Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “trains”

Networking and consciousness

A blogging friend recently drew my attention to an article about scientists’ attempts to understand consciousness — World’s Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can’t Crack Consciousness – Scientific American Blog Network: The chemist Ash Jogalekar, who blogs as “The Curious Wavefunction,” wrote about Witten’s speech and transcribed the relevant section. (Thanks, Ash.) Here is an excerpt:

I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness…

Now I’m no scientist. I haven’t gone beyond high school physics and that was more than 50 years ago, and string theory wasn’t around then, so if you think that what follows is the insane ramblings of a lunatic, you’d better stop reading now. Check the right-hand column for something else to read, or close this window.

My picture of consciousness or an analogy for consciousness is that it arises out of the complexity of networks, and in this case the networks of neurons in the human brain.

This idea was suggested to me by a science fiction short story called A subway named Möbius. “When the MBTA (Boston’s Public Transportation authority) introduces a new line, the topology of the network become so complex that a train vanishes…lost in some fourth dimensional properties of the network.”

The Boston T

The Boston T

I read the story in 1962, when I was 21. There was no Google in those days, so I had to go searching among mathematical texts in the library to discover what topology was. The story mentioned a Möbius strip, which had one side and one edge, which the author described as a “singularity”. It also mentioned a Klein bottle, which managed to be inside itself, and had two singularities. The mathematical texts that I found explained and illustrated these, so at least I could form a mental picture of them, and for a while I enjoyed making Möbius strips and astounding my friends by demonstrating that they had one side and one edge. In the story a mathematician, Roger Tupelo, explains the disappearance of the train referring to the topological qualities of the network. It is a closed system, so the train must be somewhere on the system, but it has no real “where”.

The story suggested to me how it might be possible to have infinity in a finite space. It gripped my imagination, and I wondered if that was what consciousness was. Could this be an analogy to the link between the metaphysical mind and the physical brain? That the network of our brains was so complex that our thoughts jumped into another dimension?

A few years later I came across a play by N.F. Simpson called A resounding tinkle. At one point in the play a radio is playing in the background, and something resembling Anglican Evensong was playing, with dialogue something like this:

Versicle: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality.
Response: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency.

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At thought.
R: which is an illusion caused by certain electrochemical changes in the human brain structure which, had they been otherwise, what is now commonplace would be beyond our wildest imaginings, and what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would be commonplace.

And the connection between brain and mind would be as much beyond our wildest imaginings as that.

Of course this is all completely unscientific, being based on science fiction and the Theatre of the Absurd, but I rather liked the idea that the topological qualities of a network could make the whole network greater than the sum of its parts, and the brain as a neural network is a lot more complicated than an underground railway. I’ve always liked visible networks, like railways, and prefer trolley buses to oil buses, partly because their network is more visible.

When I actually visited Boston, I was rather disappointed to discover that the MBTA network was not nearly as complex as the story suggested, and in that respect did not compare well with the Moscow or London networks.

The Boston T -- August 1995

The Boston T — August 1995

I mentioned this theory of consciousness in passing in another blog post, where I suggested that it could also be used as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — that God has us all backed up on tape or some kind of super DVD, and that on the last day we’ll all be rebooted into new and better hardware.

The idea of egregores allows one to extend the analogy, or the metaphor, even further. If the human mind is greater than the sum of the parts of the human brain, then an aggregate of human minds working together could be greater than the sum of the brains that compose it. According to the modern nation, an egregore is a kind of group mind which is created when people consciously come together for a common purpose. Each of us belong to several of these groups. The process is unconscious. There also are drawbacks, some disturbing psychic influences in many cases, and a restriction of freedom. It is impossible to free oneself from certain egregores, for example the egregores of the country you live in.

The egregores of the country one lives in bear a strong resemblance to the angels of the nations referred to in the Old Testament, and the Greek word egrigori (watchers) is sometimes used to refer to them.

Consciousness is sometimes described by scientists as being comparable to both waves and particles. So could not the angels of the peoples be both a kind of group mind, and also bodiless powers?

I’m not proposing a new doctrine here, it is just a theologoumenon. But it might provide a useful analogy.

UK trip 19 May 2015: London

Continued from UK trip 18 May 2005: a day in Oxford | Notes from underground

We took the R73 bus to Richmond Station, and got the District Line train to Monument station, and then changed to the Docklands Light Railway, and rode to Lewisham. It seemed to be the best way to see some of the parts of London that had changed most since I had last been there in the 1960s.

