15 July 2010

Nababeep - Traveling on the Copper Mine Railway in Namaqualand - some personal accounts

NOTE: Information about the Namaqualand Railway is spread over these entries:
  1. "CLARA" built by Kitson & Co in 1891
  2. The Namaqualand Copper Mine Railway - a brief history
  3. Locomotives of the Namaqualand Copper Railway
  4. "The little railway in Namaqualand" written by Richard Thomas Hall
  5. Richard Thomas Hall - 1st builder of the Copper Mine Railway in Namaqualand
  6. Traveling on the Copper Mine Railway in Namaqualand - some personal accounts
Traveling on the Company Railway (1882-1909)

On July 14, 1882, a young (24) Catholic priest, Jean-Marie Simon, born 6 Dec 1858 in Lyon, France, left his country of birth together with four colleagues, to work in Namaqualand. The traveled by ship (the Spartan) to Cape Town and then took a three day trip on the little Namaqua - she only drew six and a half feet of water - to Port Nolloth. were the passengers disembarked. Simon and his party was to proceed to Pella near the Orange river. We now join him in his humourous account of the railway trip between between Port Nolloth and O'okiep as published in the book "Bishop for the Hottentots - African Memories 1882-1909" as translated from French by A.M.Bouchard in 1959 published by Benziger Brothers.

Bishop Simon penned this account of these railway trips in 1909:

The train was scheduled to leave [from Port Nolloth] at exactly six o'clock in the morning. It was winter [presumably around end-August 1882], and the sun rose at seven. Even so we awoke on time and were soon on our way to the railroad station. Where was the waiting room for the travelers? There was none. It appeared that we were to wait next to the track. You can imagine how pleasant it was standing in the cold for twenty minutes, for we were there at twenty minutes before six.

There was a thick fog, and we could barely see thirty feet ahead. The thermometer read four degrees above zero (36 F.), and we were lightly clothed. Would anyone in France have thought it possible to be cold in Africa! We walked back and forth, we blew into our hands, and looked impatiently into the distance. We were hoping to see the train so that we could jump into a compartment and at least have shelter. But nothing came into sight except some mules with harnesses on their backs. We wondered what these beasts could be doing in the African sands.

I cannot describe our amazement when we saw that the mules were firmly harnessed to a few little carriages. Yes, this was the train! These rolling boxes were our dining and sleeping cars, these mules were our engines. Each passenger carriage had three mules, and the freight cars, which were coupled in groups of three, were coupled in groups of three, were pulled by six mules harnessed in single file and trotting between the rails. The whole train consisted of about sixty mules and thirty cars.

A whistle announced the departure. Passengers for O'okiep, all aboard! Actually O'okiep was the end of the line. Once there we would have to seek other means of transportation, for we would still have to travel about ninety-five miles before reaching Pella.

The train began to move. I need not to mention its speed since you already know the power of our locomotive. Each unit was entrusted to two conductors. One of them, armed with as strong whip, took charge of speeding the progress of the mules should they imprudently choose to slow down their gait. The other conductor had his hand on the brake to control the speed of the vehicle. This latter function was quite essential since the tracks tended to follow the topography of the land. When we went downhill, unless the brakes were applied, the car would take on more and more speed until it was practically on the mules' heels. This would have been disastrous both for the passengers and for the poor animals.

Our impression in transferring from the large ocean steam to the Namaqua was repeated on this railroad. At first sight we were shocked by the improvised mule train, but after we spent a few hours in our rolling box, we had to admit that it was not so bad after all. Besides, this ninety-five mile trip cost us nothing. The Company is exceedingly accommodating. Anyone who wants to travel between Port Nolloth and O'okiep has only to inform the mine superintendent or one of his subordinates on the eve of his departure. The next day there will be room for him on the "Special" - that is the name given to the passenger cars. Even if he is the only one to make the trip, it makes no difference. He will have a "Special" and all its conveniences for himself.

I cannot guarantee that this courtesy of the Company will continue much longer, but for the present (1909) it is a free trip for the "aristocracy." Our missionaries have been traveling on this line for twenty-seven years. What a saving it has been for the mission!

On the other hand, freight rate is excessively high: ninety francs per ton. But we missionaries have nothing to complain about, for we always have a fifty-per cent discount on everything we receive from Europe or from the Cape. Our most sincere thanks to the Company. These gentlemen are Protestants but without prejudice or bigotry.

