Oldest surviving steam locomotive driver recalls golden era
Hannes “Pietie” Pieterse, 91, hoisted himself into the cab of the Apple Express, put a steady hand on the whistle and beamed for the cameras.
South Africa’s oldest steam surviving steam locomotive driver is dapper and spry, ever-punctual and the hiss and toot-toot of an iron horse transports him to another world.
Pieterse, who was hosted by the Apple Express team at their sheds in Hume Valley at the weekend to celebrate his birthday, was a steam locomotive driver for 35 years and once piloted former president Jim Fouche in the famous white train now housed in the Outeniqua Transport Museum in George.
Pieterse grew up in Sidwell and would spend his afternoons after school at the Sydenham railway yard watching locomotives and Spoornet staff coming and going, he recalled.
“I was crazy about trains. My family was full of uncles and cousins who were train drivers so it was a natural thing for me.”
In 1947, when he finished school, he got a job as a cleaner in the yards and it was during that time that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited SA.
They passed through Port Elizabeth and, though he never glimpsed the royal couple, he remembered how the trains were looking especially shiny that day with convicts being brought down from St Alban’s to add muscle-power.
After that he became an assistant fireman and then fireman, which was back-breaking work, he said.
“The Garatt locomotives were the main-killers because they had huge fire boxes. We used to shovel four tons of coal just from Port Elizabeth to Graaff-Reinet.”
One day he got the opportunity to do the locomotive driver’s course at Railway College in Esselen Park in Johannesburg.
When he got his qualification, he returned to the Eastern Cape, where he began plying the broad gauge Port Elizabeth-Cookhouse and Port Elizabeth-Klipplaat-Graaff Reinet lines, carrying first cargo and then passengers.
It was a wonderful job, he said.
“It was exciting. You were proud to be at the helm of a machine like that.
“When we stopped for water for the boiler at Glen Connor the passengers used to get out and together with the local townspeople they used to crowd around to see how we did things.
“When I hear the hiss of the steam and the sound of the whistle from a locomotive it takes me back.”
On the line out to Cookhouse, where they passed adjacent to what is now the Addo Elephant National Park, they had to look out for elephants on the line, he said.
“Later they used tramway cables from Port Elizabeth to make a special fence that could keep the elephants in.
“But, in the early years, the elephants often used to get out and wander across the tracks and we would have no option but to stop and wait.”
Another, often thrilling, aspect of any journey was collecting the signal tablet as they steamed through a bypass railway station, he recalled.
To avoid accidents the tablet needed to be in hand to confirm a locomotive had right of way on the upcoming stretch.
“As the driver, I would reduce speed but still it was a difficult manoeuvre, especially at night.
“The station master would have a paraffin lamp in one hand and the tablet in the other and we would come rushing past and the fireman would have to snatch it out of his hand.”
Time was of the essence and arrival at a station a few minutes late would require an explanation and, at worst, result in a stern report being filed by your superior, he said.
“Equally, we could not be early because then we would have been speeding and we could get into trouble for that as well.
“I'm always watching the clock even now.”
In 1974, President Jim Fouche visited Port Elizabeth and afterwards Pieterse, as a specialist grade steam locomotive driver by that time, got the job together with a co-driver of ferrying the president out to Klipplaat to catch his connecting train to Cape Town.
He was asked to wear a tie for the occasion, he chuckled.
“I told them not a chance.”
The journey was historic in more ways than one because it was the last time the white train was used before South African dignitaries began travelling by plane.
Pieterse said he vividly remembered the droughts in the region because they had to be especially careful in those periods not to start any veld fires.
“We used a spark arrestor in the chimney of the locomotive which prevented the sparks from leaving the engine.
“The filter of the arrestor was designed to release steam but to stop the sparks.
“The arrestor was inspected regularly and consequently we hardly had any fires.”
Pieterse’s youngest daughter Stephnie said her father was fond of red wine and chocolates and was a great favourite with the ladies.
“He’s a walking history book. I could listen to his stories all day.
“What’s interesting to me is that, though they had much less sophisticated systems then, they had regulations and they stuck to them and that was what worked.
“One of my dad’s most valuable documents is the gold award he received for 35 years service as a locomotive driver with zero accidents.
“I am so proud of him.”
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