Soul of A Railway ©‎ > ‎System 1‎ > ‎

Wellington - Touws River by Charlie Lewis ©

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.

System 1, Part 3: Wellington to Touws River

Part 3 includes the first mountain railway in South Africa – the Hex River Pass, which for many is a yardstick by which other railway scenery is measured. One person for whom this was emphatically so is sadly no longer with us – the late Stephaan Jordaan who single-handedly prevented the powers in Paul Kruger building from scrapping it after the base tunnel was opened in 1989. After many years of sparring with the authorities he secured the future of the pass by having it declared a national monument. We dedicate this section to Stephaan – he loved the valley of the Hex with a passion and went out of his way to give those who rode his “Hexpas Express” a complete experience, not only relating the history of the line but also covering very knowledgeably the flora, fauna and geology of the surrounding mountains. He will be greatly missed.


As can be seen on Bruno's excellent map, at Paarl the railway is confronted by the vertical wall of the Drakenstein range which guards the Boland. The only way to the other side was over (requiring engineering works of Gotthardian proportions) or around, which needed a detour northwards for 30 miles to the made-for-purpose passageway of Tulbaghkloof. There have been several proposals for a direct connection from Paarl to Worcester but none has gone further than Parliamentary debate, which is a pity as it would have been spectacular while shortening the distance by more than 40 miles.

1. In a peaceful vineyard alongside the Krom River stands a blockhouse built by the British during the Boer War. For the first few months of the war a priority was to inhibit the railing of British materiel. The Boers began dynamiting the bridges, resulting in these structures being erected at important points along the main lines – this one just north of Wellington in 1899.

2. Beyond Wellington the Orange Express skirts the Drakenstein, Witteberg and Elandskloof ranges generally northwards until abruptly, in Tulbaghkloof, a narrow chasm to the east allows it to enter the Boland – the Free Burgher’s land of milk and honey (“boland”: a lovely Afrikaans word meaning “up country”). For its first ten years the Express was probably the most elegant train in South Africa, seen here in its original clerestory format. Note the catenary already in place but untensioned, which dates this official SAR photo to November/December 1952. The scar leading up to the nek below the Klein Drakenstein is Du Toitskloof road pass, built by Italian POWs and opened in 1949.

3. Comparisons are usually odious, and this one certainly is.  A few years later, the official photographer was again on hand at one of his favourite locations. In the interim the Orange Express had backslid a notch or two. Granted, there is a clean, no smuts class 4E in front but the elegant Edwardian carriages have mostly been replaced by Metro-Cammell steel stock of mid-fifties vintage, comfortable, safer but still without air-conditioning and distinctly without the presence of the original train.

4. The late Garrett Orpen, who provided this photograph, was one of those rare railwaymen whose job was his hobby. He worked in the Local Accountant’s office in Cape Town and was an expert in railway matters, particularly timetables. Year after year he made thorough use of his annual free pass so one suspects this crossing of 203-down and 202-up at Soetendal took place on one of these excursions. The date would be around 1937 before arrival of the 15Fs and 23s and before the 15Es were equipped with smoke deflectors. Note the Union Express dining and kitchen-car set on the Up train.


5. Just when a train seems to be on course for Namaqualand, at Gouda the railway does a 90° turn eastwards into the gorge carved by the Little Berg River, nowadays known as Tulbagh Kloof. In the days of the Free Burghers it was the only way through to the interior via a tolled wapad known as Nuwekloof Pass. The kloof was a favourite haunt for SAR and Railway Circle photographers, there seem to be many more prints extant of this location than the Hex River Pass itself. Poles up but no wires tells us that the 15F on a down goods was approaching Tulbagh Road in mid-1952. That’s the Little Berg River on the right, with Andrew Geddes Bain’s road of 1852 in the middle. The first primitive wapad (wagon road), made in the late 17th century followed the right bank of the stream, coming out of the gorge where the old tollhouse still stands today.  And, while we're here, thank you Chris Jeffery for pointing out that the rail pass was surveyed and constructed under supervision of Andrew Bain's son Thomas in 1872.