Scenes around Port Nolloth before 1907. This cameo was published in the book "The Cape To-day" By A. R. E. Burton, F.R.G.S. Published under authority of the Cape Government Railway Department. Cape Town, 1907. Pdf document here. Burton wrote: "There is a daily train at Port Nolloth, so that travellers [coming via a 36hr steamer trip from Cape Town] never need wait long at the port. The Copper Company who owns the wharves and the railway, are very attentive and obliging to visitors, and place the train to O'okiep at their disposal gratuitously."

As I was saying, a trip on this line is not unpleasant, at least for those who have something of an explorer's taste. The true traveler gladly accepts the inconveniences he may meet with. As for those who thing they are martyrs if they do not have a well-appointed table or a nicely furnished room, my advice to them is to stay at home.

When this trip is made in summertime you can see almost nothing but sand and dry, scraggly bushes. But even this can be interesting, for if you have seen only the pleasant side of nature your knowledge of it is very incomplete. The whole of nature is not to be found in plains covered with vines and fruit trees, fields of wheat, barley, or other cereals, forests cut through by brooks and carriage roads, cities with splendid monuments, or villages and hamlets with their modest steeples.

If you travel on our “Special" in winter you will see a sight unequaled even in the most fertile and prosperous lands of Europe. It is an unending flower bed of bright and varied colors. The colors of the flowers change with the altitude and the climate in which they grow. On the heights they appear dark red and velvety; on the plains where the cold is less intense their colors are lighter, turning to the yellows or even becoming perfectly white when the sun shines continuously on their corollas. Such is the case in the sands of Bushman-land where fogs are very rare. Since the flowers are of the same species everywhere, it is evident that the difference in their colors is due to the amount of light and heat they receive.

When we had traveled less than ten miles the mules had gone as far as their legs could carry them. A relay was ready. The tired animals were unharnessed and allowed to enjoy substantial and well-earned forage. Usually their meal con­sisted of six to eight pounds of oats or the equivalent amount of wheat mixed with straw. A new set of mules was harnessed to our vehicle, and after a ten-minute wait we were on our way again.

At noon each passenger opened a little package of sand­wiches that he had prepared in advance according to his taste and appetite. The English washed it all down with a few cups of tea that the employees of the line brought them, and then they were ready to enjoy the rest of the day. We French­men preferred beer, and although it was a German brand we enjoyed it as if it had been Burgundy wine.

At one o’clock in the afternoon we arrived at Anenous, a tiny village on the farthest limit of the plain that stretches between the sea and the first chain of mountains, the Kamies range. Actually, we were at the foot of a mountain almost 3,050 feet high that we would have to negotiate with the lone help of our mules. They would sweat and be almost out of breath, but they would get to the top. This would not be the first time they had accomplished this feat.

The construction of the railroad on this mountainside is a masterpiece of engineering. The grade was calculated with a view to the locomotives that would some day replace the mules. The engineer who solved the problem certainly gave proof of his immense knowledge. The ascent lasted about two hours, and at two points bridges had been thrown over ravines. These bridges were about sixty-five feet high.

As we approached the summit of the mountain we were reminded of the gorges of Switzerland or the Tirol. There were drops of over 2,000 feet. The road had been hewn out of the rock and there was just room enough for one man between the “Special” and the rocks. When we looked over the precipices we felt dizzy. The view was grand, but it was hard to enjoy it because we were terrified when we looked into the abyss beneath our feet. We were afraid in spite of ourselves. What if the road should cave in! What if the “Special” should be derailed! What if the mules should lose their footing!

All these hypotheses galloped through our imaginations and we couldn’t help wishing we would go a little faster and get out of this danger as soon as possible. But we were alone in our fears. The other passengers were not even looking at the view, the conductors were laughing and talking, and the mules trotted along as usual.

We soon arrived at the summit. It was five o’clock in the evening, so we would go no further that day. We were to spend the night in a hotel that the Company had built for the convenience of travelers.

A German operated the inn, and he did it admirably. The food, the lodging, in fact everything was to our taste, and the fee was very reasonable. The innkeeper’s wife knew a little French and enjoyed listening to us talk. We were proud to hear her say to her husband: “What a beautiful language!”

