 1972. 

7.  The other NCCR 7th that was still working out of Touws River in 1962 was No 1347, here departing with the Makadas.   The track leading off to the right in the foreground was once the lead to the original shed which was situated to the right of the white-gabled building that was the loco store.  

8. In April 1962 I was chasing the last of the condensers working between Touws River and Beaufort West, and these 7s were a distraction.  Thank goodness I did squeeze in a few moments to get some photos of them, especially the NCCR ones.  This was No 1348 charging out of town over a stretch of the Cape Main line that must have seen 7th class action for almost 80 years - latterly only as far as Latou. I have no record of how far this was from Touws River but since the Makadas was only allowed four minutes from departure to the junction and the Makadas was no Eurostar it couldn't have been very far!  

9.  Soon after turning away from the main line at Latou the branch skirted this dam that provided Touws River with its water supply.  That's 1347 on the same train depicted in photo 7.  

10.  First siding out of town was Nouga.  No, it's not named after a French confection - apparently it's a San (= Bushman) word meaning "snaky place" (2).  Note that there are a couple of wagons parked off here, although only five miles down the line it was still necessary to use the railway.  Looking at the extra tanker, this must have been the day when 480-up was due to water the cottages at Karreevlakte and Winkelplaas in accordance with instructions laid down in the WTB.   

Sorry, we've gotta leave #1347 now - there's a condenser leaving for Beaufort West in half-an-hour......  

(2) Nienaber G S & Raper P E, "Toponymica Hottentotica"  

11. Even though South West Africa sent its entire fleet of 24s back to the Union during 1961 the Ladismith branch continued to be a sole preserve of the 7s until 1967 when, at last, two of these 2-8-4s designed for 45lb rail were allocated to Touws River.  Almost immediately they took over the regular workings, as with No 3623 seen here leaving Avondrust in April 1968. Henceforth three 7s were retained for extra trains (of which there still were many) and standby for when one of the 24s was in for washout or repairs.  Occasionally, pesky photographers would tune the Shed Foreman to put a 7 on the regular train and this was done with surprising good grace over several years. 

12. Early in 1971 the great Rhodesian photographer, Chris Butcher was planning his annual SAR bash.  By correspondence from Bulawayo he arranged for a seventh class on the Makadas, and this was duly provided on Ascension Day, 1971 - a public holiday in South Africa. Tagging along on this Thursday, 7 May 1971 were Charlie and John.  We enjoyed good weather and the crew entered entirely into the spirit of the occasion.  

The landscape seemed to glow with unusual brilliance, as you can see in this glimpse of 7A 1011 scurrying along between Avondrust and Kraggasrivier.  

13. If there is a more afgeleë (= isolated, somehow sounds even more remote in Afrikaans!) siding than Allemorgens, I've yet to see it.  Even so, there was still passenger business on this day.  A husband, his wife and their baby blanketed to her back alighted and were met by a solitary soul with no transport nor any visible dwelling within miles.  That bumpy track just to the left of the smokebox was the only access to the place.  

14. There was no road, not even a bumpy one, that followed the railway east of Allemorgens.  Driving like crazy along a gravel road that needed twice as far to get there, we caught up with 1011 again between Hondewater and Plathuis (= Dogs Water and Flat Roof - you've gotta love these place names).  Who that gent was in his Sunday best (it was Ascension day), where he was from or going to I dunno, but again there was no sign of habitation nor less a place of worship within miles of here.  

15. A few years earlier one of the newly arrived class 24s, No 3623 was crossing the Brakrivier between Hondewater and Plathuis with the eastbound Makadas in April 1968.  

16. Without any correspondence or prior arrangements, in April 1970 John rocked up at Plathuis and there was 1011 standing in for an unavailable class 24.  Plenty of red in this pin perfect set, the fire buckets, the extinguisher the buffer beam, smokebox wheel and cabside numberplate.  And did you spot the farm tractor in the second ES truck?   

17. A fortnight later John was here again, as was 1011 on a substantial eastbound Makadas.  

18. Plathuis had a shop and old-fashioned petrol bowsers. It is situated in the shadow of the Anysberg, a sort of continuation of the Swartberg, not so high but even wilder.  No 984 was departing with the eastbound Makadas in August 1970

19. And here she is again, running up the valley of the Swartberg River through Winkelplaas on the final stretch to Ladismith.