6. A sequence of three generations of passenger train in Tulbagh Kloof.  The first shows the standard formation after the introduction of the 15As in 1914 with a rake of Hendrie main-line day/sleeper balcony stock.

7. The Blue Train was mothballed for the duration of WW2 so this extra-fare, air-conditioned successor to the Union Express and Union Limited was only made available to the public from 1946. Photos of it prior to poling of the section to Touws River are scarce as there was only a five-year window before the electrification works commenced. In this scene No 1-down has just emerged from Tulbagh Kloof and is about to enter Tulbagh Road station. In the right background the course of the old wagon road can be traced coming out of the Kloof just above the river, making its way towards the tollhouse, hidden from view by trees. The paved road in the left background is Bain’s road of 1852 while the present road, only built in the seventies, reverts to the right-hand side of the gorge.


8. Coming the other way out of Tulbagh Road station possibly earlier in the same day, a class 23 was in charge of 202-up.  It looks as if the official photographer was standing on the drystone retaining wall typical of Bain’s mountain roads.  Prominent in the background is the Witsenberg range (not to be confused with the Witteberg though both mean the same thing – “white mountain”!) and the Mostertshoek Twins which run end on into the Langeberg which accompanies the NCCR all the way to Mossel Bay. 



9. Behind the van of 202-up you can barely make out the engine of this up freight which must have followed it a few minutes later.  The yellow and black diagonal stripes on the 15F’s buffer beam were a thankfully short-lived health-and-safety aberration that replaced the traditional red after a spate of level-crossing accidents lead to its introduction in 1949. 

10. We have jumped 20 years ahead by which time the 4Es had been replaced by 5Es and 5E1s on Cape Western passenger work as evident in this fine SAR photo of 202-up, the Trans Karoo express, entering the Kloof from the east, c 1968.  Note the articulated A-22 ex Orange Express ex Union Limited/Express saloons just ahead of the van.

10a.  Peter Rogers recently sent this irresistible study of the Blue Train with a pair of class 14Es snaking their way through the kloof, taken on 17 May 2013.

11. Courtesy of the Africana Library in Kimberley we are able to bring you this extremely rare view of one of H M Beatty’s experimental 2-8-2s for the CGR, No 806 Cape 8th class (after 1910, SAR class Experimental 4 No 9111), at Tulbagh Rd in 1906. Judging by its shiny state it must have been a regular engine – note the clean white-painted cab roof, how it contrasts with the driver’s grimy jacket. The photo was in an album of family snapshots purchased by the library in 1980. It is sad to report that the most precious photo in the album, depicting one-off CGR 840 class 9 (SAR class Experimental 5, No 948) on a goods train in the Breede River valley, has been lifted by some unscrupulous tomb raider.

1 D F Holland “Steam Locomotives of the South African Railways” Volume I pp 68/69

12. In Part 2 I described my last run with real steam into Cape Town in July 1956. This was the scene at Tulbagh Road – the sun fortuitously broke through when I ran forward to grab the shot. While this was happening the Station Foreman was pedaling furiously back to his van Schoor machine to fetch the tablet that he had neglected to hand up to the crew as 888-up rushed past his cabin. Because of the precious minutes we lost here the Orange Express, hot on our heels all the way from Worcester, was allowed to overtake us at Huguenot, about 40 miles further on.

13. Another scan from the Africana Library album. There were only about a dozen railway photos in it but each was a gem, this one showing No 353 CGR sixth class (SAR 433 class 6) on an up train at Wolseley, c 1906 in immaculate condition receiving some tlc from her driver.

The 6th classes were the first locomotives I ever consciously recall, certainly the first I could identify. They steamed past our house in Newlands three to five times/day each way on goods for the Southern Suburbs. Apart from sentimental considerations they were exceptionally useful and reliable – quoting Frank Holland: “The 6th-class which appeared in 1893 were…… one of the most useful class of locomotives to see service in South Africa. They were introduced primarily for passenger service, but when they were displaced by larger and more powerful locomotives they became ….. “maids-of-all-work”, and no more useful and successful locomotive was ever designed at Salt River. They were fast, easy to handle, good steamers and had an exceptionally low maintenance cost with long periods between major overhauls. They were to see service in all parts of the country except Natal and were used on all classes of traffic”.

