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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

Beyer Garratt in Steam

Beyer Garratt in Steam

Year: 2011, Month: July

Zimbabwe > Matabeleland North > Bulawayo

Sometimes in life we are faced with difficult decisions. Not enough hours in the day, so we can't do everything that we would like to do. A visit to a new location may not be long enough to do all that is available, and so we have to choose. On a previous visit to the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 2007, I had had a choice: spend the day visiting the world class Matopos National Park, famous for its walking tours with rhinos, rock art sites, and the grave of Cecil Rhodes; or alternatively I could visit the steam yards of Bulawayo to see working examples of some of the biggest steam locomotives on the planet. This was a difficult choice, which I considered carefully for at least 2 seconds before choosing steam. I had a wonderful day - you can see some of the photos here External link opens a new Browser window. In 2011 I was back in Bulawayo and the choice was repeated: steam or rhinos? rhinos or steam? This time, I didn't need the 2 seconds.

Don't get me wrong: I really like rhinos. I'm glad they are on the planet, glad that they spend their days doing rhino-type activities, and hope that his will continue for as long as time goes by. If there are rhinos to be seen, I'll be there as quick as the next guy. But here we are talking steam. Not just steam but big steam. And not just big steam, but working Beyer Garratt locomotives. With the chance to ride on the footplate. You can see that I really hadn't got a choice here. Even David Attenborough would have been with me on this one.

To the un-initiated, a steam engine is a steam engine is a steam engine. They pull trains along train tracks, and use steam to provide the power. There used to be a lot of them in the world, but now they've largely disappeared, in favor of diesel and electric. That's a good thing, isn't it? Well, yes it is if you have plenty of diesel or electricity. Unfortunately due to reasons we are all aware of, Zimbabwe has little of either. What they do have, though, is plenty of coal. They also have a shed full of working steam engines, and the experienced engineers to keep them working. Seems only right that they continue to use them, for local work at least.

The engines they have at Bulwayo are called Beyer Garratts. Built by Beyer Peacock of Manchester in the early part of the last century, these articulated locomotives have two frames with their own driving wheels and cylinders surmounted by water tanks at the front, and fuel supply at the rear. Between these frames is another one holding the firebox, boiler, and the driving cab. Bulawayo shed is perhaps the last great working steam shed in the world. As you can guess, they are quite impresssive. That's one of them in the photograph above. The quantity of working Garratts at Bulawayo isn't clear. The good ones are kept going, and the not so good ones are cannibalised for spares.

John, a travelling companion from the Overland truck, had chosen steam over rhinos as well, so early the next morning we caught a taxi to the main railway station, then walked along the tracks, past the dead carriage depot, to the steam yards. I wasn't sure that 4 years after my last visit there would still be any working locos left at Bulawayo, but as we neared the yards we caught sight of the familar plume of smoke, and heard the haunting sound of a loco whistle echo across the tracks. We had a chat with the staff in the sheds, and they were happy to let us look around. One locomotive was in steam that morning: a class 15A, the no.395, built in 1949. She was assigned to general yard work and shunting that day. The class 15 locos have a 4-6-4+4-6-4 wheel arrangement, and were the most numerous of the Garretts built for the Rhodesian Railways. A chat with the driver resulted in an invitation to spend the morning on the footplate as the loco went about its business. For an enthusiast of steam, things don't get much better than this!

I was wrong: they did get better. Not only did we get to ride around and take plenty of photos, but the driver insisted on explaining every last detail of the loco, what all the controls and gauges did, and how to drive it. Here was a man who really loved his work, and was pleased to share his knowledge. If only there were more people like him in the world. We spent a fascinating morning, then adjourned to the adjacent shed area to see the large number of abandoned and cannibalised engines which serve as a reminder of how extensive the steam fleet in this former British colony once was. We were sad to hear that 16 locomotives had recently been sold for scrap. Nearby to the main railway station is the Bulawayo Railway Museum, with its representative collection of locomotives and carriages from the former Rhodesian Railways. With its very friendly and helpful staff, it was a pleasure to visit.

Thank you, guys. I send my best wishes to all at Zimbabwe Railways, and hope you manage to keep up the great work that you are all doing. You have our heritage there - please keep some of it for future generations.

P.S. - the people who chose Matopos for the day had an interesting time, but got back very late and very cold. They hadn't see any rhinos. I didn't say anything.

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