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Steaming up Michell’s Pass

We are at a little siding on a golf course just outside the town of Ceres. The steam engine arrives with steam billowing and whistle sounding and now I am as excited as the little boys who are jumping up and down on the platform. This train is operated by the Ceres Rail Company and on Saturdays you can book a ride from Demeter station in Ceres through Michell’s Pass to Wolseley and back again.

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Michell’s Pass was named after Charles Michell, a military engineer who was sent to the Cape in disgrace after eloping with the 15-year-old daughter of a French Colonel and rose to become Surveyor General. The pass was built by Thomas Bain in 1848 and cuts through the dramatic Witzenberg Mountains.

The railway line dates back to 1912 and the steam engine (she is called Jessica) was built in the UK way back in the 1940’s. Jessica has been rescued and restored and refitted to run on oil. That explains the billowing black smoke, but it has the definite advantage that no sparks will set the tinder dry fynbos on fire.

We all pile onto the train. The trainspotters and anoraks are in the last of the four carriages, three of which are fitted out as lounges, including a bar in one of them. We make for the first carriage, the beautifully restored Selati dining car built in the 1930s and used by South African Railways for decades thereafter. The wooden paneling and the springbok head etched on each window bring back memories of eating glutinous cream of vegetable soup followed by stringy lamb stew on the long train trips (second class) that I once took from Stellenbosch university to Johannesburg.

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With more whistle blowing we set off and are immediately plunged into pitch darkness accompanied by more screams from the little boys. As we emerge from the tunnel we begin the climb up and through the pass. The views are stunning, the mountains rugged and imposing, the Dwars river still trickling in the ravine far down below. It is mid summer and mid drought, so the fynbos is not at its best but the dramatic scenery makes up for that. As we come down the mountain the lovely vineyards and fruit orchards of Wolseley stretch out on either side of the road below.

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We stop amid the olive groves at Waverley Organic vineyards for a snack and some wine. This is a disappointing part of the trip (although the wines were tasty) and I am not surprised to hear that the Ceres Rail Company is not going to include it on future trips. There are some exciting wineries in the Tulbagh area so I do hope that they find another way to bring in a wine experience.

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The journey lasts about one and a half hours so we have plenty of time afterwards to pop into Oakhurst for an olive oil tasting. This trip will be spectacular when the mountain peaks are covered in snow, or in September when the fynbos is in full bloom, so we definitely plan a repeat outing!

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