The next morning after a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast we returned to our train. Everything was ready, and on the dot of eight o’clock we pulled out for O’okiep, arriving there at five o’clock in the afternoon. The landscape was extremely varied. There were climbs and descents, hills and real mountains. Some of the mountains were rounded, others seemed to be topped with large skullcaps of bare rock devoid of vegetation, their flanks full of crevices and ravines. Here and there we could see a few bushes and some aloe plants. But the vegetation lacked vitality because there was little soil to nourish it. Even sand from the disintegration of the rocks was scarce, and that was where the plants tried to take root.

But even if these mountains lacked vegetation they ap­peared rich in metals of all sorts. Most of them were reddish-brown in color, a sign of iron. Often the rocks were covered with a greenish patina, a sign of copper. This metal provided a livelihood for all of Namaqualand and had been the incen­tive for the building of our mule train. Two English com­panies purchased the richest deposits and have been mining this metal for over a half-century, sending it to England on steamers or sailing vessels.

During the rainy season the inhabitants of the region plant wheat, rye, or oats in the valleys. From the “Special” we could see these green bands which were a pleasing rest for our eyes after the sand, the desert plains, and the arid mountains.

Finally, a whistle announced we were nearing O’okiep. Already we could see the native quarter, that is, a group of semi-spherical huts. A few youths ran toward the train. They were porters, eager to earn tips from generous travelers when they got off the “Special.” The station was a square, brick building covered over with galvanized iron. It was no better than the one at Port Nolloth and was really nothing more than a warehouse for freight.

It is twenty-seven years since [written in 1909] I traveled on this line for the first time. Since then there have been some improve­ments. The Company has replaced the mules by locomotives that make the trip in eight hours instead of two days. How­ever, there are frequent delays. The mules used to sweat and get out of breath as they climbed the mountains at Anenous, and it is about the same with the locomotives. Even though the train is divided into sections, the engines often lack the power to pull the train. Since more is demanded of them than they can give, it is not unusual for the boiler rivets to give way.

The Siege of O'oKiep during the Anglo-Boer War

Meanwhile, a Col. Cooper with a substantial relief force had been dispatched from Cape Town to Port Nolloth, arriving there on the 12th April 1902. They set off immediately by train and travelled as far as they could go. Although the tracks had been torn up in places, the bridges and viaducts that had been guarded by blockhouses were still intact. They first encountered the enemy at a place called Klipfontein which was about 45 miles out of Okiep, but the Boers had withdrawn to some higher ground that commanded the railway line. On the 14th, Col. Cooper managed to clear the Boers out of the area by the use of a shrapnel bombardment that caused heavy casualties.

Then on the 25th April, General Smuts had to leave the Siege and make his way by special pass through the British lines*, as he was required to attend the Peace Conference at Vereeniging.

[*In the final pages of his well-known book "Commando" Deneys Reitz describes how he and general Smuts were transported to the sea on the Okiep-Port Nolloth line - General Smuts in a 1st class wagon, and Reitz in an open truck with the luggage.]

This locomotive, said to be the "Pioneer", was reputedly the engine which the Boers sent into Okiep with a truck load of dynamite (see below).

General Manie Maritz, who had taken over from Smuts after the latter left for the Peace Conference, tried to send a rail wagon packed with dynamite and driven by an unmanned steam locomotive along the railway line into Okiep. Fortunately for the defenders it was derailed by the barbed-wire entanglements and overturned. It caught fire and burned with a brilliant light for rest of the night. Source: S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY - Durban Branch November 1998 News Sheet No.285 here.

The truth is not easy to verify - this version makes no mention of the locomotive: In the book "Jan Smuts: A Biography" Author F.S. Crafford gives a different version: "Then Marirz became desperate. He recalled the terrible havoc wrought at Braamfontein at the beginning of the war, when two dynamite trains collided. Ruthlessly he decided to blow up O'okiep. His men filled a railway coach with seventeen thousand dynamite cartridges and set it going downhill towards the fort in the town. The fort itself contained a huge supply of dynamite. The burghers held their breath. The coach reached the fort. There was no explosion! The town was saved miraculously!

Traveling on the Company Railway (1910)
This extract comes from "The Glamour of Prospecting" (published in 1920 by T.Fisher Unwin, London) in which prospector Fred Cornell recalls his 1910 railway trip from Port Nolloth to Kookfontein [now Steinkopf].

