In times gone by, you went to De Aar by train or to see some trains in action, especially the old steam locomotives that used to chug across the vast Karoo plains. De Aar lay at the crossroads of travel in South Africa and held the second biggest railway junction (Germiston in Gauteng being the largest) in the country.
When De Aar was a ‘full-steam-ahead’ kind of town, the locomotive drivers would yank their whistles late at night as they approached the Karoo settlement. Each driver would have his own signature tune, and his family living in the town would know it well. They’d set out the supper dishes the minute that whistle went off.
To the general public of De Aar, the particular lilt of a loco whistle would indicate the way the Karoo wind was blowing that night – and what kind of weather they could expect the next day.
Nearly everything in De Aar revolved around The Colossus, the steam locomotive. For more than a century, some 22 000 kilometres of railroad tracks sang the praises of these huge metal dragons criss-crossing South Africa – and meeting in this Northern Cape town.
Steam was phased out, and the sight of a loco in full toot across the veld today is a very rare – and privatised – experience. But the legends live on.
The late Oom Apie Ludwick was a stoker who worked with two drivers, Vlakhaas Davis and Fred Budd. They were the Kings of the Footplate, and they used to cook their bacon, sausage and eggs on a spade – in the furnace.
They’d shoot gemsbok from the caboose for the pot, and when a police sergeant once caught Ludwick with a carcass, he said, ‘We just ran it over.’ The kind policeman replied: ‘Well next time, Apie, when you run over a gemsbok, don’t hit it precisely between the eyes.’
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