14. An interesting scene at Wolseley from a print by Pierre de Wet, source unknown. A relatively new class 23 is on test with what looks like the future Blue Train and the CME’s dynamometer car, which obviously dates the photo some time after the arrival of the Metro-Cammell saloons in 1939. Considering war-time pressures and the fact that the 23 is equipped with smoke deflectors this test run is more likely to have taken place a few months before regular operation of the Blue Train began in 1946.

15. Having taken water, a down freight departs from Worcester Station late in 1951 when it was about to lose its virginity forever. If you look carefully you will see scattered piles of electrification masts that soon would destroy the pristine appearance of this important country junction – starting point of the New Cape Central Railway (NCCR). Strange how the fortunes of the town seemed to parallel those of the railway. At this time Worcester was still a sleepily peaceful Cape platteland dorp, its streets lined with irrigation furrows, honest houses, cheap, clean and comfortable hotels and a beautiful Dutch Reformed church. Within a few months the station was bedecked with messy electrification paraphernalia and within a few years the once lovely dorp had commenced its decline towards the cynical admixture of architectural monstrosities that line its streets today.

16. In July 1953 when Dr Eric Manken recorded the arrival at Worcester of this class 15E on a late-running 400-up, the electrification to Worcester had recently been officially opened, but steam still predominated. In the background a 15F-hauled freight is waiting to follow the mixed to Cape Town.

17. The predecessor of the Trans Karoo, 203-down and its 15F drawing majestically into platform 2. Standing in platform 3 is the 400-up seen arriving in the previous photo. At the far end of platform 2 on the left is the bay platform 1 where the 15F waited for train 888-up in July 1957 before taking us on the run described in Part 2.

18. Although passenger trains and pick-ups lingered a lot longer, scarcely a year later all through freight had gone electric, exemplified by this nice official SAR photo of a newly-striped 4E bringing a lengthy down freight through the station. The parachute tank had not yet been removed from the Cape Town end of platform 2 (it would survive for quite a few more years - according to Peter Rogers it was still there in 1978) and the aforementioned bay platform is just to the left of it.

19. We used this photo in the introduction to SoAR but there are some interesting features that weren’t pointed out at the time. In March 1953 Don Baker, Arnold Alston and I cycled to Worcester, the main object being to get some pictures of steam working north of there. It was thus quite devastating to find 66-up arriving with a 4E instead of the expected 15F. Upon enquiry we were told that the juice had only recently been switched on as far as De Doorns and the 4Es were being used sporadically as far as there, mainly for testing. Just our luck! I was so devastated that the negative lay forgotten for more than 50 years before it occurred to me that this too was a piece of history, the 4E, its rake of matchboarded imperial-brown clerestory coaches and the Worcester North signal gantry all gone now. The train is, of course, on the Up main, the down line being just to the left of the left hand gantry upright. The next track under the gantry is the Worcester locoshed and marshalling yard access, the third track is the NCCR’s main line to Mossel Bay and the fourth is the shunting lead to the goods depot seen in the background of photo 13.  

20. The Keeromsberg (“Turn Around Mountain” – its meaning here: “go back, don’t go any further!”) looms intimidatingly over 2-up emerging from the Hex River valley c 1955. The narrow gateway is guarded on the other side by the Brandwag mountains. Together these rugged cliffs formed a formidable barrier so it is hardly surprising that serious cultivation of one of the most fertile valleys in South Africa only took off after arrival of the railway in 1876. Steam ran this section for 80 years – just! By 1956 appearances of 15Fs on the Blue Train were sporadic and by 1957 only the pick-ups were still steam hauled. In September of that year all workings north of De Doorns went electric except for engines proceeding to or from Salt River workshops.

21. The northern half of the Hex Valley gateway is formed by the menacing kranses of the Brandwag, here doing sentry duty while a tiny CGR goods looks as if it is scurrying away from danger. The primitive wagon track has become the N1 and from here on today there is no flat piece of ground in the valley that is not covered by neat rows of table-grape vines. It is difficult to pin an accurate date on this CGR photo but it could be anytime between 1895 and 1905.


