All aboard the Di­a­mond Ex­press

A gem of a steam train jour­ney in South Africa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - GAVIN BELL

An in­ci­den­tal bonus of travel is the char­ac­ters you meet along the way, such as Peter Odell. As a young rail­way clerk in Eng­land in the 1960s, all he wanted to do was ride steam trains. Then steam gave way to diesel so he left. “I didn’t want to live in a coun­try that didn’t have steam,” he says firmly.

So he and a pal flew to Nairobi and hitched around south­ern Africa rid­ing ev­ery steam train they could find, un­til even­tu­ally they were trained as driv­ers with South African Railways.

I meet Odell at a rail­way yard in Pre­to­ria, where he is on the foot­plate of a mag­nif­i­cent Class 19D Dolly steam lo­co­mo­tive built in 1938 by Krupp, the Ger­man en­gi­neer­ing and ar­ma­ments man­u­fac­turer. Now 67 and of­fi­cially re­tired, he is an un­paid vol­un­teer with Friends of the Rail, a club of rail­way en­thu­si­asts who re­store old lo­co­mo­tives and run them for the fun of it. Most are grown men play­ing with train sets as big as their boy­hood dreams.

Odell is at a loss to ex­plain the ob­ses­sion, but his fire­man Tony Atwell sums it up: “It’s a pas­sion, it’s in the blood. All that steam and smoke, the roar of the en­gine, and all that power un­der your con­trol.”

This par­tic­u­lar train is called the Di­a­mond Ex­press be­cause it runs day trips to the min­ing town of Cul­li­nan, where the world’s big­gest gem-qual­ity di­a­mond was found in 1905. It was a whop­per of a sparkler, weigh­ing more than 3000 carats, much of which ended up in the Bri­tish crown jew­els.

The train, with half a dozen vin­tage coaches, is not a top-class, high-speed ser­vice. It is a cheap and cheer­ful time ma­chine trundling at a se­date pace into a past when rail­way travel was a proper ad­ven­ture.

This was par­tic­u­larly true for a Bri­tish for­eign cor­re­spon­dent in the An­glo-Boer War who es­caped from Boer cap­tiv­ity on this line, hid­den in a freight train. The der­ring-do was typ­i­cal of young Win­ston Churchill.

Most of my fel­low pas­sen­gers are Afrikan­ers en­joy­ing a trip down mem­ory lane to a place that is a fa­mous foot­note in their his­tory. Hot dogs and pan­cakes are served in an old-fash­ioned buf­fet car as Dolly puffs and whis­tles along to the clack-clack of wheels, dark smoke drift­ing into a cobalt sky.

En route we pass town­ships with “in­for­mal” set­tle­ments of cor­ru­gated-iron shacks, kalei­do­scopes of vi­brant African life, and vis­tas of grass­lands and hills shim­mer­ing on far hori­zons. Scents of the veld drift through open win­dows, of hot grass, blue-gum trees and dry, red earth.

Then the mine work­ings of Cul­li­nan ap­pear around a bend. They are still in op­er­a­tion, hav­ing un­earthed an El Do­rado of 28 tonnes of di­a­monds over the years, but part of the town has been pre­served as a time warp from the era when min­ing en­gi­neer Fred Wells made the big­gest find of his life. The hole where he un­earthed the gi­gan­tic gem looks like the scene of a me­teor strike, 1km long and 450m deep. Nearby, a row of Vic­to­rian sand­stone cot­tages on an av­enue, built for se­nior mine per­son­nel, has been trans­formed into art and craft stores and restau­rants where di­a­monds, and dishes named af­ter them, lure my fel­low time-trav­ellers.

Images of the past sur­vive in a mu­seum that was the home of Wil­liam McHardy of Bal­later, Scot­land, the mine’s first general man­ager. The priv­i­leged life­style of this gen­tle­man and his large fam­ily is re­flected in spa­cious rooms adorned with or­nate Vic­to­rian fur­ni­ture, and a gilded cer­tifi­cate from mine em­ploy­ees as­sur­ing him of their univer­sal es­teem.

McHardy is por­trayed with Wells and their mighty gem in a pho­to­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion in the town’s recreation cen­tre, which has been the fo­cus of so­cial life since the days of silent films. Higher on the walls are artis­tic frescoes painted by Ital­ian pris­on­ers of war, who seem to have en­joyed their stay in the town in the 40s. But that, as Rud­yard Ki­pling would say, is an­other story.

We are sum­moned back to the present by Dolly’s im­pa­tient whis­tle, sig­nalling our de­par­ture. Odell and Atwell are on the foot­plate, build­ing up a head of steam to drive our fire-breath­ing iron horse back to Pre­to­ria.

With a hiss, and a gath­er­ing chuff-chuff­ing and clack­ety-clack­ing, we are off, happy in the knowl­edge that for steam trains and their en­thu­si­asts in South Africa, it’s not the end of the line. • friend­soft­herail.com

The Di­a­mond Ex­press on the jour­ney from Pre­to­ria, top; the mine in Cul­li­nan, above

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