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Part 5 - Assegaaibos - Joubertina

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When we planned this excursion into one of the most beautiful places in South Africa it was intended to take you all the way from Assegaaibos to Avontuur in one rapid journey illustrated with about 50 photos.  Since than, due to the generosity and expertise of a large number of you who visited the Langkloof in the decade after the service east of Assegaaibos was dieselised, we are able to enrich the experience immeasurably from what was originally planned - to a grand total of 130 pictures, almost one for every half-mile of track.  As a result the journey is now split into three: Assegaaibos-Joubertina; Joubertina-Avontuur and then the return journey Avontuur-Assegaaibos in one dash to keep the apples fresh. 
Special thanks to the usual suspects and several others besides: Bruce Brinkman, Chris Jeffery, George van Niekerk, Don Baker, Allen Duff, Geoff Hall, Dick Manton, Alan Buttrum, Ken Stewart and Robert Maidment-Wilson (if anyone is missing please let me know!).

1. On a frosty morning at the very end of May 1980 the last of the season's apples, a consignment of Granny Smiths, was weighing down this hard-working NG15 up the 2km mostly at 1-in-50/75 out of Misgund.  The orchards on either side are rapidly turning to gold - within a few weeks the trees will have lost their leaves entirely.  As far as the eye can see, and halfway up the mountainsides, there are apple orchards - this is Kritzinger territory.  The volcanic-looking peak in the background is 5232ft Niekerksberg.

2. Bruno's fine map shows the generally east-west orientation of the Avontuur line and how the Langkloof nestles between the Tsitsikamma/Langkloof and the Kouga ranges - rising to well over 5000 ft on either side.  Although, as can be seen, the general trend of the route facing loaded trains is downhill, the scale of this profile is too small to show the numerous short and sharp gradients facing eastbound trains on their journey to the coast. 

3. Bird's eye view of Assegaaibos in 2006 by which time the railway's terminal decline had set in - practically the only traffic remaining was black-wattle logs recovered from Kader Asmal's program to clear the Cape streams of this invasive menace (you can see the debarked log stockpile and some loaded ST wagons, lower centre).  That the program was succeeding will be clear by comparing some of the photos in this section with Bruce's aerial shot.  After being well-nigh invisible under a canopy of wattle for almost 50 years, it is now possible for passengers 
(if there were any) on the adjacent railway to see the picturesque meanders of the Krom river; although nowadays it is but a remnant of what it once was because most of the water is pumped out for irrigation.  At this point it should be mentioned that the wattle-clearance program has been terminated - the Department of Water Affairs can barely pay the salaries of its staff so there isn't enough money left to continue vital programs such as this one. 

4. Photo 3 shows the eastern end of Assegaaibos - the new main station building (facebrick), the goods shed and the shunting yard - all now weed-grown and out of use as are the facilities in this view of the western end of the station, showing the loco shed, coaling stage, turntable and the overhead water tanks.  Note the idle fruit vans: most had not turned a wheel for more than a decade and all were scrapped on the spot, where they stood, a few years ago.  The long, thin building on the river bank is the deserted crew quarters, which used to be full during the fruit season; and the main line to Avontuur snakes downwards through the middle (west in this view is at the bottom).  The old Langkloof main road crosses the low-level bridge across the Krom on the right and just out of sight across it is a hairpin bend with the Assegaaibos Hotel sitting at its apex.  There were no en-suite bathrooms or TVs but it offered cuisine worth travelling 100km on corrugated dirt roads for and, of course, just on the other side of the river, non-stop action.

5. Gateway to the Langkloof stables.

6.  In contrast to Touws River, the new locoshed at Assegaaibos saw almost 10 years of intensive use and another 10 of rather quieter times except in the fruit season when it could be almost like the old days, as in this six-engine view by Bruce in April 1974.

7.  Did I say six engines?  Make that nine - or 10 including one Garratt!  NG15s lined up for the daily parade into the 'Kloof when anything up to a dozen trains would work their empties up into the valley, most terminating at Misgund. 

8. Six years later the shed was still a busy place, and would continue to be until after the 1983 season, the last when the NG15s were intensively involved with the deciduous-fruit traffic.  This late-afternoon scene by Dick Manton just tells you that most of the engines were out on the line.  That's probably not even one season's worth of ash in those DZs on the left.

9.  Another view on the same day - busy, but not quite up to pre-1973 levels!

10. What a contrast between the old Assegaaibos "loco" and the new.  This was pretty much it in May 1962 with 134 class NG15 catching a spello between shunting shifts.  This is a better angle on the fine old bolted water tank with its cast-iron stand, all made in Birmingham and imported specially for the railway c 1903.  I need hardly remind youse that 134 is now under full restoration on the WHR, thus set for a long career extension.  By July 1961 all 21 Kalaharis had been transferred from South West Africa but the Garratts continued to ply the 'Kloof almost exclusively until turning facilities were installed at Assegaaibos, Louterwater and Misgund (there was always a triangle at Avontuur).  This was accomplished sometime in 1963/4 whereafter the use of Garratts west of Assegaaibos was confined mainly (but not entirely) to the daily T&P workings. 

