The Outeniqua Power Van
Until my recent visit to George on the stunning Garden Route, I'd never even heard of a Power Van. We were on a weekend away at the fabulous Fancourt Hotel a few weeks ago and my ever-resourceful sister-in-law had booked us for a family jaunt on this fascinating little train that starts at the Transport and Rail Museum and journeys all the way up the Outeniqua Mountains to the top of the Montagu Pass.
The Power Van, a transport throwback to another era that is described as a type of motorized train trolley or rail bus, has been in existence since 1999 and runs six days a week, come rain or shine – in fact I‘ve heard it’s particularly spectacular doing the trip in rainy weather or just after it has rained. The decision to go or not in drizzly conditions is given to passengers prior to departure on the day. One just never knows how a day will turn out as George, like the Mother City, can move through four seasons in 24 hours. The Power Van is an outstanding attribute to George, providing a unique tourism option for locals and visitors from afar that’s different from the usual Garden Route attractions. Many people I’ve spoken to since my experience have never heard of the Power Van so I hope that this article helps get the word out about this amazing ‘thing to do’ in one of the most scenically beautiful parts of the Western Cape.
The meeting point for Power Van passengers is at the station that’s inside the Rail and Transport Museum in Mission Street. Right from the start, you feel like you’re stepping into a bygone era when you purchase your tickets from the friendly staff inside an old railway car. There are only two power vans, together seating up to 27 people, so it’s a smaller crowd of people travelling which tends to make it more pleasant – big crowds just aren’t my thing. Going up the mountain you face one way and coming back down, the seats are flipped over so you get a different perspective of the surroundings and a chance to be in or near the front. Annabelle Greenwood, one of the knowledgeable Guides, leads the Power Van tour and throughout the three hour trip, she gives a great deal of fascinating information about everything to do with the area as the van trundles through forests, with views of the four passes, water falls and as it travels through six tunnels, driven by the ever capable Johann Boshoff. The latter are especially exciting for kids and even for big people if I’m to be totally honest-that thrill never really leaves one. The vegetation on either side of the track is lush, with many varieties of proteas, ferns, trees and fynbos.
On the way back down, there is a half hour stop at a picnic site (so don’t forget to pack a snack) that was formerly a watering point for steam trains – the old thatch building is still standing on the hill. The panoramic views of the valley and town below from this spot are incredible. At times, as you look below, the train travels parallel to the historic 10km Montagu Pass that was built in 1844. It was declared a National Monument in 1972 and is remains open to traffic.
Outeniqua means "man laden with honey" in Khoi. Originally the slopes of the emerald-green mountains were covered with heather and swarming with bees, according to early travellers. The highest peak in the Outeniquas is Cradock Peak (1578 m) and the prominent George Peak is 1337 metres high. The building of the railway line over the Outeniqua Mountains, between George and Oudtshoorn, began in 1908. The track was blasted out of the rock, and seven tunnels were excavated. The line was completed in 1913 and the official opening ceremony was conducted by Sir David de Villiers Graaff. The line continues from Oudtshoorn to Port Elizabeth.
Exploring the Transport and Railway Museum after the Power Van has returned to base is a must – it’s a real blast from the past. Most of us still remember the days of the steam locomotives and at this museum there are thirteen of them including carriages from a bygone era, such as a coach from the Royal Train of 1947 and Paul Kruger’s private saloon cars. The majestic Outeniqua Choo Tjoe is there in all it's glory- it used to offer passengers a picturesque and scenic 52 kilometre journey experiencing the Garden Route with spectacular views of the Indian Ocean. Sadly the line was rendered unstable in 2006 after damaging floods.
A stunning collection of classic and vintage cars, buses, fire engines and trucks kept my husband and sons busy for ages. A photographic exhibition displays stunning photos of South African steam. There’s also train travel poetry and displays of crockery and cutlery previously used on main line trains and station restaurants. Don't miss the model railway room that is open on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. People can also view the model train setup through large display windows and slipping R5 into the slot machine sets the tiny trains running along the track.
The Power Van operates from Monday to Saturday and departure times are variable upon demand. There are up to three trips a day at certain times of the year and it’s best to call for more info and to book a few days ahead. The trip costs R120 for adults and R100 for children (age 3 to 15 years).
The Transport and Rail Museum is open on different days and times (excluding Sundays), depending on the season so visit the website for more details. The entrance fee is R 20.00 for adults or R10 for children under 12 yrs and those under 6 yrs enter free of charge. If you are booked to go on the Power Van the museum visit is included in the price.
Accommodation in George: Fancourt Hotel – the Winter Special is currently on offer www.fancourt.co.za or 044 804 0010 for enquiries
George Tourism: Landline: +27 44 801 8239 / www.georgetourism.org.za
Outeniqua Power Van: 082 490 5627 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Outeniqua Rail and Transport Museum: http://www.outeniquachootjoe.co.za/museum.htm
Travel time by car from Cape Town to George: 4 hours
Best time to take a Power Van trip: anytime