August 1910 ... as soon as I possibly could I finished my business in Port Nolloth and proceeded thither. Leaving at 8.30 one morning when, the combination of fog, surf, and bell-buoy were more unbearable than usual, the tiny little engine labori­ously hauled its long load of coke-laden trucks, together with a few antiquated coupled carriages of fearful and wonderful design and dilapidation, and dignified locally by the name of “ specials,” inland across a monotonous and level belt of sand which, arid and destitute of vegetation near the coast, becomes eventually covered with low bush, scanty at first, but after a few miles thick and luxuriant, and apparently excellent for stock-raising purposes.

This picture of "Five Miles" shows the railway line and the watering point gear at the tanks. This photo was taken by Frank Jux and published in the Rails to the Well article in the Industrial Railway Record of April 1968.

At “ Five Miles,” where there is the Namaqualand equivalent for a station, some iron tanks of goodly dimensions show from whence Port Nolloth draws its supply of fresh water, which is taken in in” water cabins” by train, and distributed about the town by a primitive system of water-barrels drawn by mules.

The mountains dimly visible from Port Nolloth are first reached at Oograbies, where abrupt sand­stone kopjes of considerable height extend north and south from either side of the line. These, however, are but outliers of the formidable mountain range farther inland, which forms an abrupt barrier at Anenous, some thirty-five miles farther on. This place was for many years the terminus of the railway, the copper having in those days been brought down to it in wagons through difficult passes in the moun­tain. Here, as at several other spots along the line, there is a good supply of water; indeed, it appears that practically wherever water has been bored for in this so-called “ waterless desert “ it has been found at a very moderate depth below the surface.

Thence the mountains rise abruptly, the track ascending by tortuous curves and gradients far exceeding in steepness those of the famous Hex River Pass, and climbing some 2,000 feet within the next few miles. The scenery is magnificent moun­tain after mountain on either side, peak after peak, and range after range; near at hand the vivid splashes of bright-coloured rocks showing up in brilliant contrast to the green of the melk bosch (euphorbia) clothing the less precipitous slopes, everything start­lingly clear and distinct in the brilliant sunshine and clear air of the mountains, the tawny hues of the peaks in the middle distance gradually changing to a blue, which in the more remote ranges became ethereal to a degree, till mountain and sky became merged in the bright shimmer of the horizon.

26 August 2006; photo of Clara and the train: photo by Stefan and posted to flickr.

Around Klipfontein are the corn-lands of the natives, and on the occasion of my first visit these lands presented a most beautiful and wonderful appearance. For field after field of cleared plateau and mountain slopes were ablaze with gorgeous colour, being absolutely covered with the most brilliant-hued flowers, not mingled in blurred and confused masses, but in broad and clearly defined stretches of different vivid colourings. Here, morgen after morgen of glorious crimson; there, half a mountain-side of mustard yellow, in startling contrast to the other half of azure blue. Parterres of lovely heliotrope, red-hot patches of scarlet and orange of every shade, of pink, of mauve, salmon, a hundred tints, and all so thickly clustered and luxuriant, so well-defined and separated, that the general impression was that of an enormous garden of wonderful carpet bedding. The veldt flowers of South Africa are justly celebrated (or their wonderful beauty, but I doubt if at any other part of the sub-continent they can be seen in such gorgeous perfection as at Klipfontein on the Port Nolloth-O’okiep line.

16 October 2006 - photo by Vaalheuwel & posted to flickr. This photo and the preceeding one neatly illustrates Fred Cornell's text here.

The season for them is, however, but a transient one, and two months later, when I again passed the spot, not a blossom was to be seen.

A few miles farther and Steinkopf is reached from thence the track winds on a down-grade across a wide, barren, desolate plain, broken by queer-looking granite kopje, to where a high, humped mountain marks the position of the copper-mine at O’okiep

Lawrence Green talks about the Port Nolloth - Okiep Railway line

Lawrence (“Laurie”) George Green 1900 – 14 May 1972) was a South African journalist and author. Eschewing any grandiose view of his literature and his lifestyle, he wrote for the layman and general reading entertainment as a raconteur. As such his writings, though well populated with researched facts through his wide travels and many hours of research in the South African and British archives, do not constitute in any strict sense historical or academic reference works. Nevertheless, he remains frequently cited as a recorder of little remembered or noted facts of some historical or cultural significance in the southern African domain.

