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Steaming into history

October 12, 2018

I recently discovered the fascinating past of South African rail…

Colour me ignorant, but I had no idea there was a transport museum in the historical town of George, in the Western Cape. So, imagine my surprise when I came across it while taking some rest and recreation time in the area.

I was, I’ll admit, a little disappointed when I realised it was a Transnet Transport Museum (one of two in the country, apparently; the other in Kimberley). While I admire their stupendous engineering, I’ve never really had a thing for trains… However, I do have a thing for history, and that made me very excited indeed.

I was pleased to learn that, while the centrepiece of the museum is the history of the country’s railways and some notable locomotives from its past, the exhibits also touch on air, maritime and (to a very small extent, mainly to do with the railways) road transport. There is also a collection of privately owned vintage and classic cars to enjoy.

For a mere R20 per adult, browsing the 14 000 m2 exhibition imparts a real sense of cross-country transport as it once was. Climbing aboard the 1893 President Kruger, or Locomotive 1, the “Roos”, I could only imagine the toil of those tasked with operating such steam locomotives.

Many of the coaches are open to walk through, displaying period furniture, fittings and paraphernalia such as crockery and silverware. Photographs, train number plates and name plaques caught my eye, as did the buffet price lists (90c for a hamburger, anyone?) and the Cape Colony vaccination notice from 1893.

Naturally, you can have a coffee and snack in one of the dining cars.

Through the Transnet Foundation, the company claims to “commit to high-quality conservation outcomes for its heritage assets to retain their heritage significance to the greatest extent feasible…” With a history that can be traced back to the early 1850s, I left the exhibition with a sense of happiness that this seems to be a successful initiative (with the notable exception of the now lost Outeniqua Choo Tjoe).

History-inspired Googling has now ensued, and I’ll be making a point of visiting more notable museums every now and then. I believe there’s a good one, filled with vehicles of many types, in the south of Joburg…

My life has always revolved around anything with wheels and an engine. It doesn’t matter if its an old banger, the latest hot-hatch or a fancy 4×4 – any excuse is a good excuse to take it for a cruise, spank it at the track or go bundu-bashing (the mud-and-rocks-side-of-a-mountain type, not the exploring-Joburg’s-pavements type). Otherwise, chances are you’ll find me lying underneath one of my beloved toys or with my head buried in its engine bay, tinkering away.

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