20. Around Winkelplaas the farms start to look more prosperous and vineyards, deciduous fruit and cotton fields (mostly irrigated) begin to appear. This is 984 again, photographed on a visit to the line in August 1970.

21. A bit further up the fertile valley of the Swartberg River between Winkelplaas and Ladismith, with class 24 No 3623 on the same train depicted in photo 15.  

22. We've caught up with the May 1971 working of 7A 1011 again, just months before she was withdrawn.  Only a mile to go to Ladismith station with the majestic Seven Weeks Poort massif rising to more than 7,600 feet in the background.  

23. One of the last photos of a memorable day. Sadly the colour version has faded but the black-and-white remains one of my favourites.  Needless to say, the smoke was arranged - Ladismith is but a few hundred yards ahead!   Perhaps a bit more should be said: the photo is a complete fake (that man from Bedford will say "I told you so"). 

We had chatted to the crew of #1011 at Touws River in the morning and suggested that in return for lunch in Ladismith they might consider leaving their train intact when they got there so as to reverse it down the line when the light was right in the late afternoon.  This they agreed to do.  However, it wasn't quite simple.  We had to draw the Station Master at Ladismith into the plot as he had to authorise the train to reverse into the section.  Fortunately the SM was tickled by the idea so, come 3pm, 1011 set off backwards down the line and made several runpasts before the greedy photographers were satisfied.  The driver's name was Volschenk (presumably a descendant of the artist) and the SM was a Mr Venter but I'm ashamed to say that the name of the fireman has been lost.  
That's Towerkop* (= magic mountain) rising to 7,200ft on the left with the Seven Weeks Poort mountain on the right. The peak is split down the middle to a depth of 300ft, as if a giant has struck it with a meat cleaver.  It was first climbed by local resident Gustav Nefdt in 1885, without ropes or any climbing aids.  Another ascent via an easier route was made in 1906, but it took 60 years before the next successful attempt at Nefdt's route, by the Mountain Club of South Africa in 1947, this time with ropes, pitons and other rock-climbing paraphernalia. 

* There are a number of theories as to the origin of the name, but perhaps the fact that it changes its shape according to where you are looking at it from has something to do with it.  Incidentially, it can be seen from more than 100 miles away from either north or south of the range. 

Last word about the fake photo: at least it isn't a photoshop job! 

24. From any angle Towerkop is a striking mountain, that's why we asked the crew of #984 to stop and pose for us at the entrance to the station in August 1970 (the passengers, so close to their destination, seemed to get a bit cheesed off).   It was this photo that made us realise that the best time on this, the home straight, would be late afternoon when the sun was low on the other side.  We never expected to pull it off one day. 

25. They finally made it into their destination.  In the distance a class 24 can be seen on shed, in steam for that afternoon's Touws River goods, 1483 down. 

26. The Makadas finally draws into the main platform road.  

27. Something that would have been commonplace only five years earlier was incredibly rare in 1970.  This random crossing of two 7th class-hauled trains at Ladismith in April 1970 was quite possibly the last time it ever happened, either here or anywhere.  On the left is the up Makadas with 7A 1011 and on the right, 984 class 7 on a down goods (which in fact also ran with coaches and thus technically was a mixed even though it was unadvertised).  

28. A year later and we're back with Chris Butcher's #1011 at rest after a hard day's trek from Touws River.  

29. Her crew, sitting on the platform edge, left her standing there for one last portrait before heading for the loco.  

30. It's been a long shift, and 1011's fireman trudges off to the station to sign off.  Note the almost new water tank, still under construction in photo 33.  

31. The view from off the water tower looking back down the station with #1011 parked off for the night.

32. Next morning found her turned, watered, coaled and ready for her return working to Touws River.  

33. Almost ten years earlier, No 987 the last class 7, built by Neilson Reid in 1893 was on "shed" at Ladismith in the company of 7BS No 1032, the portrait of which features in photo 5.  Note the new water tank under construction, referred to above.  No 987 has survived and is preserved in good condition in the shelter built by the proprietors of the Matjesfontein Hotel.  

34. That magic mountain keeps cropping up in our pictures, this time shyly trying to hide behind a veil of clouds.  #987 was being readied for the return Makadas to Touws River.  