A Decent Fellow Doesn't Work, published 1963 (reprinted 1982), Howard Timmins, SA

The following is an extract from the above work:

Most remarkable of all the narrow-gauge railways I knew, and probably the oldest, was the private line that ran from Port Nolloth to O'okiep in Namaqualand. All but a few miles of this two foot six track have been torn up; but the old people of that dry corner of South Africa insist that a ghost train still runs over the ninety mile route between the sea and the copper mines.

Camels and mules, horses and oxen were used for hauling stores and ore when the Namaqualand copper boom started in the middle of last century. It was a difficult line to build, for there was heavy sand at the coast, and mountains barred the way inland. Locomotives had to be equipped with special casings to protect the moving parts during sandstorms. These storms were so devastating that huge dunes formed close to the railway sheds at Port Nolloth and the line was blocked. People complained that they could not visit the cemetery because the graves and tombstones had been buried under thousands of tons of sand.

Many narrow-gauge records were claimed by the engineers who worked this line. I remember the skill with which they handled the train on the section between Anenous on the plain to Klipfontein summit, where the rise is thirteen hundred feet in seven miles. They had to split up the train to conquer the gradient of one in nineteen.

Gemsbok and springbok roamed the coastal plains years ago. Trains stopped to allow passengers to shoot for the pot. The most skilful hunter along the line was a plate-layer named Edward Burgoyne. Once he was struck on the neck by lightning, but he survived and carried a black scar as a result. Burgoyne left the railway, worked as a miner until he was eighty-four, and passed the century mark. He always said that the lightning put new life into him.

I met a later character when I first travelled by the copper railway about seven years after World War I. Copper had slumped and there were only two trains a week each way. Staff had been paid off, too, and people talked about the line as a "one man railway." The one man was a huge Cornish-man named Jack Meadows.

Jack Meadows sold me a ticket from O'okiep to Port Nolloth. For many years the company carried passengers and baggage free in their three little coaches, and to the very end they gave every school-child a free pass. I paid my fare and sat down in a compartment the size of a packing-case. Soon afterwards Jack Meadows whistled the train out and jumped into the van.

Things were so quiet at Port Nolloth in those days that Jack Meadows had time to carry out the duties of port captain on arrival. He organised the handling of cargo on the Port Nolloth wharf. Then he took the train back to O'okiep.

In the prosperous days, two trains always met at Klipfontein, and lunch was served at the hotel. I had a good steak there while one of the old hands talked of the time when the company ran a special excursion train for its employees to Klipfontein in the spring to see the wild-flowers in full and glorious array. That happens about once in seven years, and then Klipfontein becomes one of the world's botanical marvels.

Botanists from many parts of the world have gathered seeds at Klipfontein in good seasons. One professor collected forty different species in as many minutes. Brilliant wild-flowers grow so thickly that they could be cut like wheat with a sickle.

Now the station and hotel at Klipfontein are in ruins. Only the tall blue-gum trees are still there to nod a greeting as the ghost train passes - a tiny phantom engine eight freight cars and three passenger coaches bound for Port Nolloth with the shade of Jack Meadows in the van.

Port Nolloth and the copper mines were outposts of Cornwall for many years, and they left many Cornish names along the line. Sailing ships from Swansea came up to the jetty at Port Nolloth and discharged coal, which was railed to O'okiep. The trains brought the copper ore to the port, and that went back to Swansea. Most of the work was done by Cornish miners, St. Helena craftsmen and Hottentot labourers. To this day old Hottentots speak English with Cornish phrases and accent.

Among the early travellers on the narrow-gauge railway was John Galsworthy the novelist. His father was the copper company's solicitor. The young Galsworthy was treated as a guest of honour and occupied a special coach - I climbed into this tiny compartment many years later. It looked rather like a hansom-cab set on a bogie. Galsworthy responded by starting a library at the O'okiep terminus. He choose the books himself in London, and a fine collection they made at that period. I noticed some of his own masterpieces among them.

It was a slow trip by rail, but Jack Meadows told me that there had never been a fatal accident on the line. Good roads made it possible to carry freight and copper at lower cost; and so, during World War II, the railway that had linked O'okiep with the sea for nearly seventy years was closed down. Two short sections were retained; a line from O'okiep to the smelter plant at Nababeep; and the five miles of track from Port Nolloth to Five Mile Station.