Some of the changes in London -- the docklands had become a business distict

Some of the changes in London — the docklands had become a business distict

The railway had not been here for one thing, and as parts of it were on elevated track there were good views over the rebuilt docks area, with tall office blocks, which looked a bit like the financial district of Johannesburg or central Sandton. It was a lot cleaner and smarter, but also was a reminder that Britain was no longer a country whose products were exported all over the world. Manufacturing industry in Britain seemed to be dead. The streets were full of French, Italian and German cars, and even the Vauxhalls were simply rebadged Opels.

Lewisham was much changed from when I had last seen it too. Buildings seemed to have been demolished to make way for a bus station, and just about every route seemed to be run be a different bus company.

Leisham bus station.

Leisham bus station.

We went to have breakfast in a place called Maggie’s, which had an all-in breakfast of as much as one could eat for £4-50, which Val had, and I had a Spanish omelet and chips, which was a bit cheaper, though they refilled my tea cup three times, speedily and efficiently. At one point a bloke nicked my rucksack, then gave it back, saying I should be more careful.

Maggies Cafe in Lewisham, where we had breakfast.

Maggies Cafe in Lewisham, where we had breakfast.

Afterwards we wandered about a bit, and saw the church having a market. It seemed to be a fairly high church, advertising Mass.

Church in Lewisham

Church in Lewisham

We rode back to Bank on the Docklands Light Railway. The trains were driverless, and seemed to sway and shake a lot.


Docklands light railway, but no docks in sight.

Docklands light railway, but no docks in sight. Driver’s-eye view, but no driver in sight either.

We walked down to London Bridge past the monument to the great fire of London, and there was not a bowler hat in sight. In 1966 London Bridge had been a sea of bowler hats and umbrellas, crossing to the north bank at 9:00 am and back again at 6:00 pm, when I was driving the 133 bus. Back then they had seemed horribly old fashioned, like something out of the 1920s, and I thought that if such a tradition had persisted so long, it might have persisted longer, but it has not.

The Bank of England, the famed old lady of Threadneedle Street. n 1966 the streets in the vicinity used to be a sea of bowler hats, but in 2005 there wasn't one to be seen.

The Bank of England, the famed Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. In 1966 the streets in the vicinity used to be a sea of bowler hats, but 40 years later there wasn’t one to be seen.

We looked for a loo, but there hardly seemed to be any on London Bridge station at all, and those that there were were small prefab plastic structures sitting on the platforms and required 20p coins, and some of them needed pound coins. Another change, and a major one this time, as it seems to involve a genetic mutation. Brits no longer need to piss, or at least they must have evolved larger bladders so they only need to do it before they leave home in the morning and after they get home at night. When I was here in the 1960s you could buy a review of public loos called The Good Loo Guide, but it would be of purely historic interest now, as the loos are no longer there.

GillyHopWhile we were crossing London Bridge it began to rain, though not very hard, so we cut our sightseeing, and made our way to Foyles Bookshop on the Underground. We had at first decideed not to buy any books, lest we get overweight on the plane going home, but decided to chance it anyway, and stow them in pockets. Val got a book for our son Simon on his computer program XSI, and one for Jethro on Formula I racing. I found Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins, which I had never seen in South Africa, either in bookshops or libraries. I’d read another book by Katherine Paterson, called A bridge to Terabithia, and had quite liked it, except for the fact that it had a boy with a girl’s name and a girl with a boy’s name, so I kept confusing the characters when they were referenced by pronouns. Perhaps it was trying to make some weird feminist point. I looked for Charles Williams books, of which Frank Cranmer had a complete set, but did not see any.

We walked down to Leicester Square Underground station, and then to Waterloo to get the 15:57 train to Strawberry Hill via Teddington, and walked back to Frank Cranmer’s cottage through the drizzle.

The walk from Strawberry Hill station to Twickenham

The walk from Strawberry Hill station to Twickenham

Frank and Helen came about 7:30 pm, and we took them to supper at Arthur’s restaurant, across the green. The restaurant was a converted public loo, which Frank said had been closed because it was too expensive to run. Perhaps that explained what had happened to the other’s too. There was a noisy party next to us, and so after our meal we returned to Frank’s cottage for coffee.

Concluded at UK trip 20 May 2005: London, and going home | Notes from underground.

Index to all posts on our UK trip here UK Holiday May 2005

UK trip 18 May 2005: a day in Oxford

Continued from UK trip 17 May 2005 London: Newspapers and Books | Notes from underground

We took the train from Strawberry Hill to Waterloo again, and this time it took a more northerly route, which was a bit shorter. We took the Bakerloo line on the underground to Paddington station, and then a train to Oxford, which we had to pay for, as it was not on the visitors travel passes we had. The “cheap” day return was a little over £17 each, which was pretty expensive, I thought. The journey lasted a little over an hour, and the train stopped at Slough and Reading, and was going on to Great Malvern.