22. A well-known official photograph of 1-down blasting up the final 1-in-66 to De Doorns c 1950, having gained almost 800ft of altitude since leaving Worcester 20 miles back.  If it looks as if the engine is working hard this is indeed so, the Blue Train was ostensibly fairly light – 12 bogies as opposed to 15 for “fast passengers” and 16 for ordinary passenger trains.  However, the belt driven air-conditioning in each coach imposed additional drag that the CME deemed equivalent to three extra bogies.


23. Having come up the valley with 183-down transship and perishables (t&p), 1981 cl 15BR on 148-up t&p does some shunting in De Doorns before heading back to Worcester in July 1975. Almost until the end of steam in the Western Cape there were regular workings over the whole length of the main line west of De Doorns. Over the pass itself there were light engine movements to or from the Salt River workshops. An exception was up condensers coming in to works – being able to skip water stops they were allowed to bring loads. I haven’t heard about newly-shopped engines working loads in the down direction but would be grateful if anyone could tell us if they know of such happenings.

24. Over the years many different types handled the helper duties out of De Doorns, ranging from H2 tanks after the formation of SAR in 1910 to class MC1, finally ending up with 14CRMs, the heavier axleload version of 14CRBs. T V Bulpin, journalist and author rather than railway enthusiast photographed the pass in the late forties, and produced a typical view of the banker shed at De Doorns with its 14CRMs being prepared for duty.

25. This pretty much illustrates the standard of my photography in those days. It was taken during my late Dad’s annual shed bash which was restricted to the Western Cape but invariably brought with it the joys of the unexpected. On our 1953 trip we walked through the shed at De Doorns and were astounded to find the first 25-class condenser – 3451, dead but warm among the 14CRM bankers and a solitary 15F. It already had an experimental extension welded onto its smokebox but not yet the ugly banjo-style. We were told that the brand-new engine had been hauling a test load but had failed in De Doorns with a defective exhaust turbine.

26. A well-known illustration of 1635 cl MC1, railway circle print provided by Pierre de Wet (the photographer was probably Frank Holland). It can also be found in Andre Kritzinger’s excellent encyclopedia of SAR locomotives on Wikipedia.

27. Heads lean out of carriage windows and balconies to take in the smoky drama as a 15CA and MC1 banker combine to lift 203-down out of De Doorns in 1934. Note the ex NGR departmental saloon. Another masterly photo by Frank Holland, surely the doyen of South African railway photographers.

28. More than 30 years later a well turned out 248 cl 4E still in green, with new hi-visibility yellow stripes, brings a lengthy 400-up through Osplaats, one third of the way up Hex River Pass. SAR photo.

29. More than most this official view of 105-down, the Rhodesia Mail, captures the essence of 1930s travel over the pass with a sparkling 15CA in front and MC1 Mallet pushing for all money at the rear. Thanks to the brave efforts of Stefaan Jordaan one may still enjoy the beauty of magnificent Hex River Pass, alas no longer with steam, but when you take a ride on the Hexpas Express it takes only a little imagination to visualise what it was like in the glory days.

30. Les’s view of the Pass just west of the tunnel taken from the 30th Anniversary Blue Train. While it makes an interesting study in railway location, in the cold light of the 21st century there is nothing remarkable in this mountain alignment. Even for the 1870s the physical obstacles to the railway’s progress were mild compared (say) to those faced by Meigg’s Central of Peru, Louis Favre’s Gotthard Pass or Whitton’s Zig Zags over the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Nonetheless, at the time the Hex Mountains were regarded as an enormous obstacle, eventually overcome by sound application of the surveyors art by the engineers Wells Hood and Maltby, appointed by Chief Engineer H M Brounger. Were it not for the 1948 Government’s intervention, the original pass would have been redundant by the mid fifties but it took another 35 years for the base tunnel to be completed.