35. Eighteen years later Dick found 3623 making up the train for the return working to Touws River.  The coach attached to the engine is the same one we had photographed on the Chris Butcher special.  Thanks to Leith we can tell you a bit more about it:

"In the early 1930’s several of these vans were built for ‘branch line’ use distinct from suburban. They were characterised by being given normal compartments but with no sleeping accommodation, making then ‘day sitters’.  Although they were classified mainline type ‘G’, they were built with suburban-type semi-elliptic roofs. The GF-24 in your photos was also unique in that they where built slightly narrower than standard coaches of the time, for no given reason. See attached drawing. There were 6 of these GF-24 No's 2788-2793. There was a lot of coach squeezed in there:  a van, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and toilets for all!"

And here is his beautiful drawing of said vehicle:

36. And here's #987 on her train, Ramsbottom safety valves blowing off, ready for the right-away.  September 1962.  

37.  It's 15:00 and we're off!  We're scheduled to be chugging into Touws River in six hours and ten minutes time at 21:10.  As usual when it's a steam train there are passengers leaning out of the windows taking in the action.  

38. What with one empty coach and a loco-water feeder tank, No 1483-down goods with #984 in John's photo 27 above didn't have much of a revenue load.  Although in normal seasons it wasn't necessary to drag along feeder tanks, in times of drought they had to be used.  Judging by the parched meadow this was such a period.  

39.  Not far out of Ladismith the westbound Makadas winds its way down the Swartberg River valley in April 1968.  That's the old road to Barrydale and Zuurbraak in the foreground, built by Thomas Bain in the 1870s and only by-passed with the new tarred R62 on a completely different alignment nearly a hundred years later.    

The railway more-or-less followed the old road from Ladismith to Vensterkrans and it was along here that I saw my first NCCR engine, on a family motoring holiday in 1946.  At nine years I did not appreciate the significance of it but remember clearly my father's eagerness to chase the train, which we caught up at Winkelplaas.  The engine, a class 7F was a striking deep black with vivid red buffer beam and the original pointed cowcatcher.  

40. A little further on the way down to Winkelplaas the magic mountain beams benevolently down on the scene as it would for many more miles.  

41. The westbound Makadas, with engine 987 in charge, crossing the Groot River immediately downstream of its confluence with the Swartberg River between Winkelplaas and Vensterkrans in April 1968.  This bridge was the largest structure on the railway but was converted into a jumble of twisted metal by the great flood of 1981.  Looking at the picture it is hard to imagine the force of water needed to carry it away and equally hard to imagine that the river, which had an enormous catchment, could dry up in times of drought, sometimes for months or years at a time. 

42. A pleasantly bucolic scene just around the corner from the previous picture with No 1011 returning to Touws River on the Saturday Makadas after its ordeal with the photographers the previous day.  

43. Class 7 No 984 on a westbound goods departing from Vensterkrans in May 1969.  As previously mentioned, the Ladismith service called for a train each way every day, and this continued through the sixties.  On days when the Makadas did not run the goods was scheduled to run, invariably dragging along a coach thus providing an unadvertised service in the traditional off-hand SAR way.  Pity the passengers sitting behind this load of mainly fresh manure - lending credence to the theory that Makadas was a corruption of "muck and dust".  

44. The same train as in photo 41 climbing away from Plathuis with 987 class 7. 

45. West of Hondewater with evidence of why water is such a serious matter in this part of the world.  On this day the Makadas was made up precisely to the rules laid down in the General Appendix with a bogie parcels van, followed by a bogie fruit van, then five shorts with manure followed by three short fruit vans, a Hendrie balcony day/sleeper and suburban brake.  The engine was 987 class 7 and this was the last photo I ever made of her in service, April 1968.

46. It seems appropriate to end with Dick's sunset at Plathuis, perhaps the last photo ever made of a revenue train on the Ladismith branch (if that doesn't ring a few bells nothing will!).

Our thanks go to Bruno Martin for the map, Liesel Hagen for permission to use her father's photos, John Carter and Dick Manton for their outstanding colour photos, Janette Deacon for so promptly providing the translation of the name of Nouga siding, Vernon Wilson for introducing us to the beautiful landscape by Jan Volschenk and last but certainly not least, Andrew Deacon for doing the formatting (which he does uncomplainingly for every chapter).

If any of the many SAR personnel who made these photos possible are still around we would certainly like to hear from them. 

The next chapter/s will feature the branch lines to Calvinia, Ceres, French Hoek, Porterville and Saldanha Bay.