By train to Oxford 18 May 2005

By train to Oxford 18 May 2005

We got a bus into the centre of Oxford, and took a walk round the town, up Cornmarket, where we looked at record shops as Val was trying to find a Mother Earth record that our son Simon had wanted for Christmas, but we weren’t successful in that.

Cornmarket, Oxford

Cornmarket, Oxford

We passed Balliol College, where Jan Hofmeyr had been, and Trinity, where Stephen Gawe had been, and looked in at the Bodleian Library.

Balliol College, Oxford

Balliol College, Oxford

We took some photos of the Radcliffe Camera, something that I associated with the essence of Oxford. There is a small round building behind the old Reserve Bank building in Church Square, Pretoria, that always reminded me of Oxford, because it looked like a miniature of the Radcliffe Camera.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford.

We walked down the High to Magdalen Bridge, where there were punts and rowing boats, and took photos of Magdalen College where C.S. Lewis had taught, and where I had once been with Stephen Gawe to visit another South African student back in 1967, Harold Mogona.

Magdalen College, Oxford

Magdalen College, Oxford. C.S. Lewis's College.

Magdalen College, Oxford. C.S. Lewis’s College.

We walked round Merton around the edge of Christ Church meadow, and up past Christ Church, and then had lunch at a pub in the High, and wrote postcards to the children, and went to the post
office to post them. I had thought of visiting John Fenton, the former principal of St Chad’s College, and retired as a Canon of Christ Church, but he seemed to live further out of town, and we did not know how to get there.

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

We took a bus up to Banbury Road, where we had a look at the House of St Gregory and Macrina, at the corner of Canterbury Road, but though we rang the bell, no one answered. It was a kind of Orthodox Centre in Oxford, which I had visited in 1967, during a patristics conference, and met Dr Nicolas Zernov, who had written several books about the Orthodox Church, which I had read before becoming Orthodox.

Oxford, 18 May 2005

Oxford, 18 May 2005

We went back into town on the bus, and looked at a few more record shops, and then walked back to the station, and got the 4:33 pm train back to Paddington, and retraced our journey this morning,
down the Bakerloo line to Waterloo, and the South West Trains to Strawberry Hill, arriving back at Frank Cranmer’s Cottage at 7:00 pm.

Bakerloo line train in the London rush hour.

Bakerloo line train in the London rush hour.

There was a cricket match in progress on the green over the road, as there had been the previous day, though this time there were younger children playing. We went out looking for supper, and tried some of
the other pubs in the neighbourhood. The Sussex Arms did not do evening meals, and the other one around the corner only had a Thai Restaurant, so we went back to The Prince Blucher, and had pie with
mash and vegetables, and were served by a South African girl from the Free State.

To be continued.

Index to all posts on our UK trip here UK Holiday May 2005

UK trip 17 May 2005 London: Newspapers and Books

Continued from UK trip 16 May 2005: Brightlingsea to Twickenham | Notes from underground

We left the cottage at about 8:00, took the bus to Richmond underground station, and then the underground to Colindale, to visit the newspaper library, and spend several hours there looking at newspaper death announcements and obituaries, though the obituaries did not seem to begin in earnest until the early 20th century.

At Colindale Underground station on the Northern Line.

At Colindale Underground station on the Northern Line.

Then we went down to Tottenham Court Road, and walked down Charing Cross Road, where we looked at Foyle’s bookshop, but bought nothing, partly because of the overwhelming choice available, and partly because Val was worried about the extra weight if we tried to carry too much back on the plane.

No South African account ofn being a tourist in the UK would be complete without a picture of Travalgar Square, with South Africa House in the background, so here's the obligatory shot.

No South African account of being a tourist in the UK would be complete without a picture of Trafalgar Square, with South Africa House in the background, so here’s the obligatory shot.

We wandered down to Trafalgar Square, and then got a bus to Aldwych, and another to Waterloo, where we discovered that our visitors travel passes were also valid on Southwest Trains, part of the old southern region of British Rail, now privatised. The trains were modern, and came in a variety of bright livery, in contrast to the dull green of the Southern Region of British Rail in the 1960s, though the one we rode on to Strawberry Hill had graffiti scratched on the windows. We picked up several abandoned newspapers on the train, so we didn’t have to buy one.

