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Part 15 - Calvinia, Sakrivier, Porterville and Saldanha branches by Charlie Lewis © *

* with a great deal of help from those mentioned at the end of this chapter

Please note: All photographs, maps and text in Soul of A Railway are protected by copyright and may not be copied or reproduced in any way for further use without prior permission in writing from the authors.
In memory of the late "Boon" Boonzaaier who did more than most to bring the byways of our wonderful railway network to the attention of the general public.

1. Hutchinson, the junction for Calvinia, in October 1959 showing 494-up Victoria West shuttle arriving to connect with 3-down (on which I was a passenger) on the right.  Strictly speaking this doesn't belong here as it is inside the Hutchinson home signal, but given the paucity of photos depicting trains on the branch (in spite of its length!) we're stretching the point.

At 253 miles this was SAR's second longest branch.  There are not many good photographs of trains at work along here, neither on its own main line nor its 28-mile spur from Kootjeskolk to Sakrivier.  However, thanks to Professor Simon Hall of the University of Cape Town's Department of Archaeology who has forwarded to us tracings of rock engravings by his students, we are able to show you some of the most remarkable illustrations of a railway subject in South Africa.  Before we get there there is an interesting preamble provided by Allen Duff, who provided not only a map which predates Bruno's up-to-date version above but also a prehistory of events which eventually led to the construction of the line not long after the Boer War.

This is the map which should be studied in conjunction with Allen's account of the first attempts to provide a railway through the Hantam Karoo: 


"During the Boer War the British army built lines of blockhouses. These structures were mostly adjacent to the railway lines to protect them from attack and damage by Boer commandos. These fortifications were also used as cordons to create areas of containment. In the final months of 1901 the British army decided to construct a line of blockhouses from Victoria West Road via Carnarvon, Williston and Calvinia to Lambert’s Bay on the west coast of the Cape Colony.

This construction of prefabricated Rice blockhouses was commenced in the west and in the east in January 1902. This line of blockhouses was completed in May 1902 shortly before the end of the war.

Correspondence in the Cape Archives ( CGR Vol 2/1/541) records that the British army in its consideration of the transportation of materials for the construction of these blockhouses and the subsequent supply of the blockhouses’ manpower,  approached the Cape Colony’s government for assistance. The army’s proposal was the construction of a 2’ gauge railway to achieve its objectives.

After discussion by the Cape Colony’s cabinet, Dr Smartt, the Cape Government’s Commissioner of Public Works, informed Major-General Sir Henry Settle, Officer Commanding the Cape Colony District, that the Cape Colony’s government :

  • supported the proposed construction
  • would take over the railway at the end of the war.

The British government would have to finance the cost of permanent way materials and rolling-stock and their transportation to Victoria West Road. These costs would form part of the final settlement of accounts at the end of the war. 

In view of these proposals the Cape Government Railway [CGR] General Manager instructed that railway material which had been “imported for the construction of the Kalabas Kraal – Hopefield and Port Elizabeth – Gamtoos River 2 foot railways be held back.”

On 08.03.1902 Major-General Settle informed Dr Smartt that the British army was no longer considering the proposed line of railway from Victoria West Road to Carnarvon. 

The route of the blockhouse line then followed the road from Victoria West Road to Carnarvon via Victoria West."

Accordingly, soon thereafter, construction began on a Cape-gauge railway westwards from Victoria West Rd towards Victoria West and Carnarvon - more or less along the line of the road.  By May 1905 the railway had reached Pampoenpoort (= Pumpkin gorge) 48 miles from the main line junction and 38 miles from Carnarvon.  In the interim, a construction terminus had been created at Kweekwa* siding with a turning triangle, traces of which are clearly visible on Google Earth.  And it is near Kweekwa, in the Pramberg (crudely but correctly = Tit mountain - see Bruno's map) some two or three km from the siding (and away from the railway) where the sketches below were found four years ago.  Depicted are tracings by UCT archaeology students of these Khoisan (= Bushman) rock engravings made shortly after the line reached Kweekwa. 

*I have searched in vain for the origin of this name.  Can anyone help?


