Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “transport”

Bathed in the coloured vomit

Last night I travelled along this stretch of road, perhaps for the last time — the N1 highway going north. I’ve travelled along it quite frequently, taking our son Simon home from work, with his bicycle. He cycles to work in the day, but at night we try to fetch him, because it’s harder for motorists to see cyclists in the dark.

N1 highway with e-toll gantry

N1 highway with e-toll gantry

It’s just on at one intersection at Atterbury Road, and off at the next, the N4 interchange, but in between is one of those toll gantries with its ominous blue lights. And today the toll gantries started operating, or so they said, so I probably won’t be going down that stretch of road again in my lifetime.

Toll roads were introduced in South Africa in the 1970s. Up till then roads had been paid for by the roads fund, which was financed by a fuel levy. It was a good system, and worked on the “user pays” principle — the more you used the roads, the more fuel you would use, and the more you would pay. Heavy vehicles, which caused more wear to the roads, also used more fuel, and so paid more.

But the National Party government wanted to finance the invasion of Angola in 1975, and so it diverted money from the Road Fund for that, and introduced toll roads. When the ANC government came in in 1994, we hoped that the privatisation of infrastructure like public roads would stop, and perhaps be reversed, but the ANC government seems even more eager to expand the toll road system.

But the decision to introduce tolls on the busy urban freeway system of Gauteng has sparked unprecedented resistance. Zwelinzima Vavi, the trade union leader, said yesterday on Twitter ‘let’s unite & teach SANRAL & Govt the real meaning of “The People Shall Govern”‘ He was the leader of Cosatu, the biggest trade union federation in South Africa, and was recently suspended, many suspect because of his opposition to toll roads.

Many other influential people have said they will not register or pay etolls, including a number of church leaders:

Church leaders vowed on Monday to refuse to pay to use Gauteng freeways and called on others to do the same.

“We… church leaders, have therefore decided to publicly declare our intention to refuse to buy e-tags and to refuse to pay this unjust e-toll,” they said in a statement.

“… We call on all other church leaders, members of our churches and all South Africans who support democracy to do the same.”

The leaders, including SA Council of Churches president Bishop Jo Seoka, the Central Methodist Mission’s Bishop Paul Verryn, and Methodist Church of Southern Africa presiding Bishop Zipho Siwa, said the decision had not been easy.

However, it had to be made as the government was not listening to the people.

They said they were shocked and disappointed to hear the government ignore the people’s protests and push ahead with e-tolls.

And I don’t think this will be the end of it, it’s only the beginning.

To paraphrase a poem by John Betjeman:

When all our roads are lighted
By glowing monsters sited
Like gallows overhead
Bathed in the coloured vomit
Each monster belches from it
We’ll know that we are dead.

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

Cari

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

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