I have many a fond memory of train trips. When I set off on my working career it was on a troop train from Cape Town bound for what was then known as Pretoria… more than 50 lads per carriage… twenty odd carriages… yep… way over a thousand lads… if I can remember correctly. We were fortunate… only 4 of us in the compartment… two were off to the army… two to the air force. I was one of the lucky air force lads. One of the army lads was my very own cousin… so, there you had two bright-eyed seventeen year olds from the same family off on an adventure… some would say it was torture… we were looking forward to the new and distant horizons!
The SA military kept the transport industry in the country very busy in those days… conscription was the norm for a portion of the population… most inter-base troop movements were routed via the railways… then you were herded into the back of a truck and taken to your final destination… bumpy dust roads could be thrown in, depending what your lottery draw provided you…
I digress… as is my norm. Somewhere along the lines… many trips later… I landed on a train bound for the great Cape… a return home… after a course or training session. If you were lucky you would get onto a train filled with civilians… that was a civilised journey. Dining cars… saloon cars… waiters… and if you hit the jack-pot you may well get on to a train filled with students going home for a holiday. Usually cause for young lads to act the big man!
On one such a trip an army lad was sharing our compartment… this lad had a big mouth and an even bigger ego… everyone had to know that he was special forces… you get those types… they could be the admin clerk of bottle washer. They wore the unit’s colours so you never quite knew what they actually did in the unit. Normally though, the ’real’ special forces shut up and minded their own business.
OK… back to this lad… he had a bit of money… a scarce commodity in those days… he was buying booze for the lads. My mate, also in our compartment, was a non drinker so he looked after our interests… only thing… he got distracted somewhere along the way… so, when loud mouth returned from the loo to proclaim that he had visited the train’s roof it was taken with a large pinch of salt. Big mouth. I hasten to add that these trains were not equipped with roof mounted sun decks… actually, the place was rather dangerous… apart from the option of falling off… this part of the route was electrified so the overhead cables added the additional risk of electrocution to the equation! Not a good place to be!
The memory is slightly blurred on the detail but somewhere around midnight a few young ladies came looking for help… their agitated alarm calls were enough to notify most of our carriage that trouble was rapidly heading our way. Loud mouth was again on the roof… only thing… he was making an almighty racket… a train steward had been summoned but had hastily retreated to find reinforcements… all the while the train thundered on… through the black night… in the middle of a vast area of South Africa known as the Karoo… dry, sparsely populated… 200Kms between towns type of country.
Something must have jangled a glimmer of an alarm within the dark recesses of loud mouth’s booze soaked brain… he copped on to the fact that he may well be in danger… he panicked! The young ladies screeches added to the noise… someone was holding open the train door… the howling wind mingled well with the cacophony. I did the best possible thing I could think of… pushed the ladies aside… gripped the hand rail firmly in one hand and reached up with the other to offer a steady assist. BIG mistake!! Loud mouth grabbed my hand and for some unknown reason pulled… he stood up to add more force to his action.
HUGE mistake!! I remember that jolt to this day! TWACK… his grip relaxed as he slumped onto the roof… I, on the other hand, was in free space… free falling for a millisecond before crashing down on the stone ballast along the tracks. Then I realised what was happening… the rapidly departing train disappearing into the black night.
Yes… it’s true… there I was lying on a bed of torture in the middle of nowhere… in the middle of the night! I slowly assessed the situation. I felt the warmth of blood in a few places… I moved my limbs… although every bit of me seemed to be in tatters nothing was broken… my shirt was ripped… my one runner damaged…
What now? I stayed put for some time… in the vain hope of the train returning. Eventually I thought I must move… but where to? Walking along the track was hard work! The uneven ballast and rail sleepers not conducive to a midnight stroll!
I thought I could hear the faint sound of traffic in the distance… little did this town dweller know how sound plays tricks on a still night in the wide open spaces of the hinterland. I set off for what I believed to be my best route of escape… not easy-going at all. By the time I realised I was on to a looser with this plan of action I must have stumbled and fallen a dozen times… so, what now? Back in the direction of the train tracks. Where were the train tracks? Where was anything?
I don’t know how I managed to get back to the tracks… I don’t remember much… I think I eventually stumbled onto a signal box… there the startled controlled greeted me with mixed feelings… yes, they were looking for the fellow who fell off the train… could I prove that it was indeed me? I don’t remember much more… I think they took me off to a hospital or clinic of sorts… I remember the warm water stinging every scratch and cut… I think the nurse washed me?
They put me back into my tattered clothes… put me onto the next train… I had nothing with me… my wallet, my train ticket and food vouchers were by now it the good old Cape… so, I had to starve… no handouts there.
I eventually made it back to my destination… some twelve hours after I should have… that’s how a normal 36 hour train ride turned into a bit of a 48 hour nightmare. As for loud mouth… he survived! Luckily for him he collapsed onto the roof and in his floppy, unconscious state he was easily dragged back into the compartment. He was hospitalised and treated for electric burn wounds.
How do I know these details… as I mentioned, I was travelling with an air force friend… he collected me from the station… I think. I lived in fear of prosecution or reprimand… the military were strict and discipline could be harsh. Nothing happened… the weeks went by, stretched into months.
At first we kept the thing very quiet… fear… then as time went by we loosed up about the thing… my friend and his family ribbed me… when am I going to don my ’train boy’ hero’s suit again? Why don’t I get a job on the trains looking after drunk loud mouths? Jump… what was free-falling without a parachute like… endless mirth!
Slowly but surely we started believing that the whole matter would be swept under the carpet… apparently the rumours that more people were influenced by the effects of grape berries was the reason. That’s why the train did not stop… the steward was drunk… so were his colleagues… they were themselves afraid of repercussions so they never reported the matter to the driver and other train staff who were at that stage well wrapped up in their bunks… well, not the driver… there was a tale doing the rounds that he may have had the odd sup as well… I kid you not!!
PS: I have to thank Firefly for loaning me some of his train pictures… somehow this post would not have been the same without photo’s of real Saffer trains!
PSS: If any of you ever think of visiting good old South Africa for an experience of a lifetime you should do yourself a massive favour… contact Firefly… visit his blogs… they are a mine of information and will point you in so many directions that you will need a few years to spend on all the potential activities available!