By the time construction came to a halt on the Selati Line at Sabi Bridge, no one in the Transvaal gave a damn about the rusted Selati railway in a game reserve; a line that had bankrupted a British construction company and sent both the Barons Oppenheim to jail for fraud.
But there was one man to whom the Selati line meant a great deal. This was the Warden of the Sabi Game Reserve, Colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton. He lived in what can only be desribed as a ‘hut’ on the banks of the Sabie River very close to the bridge. When he wanted to visit Pretoria on official business it took him three days to get to Komatipoort in his wagon. There he caught the train, which put him down in the capital some ten hours after he boarded it.
But here, at his front door was a perfectly good railway (except that bushes had sprung up and overhung the rails in some places) that ran in fairly straight line to Komatipoort. All he had to do was to set a gang of labourers to clear the bush where it got in the way, and then mount a trolley on the rails (there were plenty of trolleys lying round, their wheels rusting).
In due course he inaugurated his own railway service with a team of Shangaans pushing his trolley on the uphill stretches of the line and riding happily on the downhill runs. However, this was not to the liking of one Jules Diespecker, who had been sent to Komatipoort from Belgium, presumably by the liquidators of the company, to look after the derelict line.
He and Hamilton had a stand up row about the ‘unauthorized’ use of the company’s line. However, they settled their differences and the warden was graciously granted the use of the line in return for a promise to do what he could to keep an eye on the sleepers, nuts, bolts, spades and wheelbarrows scattered along the whole length of the track.
There was one wholly ridiculous clause in this agreement, insisted upon by Diespecker for the safety of traffic on the line. This was that his trolley had to be preceded by a Muntu carrying a red flag. Stevenson-Hamilton knew the importance of rules and regulations to the official mind, but at the same time he could not crawl the whole way to Komatipoort with a red-flag standard bearer walking ahead of the trolley. He compromised by fitting red flags to his trolleys and on arrival at a point a kilometre or so outside Komatipoort station, he sent one of the men ahead waving the flag. In all the time the ‘Game Reserve Express’ ran it never had a collision. The fact was that there was nothing with which it could collide.
One can imagine this happy-go-lucky arrangement of the gallant Colonel lolling on a garden bench which he eventually had placed on his trolley, for a comfortable seat while relaxing and reading The Field, as his stalwart helpers pushed hard.
From 1910 onwards after the line was extended from Sabi Bridge to Duiwelskloof, Soekmekaar and beyond, Stevenson-Hamilton lost his private railway line.
In due course, when the line went through, he was able to travel to Pretoria in comfort. The only inconvenience was that the trains reached Sabi Bridge in the early hours of the morning.
From “By the Waters of the Letaba” by A.P. Cartwright and other sources.
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