31. The seventeen miles from De Doorns to the summit at Matroosberg have scarcely a level moment.  Osplaats provided the only stretch long enough for a conventional siding but another crossing place soon became necessary.  One was fashioned just north of the tunnel (we’re still on the old pass!) by laying two level dead-end sidings branching directly off, but on opposite sides of, the main line.  Operating procedure was for a train to enter one or other of these sidings and then propel its train backwards into the dead-end on the other side to await the opposing train.  A railway circle member, the late Eric Manken recorded Tunnel Siding for posterity when he rode 203-down in July 1953.  Note the Up (in fact downhill) goods waiting for the passenger to clear and the electrification masts (but no wires) beyond the siding.  Within a year the job would be complete and electric traction introduced to Touws River.

32. David Werbeloff sent us this fine panorama of Matroosberg station, the 3147 ft summit of the pass, taken by his father in 1955 - presumably that’s young David and boet on the left.  The mountain after which the station is named dominates the skyline, at 7,380 feet it is the highest in the Hex River range.  Matroos = sailor and thanks to Stefaan Jordaan I can tell you the name comes from a rock formation that looks strangely like a 17th century East Indiaman with its captain standing tall in the prow.  The photograph was taken from the Touws River end beyond the points where the old and new main lines to Kleinstraat divided.  The old line can be seen just on the other side of the home signals.  In the foreground is one leg of the turning triangle for the bankers, which would still have been in service in 1955, the dwarf signal admitted returning bankers to the main line.  One leg of the triangle is visible, heading off to the left.  The station building with its red roof is half hidden behind the trees while the stationmaster’s house is on the left, in the middle of the triangle.  There was a small goods shed here, and a livestock pen, both used by farmers in the adjacent Koo valley which Matroosberg served.

33. Starting with the commemorative Blue Train in 1969 several railtours were run over the old Pass until it closed in 1989.  John Carter photographed this one in October 1980.  Additional details have come from Peter Rogers:  “This was one of the very successful SARTRAVEL Steam Safaris - I think the second with double 15Fs after the first tour struggled over the pass with a very sick GMAM and an ultra-feisty 14CRB.  The second 15F No 3016 bought the train up from Worcester to DeDoorns.  The blue smoke deflectored loco from Touws River shunt, cl 15F No 2918 then piloted the train over the pass from De Doorns”.  Thanks to Eugene Armer, Train Manager on this Safari, who provided the engine numbers.

34. The drama has gone but the beauty remains. An evocative presentation of the 1972 Blue Train by Eugene Armer. Three third-series class 5Es, Nos E569, E568 and E567 are bringing the heavy 16-coach formation out of the enormous kloof between Osplaas and Tunnel Siding in April 1986.  The location is about a train length ahead of where 105-down was photographed in the early 30s (photo 29).  The embankment where the class MC1 Mallet banker is pushing is just behind the pantograph of the leading unit in this picture.  

35. More than 40 years after the first portals were driven, in March 1989 the Hex tunnels were completed - soon after that the old line closed. But for the efforts of one man (see photo 36) it would have been uplifted and gone forever. Photos 34, 35 and 36 really fall outside our remit but are included as part of the story of Hex River Pass. 35 depicts a pair of class 6E1 units on the 1972 Blue Train emerging from Tunnel 3. Whatever the motive power, the old pass was an expensive bottleneck for well over 100 years. The new route is 5 miles shorter and eliminates 500 feet of rise-and-fall but even more important is the flattening of the ruling grade between Cape Town and Beaufort West from 1-in-40 to 1-in-66 enabling through loads to be worked uninterrupted between these points.

36. This one just sneaked in from Peter Rogers. I had been unaware that steam ever worked a train solo through the 8-mile long Hexton – albeit downhill – so it seems important to include this super shot of 3098 cl 15F heading the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuur Vereeniging (ATKV) Kruger Day special out of the western portal on 10th October 1992.  This was apparently the second and last occasion on which it happened, the first being a Rovos Rail trip with a 19D in 1990.


37. EPILOGUE. The Hexpas Express: I have traveled on it twice in the past 18 months, it can hardly be recommended too highly, even though the narrator has of necessity been replaced. Japie Januarie, a retired platelayer who grew up alongside the pass and spent most of his railway career on it, now does the honours. There are various trips on offer but the one recommended is the longest, De Doorns to Matroosberg and back with a picnic in old Matroosberg station which is quite well preserved and has glorious views of the Matroosberg massif. For bookings you can find the Hexpas website via Google.