Nobody could have anticipated, that the iconic Outeniqua Choo Tjoe train would be uneqivocally halted by the June 2006 torrential rains that caused floods along the Garden Route and massive landslides in the Kaaiman’s Pass area.
The cheerful penetrating whistle that broke the tranquility of each day and signalled the train's familiar presence along its journey between George and Knysna, has been effectively silenced for over a decade!
It is only now we've lost something we've always taken for granted, that we realise how much it meant to us! It is sorely missed by lovers of historic train journeys here and abroad.
The track along the extent of its coastal route was extensively damaged in several places and the cost of repairing it, ran into the millions.
It ran this route for nigh on 78 years and became a vital part of the Garden Route's heritage making a considerable contribution to Cape Tourism. In its' last years it transported over 100 000 passengers a year, most of them being foreign tourists.
Despite rumours and rumblings the railway line has been left to deteriorate and the costs to repair it rise by millions each year that passes where nothing is done. Loyal supporters have even created a ”Save the Outeniqua Tchoo Tjoe” Facebook page to champion their cause! Since late 2006, the train has run between George and Mossel Bay but Transnet, terminated that service 17 Sep 2010, saying its not part of their core business.
The then Western Cape MEC for Finance, Economic Development and Tourism, Alan Winde re-affirmed whilst visiting Knysna in 2010 that he was resolute in his commitment to reviving the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe service. He wanted the Choo Tjoe transferred from Transnet to the Western Cape Government.
However, then CEO of Transnet, Brian Molefe said in 2012 that the government did not have the R150 million to repair the line and get the Choo Tjoe operational again. He was willing for private enterprise to put up the money but no plans to sell the Transnet property had been considered.
It seems that a joint co-operative venture needs to be negotiated between Transnet and interested parties in the private sector to restore this heritage train service.
Media Release re the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe
In November 2017 it was announced that Transnet Freight Rail is considering supporting a proposal put forward by private enterprise to re-institute the running of this iconic train. It is hoped that a section of the line will be open by 28th of October 2018 to celebrate the 90th Anniversary of the original opening of the railway line between George and Knysna. (That has come and gone - nothing happened!)
Update 13 May 2019 - there is a deathly silence on this matter. To date nothing has materialised!
Update December 2019 - Classic Rail director, Alan McVitty has stated that the project is still firmly on track. Transnet Freight Rail has accepted the company's revised business plan but in order to operate the trains on the line, there is a 20 year concession agreement that has to be finalised.
I sent an email to Classic Rail asking about the fire hazards of a steam engine, because of the Garden Route now experiencing drier conditions and with the 2017/18 fires at the back of my mind.
Spokesperson, Martin Hatchuel responded to me saying, they have already considered the dangers of their steam locomotives and aim to minimise the risk of fire and have a quick response plan to extinguish fires as fast as possible.
He concluded by saying the company is aware that is in everyone's best interest to protect our environment.
Won't it be the most uplifting event for the Garden Route to have the famous Choo Tjoe chugging along the tracks again from Knysna to Sedgefield for starters like it used to. It will be such a positive for our little town and the Whistle-stop Station Shop.
For a trip down Memory Lane, watch this Youtube video by Willie Koorts
The 3 hour 52 km Outeniqua Choo Tjoe train journey from George to Knysna gave passengers spectacular views of the Indian Ocean and Garden Route coastline.
Leaving George and passing high above the pretty coastal resort and popular surfing beach of Victoria Bay, the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe chuffed its way through several tunnels right on the rocky shoreline and over the stunning Kaaimans River Bridge to round the bend and overlook the beautiful Wilderness beach before coming to a brief stop at Wilderness Station.
The next part of the train ride took the passengers over the Touw River and along the Garden Route lakes with tantalising glimpses of luxury homes and holiday resorts intermingled with exquisite indigenous forest and breathtaking lake views, before crossing the largest lake, Swartvlei shortly before coming to a stop at Sedgefield Station.
The station had become well-known for its delicious homemade pies at the Whistle Stop Shop and there was just time to buy a few before the train continued on......
NB. The Restaurant Station run by Joe and Louise continues on - their popular pies are still best sellers: breakfasts and lunches still available!
…..ahead lay…..Groenvlei - the only freshwater lake of the lake system, countryside and farmlands framed in fynbos and coastal vegetation, coniferous plantations, indigenous forest, Goukamma –the nature reserve and inviting Goukamma station.....
Elalini Backpackers and Flippin Knys Restaurant are now operational at Goukamma Station and well worth stopping at - charming and friendly service in a serene country environment.
on to......stately Bevidere and gracious Brenton-on Lake, shoreline suburbs on the Knysna lagoon ...... until the train crossed the spectacular Knysna Estuary before coming to a halt at the Knysna Station right next to the harbour.
Passengers then had 2 hours to wander around or have lunch before they could enjoy the whole scenic journey again, in reverse, that is going the other way back to George!
In June 2010, carrying a banner and waving flags, a group of some 15 Sedgefield Walkie Talkies hiked from the White Bridge at the start of Knysna along the new road into town.
They then continued out along the disused railway bridge following the track back to where it crossed the road near Belvidere and returning to our cars near the White Bridge, to celebrate the start of the 2010 Soccer World Cup and giving moral support to the French and Danish teams being hosted by Knysna.
Because of the risk of veld fires in an ecologically sensitive region, less attractive diesel locomotives replaced the steam engines during periods when conditions indicated their use could be a fire hazard.
When the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe ran it was possible to get off at any station along the journey where the train stopped.
You could also just travel one way if you had access to other means of transport to return to the start or overnight in Knysna for a day or two and then return to George on an afternoon train. Tickets had to be purchased in George or Knysna however, as there was no conductor on the train and no opportunity to buy tickets at any of the stations along the route.
It is hoped by all who live along the Garden Route and many ardent lovers of steam trains that this magnificent part of the world will witness the resurrection of the illustrious Outeniqua Choo Tjoe train journey.
However we are all aware that the longer it takes to restore the railway line, the more prohibitively expensive it becomes and the less the likelihood we'll see it happen.
Friends of the Choo Tjoe is a non-profit organisation formed in August 2010 with the main object being the promotion of the repair and rehabilitation of the railway line between George and Knysna together with the revival of the operation of the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe steam train on this railway line....