The time machine leaves Pretoria at 8am and takes about three hours to arrive in the year 1905. It is powered by a magnificent Class 19D 'Dolly' steam locomotive built by Krupp engineers in pre-war Germany, and its destination is a mining town where the world’s biggest gem-quality diamond was found and cut into crown jewels for Edward VII.
En route it runs on the same railway on which a noted British foreign correspondent in the Anglo-Boer War made good his escape from Boer captivity, hidden in a freight train. Namely Winston Churchill.
The Diamond Express from Hermanstad Station in the South African capital to Cullinan is a journey back in time in more ways than one. This is no high-class, high-speed service. It is a cheap and cheerful day trip on vintage coaches, operated by men playing with a train set as big as their boyhood dreams.
Our driver for the day is Peter Odell, 67, an erstwhile railway booking clerk from Bedford, who left England in 1972 because he “didn’t want to live in a country that didn’t have steam any more”.
So he and a friend flew to Nairobi and hitchhiked around Africa, riding every steam train they could find, until eventually they joined South African Railways and became drivers. For the past 10 years Peter has been an unpaid volunteer with Friends of the Rail (FOR), a club of railway enthusiasts who restore and operate steam trains for the fun of it.
The 50s carriages with varnished wood interiors and leatherette bench seats are only half full, mainly with Afrikaner families and friends, when Peter’s fireman stokes up a head of steam and we chug out of the FOR railway yard. There is room to spread out and stroll to a buffet lounge car decorated with historic railway photographs, where pancakes, hot dogs and drinks are dispensed.
We leave the industrial suburbs of Pretoria behind and trundle past the sea of corrugated iron shacks that is Mamelodi township, a vibrant kaleidoscope of African life.
Our train is an express in name only. It rarely attains the heady speed of 30mph, and for much of the time it proceeds at a more measured pace that allows barefoot urchins to run alongside on dusty tracks, cheering and waving, and inquiring whether we might have some sweets to spare.
People like steam trains. Even motorists held up at railway crossings grin and give us thumbs-up signs. On board, a sense of adventure is heightened by the puffing of Dolly’s engine, the shrill toots of the train’s whistle and clouds of steam drifting past its windows.
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Hazy Hills On Far Horizons Invoke The Veld
Approaching Cullinan, the endless vistas of South Africa open up, of grasslands and woods and hazy hills on far horizons, bringing scents of the veld, of hot grass, blue gum trees and dry, red earth.
The big attraction in the town is a hole in the ground. It is a very big hole, more than half a mile long and 500- metres deep, that looks like the impact of a meteor strike. In fact it is man-made, and the place where a certain Fred Wells discovered the world’s biggest sparkler weighing more than 3,000 carats in 1905.
The first two cuts from this gigantic gem now adorn the Crown and Imperial Sceptre in the Tower of London.
Cullinan still has a working mine that has produced a mind-blowing 28 tonnes of diamonds over the years. But a tree-lined avenue leading to it offers a glimpse of the past in rows of sandstone cottages originally built for senior mine personnel. In recent years they have been transformed into arts and crafts shops and restaurants.
The past is also preserved in the town’s first house, built in 1903 for William McHardy of Ballater, Scotland. It is now a museum illustrating how the mine’s first general manager and his wife and seven children lived in some style and comfort in cool, spacious rooms adorned with ornate Victorian furniture and cast-iron bedsteads.
McHardy is portrayed with the mighty Cullinan Diamond, and the man who discovered it, in a permanent exhibition of photographs in the town’s recreation centre, which has served as a focal point of social life since the days of silent films.
Above the pictures are fine murals painted imaginatively from postcards by Italian prisoners of war in 1942, notably featuring Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.
There is still time to meander through the past and the present of one of the world’s few charming mining towns before Peter’s whistle summons us for the return journey.
It is mid-afternoon and a cooling breeze drifts through open windows. I am lulled by the rhythmic puffing of the engine and the clack-clack of wheels, and when I hear that lonesome whistle blow my mind drifts back to boyhood journeys by steam train in Scotland long ago.
Just like in a real time machine.
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This article was written by Gavin Bell from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.