THE APPLE EXPRESS IN THE EASTERN CAPE
This is the longest narrow gauge railway in the world, known as the Port Elizabeth –Avontuur line at 177 miles or in today’s terms 284 kilometres.
Visitors are welcome to spend a relaxed day on a historic train ride from Port Elizabeth’s Humewood Road station to the villages of Thornhill (33 miles) or Loerie (43 miles)as well as longer trips to Patensie (69 miles) or Assegaaibosch (100 miles) crossing numerous streams and rivers in this unspoiled terrain. Classic steam locomotives pull historic wooden coaches to accommodate the day and weekend trippers. The greatest engineering feat is the Van Stadens River Gorge bridge, built in 1905, which is 77metres (254ft.) high and 154 metres long and is the highest2ft. narrow gauge railway bridge in the world. Currently day trippers can experience luncheons, braais or picnics (trip specific) before slowly returning to the city.Weekends away allow passengers to spend two nights in the countryside whilst enjoying all the family activities that the Langkloof and Gamtoos Valleys have to offer. These trips are expeditions in nostalgia, reminding one of the glory of the bygone daysof steam locomotives. To comply with safety procedures, railway rules and legislation, should the countryside be dry or for several operational reasons, steam traction may not be availed of which results in having to make use of a more modern diesel locomotive.
The Apple Express, as we know it today,first saw the light of day in 1965 due to a local request for a train trip. Since 2003the “Port Elizabeth Apple Express” (PEAE) a non profit company has taken over the functioning of the Tourist train.
Construction of the 600 mm line (2ft) started in May 1902 and finally reached Avontuur in December 1906, with the official opening in 1907. The line was built to connect the deciduous fruit farmers of the Langkloof Valley to the harbour in Port Elizabeth. A branch line from Gamtoos Junction to Patensie was completed in 1914 for the similar transport of agricultural products to markets overseas.
Of significance, the line passes the Chelsea Quarries from where in the 1920’s operators used this narrow gauge line to haul tons ofrock for the construction of a mile longbreakwater at the end of the Don Pedro Pier. This was to be strong enough to smash the heavy seas brought in by the southeasters and allow ships to find comfort closer to shore.
The reason for selecting a narrow gauge as opposed to the conventional 1067 mm (3ft.6inches) gauge was due to the spectacular terrain twisting and winding through hills and traversing many streams. It was easier for the two-foot railway line to track (no pun intended) the contours of the terrain than the standard ‘Cape Gauge’. Initially, Bagnall B Class and NG 15 Class locomotives (ex South West Africa) were used, whilst in later years the NGG 13 Garratts were introduced into the operation to cope with the growing Limestone traffic to the then Eastern Cape Cement works. More recently the stronger NGG 16 Garatt Engines were availed of.
Unfortunately, from 1986 enterprises in the Langkloof and citrus areas favoured road transport to rail and this detrimental migration resulted in the slow demise of this unique stretch of rail nestled in beautiful regional surrounds. Twenty years later however, the PEAE is successfully reviving this 100 mile safari for the benefit of excursion seekers to accommodate the influx of visitors to the Eastern Cape.
TEXT: Wes Kruger
PHOTOGRAPHS: Wes Kruger
Port Elizabeth hosted the first cricket test played in South Africa which was against England in 1889.
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3 October 2012 7:51