On a London bus.

On a London bus.

We got off at Strawberry Hill station and were back at the cottage about 8:00 pm, and walked up to a neighbourhood pub, the Prince Blucher. On the way we passed the green, where a neighbourhood cricket game was in progress. Such scenes always call to mind the song by The Who:

I want to play cricket on the green
Ride my bike across the stream
Cut myself and see my blood
I want to come home all covered in mud
I’m a boy, I’m a boy
But my Ma won’t admit it.

We had bangers and mash for supper at the pub, which was very good, though it cost twice what a similar meal would have cost in South Africa — about 6 pounds, equivalent to about R70.00. I had a pint of bitter and Val had a lager shandy, which she has been drinking ever since the day we arrived, when Richard Wood had one.

Cricket on the green at Twickenham. 17 May 2005

Cricket on the green at Twickenham. 17 May 2005

We walked round the block, down Second Cross Road, and there were three pubs in that block alone. It makes a difference in the way one lives, that one can go walking to a local pub in an evening. In South Africa there is no real equivalent, though possibly the Dros chain of restaurants perform the same function, but one cannot afford them for family meals, and would only go for special occasions, and not just for a drink. But one cannot just walk down the road to them, it means getting in the car and making a special outing. In the townships there are shebeens within walking distance for many, but they are for serious drinkers, and don’t usually serve food.

Continued at UK trip 18 May 2005: a day in Oxford | Notes from underground.

Index to all posts on our UK trip here UK Holiday May 2005


Why I went off the Gautrain

When the Gautrain first began running between Pretoria and Johannesburg, I was very impressed by it, and thought it was the best way of travelling. It was fast, convenient, comfortable and reasonably priced. It saved the hassle of driving in traffic.

Gautrain at Hatfield station, Pretoria, July 2014

Gautrain at Hatfield station, Pretoria, July 2014

So if I had to attend a meeting in Johannesburg, and the venue was accessible from a Gautrain station, I took the train in preference to driving. This was particularly useful in the December holiday season, 15 December to 15 January, when the price of the buses and parking were reduced.

But then I began to notice that it was always costing me more than I thought it did. I would put enough money in the card to cover the cost of my trip and a bit more, so that the next time I rode on the train I could pay when I got off the train rather than when I got on. But when leaving the parking garage, the machine briefly flashed the remaining balance, which was always lower than I expected.

Eventually I got a printout of my last few journeys, and noticed that there was an extra R20 being added to the cost of every journey. The fare between Hatfield and Rosebank is advertised as about R49 in off-peak periods, but it actually cost R69.00, because  of the extra R20.00 being added every time. The reason for this extra charge is not explained in the fare tables.

So the last time I needed to travel to a meeting in Johannesburg, I added up the fares, parking charges, bus fares, and the extra R40.00, and it came to R160.00, and that didn’t look reasonable at all. I decided to go by car instead. The distance by car is 60 km, 120 km return. The cost of the petrol for such a trip is about R100.00. So without the extra R40.00 charged on the Gautrain, the fare at R120.00 might be competitive, considering wear and tear on the car and the driver. But R160.00 is not competitive at all, and if there is even only one other person travelling, travelling by car wins hands down.

One of the aims of introducing the Gautrain was to get cars off the overcrowded roads, but at those prices, there is no incentive.


Nine years of Notes from Underground

This blog opened with its first post nine years ago, on 28 November 2005, so I’ll look back on some of the highlights of the last nine years of blogging here.

When it started, Notes from Underground was on different platform, Blogger, and I was impressed with the east of posting quick articles. The very first post was a bit of an experiment to see what was possible, and you can see what it was about here: Notes from underground: Seek and ye shall find

I’ve lost touch with a few old friends, and so I’ve entered their details in a “reverse people finder” at:

Who? Me? Is someone (old friend) looking for you? People Search Finder.

I’ve subsequently found a couple of them.

One found me through my web page, which shouldn’t be too difficult. Another I found through Google — entering her name in normal search brought up too many hits. But I searched images, and wondered how easy it would be to recognise someone after 30 years. Well, bingo. Up popped an image, and my old friend had changed, of course, but was still recognisable.

That was before Facebook, and I’vw found Facebook a better way of finding old friends. but if your friends aren’t on Facebook, Who? Me? might be worth a try.

Quite early on, however, Google took over the Blogger platform, and began fiddling with the Blogger editor. I had been attracted to it by its ease of use for posting stuff quickly, but Google set about making i8t harder to use and reducing the functionalityy so that eventually I, like many others, moved this blog to WordPress. I left the original one up, so that links would not be broken, but nothing new has been posted there for the last two years.

