The world famous steam train, the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, known by tourists and photographers alike for its spectacular journey from George to Knysna, in an area called Eden in the southern Cape region of South Africa is dead.
The train service and the tourism economy of one of the best known tourist attractions died when floods in 2006 and 2007 washed huge parts of the railway track and surrounding rock face away.
In an effort to keep the Choo-Tjoe alive and attract tourists it was diverted from George to Mossel Bay, but the train never regained its popularity, as the scenery on the shortened journey was no longer breath-taking as it trundled through more built up areas along the coastline.
I didn’t know I was in Eden until I got there many years ago – the Eden I found myself in is called the Garden of Eden near Knysna. It is a beautiful short nature trail just off the main N2 highway and the reason I was there with my daughter is that it is close to the end-point of a cycling trail my husband and son were riding.
In fact, not too long after moving to George, the district council was renamed the Eden District Municipality, under which seven smaller municipalities fall.
It is a diverse district with sparkling coastlines, lakes, beaches, farmlands and majestic mountain ranges that take you inland to the rugged semi-desert area called the Klein (Little) Karoo.
The part of Eden that I am describing is about the railway line that the Choo-Tjoe ran on from George, through gorges, past villages, alongside forests and lakes, farmlands and sea to its endpoint in Knysna, a stunning coastal town that local and international tourists enjoyed travelling to every day.
In August 2006, a cut-off low brought torrential rain to the Southern Cape and among the tremendous damage inflicted in the storm’s pathway were landslides and wash-aways along parts of the railway line, the most significant being the landslide at Dolphin’s point on Kaaiman’s Pass in Wilderness, (the line just after the bridge where the most famous photos of the Choo Tjoe were taken.) The landslide left the railway line suspended in thin air. The area nearby was declared unstable and a house overlooking the line was condemned as being too dangerous to live in.
As a journalist it was part of my beat to report and take pictures of the floods. The full realisation that the Choo-Tjoe would never puff its way from George to Knysna again took a long time to sink in, especially as rock falls and landslides on the adjacent Kaaiman’s Pass road were repaired and the road near the damaged railway line was built up again with a concrete abutment.
The storms in November 2007 were the final death knell for the Choo-Tjoe. Transnet, the South African government’s transport provider said that the branch line didn’t form part of its core business and was not a profit generator for it, so repairing the line was the least of its priorities.
The Choo-Tjoe diverted to Mossel Bay until the end of 2011 when Transnet said because it had not found an appropriate bidder to take over the service, there was no other option than terminate the Choo-Tjoe service altogether.
Despite efforts to negotiate with Transnet by tourism and other bodies as well as willing private backers, eight years later the status quo remains and the remaining line is totally unkempt and in disrepair.
Nine years after the initial floods, while on a business trip to the area with my husband Kelvin, we took a trip down memory lane.
The end of April, beginning of May is usually still busy, with lots of visitors about, but the closer we got to the Garden Route from Cape Town the quieter it got. At first we put it down to April being an almost continuous holiday with public and school holidays and Easter. But the feeling of emptiness became palpable the closer we got to George.
It was a long weekend with very little traffic about except in pockets like in Mossel Bay and Wilderness where visitors and locals always abound – where there is entertainment and particularly pubs and restaurants. In Wilderness I came across a half dozen informal crafters who said they had been moved away from their usual haunts where tourists stop and business was bad.
Driving on we passed few cars and to our dismay in Sedgefield there was barely a shop open, let alone people. I have to admit that we didn’t stop to see if any old haunts still existed, especially the excellent pie shop at Sedgefield station. In fact having recently read the article ’’Steam Whistle stop still on track” (see full story at end of article) about Joe and Louisa Groenewald who had left behind a successful business in Pretoria for Sedgefield – the first Cittaslow (slow food) town in Africa – for a better quality of life for their children and bought the Steam Whistle Stop, I feel very guilty. In fact I am heart sore about their situation and admire their tenacity in doing whatever it takes to keep going.
They weren’t the first people I’d heard about that are really struggling to survive and there was evidence of it everywhere. Even before our meander along the Choo-Tjoe route, we stopped at our usual haunt in Albertinia near Mossel Bay to stock up at the local deli/butcher and adjacent craft shop with braai (BBQ) food and any wool or knick-knacks that caught my eye.
A sad story of mother and aunt running two ailing businesses, while the middle aged daughter/ niece worked a day job and then worked two hours in the evening and at weekends trying to keep the businesses operating despite dwindling tourism. The daughter told me that after 25 years of working in finance at the local refinery she wasn’t sure if she would be one of the 750 people on the retrenchment list. “I just have five more years before I can take early retirement, so I’m hoping I can work there until then.”
I digress – after it was realised the Choo-Tjoe was not going to re-open and when tour groups were still coming in large numbers, people were still optimistic and came up with ideas of catching tourists driving by. The old railway station at Buffalo Bay was one. An enterprising couple had rented the premises, painted it bright pink and turned it into a wonderful restaurant – the food was lovely and in a quaint setting with lots of lawn and forest.
Turning down the Buffalo Bay road the farm stall is still there – still making delicious milk tarts and cupcakes, its customers now seem to be the canoeists and the riverbank pub/restaurant on the other side of the road. Coming to the turnoff to the station there is now a backpackers sign propped up.
Undeterred we drove up what is now an overgrown track to the station – over the railway line to find ourselves face-to-face with three very angry looking hippy types – presumably the people running the backpackers. The station/cum restaurant is dilapidated – home to two of the hippies and is presumably the backpackers accommodation and the little house next to the road inhabited by a furious woman complaining that we were breaking her planters with veggies in them that she had strategically placed in the road.
As it is a public road we ignored the complaints and I got out and took some pictures – mostly of the derelict track and wondered how it could ever be restored without a huge outlay, especially if any of the old wooden sleepers have been stolen (they make very sturdy furniture.)
Then on to Knysna – the same thing – overgrown tracks, very few travelers around, the station a sad looking place.
As my assignment was to seek out small business entrepreneurs – in particular crafters, once again no informal crafters in site – road works down one of the busy tourist streets had forced the unique shops that would usually be open on a Sunday to stay closed. Very dismal. The African craft market (that I presume had been moved from the entrance to the town when the road was being widened a few years back) is now on a site on the way to the famous Heads that overlooks the estuary. Instead of stalls facing the road it is semi-enclosed with its back to the road. No-one appeared to be around so we didn’t stop, except to have lunch at an overrated restaurant overlooking the estuary that served minute portions of gourmet sandwiches and chips.
Travelling into the Karoo a couple of days later, the story is the same – in Oudtshoorn I spoke to a woman who runs a coffee/cum craft shop for the owner and she said that apart from food and beverages, no-one buys very many crafts. At least Oudtshoorn still has its world famous Cango Caves to attract tourists and there is a very active wine and brandy route on that section of Route 62, purportedly the longest tourism route in the world.
As a passionate tourism supporter and a founder member of the Outeniqua Hop Route in the George area (another failing route as tourism flounders) I am deeply saddened.
Tourism has become very seasonal in Eden, the summer school holiday season over Christmas and Easter with other events like the Knysna Oyster Festival and various cycling marathons propping up the economy.
Will the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe ever run again? I hope so – there are certainly many keen supporters. But it is hard work keeping a dream alive – no-one ever said living in Eden would be easy.
Find out more about the Choo-Tjoe and what has been done to try and reinstate it at: http://www.friendsofthechoo-tjoe.co.za/history-of-the-line-and-current-status/
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