2. A Beyer Peacock 2-6-0 hauling what looks like a construction train crossing a box culvert with correctly drawn abutments.  Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this and the following sketches is that they were drawn from memory, possibly by a labourer employed on the construction work.  Between the railway and the site of the engravings the artist would have had to remember many finer details that enable us to identify locomotives, rolling stock and locality. 

3. The bunting on the station building tells us this drawing could have been made on the day of the official opening of the line as far as the next station, Pampoenpoort, on 1st May 1905.
There is much of interest: The locomotive is identifiable as one of Beyer Peacock/Avonside's Cape 1st-class 2-6-0's delivered 1875 - 1880 although whether it was first or second series is problematic, they were very similar (see D F Holland: Vol I, p 29).  It is attached to a bogie water-tanker with hand pump and they are on the artist's version of the turning triangle (which incidentally is the only one visible on Google Earth between Hutchinson and Carnarvon).  On a spur off the main line is a 4-wheeled water-tanker presumed connected to another hand pump which is in turn connected to a rising main into an overhead tank, identified by virtue of the mis-spelling of the word "tank"!  Also visible are a switch-stand which appears to be connected by wires (or rodding?) to the facing points and a derailer on the tanker siding.

The foregoing gives an inkling of the extraordinary powers of observation of a man who couldn't have seen many locomotives up until this stage of his life. Note also the (crudely depicted) Salter safety valve behind the dome, the enormous oil headlight, the cowcatcher and the fact that the exact correct wheel-arrangement is shown on the locomotive, tender and wagons.
It is safe to say that the artist has not omitted any items essential to the operation of a temporary railway siding - our present railway management should take note. 

4. The train has been turned for the return journey and the complete assembly with its water tanker and 6-wheeled CGR passenger carriage is on its way back to Victoria West.  What the 4-wheeled wagon with the big box on top is is beyond me, it would be nice to hear your ideas.  That is not a stick man on top of the boiler, it is an attempt to show more detail of the Salter spring-loaded safety valve.  Interestingly, this engine is shown with a handrail around the front running plate whereas the one in illustration 3 does not.  What looks like smoke coming from the cab roof is steam escaping from the whistle valve. 

5. This looks more like one of the official opening trains, probably conveying Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson, Governor of Cape Colony at the time.  Although detailing is sparser the rolling stock seems fairly accurate as to detail.  The locomotive appears to be a Stephensons old Cape 4th class designed by CGR's Michael Stephens - a step up from the BP 2-6-0's, possibly in deference to this being a VIP train.  But the old Cape 4th class were 4-6-0's and this one clearly is a 4-6-2 (!) which raises the intriguing question as to whether it was given a trailing carrier-axle in order to reduce its extra weight on drivers as compared with the BP engines - thus permitting it to run on the ultra-light rail of the new branch line.  That's the whistle on the cab roof, drawn at the precise moment when the driver was blowing it, thus emitting steam!  Those dots coming out of the tender seem to indicate that it had just been topped up for the return journey.  The main carriage is a CGR bogie vehicle dating to the late 1880s and the trailing one is an 1870s 4-wheeler, both with crudely-drawn oil lamps in their roofs.  

6. Unless I'm crazy this seems to be a steam-operated railcar.  Does anyone know whether such a vehicle ever was used on the Calvinia branch? 

7.  This is the crudest engraving, but it manages to show what looks like a Harbour Board or a purpose built construction 0-4-0T coupled to a mechanical shovel.  Also a few attempts at a signature which seems to say that the artist's name could have been "Jan Jafe" (?). 

8.  Judging by the inclusion of ordinary goods vehicles this could have been a construction train or normal service mixed rather than the official opening train.  But it is certainly in that period.  You might amuse yourselves by comparing this photograph with the locomotives in sketches 2, 3 and 4 above.  

9. An endorsement by Eric Conradie on the back of this priceless old print tells us this was the official train at the opening ceremony for Victoria West and Pampoenpoort on 1st May 1905.  The locomotive, CGR 35 is a Cape 1st-class 4-4-0 which unfortunately doesn't feature in the engravings. 