11. Class NGG13 No 77 just in from Humansdorp being watered before taking a rest in May 1962. 

12. NGG13 No 77 dozes before its evening meal at the coal stage while NGG16 No 109 is about to take 624-up goods to Misgund. The station foreman on his bicycle can just be seen on his way to hand over the paper order.  One could die happy right here, in this place.

13. NGG16 No 109 making up its afternoon working, 624-up goods to Misgund.

14. Waiting for orders, No 109 coupled up and ready to go with 624-up goods.  The crude-looking home-made coalstage on the left is probably the original refueling facility at Assegaaibos.

15.  No 109 cl NGG16 making up its train just outside the western facing points at Assegaabos.

16.  Whôkaai !!! (= Staaap !!!)....Bang !!!  Picking up the van of 624-up goods.

17.  Talk about time travel.  We keep on getting back to my first journey on the Avontuur line in January 1959.  I have deliberately re-used this photo to illustrate the contrast with Robert's view in the next one, taken more than 50 years later. 

18.  Tranquility and tidiness replaced by chaos.  The train was the Avontuur Adventurer - Port Elizabeth to Avontuur - in 2005, organised by Sandstone Estates using their own engine, class NG15 No 17 (the first one) magnificently restored by Lukas Nel.

19.  On one of her very early forays into the 'Kloof in May 1962, No 134 worked a heavy-looking 624-up goods to Misgund.  She would come back tender first, a practice that was extremely unpopular with the crews. 

20.  Into the Langkloof.  An unknown NGG16 working 634-up T&P up the left bank of the Krom River in May 1962.  The wattle invasion has not yet taken over. That's Assegaaibosdorp in the left background (if such a tiny place can be called a dorp).  Would that I had recorded this De Jonghesque-like scene in colour.  The tiny Cape cottages, the palmiet-rimmed pools of the Krom , the vivid reds, browns and blacks of the train and its railway all blended harmoniously into the landscape.

21. Barely a mile upstream of the previous photo the Krom is completely clogged up with wattle.  It amazed me how the vegetation had grown in little over three years since my first visit.  The engine is our old friend No 134 and the train is 624-up goods to Misgund.

22. The David Rodgers excursion of 23 June 2002 coming up the long straight half-a-mile beyond Melkhoutkraal.  Were it not for the heavily ballasted track and class NGG 16 No 131's two feeder tanks (a dead giveaway) the photo could have been made in the heyday of the narrow gauge!  Just look: no wattle and compare it with photo 21 which was only a short way downstream.  Minister of Water Affairs, the late Kadar Asmal, may not have been everyone's hero but he was mine for this feat alone.  The only problem is that with such a persistent enemy, an eradication program like this is ongoing: it has constantly to be followed up which given the track record of the present regime, is very unlikely.  Please note that the once full and fast-flowing Krom is nowadays but a trickle because so much is drawn off upstream to irrigate the orchards.

23. About as typical a Langkloof photo as you can get!  The second-last built NG15, No 147 working around the reverse curves beyond Melkhoutkraal on 27 April 1978 with a fruit-season rake of mt OZs going back to the loading stations.

24.  Around the bend, over the bridge and by golly, we're at the facing points of the Kompanjie's Drift. Two miles before those facing points the NG15 would have had a drink at a mid-section watertank, stopping and cleaning fire sommer on the main line (you could do such things on the narrow gauge) in preparation for the first fierce gradients of the Langkloof section.  As part of my job I would periodically inspect the feeder system for this tank.  The most complicated part of it was the ball and cock in the tank itself!  For a mile steeply up the small kloof behind the tank the pipe followed a minor tributary of the Krom to an intake in a small primitive dam of concrete and boulders.  The water was so pure it needed no treatment - the crews would get their tea water by tapping straight from the tender test cocks.  This fine April 1980 photo by Dick Manton. 

I had wondered whether this name referred to the Dutch East India Company - first colonisers of the Cape in 1652.  David Werbeloff has now provided a feasible (and colourful) take on the name, bearing in mind that the fertile Langkloof would have been farmed from early on: "I believe that you are correct that Kompagnjiesdrif relates to the V.O.C./D.E.I.C.  Back in the early '80s us music students got together and formed a little group which we called ..... "The Musicians of the Association of St. Giles".  One weekend, schlepping a harpsichord in the back of my Renault 5, we were invited to be the house entertainment for a party held on the farm Kompagnesdrift just outside Bot River.  This farm, complete with the original water mill (in which we were housed crashed out in sleeping bags on the floor) on the banks of the Bot was indeed the point at which the road east had first crossed a river and the farm could trace its history back to the V.O.C. days.   Go here for a current view of the restored farm.  I'm a bit surprised that the V.O.C. hegemony extended as far east as the Langkloof.  There was a Drostdy in Graaff Reinet so this must have been the case".  

