The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
The historic opening-up of Southern Africa was achieved on foot, on ox, on horse and steam train. The latter had it inception in the fledgling city of Durban. The precocious and forward-thinking residents of Durban envisioned a time when rail tracks would criss-cross their colony as they did in their homelands back in Great Britain. And so it was in 1860 that a rail track from the sandy spit of land called the Point was constructed, around the northern shore of the Bay of Natal and up to the Market Square in Durban.
Prophetically, the very first steam locomotive was named the ‘Natal’. From this humble start – the ambition of Natalians was to extend the line into the hinterland of the Colony of Natal, something they were to achieve in the next 30 years.
The track was progressively constructed inland from Durban, first to Pinetown, then up Botha’s Hill, where a cutting had to be laboriously blasted and dug into the steep hillside. From above the hill, the line was pushed through to the Natal capital, Pietermaritzburg. From Pietermaritzburg, the line snaked its way inland, past Colenso, reaching the town Ladysmith in 1886.
(above) Colenso Railway Station.
(above) Ladysmith Railway Station photographed during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.
Eventually the track reached the frontier town of Newcastle in 1891.
(above) Newcastle Railway Station. This historic building survived until the late 1970’s when it needlessly demolished.
(above) A map of Northern Natal indicating the road and railway from the town of Newcastle up to Volksrust in the Transvaal (South African Republic).
The discovery of gold along the Witwatersrand in the 1880’s made a rail line to the Transvaal imperative. In 1890, the Natal Government Railways after exhausting negotiations with the South African Republic, began the laborious task of constructing the rail line up the escarpment to crest the Drakensberg Mountains and reach the interior plateau.
(Image below) A Prepaid Parcel stamp carrying the logo for the Natal Government Railways.
The numerous streams and rivers necessitated the building of culverts and bridges; and the undulating terrain required the construction of raised and gradually rising railbeds, including cuttings into the steep mountainsides.
(above) An engraving of the single rail track leading up Majuba Pass, showing a culvert and bridge.
(above) A photograph showing the cuttings and railbeds that allowed the track to rise at a steady incline up the Majuba Pass, 1900. It is interesting to note that the steepest gradient that a rail track can feasibly rise is determined by the maximum load that any steam locomotive/s can haul. The breaking potential of a locomotive on the decline is a limiting factor too, as is the principle of rail adhesion in both directions.
Near ‘Prospect Farm’ (the earlier location of the British Military Camp during the 1st Anglo-Boer War) a crossover ‘reverse siding’ was constructed to facilitate the reversing of trains; for a train to lay-off allowing for another to pass; or for additional locomotives to be added to a train.
(below) Several local quarries in the vicinity were utilised to provide spoil and cut stone for the line. The image (1896) records a quarry on the slopes of Majuba Mountain.
The distance from Newcastle to the top of the pass (a mere 27 kilometres) required a precipitous climb of 406 metres. The Natal Government Railway Engineers decided to construct a tunnel under the crest of the escarpment, to the east of the old road to Charlestown, where it traversed the ‘nek’. This pass (named ‘Lang’s Nek’ after local farmer Henry Lang) gave its name to the railway tunnel.
(above) A photograph of Ingogo Railway Station, looking north, with Majuba Mountain in the distance and marked with a X.
(above) A drawing of the railway up to Lang’s Nek.
(below) The horsehoe bend in the rail track looking down towards Ingogo from Lang’s Nek.
R. Wagstaffe & Co. were contracted to build the tunnel, with work commencing in 1890. Tunnelers worked from apposing ends, blasting their way through the rock and earth. The headings met on the 24th of January 1891, allowing the Stone Masons to build fine facings to the tunnel openings. For many years, this construction was hailed as the greatest engineering accomplishment in south Africa.
The tunnel is a full 674 metres long (2213 feet) with a 1 in 70 gradient. 500 men had worked on the passage, removing 195 000 cubic metres of spoil. The cost – 80 000 pounds, a considerable sum in these times.
The track from Lang’s Nek to Charlestown was completed by the 15th of February 1891.
(below) A photograph of the Main Street to Charlestown. The last Natalian settlement on the frontier, only a few kilometres from the border and the Transvaal Republic town of Volksrust.
On the 14th of October 1891 Sir Henry Loch the High Commissioner to the Cape and Sir Charles Mitchell, Governor of Natal, officially opened the tunnel to rail traffic.
(above and two images below) Photographs recording the official opening ceremony of the railway line when it reached Charlestown. President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic can be seen in the front row seated alongside Sir Charles Mitchell.
(below) An illustration of the official first locomotive and train steaming towards Charlestown, with Majuba Mountain in the background.
(below) A photograph looking south of the Volksrust Railway Station with a Transvaal-bound steam train alongside the platform. In the background to this image, the summit of Majuba Mountain and the Natal frontier can be made out.
(below) A watercolour painting of the railway line, with Lang’s Nek in the background.
2nd ANGLO-BOER WAR Years
At the commencement of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in 1899, as the Boers under General Petrus Johannes Joubert invaded Natal, the British and Natal Colonial forces fell back to Ladysmith leaving Northern Natal unprotected. Joubert fully expected that the Lang’s Nek Tunnel would be ambushed. He sent a coal truck through the passage and was surprised to discover that the British had not. This allowed the Boers to move trains down the escarpment to supply their burghers who were besieging Ladysmith. This had been a strategic mistake by the British, who were reluctant to destroy the infrastructure of Natal as they fell back. The Boers did not make a similar mistake when they retreated the following year. Every bridge, culvert, reservoir and railway was destroyed, including Lang’s Nek Tunnel.
(above) Photograph of bathing British soldiers below the Ingagane Railway Bridge that was destroyed by retreating Boers in 1900. This bridge lay just south of Newcastle.
The rapid British advance of 1900 prevented the Boers from damaging the tunnel to the extent they wished. They hurriedly dynamited the two entrances to the tunnel, shattering the first 200 feet of the tunnels on either side, before Lord Dundonald and his troops occupied the position on the 10th of May 1900. The British discovered that the tunnel had not been damaged beyond repair, and workers quickly cleared the rubble from the line and tunnel. This allowed trains to supply the British advance into the Orange Free State and Transvaal.
(below) An image recording British Engineers clearing the debris from the tunnel entrances.
This historic tunnel was abandoned in 1984 when a new tunnel was bored alongside and to the west of the original. On satellite images it is difficult to see the southern entrance/exit to Lang’s Tunnel. In contrast the northern entrance/exit is clearly visible to the immediate right of the contemporary tunnel.
Graham Leslie McCallum
A Steam Locomotive and train ascending the escarpment past Majuba Mountain, winding its way up to the entrance of Lang’s Nek Tunnel, 1903.