9.  That this was an opening ceremony there is no doubt.  The only question is whether this is at Pampoenpoort or Victoria West.  We are told that these official openings were performed by Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson himself and to commemorate the occasion "Victoria West Road" was changed to "Hutchinson". Looks as if the local artist could have been at the function! 

10.  A recent trip to the Transnet Heritage Library (THL) produced a charming photo of Carnarvon station in its heyday.  Unfortunately the Library scanner had packed up so you'll have to wait to see it but I promise to post it here when it becomes available.  Meanwhile we'll have to be content with this photo of how it looks today, for which we are grateful to Peter but sad that such a functional building has fallen into disuse - not to mention the state of the railway itself.    

11. Carnarvon station on the same day looking towards Victoria West. 

12. And looking the other way towards Williston, Kootjeskolk and Calvinia. 

13. When the train service ended (c 1999/2000) the Road Transport Service had long been abandoned.  Van Wyksvlei is 33 miles away and 1000ft lower, adjacent to the first government-funded irrigation dam, built in 1883 but which spends too much of its time empty or containing only a few feet of brackish water. 

14. Last trip down the line was run by the redoubtable tour operator,  Boon Boonzaaier* in 2001.  The "Hantam Safari" chugging along eastbound between Williston and Cararvon.  An MS sufferer, Boon died very prematurely in 2011 - an irreplaceable loss to rail-based tourism.  He and Rohan Vos were practically the only men alive who could handle the intransigence of Transnet's "Management" and it needed a supreme effort to run this train several months after regular service had ceased.  In future episodes we'll tell you more about this wonderful man and his "Bushveld Train Safaris". 

*Boon was a retired schoolteacher who knew more about railways and operating matters than most professional railwaymen.  He was the author of "Tracks across the Veld" - essential reading for anyone interested in our country's railways. 

15. Another illustration from "Tracks Across the Veld" by Boon Boonzaaier shows the Hantam Safari eastbound through Heuwels, according to Boon a popular photo stop. 

16. Although the paint was starting to peel on Kootjieskolk's nice old station building, the place was still generally tidy in 1982 when Les visited on one of his official inspection tours. This was the junction for the 28 mile branch to Sakrivier. 

17.  A good description of the territory traversed by this branch which seems to run from nowhere to nowhere and the reasons for its construction, is in the Union Castle guide for 1937 (note that I have replaced the original Dutch spelling with Afrikaans):
"From Kootjieskolk to Sakrivier a branch line [opened in 1916] runs through the fertile Fish River valley along which large "Saaidamme" have been made.  Cultivation by Saaidamme is carried out by diverting the flood water which periodically overflows the river banks into extensive areas enclosed by dams.  After saturation the land is ploughed and wheat is sown but only over limited spaces adjacent to the rivers.  The original expectation that the whole of the surface capable of irrigation would prove equally prolific has been disappointed.  Experience has shown that the water brings the heavy percentage of deleterious salts contained in the sub-soil and the underlying clay to the surface and that the supply of water is insufficient to allow of leaching.  The railway was primarily constructed to open up what was expected to prove the granary of South Africa [It was originally intended to be built all the way to Brandvlei, another 24 miles further downstream].  Land in early days realised very high prices and many hundreds of thousands of pounds have been lost directly and indirectly through lack of scientific examination of the natural conditions before it was too late.  In the areas unaffected by the salts, however, the returns are often remarkable". 

18. The stop block at the very end of the line is just visible in the background, as is the take-off for the triangle, curving around to the right beyond the buildings and the pepper tree.  It seems there was still a fair amount of traffic when Bruno visited here in 1982.  The little square structure on the extreme right was the SM's personal long drop, otherwise known in the vernacular as the picanin khaya or PK. 

19.  The last time that steam visited here seems to be unrecorded, but evidence that it certainly did come here once upon a time was clear when Bruno came in 1982. 

20.  More usual was SAR's last railcar which started from Sakrivier twice/day three days/week until October 1967 when it suffered an incurable breakdown.  The author of this fine photo of the last operational railcar on the SAR is unknown to us, nor do we have anyone's permission to publish it.  Should the photographer or the person who owns the copyright come forward and object to its presence here we shall remove it immediately. 

