All aboard the Diamond Express
A gem of a steam train journey in South Africa
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