Steaming off to Sandstone Estates
The first time I saw one of the famous Sandstone Estates steam trains, I was driving down from Clarens to Ficksburg in the Eastern Free State.
I kid you not, it was like suddenly seeing a magnificent old dinosaur come trundling across the prairies, or a dragon flying through red skies.
The gleaming locomotive stood there in the yard, breathing like a monster of old, steam streaming from its flanks.
There it was, chugging black and white smoke, backdropped by magnificent sandstone mountains, like a historical mirage from 150 years ago.
What is it about steam trains? Maybe they don’t rock your boat as much as they do mine, but every time I mention a loco to people, their eyes glaze over with that special memory-varnish called nostalgia.
And if you’ve ever slept over in a steam train as it chugged through the South African countryside, listened to the rhythm of the rails, the whistles, the food-trolley lady and the ticket man – not to mention the bedding person – you’ll say it was worth every bit of soot your eyes picked up.
And the gleaming machinery of the locomotive as it stood there in the yard, breathing like a monster of old, steam streaming from its flanks – unbelievable sights.
Sandstone Estates has regular steam runs on its private line. It has massive workshops, a collection of locos you’ll not find anywhere else in private hands, and it’s as if everyone connected to these marvellous old trains lives in another era.
Of course, the Karoo town of De Aar was once Steam Central in South Africa. And even when the locos were scrapped, the old steam train drivers still retired to this little town in the Upper Karoo.
And the famous ‘footplate stories’ they told were priceless. As a young reporter, I used to visit De Aar and hunt down these venerable gentlemen and listen to their memories over a cup of strong coffee and a rusk.
Next time you visit the Cherry Festival in Ficksburg in November, set aside some time for train-tripping out at Sandstone Estates – a joyride you’ll never forget...