Selati Line – Part 1
Kruger Park – Gold Fields
A Story to Remember
So what does this story have to do with the Kruger National Park. As someone with insider information, you will know how the largest national park in South Africa nearly did not exist as a result of this railway line. See how the Selati Line changed the face of tourism in the Bushveld for ever.
A true African story of intrigue and drama played itself out when two French bankers decided to build a railway to nowhere in the Bushveld known as the Selati Line. The outcome of which would amaze any big modern venture.
The bribery, death, deception and subterfuge that followed these two bankers is almost unparalleled in Southern Africa, involving an entire government and the alteration of a large strategic region of the Southern continent for ever. This railway is no more… it never reached its destination and never accomplished its intended purpose. Yet it had such vast and far-reaching impacts on the Lowveld, the Second Anglo-Boer War, later the Kruger National Park and even across the world.
I have for many years wanted to write this Bushveld saga, because of the amazing influences the Selati Line had on the whole Lowveld region. You be the judge after you have read the story and I invite anyone to drop me a line if you have more to add or take away.
Con or Swindle
In 1892 the Selati Railway Company was a shareholding company floated in Brussels (Europe) by two noteworthy bankers of Paris namely Baron Eugene Oppenheim and his – older – brother Baron Robert Oppenheim. The number of shares and how much they were sold for, is not reported anywhere. A company was duly formed by their Franco-Belgian syndicate called ‘La Compagnie Franco-Beige du Chemin-de-fer du Nord de la Republique Sud-Africaine.’ This is translated as ‘The Franco-Belgium Railway Company of the Northern Territories of the South African Republic’ under which it established this Selati Railway Company in 1892.
Then in 1893 the building of its line to the Selati River Gold Field commenced. The need for this new rail line was for transporting gold to and from the new Selati Gold Fields to the world, via Komatipoort through Mozambique, – owned by the Portuguese – on to Delagoa Bay, the port being Lorenzo Marques and today known as Maputo.
This line was to be built from Komatipoort over the Crocodile River, then on to the Sabi River, over the Sand River, on to the Olifants River and finally the Selati Gold Fields at the Murchison Range, near the town of Leydsdorp. Leydsdorp was named after W.J. Leyds in 1890. Leyds a young Hollander was then the State Secretary of the Transvaal Republic and a good friend of Paul Kruger (Leydsdorp is next to the Selati River, near to where Gravelot is today). At this time the Selati Line joined the newly completed line from Komatipoort to Delagoa Bay, – a distance of about 60 miles – completed by the Portuguese and opened on the 1st July 1891.
The way things dovetailed together has amazed me for a long time. This Mozambique Line was the rail line used by the Oppenheim brothers to transport locomotives, freight cars, steel, sleepers, bridge building steel and timber as well as the equipment needed for this new venture. The trains were also later used for the necessary food and booze. The line had been contracted out to the construction company of Westwood & Winby who built the first part of the Selati Line from Komatipoort to the Sabi Bridge in 1893-4. The rest of the line from Sabi Bridge to Tzaneen was completed by Pauling & Co. from 1909-12. The Oppenheim brothers had bought no less then four locomotives. Two 20 ton 2-6-0T Whythes & Jackson Limited locomotives, namely Durban and Pietermaritzburg were obtained from the Natal Railway Company. The other two 40 tonners 0-6-2T, built by Maschinenfabrik Esslingen, were obtained from the NZASM. The line it connected to, was the new Transvaal Gold Fields railway line – juncture Komatipoort – which ran from Pretoria to Delagoa Bay. This was the line set out for transport to and from the new Gold Fields discovered in 1886 known as the Eastern Railway Line.
Joining the Dots
The railway line above mentioned from Pretoria to Delagoa Bay had been toyed with from 1866, by the Transvaal, firstly involving a Scotsman named Mac Corkingdale who died in May 1871. Then came the British annexure of the Transvaal on 12 April 1877, through Theophilus Shepstone, which led to the 1st Anglo-Boer War. After the Boers won that war in 1881, Paul Kruger reopened railway discussions, with an engineer named Major Joachim Jose Machado of Mozambique to map out a line from Delagoa Bay to the land locked Pretoria. Machado was appointed to be the engineer of the entire Eastern Railway Line and the town of Machadodorp was named in honour of him.
At this time alternate routes to the Cape and Natal ports were out of the question because these ports were controlled by the British and their forces after the first Anglo-Boer war. The Eastern Railway Line was ratified by the Volksraad in 1883 by Paul Kruger’s government, the Transvaal Republic. It was proposed the Portuguese build their own line in Mozambique and the Transvaal in turn build their own line. An American named Edward McMurdo having been given the concession for the Mozambican line from Lorenzo Marques to the Transvaal border in December 1883, establishing the East African Railway Company that only set to work in March 1887. This is a fine how-do-you-do. Why four years later you may ask? Well, read on. This is Africa, remember?
Unlike the 50 mile Selati Line – built six years later – from Komatipoort to Sabi Bridge, took less than a year to build. This new line under McMurdo, – a distance of 60 miles – had not even arrived at the Transvaal border in 1890, being seven years after its inception.
Of course, there would be extenuating circumstances to consider. Namely, no one wanted to work on this project, because of the dangers from fever and predators. This was eventually solved by employing the famed deserter group from the British army, headed by George Hutchison (captain moonlight), called the ‘Irish Brigade,’ who had wrecked the town of Eureka City – Barberton area – in 1886 and haled from the Pilgrims Rest region and would work anywhere, except the army. After this happened, a total of 250 Europeans and over 3000 Africans were magically employed.
That problem solved, they went to work, completing the line in 1888, – as they thought – until it was discovered the line was 5 ½ miles short. After a short, fast, court case – in Africa – lasting three years, between the Mozambique Government and McMurdo’s company, – the East African Railway Co. – the case was resolved, work was resumed and the line was completed in May 1891. As I previously said ‘taking six years.’
The 230-mile line from Komatipoort to Pretoria, under construction from both ends by the Transvaal Company, the Netherlands South African Railway Company (NZASM) was completed on 20 October 1894. This then finalised, the connection between Pretoria and the new port at Delagoa Bay and was officially opened on the 8 July 1895 by Paul Kruger.
See you for the next adventure of the: Selati Line – To the Sabi Bridge