A large Beyer Garrett steam locomotive moved slowly over the girder bridge spanning the Zambezi river, far below. It had come from Zambia and was heading south to Hwange in Zimbabwe. When it stopped at the platform I picked out its name painted in yellow letters on black – ‘Isisiba’. Lost in my thoughts, I jumped as I was tapped on the shoulder. A tall young man dressed in grey slacks and dark blue shirt asked if I would take his photo.
‘Is that yours?’ I asked, pointing at the locomotive.
‘Yes. You want to look?’ We walked across the tracks, he barely looking, and climbed onto the footplate.
Inside, the cab was an assorted selection of gauges and levers, some hanging down like stalactites from the cab roof. The heat was overpowering, this being Southern Africa at near midday, but my man seemed not to be troubled. Peering out from the sooty windows I could see water being fed into front and rear tenders simultaneously. Picture duly taken, I asked where he was coming from and going to.
‘From Lusaka,’ he said, ‘to Hwange, then I come back.’
We were on Rhodes’ great project, a railway linking north to south, through Africa. From Lusaka, the line crosses the Zambezi to Hwange and then on to Bulawayo and across the border at Beit Bridge, into South Africa. In those days the line was the province of Garretts, working heavy trains of copper ore and coal, with exchange sidings at Hwange. They were magnificent engines but, like all Garretts, their flexible steam pipes sometimes made it look as if more steam was escaping into the open air than ever entered the cylinders.
My man waved as he set off, leaving behind a grubby slip of paper explaining where to send a copy of the photo. ‘Mark, Victoria Falls station,’ it said.
That night we were camping in the forests not too far from the line near Hwange. I have to admit, reader, that, while most of my colleagues were up and about listening out for wildlife, I sat listening to the big trains pounding up the grades towards Hwange, every bit as exciting as the sound of an elephant, the distant roar of a lion.
That was long ago, and much has changed in southern Africa since. The Garretts are long gone and now we have only photos and paintings to remind us. (Except that I once found a Garrett from the South African national collection in a railway museum in Berlin – see the post of 25th January 2021 on this site).
Some years after my Victoria Falls experience I was driving along the coastal highway in Cape province, the so called ‘garden route’, near the town of George. Someone whispered to me that I might find some Garretts in the vicinity so I turned off the highway and drove a few kilometres to Mosselbai, right on the coast. And there they were, a collection of long disused black hulks, spattered with bird lime and gathering weeds. It was a sad end. They were the locomotives that hauled the trains across the Karoo desert from Germiston in Jo’burg, through to the towns and cities in the Cape. If we think of steam locomotives as somehow alive when in steam, when dead and on a scrap line, quietly rusting away, it’s very sad. I drove back to the main highway with a heavy heart.
I don’t know if my photo ever found its way to Mark but I like to think it was stuck behind a steam pipe in a cab somewhere, at least until the end of steam. I meant to ask him what ‘Isisiba’ meant but forgot. For years afterwards I asked around but no one seemed to know. There were suggestions – ‘powerful’, ‘monster’ and so on. I’ll never know, so I have invented my own – ‘dragon’, for so it seemed.
Much has changed in southern Africa over the years.
Perhaps some of you went on tours to the sheds at Bulawayo or Germiston, where they were kept. Don’t go now, though – Germiston can be a pretty scary place, even without a pandemic.
By John Swanwick.
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