Within a month of starting this blog it was involved in a blogging experiment. Two Christian bloggers, Phil Wyman and John Smulo, proposed a synchronised blog, or Synchroblog, where a group of bloggers would post on the same general topic on the same day, and post links to each other’s blogs, so that someone could read several different views on the same topic. The topic was Syncretism, and my contribution was an article which I had posted on a Geocities web site, since closed, but you can still see the article at Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism

Abandoned places of empire: Ruins of an English monastery

Abandoned places of empire: Ruins of an English monastery

Synchroblogs became quite popular for a while, and there was one every month or so, with quite a wide variety of views. But eventually it came to be managed by a few people in the USA, who chose topices that were mainly US-centred, and a lot of the variety disappeared. Partly for that reason, I rarely participate in synchroblogs any more, but the main reason  for not participating is that there used to be a mailing list, with a monthly reminder, and those now organising the Synchroblogs disdain to use it, and without the regular reminder I simply tend to forget to find out what the topic and date are for this month. But it can be found out here. if one remembers to look, which I rarely do.

Looking back over the last nine years, some of the best Synchroblogs that I have participated in have been:

Not all blog posts are synchroblog posts, of course, and there have been other kinds of posts over the last 9 years. Still on the theme of the “new monasticism” is

Abandoned places of empire

and another post on the theme of abandoned places concerns the Metroblitz, the ill-fated predecessor of the Gautrain:

Trains and individualism

Other posts on trains seem to be perennially popular:

and, still on the theme of travel, our series of posts on a holiday trip around Namibia and Botswana in 2013, which covers three of our blogs, and so goes beyond this one.

Fire and water

Nature is amazing.

Last week water began running down the gutters on both sides of the road that runs past our house. It sometimes does that after heavy rain, but this is winter, and we live in a summer rainfall area with dry winters. There’s been no rain for at least two months.

Was it a broken water main? I went up the road to have a look, and there was no sign of such a thing. The water was coming across the road all along, from the empty veld by the railway line across the road from us. Why would it come when there has been to rain? What would cause the water table to rise so that that dry veld would turn into a swamp?

The entrance to the vacant land beside the railway line -- water in the dry season

The entrance to the vacant land beside the railway line — water in the dry season

Then we recalled that a couple of weeks ago there had been a fire over the road. Every winter there’s a fire there, and some of the grass is burnt. But this time it was nearly all burnt. Between our house and the railway line was not a blade of grass, just black stubble. With no grass to suck up the water and transpire it into the air, the water rose to the surface, flowed under the concrete fence and out into the street where it ran down the gutters.

That's our house with the red roof, seen from the railway embankment, with nothing in between but blackened burnt grass/

That’s our house with the red roof, seen from the railway embankment, with nothing in between but blackened burnt grass.

It’s hard to think that the dry grass that was there before the fire sucked up so much water. It is brown and dry and brittle. Yet somehow cattle eat such grass and thrive. It gives them both food and moisture.

Burnt, dry and dead. With grass gone, the water flows

Burnt, dry and dead. With grass gone, the water flows

A little way off was a clump of trees. They too are dry and leafless, winter-brown. But somehow the fire has not penetrated the trees, and there is a clump of aloes where the fire stopped.

A clump of aloes hides a ruined habitation, a relic of a troubled past

A clump of aloes hides a ruined habitation, a relic of a troubled past

But when you go to the aloes, you see that they hide a heap of stones. And beyond it there are more heaps of stones. And then I realise that these are houses. Perhaps this is an archaeological site. Who lived here, and when?

And then I realise that this is a relic of the ethnic cleansing that took place under apartheid. Kilner Park, the suburb where we live, used to belong to the Methodist Church, as did the neighbouring suburb of Queenswood. Across the railwayline to the south-east is Weavind Park — all named after luminaries of the Methodist Church. On the hill was the Kilnerton Institution, where many black South African leaders were educated. But it was too close to white Pretoria, so the black people had to go, and all that remains are these piles of stones.

And now the suburban trains of MetroRail run past here. There is no station, nothing to stop for. They are going to Mamelodi, 15 kilometres to the east, far enough from white Pretoria for the black people to live.

The trains rush past, taking commuters to Mamelodi, farther east.

The trains rush past, taking commuters to Mamelodi, farther east.

