By David Alston
‘Passenger accommodation is provided on the following goods trains when run: 09h02 Mondays, Wednesdays, Friday: Rosmead – Schoombee — Hofmeyr’ proclaimed the South African Railways Intercity Train Time-Table. Being a steam buff and holidaying on a nearby farm in the Middelburg district, the invitation was impossible to resist and shortly before the appointed departure time we found ourselves on the platform at Schoombee station – where the branch line to Hofmeyr started — together with assorted milk cans, some sheep and a variety of farm implements vying for places in the few goods trucks which made up the ‘mixed’, with ‘white’ passengers (prior to being covered in soot) being accommodated in the rear of the guards’ van.
Trollip Siding (our destination) was shown in italics in the Time-Table and was therefore bereft of resident staff. This meant that the train would stop ‘on request only to pick up or set down passengers’ who were charged with the responsibility of ‘advising the conductor or guard beforehand of their destination in order that the necessary stop may be arranged’. Unearthing this worthy, who was busy counting sheep and milk cans, was difficult, but eventually convinced by our story (Trollip being a siding where only post was occasionally ‘set down’), he held a lengthy conversation with the train driver and we were assured that the necessary stop would be made.
Now we were faced with the challenge of buying tickets, which meant tracking down the station master, who carried out all duties at Schoombee – including ensuring that the crew of the mixed were adequately stoked up with ‘moer koffie’ for the arduous journey to Hofmeyr. After being found studying his signals intently — to ensure he didn’t send the train back to Rosmead — and clearly puzzled by a request he had never been faced with before, he nevertheless carefully wrote out ‘two second-class single’ tickets to Trollip and then directed us to the guardsvan together with the milk cans, while the sheep and farm equipment were allocated trucks of their own.
Seated resplendently on the green leather seats which separated us from the blue of first class, (third class ‘non-white’ passengers en route to shearing duties in Hofmeyr had an antiquated balcony coach of their own in keeping with the spirit of the times), we waited anxiously for the ‘right-of-way’ whilst partaking of some rather dubious ‘refreshments’ purchased from the kiosk at Schoombee, which was manned by the station master’s wife who was summoned from her house on the odd occasions when trains passed through.
The time-table – such as it was – was now in considerable disarray by the disruption of normal proceedings, aggravated by the unwillingness of some of the sheep to board the train. Finally, with much whistling and letting off of built-up steam, our Class 24 engine shuffled out onto the branch line with its motley collection of passengers, animals and farmware. With only 120kms to cover for the return journey to Hofmeyr and a day to do them in, it soon became apparent that no attempts were going to be made to make up time, but with a pristine karoo morning to enjoy and the steady beat of the engine to reassure us of some progress, we sat back and let the experience (and the soot) wash over us, together with wafts of yet-to-be-shorn merinos.
The unexpected stop at Trollip undoubtedly played further havoc with the timetable as the driver obviously hadn’t ‘set down passengers’ in years – only post and the occasional sheep who’d forgotten to buy a ticket in Schoombee and been asked to leave the train after failing to respond to the time-honoured cry of ‘Alle kaartjies’. After another intake of ‘moer koffie’ however – possibly fortified with just a dash of Klippies — the crew and engine had gathered sufficient strength to respond to the guard’s green flag, and the train puffed slowly away towards the fleshpots of Hofmeyr, leaving us to contemplate our journey together with the post. Our only regret was that there had been no dining-car to savour ‘Fried 74’ and ‘Cabinet Pudding’, those perennial SAR favourites which had everyone clamouring for less in days of yore.
How sad it is to pass Schoombee now and see the line weeded over, the station deserted and a general air of melancholy and decay pervading over what was once a bustling little community. ‘Those were indeed the days’…