The Selati Railway line Part 2.
During the Anglo-Boer war (1899 to 1902), the Steinacker's Horse corps, were stationed at Sabi Bridge. The abandoned Selati line had proved useful to Steinacker's Horse, and a weekly train, carrying supplies, ran from Komatipoort to their large post at Sabi Bridge, 50 miles to the north and situated on the river of that name.
The first time it went up, so thickly had the bush grown over the line in eight years of disuse, that a gang of natives had to go in front of the engine, cutting down saplings, which were sprouting thickly on the permanent way!
When James Stevenson-Hamilton, first warden of the Kruger National Park (then known as the "Sabi Game Reserve") arrived at this place in 1902, then known as "Sabi Bridge", the "bridge was represented only by the foundations of its piers, which the river covered when it rose in flood. (The proper bridge was only completed around 1910).
It became Stevenson-Hamilton's private line after Steinacker's Horse left. If he wanted to get to Komatipoort he mounted a trolley and, propelled by manpower, made a leisurely journey through the wild country he was shaping into a reserve. At first the trolley was confined to a mere platform on wheels, pushed by a dozen natives working in relays.
Later the old trolley which Stevenson-Hamilton used, was supplemented by a more up to-date contrivance (somewhat like the modern version shown above), which boasted a pumping lever manipulated by men standing on the trolley itself. Stevenson-Hamilton called this the "passenger" and the old one the "goods" train.
Stevenson-Hamilton wrote: "To make the former more comfortable for the traveller, I rigged up on its front part a bench with a back to it like an ordinary garden seat, and thus travelled in state up and down the line, taking no more than five hours to do the fifty miles down to Komatipoort, though twice as long to return. With the goods train the itinerary was a matter of days, how many depending partly on the weight of the load, and partly on how eager or otherwise the propelling natives were to finish the journey."
In Komatipoort Stevenson-Hamilton would catch the train to Pretoria.
This was the only use to which the Selati line was ever put, until 1909, when the Transvaal Government initiated some projects ahead of unification, completed the Sabi Bridge, and extended the line first to Tzaneen, and later to Soekmekaar (1912), on the main line to Rhodesia.
This was one of the most picturesque routes in South Africa through big game country. A railway line made a great difference to an area that had always been regarded as the back of beyond.
The steam locomotives took water at Huhla siding just north of the Sabi Bridge. The small siding south of the bridge, at the place known as "Sabi Bridge" (named "Skukuza" in 1936), was known as "Reserve".
James Stevenson-Hamilton had first-hand experience of the conditions during this period after 1912:
"The line was now taken over by the South African Railways, and Sabi Bridge found itself served by one train a week each way, the hour on both occasions being about 2 a.m. For some inscrutable official reason, the siding and water tank for the engine had been placed on the other side of the river, amid uninhabited bush; while our side - the inhabited one - was not a scheduled stopping place.
Thus, for some years we were dependent for the delivery of supplies, and the taking up, and setting down of passengers on the good nature of the guard of the train. If he did not happen to be in an amiable mood, he could, for instance, 'deliver' fifty bags of mealie meal in the bush a mile away across the Sabie, whence our only means of getting possession of it - unless the river was very low at the time - would be to bribe the ganger to bring it over on his trolley, an act on his part liable to get him into serious trouble if found out. Of course, as soon as the railway construction began, I had been obliged to hand over both my trusty trolleys, and now, with only one connection a week with Komatipoort (and that involving sitting up at the siding until 2 a.m. over a campfire) I felt that the coming of civilization had altered my lot for the worse."
"The railway had also been responsible for the death of my faithful cook and body servant, Ali Sharif, a Swahili who had been with me since 1903 and had accompanied me in all my travels to different parts of Africa since that date.
His wife and child resided at a village across the Sabie River, and hearing that the child was sick, he essayed one night when his work was over to walk the three miles to visit it.
He was crossing the railway bridge over the river, which he considered a safe proceeding since only one train per week ran, but unfortunately for him, two employees of Pauling & Co. were returning - it being Sunday night - from a jollification in Komatipoort, and, travelling at a great pace on their motor trolley, cut him down and killed him. (Encumbered by his long white robe, he had been unable to get out of the way.) One of our police 'boys', Jase, who was with him, escaped by swinging himself on to a girder of the bridge."
The Selati Railway line played a part in the Royal family's visit to the Union of South Africa after WWII, when the white train which was used for their transportation, was parked at the Huhla siding.
It also played a major part in promoting the Game Reserve as a tourist destination for those who felt the need to experience the wild of Africa.
Around September 1973, the Selati railway line, which ran through the Kruger National Park, was used for the last time.
This section of line, which entered the Park just north of Skukuza, and left it near Crocodile Bridge, used to carry several trains every day. The trains not only disturbed the Park's characteristic atmosphere of peace and quiet, but also affected its plant and animal life.
The National Parks Board, and other Government Departments, had decided that the protection of nature is more important than this historic railway line. The new route from Kaapmuiden to Phalaborwa and Tzaneen, winds along the western boundary of the southern part of the Park, and completely bypasses the reserve
A postcard of the Skukuza "Train Restaurant", with photos taken by B.K. Bjornson, shows the Selati restaurant in operation in the mid-1980's.
The caption on the postcard reads: "The steam engine used on the Selati Railway (1920-1972) together with galley, dining car, and bar-lounge is positioned at a reconstructed railway station in close proximity to Col. Stephenson-Hamilton's house on the then Sabi Game Reserve (1902)." Some of the coaches were destroyed in a subsequent fire, and today the scene is somewhat different to what is seen on the postcard.
I participate because I care - CUSTOS NATURAE
Convenor of the AIKONA Group.
No to Hotels in and commercialization of our National Parks.
Done 142 visits to National Parks.
What a wonderful privilege.