25. An NG15 bringing 634-up T&P into Kompanjiesdrif in April 1980.  By this time the practice of attaching passenger carriages to the T&Ps had been dropped, mainly because they were needed for the increasingly popular Apple Express.  Nevertheless, the newer, and rather ugly type V16 guards vans were not used on this train, only the older type V5 or V15 with two passenger compartments were permitted - a tradition that held even after the diesels finally got to the 'Kloof. 

26. Contrast Dick's 1980 photo with this view of a now degenerate Kompanjiesdrif taken some 25 years later.  The train is the Rodgers excursion, and mention should be made of the TZ cooler van just behind the feeder tanks, presumably for the tourist's beer supply.  At mp 120.5, a mile beyond Kompanjiesdrif, the tame grades of the first 18 miles out of Assegaaibos make way for the ferocious 10 miles mostly at 1-in-40 uncompensated up to the watershed of the Krom and Kouga river systems at Heights. 

27.  The Rodgers tours are noted for presenting their participants with spectacular photo opportunities and this one on the steepest section of the bank, about halfway between Kompanjiesdrif and Heights, was no exception. On this beautifully clear day, and from this vantage point, you can just make out Assegaaibos beneath the far horizon 30 miles away.  The hills on either side of the valley are getting higher as we travel westwards.  The road is the R61 which usurped the position of the narrow gauge as the primary conduit for Langkloof crops. To the right of it in the middle background is the lighter green of the Krom River wetlands, newly restored to pristine condition as part of the Dept of Water Affairs program. 

28.  During the 1980 season Alan Buttrum recorded a down fruit special crawling past the scene of the tragic accident which happened in March 1980.  
Early in the month, recently-promoted driver van der Mescht, on his first stint in the fruit season, was bringing a full load of apples down from Heights.  With him on the footplate was a young fireman, Michael Clark and the guard, who was on fruit-season relief duties from George (he should have been in his van). One can imagine plenty of railway gossip going on between the three of them. After crossing the R61 there is a mildly winding stretch downhill at 1-in-40 until, at mp 124, trains encounter the notorious compound curve which culminates in a 3-chain radius section with a permanent 10mph speed restriction.  Probably distracted by all the chatter, the inexperienced van der Mescht allowed the speed to increase to a level where an emergency brake application would cause the load to run in with no chance of restoring vacuum before the curve, causing his engine, No 119, and train to roll down the mountainside.  Van der Mescht and the guard (so far I've been unable to find his name) died on the spot.  The fireman was severely burnt and spent a month in hospital before being released.  While in hospital the awful fate of his driver and the guard was kept from him, but in a final twist to the tragedy, soon after Michael was discharged someone broke the news to him whereupon he keeled over and died. 
There have been other mishaps at this location. Four years later, acting Loco Inspector Naas du Preez was instructing steam driver Laufs of Loerie in the finer arts of diesel-driving, the locomotive was 91-014.  At Twee Riviere the assistant was dispatched to the back of the train to help attach a couple more loads, but he failed to put the vacuum pipe on the dummy at the rear of the last wagon (the train was guardless).  So powerful is the vacuum exhauster on a class 91 that this was not noticed in the cab until they set off down the hill to Kompanjiesdrif.  After the R61 crossing the speed picked up alarmingly and the train failed to respond to the combined efforts of the exhauster, the locomotive's own airbrakes and the dynamic brake, so the crew joined the birds.  Driver Laufs broke his leg but on this occasion that was the worst casualty - other than Naas du Preez's pride and a dented class 91.

29. Retrieving the upside-down No 119 was not easy.  First a level area on the hillside was prepared, then she was rolled upright with cables and hillside anchors cast in concrete.  When upright again she was jacked up and track was laid under her - see next photo.

30. By April 1980 everything was ready to winch No 119 back up to the main line.  Note the radius of the curve on the temporary track: testimony to the effectiveness of the Krauss-Helmholz system of driving and pony-wheel articulation generally scorned by SAR's engineers but applied with complete success to European designs.  Amazing but true, 119 was repaired, repainted and back on the job within a few months.  Today she is effectively the best potential runner in the Apple Express steam fleet.

