Welcome to Week 36 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I take a ride on the Reefsteamers Magaliesburg Express.

Reefsteamers is a volunteer-run, non-profit organization that restores antique steam trains and runs weekend day trips around Gauteng Province. The Magaliesburg Express — a return day trip from Johannesburg Park Station to Magaliesburg and back — is a regular Reefsteamers route. (Magaliesburg is a small town a bit more than an hour’s drive from Joburg.) I’d been wanting to do one of these train trips for ages.

Reefsteamers steam locomotive #3046This is “Vreni”, a steam locomotive built in 1945. Read about all the Reefsteamers locomotives.

The Magaliesburg Express usually runs on the last Saturday of the month. (Browse the timetable here.) A couple of weeks ago I rode the train with Ray and his two friends from Canada.

The first thing I’ll say about our Magaliesburg Express train ride is that it was definitely NOT an express. The round trip wound up taking more than 12 hours and it had some strange, tragic consequences. Nonetheless I would still recommend it, especially for train enthusiasts and photographers.

Did You Know We’re Riding, on the Magaliesburg Express?

The Magaliesburg Express departs from Joburg’s Park Station — the massive international train hub in the center of town — at 9:00 a.m. (Tip: For some reason our tickets, which Reefsteamers emailed to me, said we must be at the station and ready to board the train at 8:00 a.m. This is definitely not true; there is no reason to arrive before 8:45.)

The entire ride was worth it for the magical moment when the train pulled up to Park Station’s Platform 14. I felt exactly like Hermione Granger must have felt, standing on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters for the first time as the Hogwarts Express pulled into King’s Cross Station.

The underground platform filled with puffy white clouds of steam, the children (and many of the adults) squealed with glee, and the coal-black locomotive with red trim was magnificent in every way. It was glorious.

Vreni arrives at Platform 14Vreni pulls up to Platform 14.

We scrambled into our assigned car and found seats in the front. The train pulled away from the station a few minutes later.

I’ve never ridden a train out of Park Station before, and I loved it. We passed through the busy train yard, filled with colorful Metro commuter cars, and right under the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge.

Under Nelson Mandela BridgeLocomotive steam rises from under Nelson Mandela Bridge.

Ray in the Magaliesburg ExpressWatching the city go by. It was very cold in the train that morning, so dress warmly if you ride in winter. I’ve also heard the trains are blazing hot in summer. I recommend wearing glasses or sunglasses so you can look out the open windows without getting coal dust in your eyes.

Train platformI loved shooting pictures through the window.

Passing trainsPassing trains, passing people.

The train moved slowly out of the city and into the countryside. The sun climbed higher and the clouds started to burn off.

Then, as we passed through an informal settlement of corrugated iron shacks, the train drew to a halt.

Settlement where the train stoppedWhere the train stopped. 

The train stops frequently so we didn’t think much of it at first. But then I noticed a volunteer medic rushing off the train with a first-aid kit. Dozens of people outside were running and crowding around something a few hundred yards behind the train.

The train had collided with a car. I later saw a cell phone video of the accident: The car was driving on a dirt road that crosses the tracks (no railroad crossing), and the driver clearly did not see or hear the train coming. He pulled the car directly into the path of the train, just a moment before impact. Apparently the engineer driving the train never even saw the car. The passengers in the train felt nothing.

First I heard a rumor that no one was seriously injured. But then a Medivac helicopter showed up, and two of the car’s passengers were evacuated. I later heard a woman lost her leg.

The Magaliesburg Express wasn’t the same after that.

Eventually, after much confusion and growing restlessness, a fleet of buses arrived to transport us to our planned picnic spot, Magalies Sleepy River. (Normally the train goes all the way to Magaliesburg Station, where passengers disembark and catch buses to the picnic spot, where they hang out for a couple of hours before riding back to Park Station.)

Magalies Sleepy River is a nice place to spend an afternoon, with lots of grass, grills for braaing (barbecuing), and vendors selling food and beer. I felt a little dazed after the accident though, and didn’t take any photos.

Back to Joburg With Reefsteamers

I had been wondering if we would be able to ride back home on the train at all. But amazingly the Magaliesburg Express made its way to Magaliesburg Station after the accident, a few hours late. We loaded into the buses again and headed to the station.

Steam locomotive in MagaliesburgVreni, back in business outside Magaliesburg Station.

Reefsteamers trainBoarding to go home.

It was already 4:30 when we boarded the train, so we knew we wouldn’t make it back by the anticipated arrival time of 5:30. I didn’t care though. The shock of the accident was fading and the afternoon light was spectacular. The kids were gleefully sugared up and the beer-drinkers were pleasantly buzzed.

Gleeful child in the trainA gleeful child.

Train chugging alongA train full of happy passengers and a happy passerby.

Train and black steamChugging along in the late afternoon sun.

I was happy.

Heather on the steam trainPhoto by Ray.

Then, suddenly, the tide turned. The sun went down, the temperature dropped, and the train began to move excruciatingly slowly. (Perhaps taking extra care after the accident?) We stopped completely for a full 20 minutes, several times over.

The kids grew evermore hyperactive, bouncing off the walls of the train car. The drinkers grew evermore drunk, then angry when their booze ran out.

Moods turned darker, especially mine. I curled into a fetal position on one of the train seats, scarf pulled over my head. I was possibly the only person in the train car who wasn’t either a hyperactive child or drunk. I wasn’t pleased.

The mood was very dark indeed when we pulled into Platform 14 at 8:30 p.m., bickering and scrounging money for the parking ticket (12+ hours parked at Park Station = R85, payable only in R20 denominations or smaller). It’s a shame that a mostly fun day ended on a dark note.

And then another very bad thing happened the next day, which wasn’t really part of the Magaliesburg Express but which I will unfortunately associate with this experience forever after. That’s a story for another post though.

Sunset on the Magaliesburg ExpressSunset on the Magaliesburg Express. 

Anyway, assuming the train doesn’t hit anything (which is highly unlikely — it’s never happened before), you will probably have a great time on the Magaliesburg Express. Bring plenty of beer if you’re a drinker and limit your children’s sugar intake, just in case.

Learn more about Reefsteamers at reefsteamers.com.

Read all of my #Gauteng52 posts and check out the interactive #Gauteng52 map.

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