Port Nolloth is waterless. Five Mile Station, however, has wells and windmills, and a water train with tank-cars runs several times a week and carries one hundred thousand gallons a month. (People who dislike the brackish flavour of this water have to buy Cape Town water from coasting steamers). Five Mile Station is also the isolated spot where dynamite for the mines is stored, and the old passenger coaches are still put on the run when dynamite is carried. And they are still hauled by an engine that was built very soon after King Edward VII came to the throne.

"On Wings of Fire", published 1967 (reprinted 1982), Howard Timmins, SA

Those who, like Martin Leendertz (a colleague of Lawrence Green) and myself, are fascinated by narrow gauge-railways have never recovered from the shock they experienced when the line from Port Nolloth to Okiep closed down. Construction started almost a century ago, and the tiny engines and quaint match-box passenger coaches were still jittering over the thirty-inch gauge track after World War II had started. Then the old line (apart from two short sections) was torn up for the sake of the metal and sleepers. You will see the old culverts and embankments, of course, and some of the historic rolling-stock has been preserved. Come back to the beginning of this peculiar venture.

Spooner, the genius behind the Festiniog miniature railway in Wales, inspired this line, one hundred miles long, between Port Nolloth and the copper mines. William Taylor, driver of the pioneer locomotive (named Miner) had come from the London underground; a strange contrast in atmosphere. When the governor, Sir Henry Barkly, travelled up the line in 1873 the Miner was decorated with rosettes. Proper coaches had not yet arrived, but open trucks had been fitted with canvas roofs, curtains of duck lined with green material and sheepskin carpets. It was early August, the spring flowers were out, and the train stopped often so that the governor and his staff could examine the great display closely. At first the train ran across the sandy coastal plain between the dunes. There were many curves. Someone explained to the visitors that the contractor had been paid one thousand pounds a mile, and naturally made the line as long as possible. At first it was thought that steam locomotives would be put out of action by the sand, but the Miner and another little engine called John King were imported as an experiment. Each engine weighed about six tons with water and fuel. They were a great success, and soon they replaced the hundreds of mules on the coastal section.

When the governor's train reached Abbevlaak, twenty-two miles from the coast, he was welcomed by a sentry who raised his ancient musket and fired a salute. -Twenty miles farther on the governor saw a famous landmark, the first tree, a lone kameeldoring twenty feet high. The railway builders had feared that the embankment might give way, but a plate-layer named Woodcock had made a name for himself by finding a succulent, the senecio or soap-plant, which bound the loose sand perfectly. The train climbed from Anenous to Klipfontein, where the governor spent the night. Next day he watched a copper train, twenty trucks carrying sixty tons, rushing down the hill. This section was then named the Barkly Viaduct. The governor's train went on to Okiep drawn by the Cape Copper Company's finest mules in new harness and rosettes. At Kookfontein (now Steinkopf) the Rhenish missionary had made an archway of evergreens, palms, wild flowers and flags. After another fusillade by a guard-of-honour the governor visited the church and school. The journey to Okiep was completed by Cape cart, as this was faster than the mule train. Okiep had risen on the farm Braakfontein. The visitors thought it looked more like Cornwall than the Cape, with its villas of solid rock. When the mine "roarer" sounded, hot coffee and biscuits were served to all workers free of charge. And a bottle of champagne for the governor.

Mules were still being used on the level section when Bishop Simon arrived nine years later, five hundred mules, each one consuming fifteen pounds of oats, rye and bran a day. The bishop left Port Nolloth in a cold fog at six in the morning. Tiny passenger coaches were provided, each drawn by three mules. Freight cars had six mules. The whole train was made up of thirty little cars. Each car had a conductor with a whip and a brakeman. After the train had covered ten miles fresh relays of mules were attached to the cars. When the train reached the mountains at Anenous the bishop was greatly impressed by the bridges over the ravines, and he thought the scenery resembled the gorges of the Tyrol or Switzerland, with drops of more than two thousand feet. He wondered what would happen if the mules lost their footing, for there were dizzy precipices beside the line. (When the line closed down, officials boasted that there had not been a serious accident during seventy years). Bishop Simon first saw Namaqualand from the railway in the spring, and he remembered the unending flowerbed, yellow on the plains, dark red on the heights.

