To book a trip on the steam trains, please go to Friends of the Rail
I'm sitting on a green leather seat, my arm gingerly resting on the wooden arm rest next to me. Around the cabin is a bubbling excitement - kids running up and down the aisles whilst parents half-heartedly call to them to come back and sit down. Out of the hubbub of noise comes the shrill sound of the steam whistle, suddenly we lurch forward and the clickety-clack and chuff-chuffing begins. I poke my head out the window (ignoring the clear signs on the window not to) and see the steam from the engine filling up sky above the carriages. We're off on our way to Cullinan.
The scenery whizzes by as we quickly make our way out of industrial Pretoria and begin snaking our way through the countryside. Along the way, little children run alongside the train waving and motorbikes drive past us as though trying to race the train as it heaves its way along the track.
After watching the scenery roll by, we decided to head through to the dining cart. Here you can buy coffee, pancakes, burgers, cool drinks and more. I was left on my own for a while and being a natural introvert I did some people watching. Everyone seemed so happy and relaxed, and there were plenty of families bustling up and down the dining cart. After a few minutes taking in the milieu, we got some pancakes and coffee and headed back to our seat. The journey to Cullinan takes around 3 hours long, so there's plenty of time to sit, chat, read and look out the window to watch the countryside rolling by.
The steam train is operated by the Friends of the Rail, a group of volunteers who work to restore and operate these beautiful old steam trains.
Soon enough we were in Cullinan. Thanks to a map with suggested attractions that we'd picked up on the train, we set off to explore the town. It's certainly not very big, but it is a very quaint mining town with an air of relaxed country life about it.
We first stopped in at the McHardy house, which was the first house to be erected in Cullinan. It was the house of William McHardy, the first general manager on the mine. His daughters, Evalina and May, continued to live in the house until their passing in 1984 at the age of 94 and 98. After their passing the Premier Diamond Mine bought the contents of the house and turned it into a museum, offering a snapshot into their lives in this old mining house. Today you can go on a guided tour of the museum, which is open each day, except on Tuesdays, from 10:00 until 15:00.
After visiting the McHardy House we took a walk through to Jan Harmsgat se Agterplaas, a unique art gallery, live music venue and function venue. All of the artwork and decor has been made from scrap metal and abandoned materials. There was no show on when we visited, but it was still great to take a walk around the venue and see the re-purposed scrap.
We then went next door to Temptations Shoppe, a quaint but busy restaurant. There are quite a few restaurants to choose from, and many were fully booked, so we'd advise making a booking in advance to ensure they have space for you. We hadn't booked and so ended up sitting at a long table with some other visitors to the town, who we got chatting to during lunch.
Once we'd finished lunch we headed to the Cullinan Tourism and History offices to go on a surface tour of the mine. The tour started off with a short lecture on the history of the mine starting with Sir Thomas Cullinan arriving in the area in 1898 and then finding the world's largest rough diamond, the 3,106 carat Cullinan diamond, in 1905. The diamond was cut into a further nine polished stones - with the two largest stones forming part of the British crown jewels. When the diamond was sent to England there was concern about its transportation and a fake was sent ahead on a steamboat to lure potential robbers. Meanwhile the real diamond was sent in a plain box via parcel post. It's very interesting to imagine the largest diamond ever found being sent via mail.
After the lecture on the history of the mine we all got ourselves equally unflattering hard hats and climbed onto an open 'game viewing' vehicle, and headed into the mine. The tour of the mine is very interesting, with great views of the massive open pit which has a surface area of around 32 hectares. Since mining began in 1903 nearly 150 million carats of diamonds have been found in the mine.
The tour lasts for around one and a half hours and ends at the jewellery store where you can view and buy a variety of diamonds. I'm not much of a diamond fan, but it was still really interesting learning about the history of the mine and to see a working mine in operation.
We then headed back to the train, and climbed on board ready to head out on the winding tracks back to Pretoria. We relaxed and did some light reading as the scenery sped past and disappeared behind us. I can't deny that the rhythmic chuff-chuffing and a busy day exploring Cullinan had their effects on my eyelids, and I might have caught around 40 winks on the trip back.
I'd definitely recommend the steam train trip to Cullinan. It's really a wonderful experience and gives a glimpse back to the days of old, when people were beginning to explore our great country and networks of railways linked small towns like Cullinan to the growing metropolises of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
For more information on booking a ticket for the trip to Cullinan with the Friends of the Rail, you can go to FriendsOfTheRail.com or call 012-767-7913.