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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

New Dawn in the Orange Free State

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Time for an off-topic post. Forty-eight years ago this week, on October 24th, 1975, my pal Jake and I arrived in the evening at Sannaspos, a railway junction about 30 km east of Bloemfontein, the capital of the then Orange Free State (today Free State Province).

Sannaspos, Orange Free State, South Africa, at dawn on Saturday, October 25th, 1975. The gantry construction, spanning the tracks, is to deliver that most precious of commodities, water, to the thirsty locomotives. It was sourced, I suppose, from the nearby Modder River, crossed by the line seen here snaking away to the north-east, about a mile distant.

Every picture tells a story, don't it?

We were one month into our trip of South Africa, and - for those of you who know the country - had spent the previous week driving from Estcourt (a few miles inside Natal province), around Lesotho to Bethlehem, then followed the line south-west, across pleasant countryside, passing scores of hamlets and farmsteads with names ending in -spruit, -fontein and -dorp, towards the big city of Bloemfontein.

Parking up at the station (for safety's sake), I kipped in the front seat of our hired VW Beetle, Jake in the back. Not the most comfortable of nights, but at least it helped us rise early to find this scene, with the sun rising over Lesotho and Natal to the east.

It's impossible to be objective about photos one has taken: this is not a 'classic' railway pic, but I love it. For me it captures this everyday, nondescript railway scene that felt, at the time, as if it would be repeated ad infinitum. But of course, it brings back memories to me which can't be shared by the neutral observer, so maybe it does nothing for you (apologies).

This was hard-core Boer country, and while everyone we met would speak English, it seemed the working language was Afrikaans for the vast majority of locals. What I was only vaguely aware of at the time – maybe it was in some sort of tourism brochure, or maybe some locals told us - was that 75 years earlier Sanna's Post, as it was then known, had been the scene of a significant battle in the second Boer War (or Anglo-Boer War as it was known in South Africa).

The battle started, perhaps like the one we experienced, at dawn, with the Boers completely surprising and out-smarting the Brits.

It was a turning point in the conflict, because the local Boer leaders turned to guerilla tactics for the first time. This led to a serious defeat for the British, who used the railway station for cover during the battle.

According to Wikipedia, the Brits lost 155 men killed or wounded, with 428 captured. Boer losses amounted to a mere three killed and five wounded – statistics that would make for shocking reading back in London.

Unfortunately, many more lives would be lost on both sides, including civilians, before peace could be restored some two years later.

But if there was any lingering resentment among the Afrikaans-speaking population, we didn't detect it (as was the case across the entire country, indeed, the Afrikaners were most hospitable in our many experiences).

I forget where we spent the night that Saturday, I only vaguely remember going into Bloemfontein on the Sunday and re-hiring the car for another month before we headed south across vast swathes of rural territory, peppered with small market towns like Wepener and Burgersdorp, before reaching the more populous Graaff-Reinet and the positively industrial Port Elizabeth.

For rail buffs, the loco gurgling quietly on the left in the pic is almost certainly a 19D 4-8-2. The one ahead I can't remember, and I've lost my notebook in the intervening years, but it too could well be a 19D.

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