According to Les (I'm quoting his South African Railways Photo Journal Vol I, No 9): "Car No 21 (renumbered 16) had her Hudson 6-cylinder engines [there were two] replaced by Oldsmobile engines in 1941 and also differed from her sisters in that half her body was built as a goods truck.  She was also the last railcar to survive in revenue service on the SAR - which ceased in [1968]".  However, in the April 1967 Railway Society newsletter the late Tony Croxton mentions that the Oldsmobile engines had been replaced by Chevrolet engines, presumably at an unknown date after 1941 and before 1967. 

The 1967 SAR public timetable says that thrice weekly there were two departures/day from Sakrivier (where No 16 slept) - at 07:10 and 12:40,  departing from Kootjieskolk on the return journey at 10:00 and 16:40. 

21. Thank you Rollo Dickson for sending this splendid drawing.  We don't know who the draughtsman is but his initials are C.H!  Can anyone enlighten us?

As can be seen, the rear half of railcar 16 had no seats and slatted sides which enabled it to be used for dairy produce, light goods and parcels.  It usually towed the short truck with high sides as seen in photo 20 above.
Thanks to Eric Conradie who unearthed this sad snippet from SASSAR for August 1969, we can tell you that No 16 went crook in October 1967 and never ran again (notwithstanding the December 1967 timetable).  No suitable spares could be found and she stood around for another year while her fate hung in the balance due to representations to have her preserved.  But in November 1968 the GM's axe fell and Sakrivier's SM, Mr J J Swart as well as local public had to bid farewell to a machine that had served their community for more than 30 years.

Before we leave the branch line to Sakrivier I would like to quote from "Tracks Across the Veld": "By 1996 some 18,000 DZ trucks were stored on the 33km between Kootjieskolk and Sakrivier.  They were cut up on site and transported to the harbours where they were exported to the East as scrap metal.  When the line was finally closed in October 2001 it was still used to store redundant wagons awaiting a similar fate". 

There is some irony in this.  Nowadays a constant refrain from the Transnet "Management" as to why it performs so badly in the agricultural sector is "shortage of wagons"! 

22.  My only visit to the line was in December 1963 when it had already gone diesel.  This was Calvinia shed still with a heap of coal on its coalstage, with the Hantam mountains in the background.  I was surprised to see how attractive the Karoo is around here and regretted never coming in steam days.  The only working I ever saw was the one in photo 1 above, but I have seen references to the line being worked by 24 class locomotives, which is incorrect.  This may have been true for the Sakrivier branch but Les's allocation lists for the 1950s show an average of six 19Cs stationed at Beaufort West and sub-shedded at Hutchinson which could only have been for use on the Calvinia branch.  This lasted until December 1962 whereafter the first class 32s began to arrive.
It is worth mentioning that from 1951 two class 24s were allocated to Beaufort West and are also shown as sub-shedded at Hutchinson.  After February 1963 this was reduced to one - presumably for shunting Hutchinson although it may also have been used on the shuttle to Victoria West.  There is a class 24 shown in the monthly lists until the last one in our possession (March 1973) so it was there long after the branch was dieselised using class 32s based at De Aar.  Also worth recording is that for some six months in the latter half of 1969 the line reverted to 100% steam operation when there was a huge surge in iron and manganese-ore traffic requiring the drafting in of more class 32s to the Port Elizabeth main line.  It is no credit to your authors that neither of us made it to the Calvinia branch during this period. 

23. Not much had changed when Bruno visited Calvinia in 1982 to find everything shipshape in line with most SAR stations in those days. 

24.  When Les passed through in 1997 signs of decay had already advanced with paint peeling off the station nameboard and main building and weeds along the tracks.  But the building still had a look of dignity about it. 

25. Boon timed his Hantam excursions to coincide with the annual flower display, when Gousblom and Namaqua daisies naturally produced one of the wonders of the Cape Floral Kingdom.  According to "Tracks Across the Veld" this photo and the next were taken by Boon himself on his last visit in 2001. 