I marvel at the interaction of fire and water. The old elements of the ancient Greek philosophers, earth, air, fire and water. The fire comes, and brings the water. Modern chemists will say that these are not real elements, not the chemical elements of the universe. But they are the elements of human life, of the human world. We need them all to live. In three weeks time spring will begin. Green shoots will appear in the grass, the trees will sprout leaves. The water table will recede again until the rains come in October, and the fire of the sun will enable the grass to suck up the water from the earth, and the life of the world goes on.


A South African Train Journey

These are some memories of a train journey in South Africa in 1979. Train travel has probably changed a bit since then, as it was nearly 35 years ago. I was living in Melmoth, Zululand, and needed to travel to a church synod in Grahamstown. Most people travelling to such things went by air, but the travel allowence covered the cost of a second-class train ticket, and I generally preferred the more leisurely pace of train travel. Apart from anything else it would give me time to look at the synod documents.

Someone gave me a lift from Melmoth to Durban, and I got on the train in Durban station, which left at 7:30 pm on Wednesday 28 November 1979.

The train, like many mainline trains in South Africa in those days, was a composite one. The main destination was Cape Town, but there were some coaches destined for Port Elizabeth and East London, which would be shunted off at the appropriate places. There wasn’t a coach going to Grahamstown, so I got on one of the Port Elizabeth coaches. I would have to change at Alicedale.

The train was hauled by two Class 5E electric locomotives of 2000 horsepower each.

There were three other guys in the compartment, all railway people who had been to write an exam for promotion, and had come from Port Elizabeth — Christo van der Merwe, and Martin van Antwerpen, and another guy who consumed enormous quantities of cane spirit, and they all drank fairly heavily. I sat reading a book on wills most of the time before going to bed on the top bunk.

Thursday 29 November 1979

I woke up just before the train reached Swinburne, and went to a compartment in another coach, as everyone else in my compartment was sleeping. It was not possible to sit in the compartment while others were sleeping, as the back of the seat lifted up to form the middle bunk, while the top bunk was pulled down from the wall above it. Once everyone was awake and up the usual practice was to let down the middle bunks so one could sit, and dump all the used bedding on the top bunk, where the bedding attendant would collect it.

At about 6:00 we reached Harrismith, and I went out and bought a Coke. There was no dining saloon on the train, only a refreshment car, from which I bought a couple of pies, and the train went on to Bethlehem, and there they took off the electric locos and put on a steam one, a Class 25 NC Henschel. The NC, I think, stands for “non-condensing” — some of the Class 25 locomotives that ran in the drier parts of the country had an extra tender with a condenser to re-use the steam.

Henschel Clas 25 NC

Henschel Class 25 NC at Bethlehem Station

At Bethlehem there was some shunting.

Bethlehem Station

Bethlehem Station

The train from Durban and the train from Johannesburg arrived at roughly the same time, and the coaches from the Johannesburg train were added to ours. The train from Johannesburg went to Bloemfontein via the eastern Free State, and I had travelled on it about 20 years previously on school camping trips, including a pony trek in the mountains of Lesotho. On those trips we got off at Fouriesburg, where the station was six miles from the town, and the town was six miles from the Caledonspoort border post with Lesotho, where we stayed at the Wyndford Guest Farm. Back in the days of those trips (1957/58) one did not have to show passports at the Lesotho border.

Steam locomotive hooking up to the assembled train

Steam locomotive hooking up to the assembled train

Eventually all the coaches had been shuffled to their right places on the train, and it went very slowly up the rather steep climb out of Bethlehem. I remembered that from the earlier school trips, as the train went little faster than walking pace.

Henschel Class 25 NC detail

Henschel Class 25 NC detail of valve gear

I sat and watched the Eastern Free State countryside go by, and read Ben Temkin’s biography of Gatsha Buthelezi, and we reached Modderpoort about 3:00. There were several steam locomotives there, though they had disappeared almost entirely from Natal, and they seemed to be getting fewer and fewer.

Henschel Class 25 Cab

Henschel Class 25 Cab

We had just left Marseilles when the train stopped, and it appeared that a soldier had fallen from the train, so we went back to pick him up from where he was lying on the side of the track, and then the train reversed into Marseilles station for him to be taken to hospital. He was unconscious, but whether from his fall or the liquor he had consumed beforehand it is hard to say. One could only say a prayer for him.

The long slow climb out of Bethlehem

The long slow climb out of Bethlehem

That incident delayed the train for an hour, and it arrived at Bloemfontein just after sunset, but there was a long wait at Bloemfontein anyway for shunting in to connect with the train from Johannesburg — the train was broken up completely, with some coaches going to East London, some to Kimberley, and ours to Port Elizabeth. There was a through coach to Grahamstown that came in on the Joburg train, so I moved my things to that. There was also a proper dining saloon, though it was now closed for the night. I was in a coupe on the Grahamstown coach, which I had to myself. From Bloemfontein we had exchanged the steam for a diesel locomotive, and went on south through the night, the second night on the train.