31. The practically new track of the Avontuur line being used for what surely ought to be its best prospect of future employment: carrying overseas tourists bringing in hard currency.  The Avontuur Adventurer was approaching the R61 level crossing on Heights bank. There is some irony in the fact that Henschel's first NG15, SAR No 17 (now at the Sandstone Railway), was in charge of the last train to traverse the full length of the Avontuur line in November 2005.

32. In happier days Geoff Hall found No 17 crossing the R61 with 624-up goods in May 1973.

33.  Only a mile to the top of the hill and this NG15 with a full load of mt OZ fruit wagons was blowing off.  The photo shows off the magnificent vista of the Krom River valley as it winds its way past Assegaaibos and beyond the blue horizon. 

34. The time machine has been re-activated: we're back on my January 1959 trip on 634-up T&P and rounding the infamous curve at mp 124.  The two vans immediately behind the engine have been referred to several times already.  We'll hear more about them in the next enthralling instalment of SoAR. 

35. The 1-in-40 has eased to 1-in-61 with a triumphant No 147 galloping up the last few hundred yards to Heights siding in April 1976 with more mt OZs. The train was 632-up and the smoke was by arrangement.

36.  The same train on the same stretch of line, only three years earlier with No 128 class NGG16.

37. Running a bit late, the same early morning mt stock working from Assegaaibos as in the previous two photos but on a chillier day in April 1976, restarting from Heights siding having crossed 633-down T&P. 

39. No 128 class NGG13 drifting downhill from Heights with 632-up towards the bridge over the spruit at Twee Riviere, in March 1973. 

40.  Dick's atmospheric crossing at Twee Riviere between the up and down T&Ps, Nos 633-down on the right waiting at the facing points (that tank is for domestic water) and 634-up entering the station, April 1980.

41. In May 1973 Geoff recorded No 146 (now thought to be on the Brecon Mountain Railway) bringing train 632-up through Twee Riviere station.  632 was generally used to bring mt fruit wagons and general freight to destinations east of and including Misgund.

42. This is pure indulgence.  Having spent an hour trying to decide which to post of Geoff's two classic photos of Twee Riviere and 632-up goods, I gave up. You are privileged to see both.

43.  Well, here we are, no prize for guessing where we are about to spend the night.  Sometime in 1973 Ken Stewart found No 127, class NGG16 (now on the Puffing Billy railway) coming into Joubertina with a westbound freight.  The sign on the Cape-Dutch gable reads "P B GELDENHUYS, Algemene Handelaar (= general dealer). 

44. SAR inspection trolleys were originally Wickhams but by the 1980s most had been replaced with glass-fibre and cardboard jobs manufactured by Plasser & Theurer.  Twice/year it was the Regional Engineer's duty to inspect all of the Cape Midland's 1740 route miles by motor trolley.  The narrow-gauge inspection was particularly onerous.  On a Monday morning we would set out from Humewood Road for Patensie with a side trip down the branch from Chelsea to the PPC factory.  Arriving at Patensie c 5pm we could at last relax with a beer before D,B&B at the respectable Patensie Hotel, just across from the station.  Next day we would proceed via the west leg of the triangle at Gamtoos to Assegaaibos and Joubertina, where we stayed over at the Kloof Hotel - surely one of the finest hostelries in the land.  After one of the hotel's epic breakfasts we would head up the line to Avontuur where District Engineer, Duff Conradie (a legend in his own lifetime), would be waiting with his official vehicle to take us on to Knysna - oh, I almost forgot - and a bakkie for the braai stuff.  Over the summit of Prince Alfred's Pass we would go, stopping for a lunch-time braai in a shady orchard by a clear flowing stream just the other side of the Keurbooms River crossing at Die Vlug.  The afternoon was taken up trolleying Knysna to George and onward to Riversdale on the NCCR, sleeping over at the Albertinia Hotel (also noted for its fine fare).  Early next morning we would set off in Duff's car to George to rejoin his broad-gauge trolley - run back from Riversdale during the night. Over Montagu Pass through Oudtshoorn through the Little Karoo and Toorwater to Willowmore where we spent Thursday night, rising early next morning for the last leg to Port Elizabeth.  Like I said, this was an arduous assignment - and twice/year!

45.  Yet another ballast consignment arrives at Joubertina on its way up the 'Kloof.  It is worth recording that over 15 years the 235km from Humewood Road to just beyond Louterwater were ballasted at 1200 cubic metres/km and only then was this generous profile reduced to 800 cubic metres/km.  Even so the total amount of stone laid from Humewood Road to Avontuur - excluding yards and sidings where the stuff was liberally splashed around, as in this photo of Joubertina - was 340,000 cubic m, or more than 2000 trainloads.  The train on the right was a PE Harbour-bound block-load of fruit. 

Well, that's all for this chapter.  The next one will take us from Joubertina to Avontuur, and should be posted very soon.