26.  Boon's 2001 Hantam Safari was the last train ever to visit Calvinia.  The line has now been severely washed away in several places and is unlikely ever to be repaired.  On this sad note we will move on to the next branch - from Hermon to Porterville. 


"I would rather meet the Hottentot at the hustings, voting for his representative, than in the wilds with his gun upon his shoulder". 

One could hardly be blamed for thinking that this sounds like Van Zyl Slabbert in the 1980s, Helen Suzman in the 1960s or J H Hofmeyr in the 1940s.  In fact it was William Porter, Attorney General at the Cape from 1839 until 1865, quoted upon being tasked with drafting the completely non-racial constitution of the Cape's first parliament in 1853.  This tiny Cape village was named for the worthy gent who went on to become an influential member of the first Cape Parliament, a fact that is included for those who might be curious as to how the town got its name as well as anyone who imagines that liberal values are only a recent phenomenon in South Africa. 

Porterville is conveniently situated in a rich agricultural/viticultural part of the Western Cape. Its connection with the Cape Main Line at Hermon was opened in 1929 - one of a large number of "Agricultural railways" opened in the late 1920s, authorised by the Government as guaranteed developmental lines.  In later years the cement works at Riebeeck-Wes provided the line's base traffic.

In common with all similar SAR lines, traffic declined drastically in the 1990s when agricultural produce went over to road haulage with the exception of a trickle of grains.  Even the cement company abandoned rail.  Recently, however, there have been signs of renewed activity as some of the following photos by Peter Rogers imply. 

1. The daily mixed to Porterville crossing the Berg River immediately after leaving Hermon in July 1975.  In its 36 miles the line crosses the river twice.  The locomotive is one of Dal Josaphat's class 24s. 

2. The daily mixed trudging uphill towards Riebeeck Kasteel in 1978 - only it's not the daily mixed and its not 1978, it's a David Rodgers railtour with oil-fired 19D 3334 in June 2002. 

3. Dick's going-away photo of the same train, same location, approaching Riebeeck Kasteel on the brow of the hill.  David's tours had a reputation for fine weather and this day was no exception. 

4. Only with photographic evidence could you believe what this once immaculate station looks like today. 

5. It's a safe bet it once looked as good or better than Porterville in 1982. 

6. Peter found this weed-killer train leaving Porterville in March 2014.  Somewhat ambitiously, Transnet "Management" had decided that branchlines should be put back to work. 

7. There are places on this line where the Great Winterhoek range forms a fabulous backdrop.  They can be topped with snow for extended periods in winter but unfortunately not on this occasion. 19D 3334 was performing on the Rodgers railtour of 2002 again. 

8. ...........and again.  As you may have gathered, I can look at these just about forever - hope you can too!  

9. This was an earlier excursion with coal-fired 19D 3321 approaching Halfmanshof with yet another make-belief mixed. 

10. And here's the week-killer train at Halfmanshof - the ballast looks as if the poison has done its job. 

11. Dave's 2002 tour again.  Judging by the lack of snow and the early mesembryanthenums it must have been a warm winter.  Blame it on global warming and especially all those trucks and cars. 

12. A real train in the draught era.  John has forgotten exactly when he took it. 

13. The same train, Hermon bound, a little further on.  It looks like Spring in the Cape. 

14. 19D 3334 and the 2002 excursion again.  This could be either Leliedam, Vleitjies or Soutbosvlei, neither Dave nor Dick could tell us, except that it is by a dam or a vlei! 

15.  The tour arranger, organiser and operator has the honour of posting the last picture of what looks to have been a memorable day. 

16. We'll complete the Porterville branch with Pete's picture of the weedkiller train approaching Hermon, in the hopes that it will be a good omen for the future.


Around the dinner table my father used to say how much he regretted never having travelled on this line before 1926 when it was still narrow (2ft) gauge.  In later years I realised that growing up at the Cape in the 1920s he had too many distractions - such as mountaineering, music, motor cars and meisies - there simply wasn't time to fit in an excursion to Saldanha (you needed two days to go there and back by train with the necessity of overnighting in Saldanha).