Diesel locomotives of the type that hauled the train from Bloemfontein to Port Elizabeth - at Alicedale Station

Diesel locomotives of the type that hauled the train from Bloemfontein to Port Elizabeth – at Alicedale Station

This part of the journey was of some interest to me, as my great grandfather, William Matthew Growdon, had helped to build the line. He came from Cornwall in 1876 and was a platelayer for the Cape Government Railways (CGR) and ended his career as a permanent way inspector stationed at Bethulie in the southern Free State. After retiring he went to live in Queenstown, but died in a carriage accident a few months later. On this particular trip, however, we passed through Bethulie in the middle of the night, so there was nothing to see.

The Grahamstown coaches are taken off the Port Elizabeth train at Alicedale, and hooked to the back of a goods train

The Grahamstown coaches are taken off the Port Elizabeth train at Alicedale, and hooked to the back of a goods train

Friday 30 November 1979

I woke up with the train travelling through the Eastern Cape countryside somewhere near Cradock, and went to the dining saloon for breakfast, and sat with a chap who was a charismatic Anglican from St Nicholas in Port Elizabeth, and so had a long talk with him over breakfast, and then went back to my coupe to read the synod papers, and then had morning tea again in the dining saloon, until reaching Alicedale, where they shunted us off to make up the Grahamstown train, which was again steam-hauled, this time by a Class 19D.

Class 19 4-8-2 locomotive that took the train over the hills from Alicedale to Grahamstown

Class 19 4-8-2 locomotive that took the train over the hills from Alicedale to Grahamstown

The Grahamstown train acually went through to Port Alfred on the coast, and was a mixed passenger and goods train, with the passenger coaches at the back. There was another steep climb out of Alicedale, though the train did not go quite as slowly as it did out of Bloemfontein.

The last stage of the journey -- Alicdale to Grahamstown.

The last stage of the journey — Alicdale to Grahamstown.

It had turned cold and raining, and the train reached Grahamstown about 3:00, and Godfrey Ashby, the dean of Grahamstown and bishop-elect of St John’s, picked me up at the station and drove me to Kimberley Hall of Rhodes University where most of the meetings were to be held.


Narrow gauge railways of KwaZulu-Natal

When I was young, there used to be narrow-gauge railways all over KwaZulu-Natal. Many of them were branch lines, leading from mainline stations to villages in the Natal Midlands. The area was very hilly, and the traffic was not heavy, so narrow gauge lines were much cheaper to build.

In addition, in the coastal region, there were countless privately owned lines radiating from the sugar mills for taking cane from the fields to the mills to be crushed and refined. When I was 12 years old I spent a holiday with a friend at Mount Edgecombe, and we used to sneak out at 4:00 am, nick one of the cane trucks, and ride on it down the hill to the mill to beg for “treacle-toffee” — the caked residue chopped off from the cauldons in which the cane was boiled. We then used to ride back up the hill on a train pulling empty trucks out to the fields, and jump off when it got close to home. They were pulled by steam engines in those days, but I never got a photo of one.

By the 1960s many of them had vanished, being replaced by “hi-los”, or Gila monsters, big diesel lorries that crowded the narrow roads. Smaller growers used trailers pulled by ordinary farm tractors. So when in 1980 I spotted what was possibly one of the last surviving cane tracks in Zululand, I quickly took a couple of photos.  The steam engines had gone, but now the diesel that replaced them has probably gone too.

My beautiful pictureThe tracks used to wander in and out of the cane fields, and seemed to be inviting one to a journey to a mystery destination, and the complex network of lines seemed to belong to a romantic different world. Being stuck behind a lumbering hi-lo on a narrow winding road was a poor substitute, and a great nuisance.

Cane train in Zululand, December 1980

Cane train in Zululand, December 1980

When the cane was loaded on to the trains, it was burnt in the fields before being taken to the mill — the cane had to be burnt before it was crushed. I don’t know what they do now — burning it on a hi-lo would probably melt the tyres.

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

The cane trains were light railways in every sense, but the ones belonging to the South African Railways were “proper” trains.  Their locomotives were many times bigger than those used on the cane tracks, and were often articulated Garratt locomotives, to cope with the sharp curves winding among the hills, which Alan Paton described so lyrically in the opening paragraphs of his novel Cry, the beloved country.