Everyone travelled free in those days and for years afterwards. Permits were issued in Port Nolloth early this century by Mr. Deane, the copper company's senior official. Passengers quoted a little jingle as they went away with their free passes:

If you wish to possess
The Nama qua Express
You call on Deane at the Deanery.

The line was used by the British Army during the South African War. A famous episode in which General Smuts and Deneys Reitz took part was the capture of one of the small locomotives. The Boers loaded the tender with dynamite and sent it at full speed without a driver along the track leading into besieged Okiep. However, the engine jumped the points near the mine and rolled over into a ditch without exploding.  

Hundreds of troops were rushed up the line early in World War I to cross the Orange River into German South West Africa. The last time men in uniform crowded into the trucks of the "Namaqua Express" was in 1922, during the Bondelswart campaign in the barren, twisted gorges beyond the river.

The exiles of Port Nolloth laid out a cricket field in the dunes outside the settlement. Everyone trudged through the sand to watch the matches, for such events broke the monotony; but it was a grim walk, especially for the women. Then a railwayman had an inspiration. Secretly, and certainly without the knowledge of the directors in London, a branch line was built from the seafront to the cricket pavilion. A special train was run to every match ever afterwards.

Perhaps the item of rolling-stock which made the greatest impression on the primitive Hottentots was Mr. Zebulon Pearce's railway yacht. Pearce, a blacksmith, was fond of hunting. As he had neither horse nor wagon he designed a sail-driven trolley to carry him along the railway line over the veld between Port Nolloth and the mountains. The yacht had a square sail for "running before" and head-sails for use when the wind was on the beam. Pearce sometimes reached twenty miles an hour, a speed envied by the engine-drivers on the run. The doctor at Port Nolloth used a "rail bike"; and he, too, had a sail to help him along. This railway curio was still to be seen at Port Nolloth a few years ago, near the pump-house where the camels were once watered. The doctor, by the way, had to cover an area of four thousand square miles; from the port to the Orange River, inland to Anenous, south to the Buffels River. I once saw a letter he wrote: "To any part of this tract of land I am at any time prepared to go," he said, "but I think my salary of £150 a year should be increased."

John Galsworthy the novelist knew Port Nolloth. His father was a London solicitor who acted for the Cape Copper Company and the novelist visited the mines early this century. He trekked through Namaqualand and wrote a little-known murder story based on this experiences. Galsworthy sketched the veld background vividly; the Namaqua partridges flitting to a half-dry water-hole, the springbok drawing together in serried squadrons against a possible attack by stealthy, hungry jackals. He camped under a venerable kokerboom that threw gnarled and fantastic shadows. "That little world of rocks and sand, of scanty brush and tree, held its breath", wrote Galsworthy as the drama moved to its climax.

Port Nolloth is not an earthly paradise, but is has its old families who have been faithful to this weird settlement in the sand. Three generations of Robsons have lived there; the first Robson built the jetty, and his grandson restored a sixty-year-old London locomotive not long ago for shunting trucks along the waterfront. When I close my eyes and think of Port Nolloth I seem to hear the dirge of the bell-buoy, the rumble of surf, the regular explosions of detonators in fog, the seaweed and the sand, the railway whistles, the odour of freshly-boiled crayfish from the factory. Perhaps there are some who have grown fond of this forlorn harbour. As far as I know, Port Nolloth inspired only one poet, the great William Charles Scully:

Here on the margin of the land's wild waste
I sit with eyes set seaward, whilst the sweet
Wind from the west, spray-laden, flowing past
Bears to the sense faint fragrance, whilst the fleet
Foam-bells from each wide-wandering billow cast
Over the rocks, are blown about my feet;
Far off, a white-winged ship, with straining mast,
Bound on her course, close-hauled, with swelling sheet.

  • The Glamour of Prospecting - Fred C. Cornell - David Philip 1986
  • The Journal of Gustaf de Vylder - Naturalist in South-Western Africa 1873-1875 - Van Riebeeck Society 2nd Series No.28 1998.
  • Commando by Deney Reitz
  • Bishop for the Hottentots - by Bishop John M Simon, translated by A.M. Bouchard Benziger Brothers 1959.
  • Early 20th century railway carriages in Port Nolloth, South Africa - Debbie Krivens
  • A Decent Fellow Doesn't Work, published 1963 (reprinted 1982), Howard Timmins, SA
  • On Wings of Fire, published 1967 (reprinted 1982), Howard Timmins, SA

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