Several excursions to the Transnet Heritage Library have not unearthed any presentable photographs of a narrow-gauge train along here.  The only interesting ones I've seen so far are two locomotive photos taken at Kalbaskraal on pages 219 and 220 of Jean Dulez's magnus opus: "Railways of Southern Africa 150 years" (published by Vidrail Publications, 2012, P O Box 75169, 2047 Garden View, South Africa).  So once again we have to ask forgiveness for omissions.  Should any of our readers unearth a photograph of the Saldanha branch in its narrow-gauge days we implore them to come forward and allow them to be shared on "Soul of A Railway".

The best we can offer at present is coverage of the line in its Cape-gauge days with the promise that should any narrow-gauge photos come to light we will put them here.  

1. Train No 301/431 down, the 08:00 Cape Town - Malmesbury/Saldanha all stations SuX departing from platform 14 on 5th January 1961. 

2. This is Kalbaskraal, the junction, with its loco shed in December 1971.  That's my Dad on the left, making up for lost time. The shed was only big enough for one engine although there are actually four class 24s in this photo, the fourth attached to the engine signalled off loco at right. 

3. Kalbaskraal's nice old splitting home signal for the Saldanha branch, still in use in 1971 - that's my long-suffering Kombi on the right. 

4. In pre Pieter-Dirk Uys days, 429-down entering Darling and about to pick up orders from the SM standing at the ready under a palm tree.  

5. Berg River siding was a major watering point renowned for having the best water (none of that bottled stuff here). 

6. In case you were ever thinking those wind-turbines are not so big, or aren't such an eyesore, check Wayne's take on their size relative to this pair of class 35's on 420-up (or its latter day equivalent) with mt cement wagons bound for the PPC works at De Hoek. 

7. That's Hoedjies Bay, a small inlet in much larger Saldanha bay, first name of the little fishing village now called Saldanha. It has grown more than somewhat since this picture was made in September 1956 on my first (and only) trip by train over the full length of the line.  Saldanha station is at the foot of the hill on the extreme left - see Hennie's picture further on. 

8. Another view of the fishing village at Hoedjies Bay in 1956, looking the other way.  An extension of the railway from Saldanha station served the jetty in the middle distance and the main entrance to the huge natural harbour that is Saldanha Bay is just over the spur of land behind the jetty. 

9. In September 2003 Hennie recorded this striking view of one of Boon's Bushveld Train Safaris standing in Saldanha Station.  Compare the enormous growth of Saldanha Bay in the intervening 47 years: in the background is the ore-loading terminal from where some 70 million tons of iron ore and other products are exported annually while the scene is clogged with houses, shops, supermarkets and moorings for pleasure craft.  At least the turning triangle was still there. 

10. Let the photographer tell you about it: "As I was passing the Saldanha Steel complex on my way home, I caught a glimpse of something orange and grey moving fast through the yard, so I stopped at the road bridge where the line to Salkor passes underneath to see if the train would appear on the running line.  This class 36 came storming at FULL CHAT up the grade with a load of (obviously very full and heavy) cement tankers. I have never heard a 36 talk like this! NOISY - almost goosebump stuff!  Just thought I would share this."  Thanks Pete, almost beats an F racing through Woltemade! 

11.  From sublime to ridiculous.  3630+3675 cls 24 on 420-up departing from Berg River in July 1975. 

12. The same train leaving Hopefield a little later. 

13. And again, coming through Koperfontein 

14. The same 420-up on the same day entering Darling.  Today the station buildings and surroundings are just as neat and tidy, the only difference is that they are now the headquarters of Pieter-Dirk Uys's personal museum and craft centre, well worth a visit.  The running line and loop are still shiny but the goods shed and its siding are moribund while all the tracks have become weedgrown.  

And so we bid farewell to the Cape branches for the time being.  Special thanks for the many contributions to this chapter are due to: John Carter, Eric Conradie, Andrew Deacon, Rollo Dickson, Allen Duff, Geoff Hall, Simon Hall, Hennie Heymans, Dick Manton, Bruno Martin, Yolanda Meyer, Wayne Nauschutz, Les Pivnic, David Rodgers, Peter Rogers and students of the Department of Archaeology at UCT.