Heritage rail hailed
The Ceres Rail Company recently revived a stately steam locomotive for a thoroughly enjoyable ride
Raw power is irresistible and when its origin is a Red Devil puffing and thundering along the tracks, it adds a sense of being part of history.
The wonder of heritage rail travel was re-introduced to the Western Cape by the Ceres Rail Company earlier in 2018, when the famous Red Devil locomotive undertook its first journey since 2004 from Cape Town to Robertson – a whirlwind ride that also included wine tasting at picturesque wine estates along the way.
For some passengers it was pure nostalgia, for others a bold new adventure and for many a second or third renewal of acquaintance with the dedicated team behind the project.
The Red Devil is unique and literally one of a kind, being a class 26 locomotive that was rebuilt from a class 25NC in 1979. Already back then it was painted a cheerful red and officially named LD Porta, after Argentine steam locomotive engineer Livio Dante Porta whose work influenced former SAR (South African Railways) engineers. The first test trip in 1981 was from Salt River to Bellville and back. The Red Devil is powerful enough to haul 650 tonnes of passenger train at a constant speed of 100km/h on 1% grades. However this power is also its drawback on steep gradients, hence it was not used on the Ceres/Mossel Bay route and went no further than Ashton from the Cape Town docks.
Clive Ball, a millwright who has worked for Transnet for 27 years, took a day off to join the Red Devil trip as soon as he heard about the Ceres Rail itinerary. He recalled the feeling of working on the Red Devil in the 1980s: “It was bringing back history – and unbelievably beautiful.”
Having fallen into disuse in about 2004, the Red Devil’s first trip again after 14 years delivered excitement beyond measure.
The adventure began to a loopy rhythm as soon as we left the Cape Town docks to travel through teardrop rain and soft, green landscapes.
In the observation coach – the last of the 10 coaches – the soft-pile carpet, comfy chairs and air-conditioning delivered some of the luxury of bygone times.
Strangers became friends as they shared memories and comments. The bar coach stayed busy, including thanks to a few Harley Davidson club members, and coffee, sandwiches and cupcakes were consumed in the genteel atmosphere of the dining car. Paarl Rock shone in the weak sunshine as ghost-grey clouds revealed icing-sugar, snowy mountains.
I was struck by the VIP treatment contrasting with the occasional wall-to-wall tin shacks outside, the moving scene offering multiple snapshots of a rainbow (real and metaphorical) landscape. After the drought-stricken landscape of the Western Cape, the Cape Town to Robertson route revealed magical rolling green scenes.
Coach manager Keith kept passengers happy with anecdotes and trip updates. He told us the Red Devil had travelled like the proverbial bat out of hell on its trip back from Worcester – no top speed revealed!
This coal-burning locomotive is capable of pulling 21 coaches. It has roller bearings and no greasing is needed. Work on it took four months and the trip to Robertson and back was history in the re-making as the Red Devil had not turned a wheel for 14 years prior to the trip.
Engine driver Cassie, with non-committal expression, a rare smile and great expertise, backed the locomotive up and gave both passengers and train-spotters some great photo opportunities at Vink River and Nuy.
The eyefuls of real, coal-burning smut we got from leaning out the windows brought back fun memories for those who remembered the trips of old, to and from school or university, or on holiday.
There’s nothing like the passing scene as seen from a train window: peeps into people’s backyards; children waving and running alongside; train-spotters racing along highways to the next point. On board one feels like royalty, waving and smiling.
Due to a delay our arrival at Robertson took place later than planned, but heritage rail passengers are not prone to complaining. Some were to sleep on the train; others dispersed to their accommodation in town.
Saturday dawned beautiful and clear and wine-tasting adventures were enjoyed at Rooiberg and Zandvliet in the Robertson/Ashton area. Another highlight was the Overhex hospitality on the Sunday – a brunch spread after a welcoming glass of heart-warming gluhwein. Much ordering of wine was done!
Combining wine tasting with vintage transport makes for an incomparable experience. You are relaxed, and feel pampered and cared for, but at the same time become part of the rail team and discussion, with information freely shared.
Dominique is the capable hostess on the trips and together with operations manager Stefan, his beautiful wife Melanie (the bar lady) and the rest of the team, they make one feel safe and fully informed.
Soon the passengers are no longer strangers and long conversations take place, anecdotes are shared, and regular visits to the bar and dining car oil the wheels, so to speak.
Ros, a fellow traveller, says the rhythm of the train is circular like the wheels. Watching the green lushness unfold like an old Cinerama picture, frame for frame through the windows, or leaning out like an ecstatic travelling dog, has to go on a bucket list!
Derick du Toit, owner and inspirational host on the train, admits heritage rail is a challenge as modern infrastructure is not geared for heritage locomotives. But, he stresses, the passengers make it worth it - they appreciate the spirit of adventure and understand and cherish the challenges (Derick never says “difficulties”) of the journey.
Ceres Rail was born in 2012 and is growing; this presents its own challenges, Derick says. “Reaching a critical mass is the challenge; in order to grow, the trains cannot run once a month only; the staff must be justified by sufficient trips.”
What lies ahead for Ceres Rail, I ask. “More coaches have to be refurbished and it needs a dedicated base in Cape Town for maintenance.”
Ceres Rail and all its ventures need all the goodwill and support they can get, he says. Derick has put amazing work into his venture and many travellers can attest to his care and hands-on approach.
On the Sunday, the return trip is full of unscheduled changes: the Red Devil develops a problem and a (diesel) “Red Devil” takes us safely back to the docks; a derailment ahead causes a delay. But here’s the thing: Ceres Rail trips guarantee exhilarating adventure, stunning scenery, great company and old-fashioned care. Nothing in the 21st century can measure up.
For more information visit www.ceresrailcompany.co.za..