The Outeniqua Choo Tjoe was the last passenger steam train in Africa, and its route between George and Knysna in the Garden Route was possibly one of the most picturesque in the world. Visitors to Knysna and the Garden Route can still see the remains of the track as it skirts the seaside, passing through the towns of Wilderness, Victoria Bay, and Sedgefield. Countless tourists also photograph the iconic bridge over the Kaaimans River.
The most scenic train ride in South Africa
The train travelled between George and Knysna on a 52 km route that took roughly three hours. Along the way, passengers were afforded spectacular views of the Indian Ocean as the train ran alongside the cliffs, beaches, forests, farmland, and lakes of this beautiful area. Several tunnels through the cliffs were enjoyed on the route, as was a brief stop at Wilderness Station and Sedgefield Station after crossing the largest lake on its journey, Swartvlei. The Steam Whistle Stop Shop, which you can still visit in Sedgefield today, became renowned for its tasty homemade pies.
The train also passed through the beautiful Goukamma nature reserve and past the shoreline suburbs of Brenton-on Lake before crossing the Knysna lagoon to rest at Knysna station next to the harbour. Here passengers had two hours to enjoy lunch and a leg stretch before heading back to George to enjoy the spectacular scenery in the reverse direction. While passengers could get off at any station, many decided to enjoy the entire journey to really appreciate the magnificent views.
The Outeniqua Choo Tjoe in its heyday
The Outeniqua Choo Tjoe ran on its route between George and Knysna for 78 years and was a big player for tourism on the Garden Route and in the Western Cape. In 1992 when the Choo Tjoe was declared an officially preserved railway, it carried about 40,000 passengers a year. However, fast forward about ten years later, and the railway was carrying a whopping 115,000 passengers a year, with the majority being foreign tourists taking in the breathtaking scenery along the route.
The demise of the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe
In August of 2006, severe floods and massive landslides around the Kaaimans River caused serious damage to the line. The cost of replacing the track would run into the millions, and the train was rerouted to run between George and Mossel Bay. In 2007, the South African government-run organisation Transnet looked to sell the train as it no longer formed part of their core business, but after failing to find a buyer, they ceased operations. The train ran its final journey in September of 2010.
What about the Choo Tjoe today
The train is sorely missed by train lovers and locals and tourists alike, and many have sought to revive the train over the years. The train is now owned by a company called Classic Rail, while the line itself belongs to Transnet Freight Rail. Talks continue between Transnet and this private company regarding the safety of operating on the line. There are apparently plans to revive the scenic route, however, no definitive date has been set for the relaunch of the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe. Unfortunately, as the line is left to deteriorate year on year, the costs of repairing the track only increase.
Thankfully you can still enjoy the history of the train with breakfast or lunch at the Steam Whistle Stop Shop at Sedgefield Station or the Knys Restaurant at Goukamma. Parts of the track can also be walked to enjoy some of the beautiful scenery on route.
You can also learn more about the train and the history of locomotives in South Africa at the Outeniqua Transport Museum in George. Visitors can also book a ride on the Outeniqua PowerVan from the museum. The trips happen every day at 8am, 11 am or 2 pm and last about 2 and a half hours with a 30-minute picnic stop. The trip, which costs R150 for adults and R130 for children, ventures up the mountain through forests, four passes, waterfalls, seven tunnels, and fynbos, to enjoy some spectacular panoramic views. A unique rail journey well worth doing!