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa


Carisbrooke Halt, with corrugated iron waiting room, January 1972. This featured in Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the beloved country. The view of the fairest valley in Africa lies just beyond and to the right of the waiting room, but this post is about the trains rather than the view.

The station at Carisbrooke, described in Alan Paton’s novel, was a branch off the line from Donnybook to Umzinto, and it the only one of the Natal narrow-gauge lines I have actually ridden on. A friend and I set out to hitchhike from Pietermaritzburg to Grahamstown on a long weekend, but after being stuck in Ixopo for hours decided to make for the coast instead, and got a lift from Highflats to Hluntankungu with a witchdoctor and from there walked three miles to to Jolivet, and seeing no lifts in cars likely and a train coming, ran to the station and hitched a ride on it to Umzinto (see The vanishing hitchhiker). I once wrote a children’s novel featuring an imaginary extension of this like from Donnybook to Himeville, but I haven’t found a publisher for it yet, and probably never will. [Update: published as an e-book in December 2014].

The Donnybrook-Umzinto line somewhere between Hlutankungu and Jolivet, May 1964

The Donnybrook-Umzinto line somewhere between Hlutankungu and Jolivet, May 1964

There was also a line from Port Shepstone to Harding, and I saw trains on it as recently as 1980.

Train on the Port Shepstone-Harding line, 10 December 1980

Train on the Port Shepstone-Harding line, 10 December 1980

Because of the sharpness of the curves and the narrowness of the gauge, the trains could not mtravel very fast, but they did give one a marvellous view of the countryside that they passed through.

Train on the Port Shepstone-Hardin line, 10 December 1980

Train on the Port Shepstone-Hardin line, 10 December 1980

At Umlaas Road station, where the narrow gauge line from Mid-Illovo met the main line, the trucks would be placed side-by-side to transfer the loads.

Transferring a load of poles from the narrow gauge to a mainline train at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Transferring a load of poles from the narrow gauge to a mainline train at Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

The narrow gauge rolling stock could also ride piggy back on the mainline wagons for trips to the repair shops in Durban.

Narrow-gauge truck riding piggy-back on a mainline train. Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Narrow-gauge truck riding piggy-back on a mainline train. Umlaas Road, 8 December 1980

Most of these narrow gauge lines have now been closed. There used to be one between Estcourt and Weenen, but it was closed and the rails have been removed. The line used to cross the old Durban-Johannesburg road just outside Estcourt, but though I must have crossed it dozens of times, I never saw a train on it. And I believe most of the others have now been closed too. I’m glad we managed to get a ride on some of them before they did close.

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road Station, 8 December 1908

Narrow-gauge Garratt locomotive at Umlaas Road Station, 8 December 1980

Deteriorating transport infrastructure

potholes warning
One of the things we have noticed in our holiday travels is the deterioration of the transport infrastructure in the country.

In some provinces, notably the Free State and Mpumalanga, the roads are in poor condition, and the Free State roads were particularly bad, full of potholes. The 700 km drive from Clarens to Graaff Reinet was very tiring, because of the concentration needed to drive along the potholed roads, and that was in daylight and in good weather. At night, or if it was raining, it would have been far, far worse. When we reached the Eastern Cape the roads were a lot better, and likewise in the Western Cape. The Free State roads, however, were beginning to resemble those of Albania 10 years ago, where repairs could never catch up, because as soon as one section was repaired, and the road workers moved on to a new section, the newly repaired section began to deteriorate again.

But it wasn’t only the roads; the railways are also deteriorating. Around Villiers in the Free State we saw abandoned railway lines, covered with weeds. There was another abandoned line between Steynsburg and Rosmead in the Eastern Cape, and yet another going north from Graaff Reinet.

weeds on railway tack

The reason for both kinds of deterioration seems to be the deregulation of road transport, which took place about 25-30 years ago, during the privatisation mania of the Reagan-Thatcher years. This led to a huge increase in the number of heavy goods vehicles on the roads, and in many cases the roads were not designed to carry such traffic. Goods that used to be carried by rail now go by road, with a consequent deterioration of both the road and rail infrastructure.

My cousin-in-law in Graaff Reinet, Nick Grobler, told us of a woman he knew who had uterine cancer, and had to go to Port Elizabeth for a hystrerectomy. In the past it was a comfortable overnight train journey, but now, being discharged from hospital within three days, she had to return to Graaff Reinet in a cramped minibus taxi, and though the roads in the Eastern Cape are not (yet) as bad as those in the Free State, it was not a pleasant journey after major surgery.

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