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The envy of railway kids


They used to race the train across the Victoria Falls bridge and pop into the Vic Hotel for a coke and lemon while the train took on water

Picture: Xinhua/Hou Deqiang (mp)

Railway stories continue to come rolling in. I am amazed at the number of readers who have fond memories of the great days of steam trains.

John Ferris of Somerset West described his regular journeys to and from school in Natal, all the way from the Copperbelt in what was then Northern Rhodesia. The trip took four days and five nights (I can imagine how grubby and sooty those kids must have been at the end of that epic journey.)

It was simply not worth travelling all that way and back for the short school holidays, so the Copperbelt kids had to spend those holidays with friends, or simply stay at boarding school.

Mothers used to pack huge hampers of “padkos” for the journey and there were several long stops along the way, providing opportunities for games of touch rugby in the veld and, at Palapye Road, even a dance with a full jazz orchestra beside the line and an open-air concrete dance floor.

They used to race the train across the Victoria Falls bridge and pop into the Vic Hotel for a coke and lemon while the train took on water.

In Johannesburg, they changed trains and had time to take in a movie at the Roxie Bio-Cafe as well as a mixed grill at a cafe close to the station.

I remember from my own boarding school days being slightly in awe of those Rhodesian guys who arrived a day after the rest of us and had been on the train for four days. I suppose youngsters were a bit tougher then, but what impresses me is the fact that parents were happy to entrust their children to the railways to be cared for four days and five nights.

I have heard it said time and again that railway people were a special breed in those days of steam. They looked after their passengers with care and courtesy. Luggage arrived safely and untouched. Everybody was happy to entrust their valuable goods to the SAR for safe delivery.

My mother bred expensive Persian cats and regularly sent kittens to customers in Port Elizabeth by train. They were put into a special crate, loaded on the train in Noupoort in the evening and arrived in PE for breakfast, healthy and hungry the next morning. We never lost a single animal.

At first, my mother tried putting a bowl of food and water in the crate with the kitten, but they arrived in rather a mess, so they were simply shipped foodless and arrived in good shape.

There was an altercation with the station master once, when he insisted that “all livestock had to be provided with food according to the regulations”.

My father spotted a torn bag of mielies on the platform, so he scooped up a handful and put it into the crate.

The station master was not amused and said: “Cats don’t eat mealies, meneer.”

“These are special cats,” my dad replied, “and they eat nothing else.”

The kitten set off happily, leaving the station master scratching his head and looking up “special cats” in his book of SAR regulations.

Last Laugh

A Karoo farmer was asked how his year had been.

“Medium,” he replied.

“What do you mean, medium?”

“Worse than last year but not as bad as next year.”