Latest News! 20th May, 2021

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Tsitsa Falls Tsitsa Falls - Photo: MPSA Arhives

The week that was

*  Wild Coast Tour

* Bedrogfontein Tour planned for June 2021

* Cry the Beloved Railway (Part 2)

* Crossing the Kraai River

* Pass of the Week

Wild Coast update

 As you read this newsletter we are driving from Coffee Bay to Kob Inn as part of our Wild Coast 2021 Tour.  We will, as always, provide a full account of the whole adventure on our return. We seem to have packaged exactly the right amount of fun, relaxation, exercise and adrenaline that meets our client's needs as this tour was fully booked shortly after we launched it and we've had a long list of names on the waiting list.

As soon as we're back, we will be launching our upgraded Bedrogfontein Tour scheduled for June, which includes a fine balance of technical driving, jaw-dropping scenery as well as a day in the Addo Elephant National Park, where we use the convenience of being connected by radio, which allows the grouop to spread out over the park and call each other when there is a good game sighting.

The highlight of this tour is of course the Bedrogfontein 4x4 Route, where we visit the actual battle site where Jan Smuts' commando won a decisive battle against the British forces. The route is varied and packed with game like warthogs, kudu and other antelope. The dates of this tour will be announced soon.

Cry the Beloved Railway (Part 2)

(If you missed part 1 you can simply scroll back to last week's newsletter to catch up)


Twice crossed by the railway line, the West Kraai River crossing is 27 km from Aliwal North. At the time of its construction, it required a fairly substantial bridge, which could only be completed about six months after the completion of the rest of the section. (Pre-dating the production of structural steel in South Africa, bridges had to be imported from overseas, mostly Britain, which incurred long delays.)

In March 1925 the original bridge was washed away, cutting New England off , and there ensued a series of three hastily erected temporary bridges, but they in turn were also washed away. On June 25, after a rail interruption of more than three months, a fourth temporary bridge restored regular service. During the first part of the interruption, there were no locomotives on the Barkly East side of the break, and some goods (mostly coal and mealie-meal) had to be transported by trolley.

May brought more rain, and the mountains were white with snow. Supplies of food, coal and paraffin ran very low in Barkly East. Before its foundations were damaged, the third temporary bridge remained in service just long enough to allow two engines to cross to the Barkly East side of the break. Passengers had to cross the river in a boat at their own risk and goods were hauled across the river using two aerial wire cables. Partial service was thus restored. One year later, in March 1926, the fourth temporary bridge was washed away and finally a permanent bridge was constructed by 30 July 1926. In exasperation the local newspaper (Barkly East Reporter) cried: “The whole affair has been a glaring example of how not to do things!”

[Read more....]

At the other end of the line, 11 km from Barkly East, the Kraai River East crossing posed a similar problem as did the Karringmelkspruit. Approaching from the northeast the line descended steeply to cross the Kraai River at a reasonably low level. As the engineers tried to find a solution to the “difficult nature” of the Kraai River East crossing, construction was delayed three months beyond the promised date.

Eventually the crossing was achieved by the use of two further reverses. Reverses have inherent disadvantages of slower average speed and limited train length, but they were adopted due to significant capital cost savings when compared to an alternative longer length of line. Six existing reverses on the branch line might have eased the decision to limit the capital outlay.

Engineering challenges aplenty


Finally completed all the way to Barkly East, the official opening of the line took place on 12 December 1930 – “Barkly’s Day of Days”. Starting at 10:00, the train with officials entered the station and the customary bottle of champagne was broken on the decorated locomotive. 

Commissioner, D Hugo, opened the line. Then there followed a public luncheon at 13:00, a fancy-dress carnival at 15:00, free films (“bioscope”) for children at 18:45, dancing in the town hall from 20:00, and free bioscope entertainment for adults from 21:00.

Market Square was decoratively illuminated. “It is only once in the lifetime of a town that such an occasion as that which occurred on Wednesday last can be celebrated”, exclaimed the Barkly East Reporter. By transporting agricultural products to urban areas, and providing rural access to industrial commodities, provision of rail access has always been seen as an instrument of national development. Following this philosophy, many earlier railway lines were approved despite doubts that they would ever pay their way. Branch lines, in general, performed poorly.

In 1906, for example, only two of the then 22 branch lines in the Cape system were profitable if capital redemption was included. Almost at the bottom of the list in terms of profitability was the Barkly East branch line. At the start of construction in 1903, the line had to compete with ox wagon traffic, which was still very much alive and well at the time, until legislation in 1909 removed ox wagons as an economic threat (and a local livelihood).

But by the line’s completion in 1930, a new competitor had arrived in the form of motor transport, against which it would steadily lose ground throughout the ensuing 60 years. For economic reasons regular service was finally discontinued in 1991.


On Saturday 10 October, during the 1992 Lady Grey Spring Festival, an entertaining race between train and runners was organised between Melk siding and Lady Grey. Upon the return of the train to Lady Grey, an evidently inebriated passenger illegally entered the cab of the locomotive, pushed the driver aside and pulled the regulator to full speed on a section posted with a 30 km/h restriction. By the time the train entered a sharp curve, speed had increased to 76 km/h and the locomotive and five coaches derailed in a curved cutting.

Between the locomotive and the coaches behind, the first coach was crushed, killing five people instantaneously – the Lady Grey station master, his wife, and three children from the area. Four days after the accident the engine driver succumbed. A further 38 people were injured. Subsequently, a monument was erected at the scene of the derailment.

Following this accident, for similar future trips it was impossible to purchase insurance at reasonable rates. However, exactly nine years after the accident, on 10 October 2001, Bushveld Train Safaris ran the ultimately last trip over the line, a commemorative passenger train, after which the line was closed and no further trains were run. Coincidentally, the present BERRT group visited the site almost exactly 20 years after the accident.


Unsurprisingly, the writers highly recommend a visit to this unique part of South Africa’s railway heritage, incorporating, as it does, the only remaining railway reverses (the other two, between Volksrust and Newcastle, and near Van Reenen, were eliminated by subsequent realignment and upgrading).

Testament to the local custodians of the line, the Barkly East branch, though long disused, remains intact and complete. Being “lovely beyond any singing of it”, the area will attract further railway enthusiasts and other tourists. Friendly farmers allow, by appointment, hiking along the line which mostly lies close to the main road. Furthermore, two heritage sandstone bridges built in the 1890s, both national monuments, are located close to the railway line.

[In addition, celebrated high road passes, rock art, birding opportunities, fly fishing and modern rugged outdoor activities are supported by a range of accommodation opportunities.] Certainly the BERRT group is interested in all possibilities for resurrecting use of this branch line, perhaps by draisines and rail-bikes. NOTE Our visit resulted from a suggestion by Mike Johns; Francis Legge provided transport; Johan De Koker proposed preparation of this article; Johannes Haarhoff conducted the research and wrote the draft; with Bill James as picky technical and language editor. A list of documentary sources is available from the BERRT members. Photographs not specifically credited were taken by the 2012 BERRT group.

Pass of the Week

The 7th and 8th rail reverses are visible from the Tierkrans Pass, so it's a fitting pass to feature this week.

* T I E R K R A N S   P A S S  *


Trygve Roberts

TAIL PIECE: "Never lie when a truth is more profitable" ~ Stanislaw J.Lec


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