As we begin our Outeniqua Power Van outing, a six cylinder diesel engine operates the power van on a 3'6” gauge line up the Outeniquas from the George Railway Museum on this clear winter’s morning. Annabel, our guide hops off the van to close the museum gates behind us and to change the points as we leave the station and head out on the Montagu line.
The air is fresh and the 18-strong group of us on this day ride can only wonder at the feat that was achieved in the building of this railway-line as the outskirts of George recede and we start climbing into the foothills of the Outeniqua mountains.
It was in 1908, that 700 convicts began the grueling work of building the railway-line on the George side to connect the towns of George and Oudtshoorn. In 1911 work began from the Oudtshoorn side. All in all, 2500 people worked on the line to bring it to completion. A huge amount of dynamite was used to blast through the rock. This rock was then used to fill in the dips and gullies along the route. 7 tunnels of varying lengths burrow through the mountains.
The history of the line rolls easily off Annabel’s tongue, and in a light mood, none of us really stop to consider the relentless, back-breaking work these men endured and the primitive conditions under which they laboured with pick-axes and shovels – hot during the day, very cold at night.
We climb through the Witfontein Forest Reserve – the pine plantations with their eucalyptus firebreaks and soon the view broadens. George is laid out behind us, the Indian Ocean, its backdrop. Mountains clothed in their natural greenery of fynbos and indigenous trees glisten in the winter sun in front of us.
The Montagu Pass runs close to the tracks frequently, another significant engineering feat in its day. Prior to its opening, it would take a farmer 5 days by ox-wagon to take his sweet-potatoes to market in Oudtshoorn and then return with fruit for his family and fertilizer for his fields.
We constantly climb upward. At times we are hemmed in by steep rock walls on both sides to which ferns and mosses and mountain flowers cling. We catch mere glimpses of deep valleys. We are temporarily engulfed in darkness as we plunge into our first tunnel. Swiftly we return to the light.
Mountain vistas open before us – captivating in their splendour. George Peak to the left of us is 1357m high – still impressively covered in recent snow. Cradock Peak a close companion, is to the right. A feast for the eyes – we drink it in.
After a few more tunnels we slow to a halt. The driver takes some radio messages. There are workmen busy on some parts of the line and a fog bomb explodes on the tracks warning us to slow down and them that we are approaching. We stop at a high point where the railway crosses the road. We are allowed to disembark from the Outeniqua Power Van and walk up to a viewpoint where a sign marks "Amanda’s Grave"..
Amanda was born in Oudtshoorn. The family had a house at Herold's Bay so in their Model T Ford they travelled over Montagu Pass to the coast for school holidays. Later they moved to Joburg and would come down by train. Amanda’s mother always lit a candle to go through the tunnels. Amanda got engaged to one of the Urbans and when he went overseas she met Theo's Dad, Pieter.
They'd only known each other 3 weeks before getting married. When he proposed she made him lift his trousers as she liked a man with good legs, so he must've passed the test. Amanda had always commented that she'd like to have her ashes buried up at that viewpoint on Montagu Pass. Upon her death, her husband went to great lengths negotiating with Nature Conservation to get permission to have her laid to rest there. It probably couldn’t be done today but later, Pieter's ashes were also laid there with his wife's.
After stretching our legs we return to the Outeniqua Power Van and the backrests have now been switched around and we are facing the other way. The driver moves to the back of the van which is now the front and takes up a set of controls in this new position. He now pushes the coach in front of us and we’re in the rear. We head down the mountain enjoying the panoramic view now in front of us.
At one point we catch sight of a pair of klipspringer on the track in front of a tunnel. They pause looking at us –it almost seems they’re waiting for a lift - then they lightly leap up the rocks and are gone. The van slows and we stop at a makeshift platform to climb up a stairway to have a picnic lunch. There is some rough seating and a few wooden tabletops and awe-inspiring vistas in every direction.
Annabel has told us about the forests, showing us the Forest Elder, the Stinkwoods, the Yellowwoods and the Cape Beech. She has explained the building of the various passes and the people who traveled them and how they traveled. She has mentioned the fynbos and we saw the King Proteas starting to flower. She has pointed out various George landmarks.
As the Outeniqua Power Van docks in George Museum Station, I feel replete. It has been a lovely outdoor excursion on a glorious day.
This 3hr Outeniqua Power Van round trip should be booked in advance and confirmed on the day as it is pointless to set out in unsuitable weather (like a cloudy day). Take your own refreshments and a picnic lunch with you, sunglasses, a hat and a warm jacket.
To Book: Tel: +27 (0)44 801 8246 Cell: 082 490 5627 Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Address to board the Power Van: The Railway Museum, 2 Mission Street, George.