Category Archives: South Africa

The Stinkwood Railway

The featured image above shows a  ‘Coffee Pot’ at work on the Stinkwood Line. Scratchboard/ Scraperboard Art by Solly Gutman, ‘The Colour of Black and White.’ [20]

I have been reading through old copies of the Railway Magazine from 1951. The 600th Edition of the Magazine was published in April 1951. A fascinating 2ft narrow gauge railway in South Africa is covered by a short article in the magazine and I have been doing a little research into the line.

The Railway Magazine now maintains an Archive of its past editions. Membership can be purchased as an addition to the annual subscription to the magazine itself. The article about the Stinkwood Railway is available through that archive.  [1]o

The line ran into the forest from the town of Knysna on the South Coast in the area known today as ‘The Garden Route’. It was used to bring felled Stinkwood timber to the port at Knysna.The line between George and Knysna was until 2009 the last remaining steam hauled mainline service in South Africa. There are renewed hopes that the service will open again provided major repairs are completed on the route. That line is shown schematically by the line of grey diamonds on the pictorial map above. [2] And can be seen on the Google Earth Satellite image below. This line was built some 20 years after the 2ft-gauge line into the forest.The railway from George approaches Knysna across the river estuary.The construction of the estuary bridge in the late 1920s. [21]The construction of the estuary bridge in the late 1920s. [23]Looking West along the river bank towards the estuary bridge. The image comes from Google Street view.Looking East towards the terminus in Knysna.The station approach.The station buildings.The station site viewed across the turntable from Waterfront Drive.Another view from Waterfront Drive which shows the station buildings and watertank.The line to the East of the railway station. The picture is taken on Gray Street looking East.Further East looking South across the lines from Waterfront Drive.Even further East, this time looking East from Waterfront Drive.Looking back to the West from Long Street.Looking East from the same point on Long Street. Long Street is the extension of the causeway from Thesen Island into Knysna and was the route of the old 2ft gauge line from Thesen Wharf to Knysna Station. 

The Stinkwood Railway, as the line is named in the Railway Magazine article, [1] was affectionately known locally as the Knysna ‘Coffee Pot’. It was owned and operated by the South Western Railway Co. Ltd and built over a period of three years from 1904 to 1907. [3] It ran from the pier-head in Knysna to Diepwalle in the forest and served for 42 years until its final closure on 30th April 1949. The story of the line as recorded locally is quite different from that in the introduction to the Railway Magazine article which suggests that the line was built around 1920 or thereabouts. One wonders whether R.A. Butler was misled.

The ‘Coffee Pot’ was also the nickname given to the locomotives with their cone-shaped chimneys that ran along the line. The pier-head was actually a government wharf (commonly known as Thesen’s Jetty) on Thesen Island. The line ran through the present-day suburbs of Costa Sarda and Old Place (alongside the Knysna Lagoon) and up to Brackenhill and Deep Walls (Diepwalle) in the Knysna forests. [4] It connected the port of Knysna with sawmills in the Tsitsikamma Forest and had a length of 31 kilometres. [5]

The Cape Colonial Government promulgated an act: the South Western Railway Co. Ltd. Act. (Act No. 16 of 1904), which provided a subsidy of £800 per mile for the construction, and stipulated various conditions. These included the gauge (2 feet or 600 millimetres), and that the quality of the construction materials had to be equal to that of the Government’s own narrow gauge lines. [4].

The company’s directors included local businessmen – these included the saw millers C.W. Thesen (who served as its chairperson for a thirty-five years) and George Parkes. The directors realised that ox-wagons (and Parke’s own steam-driven tractor  – which tended to get stuck in the mud on rainy days) – couldn’t meet the demand for timber and that a railway was required. [4] The Wikipedia article on the line says: “In the late 19th Century, during the Second Boer War the timber transport with the help of mules and oxen reached its capacity limit, as many mules and their drivers had been drafted into military service. The 1898 replacing attempt using a steam tractor failed because the machine sank in the muddy roads. For this reason it was decided to build a railway.” [5]

The railway was built between 1904 and 1907 by Carl Westveldt, a Swede, and on its completion, when Westveldt turned down the offer of the post, Mr H. Noren was appointed General Manager. [3][6] It was owned by local businessmen, Messrs. Thesen, Parkes (both named above), Templeman, Morgan, Noble, and others. [4] The railway cost £49 858 : 30% less than the estimate. That cost included compensation for land. All the materials were imported. “The financial position of the Company appeared to be secure enough : in 1913 the [Union] Government [1910] bought over £20 000 worth of the 5% debenture shares, in order to obtain controlling interest in the line. This 73% interest was the source of a certain amount of discontent at later dates, for the affairs of the Railways slowly slid onto the downgrade.”[16][17: p155]

Three Orenstein & Köppel side-tank locomotives (0-4-0T, 0-6-0T and 0-8-0T) providing the motive power. A fourth, British-built model was added in 1930. [4]

The 2ft. narrow gauge railway line transported timber (mostly Stinkwood [7] and Yellowwood [10]) from Diepwalle to Knysna for milling and shipment. It ran three times a week 22 miles (31 kilometres) into the forest, to Diepwalle and back. Spark arrestors were fitted on the engine to prevent forest fires and gave the engines their “coffee pot” look. They were fat, bulbous fittings over their funnels, hence the name. There were 33 trucks designed to carry up to 70 tons of logs.

In Knysna, the line linked Parkes’ Mill to Thesen’s the jetty. There were three stops in the forest, Bracken Hill, Parkes Station and Diepwalle (Deep Wall). The Knysna station was a little corrugated iron building with a pitched roof and lean-to’s on either side lined with wood on the inside. [4]

“The railway also afforded a wonderful means of entertaining visitors and for those who grew up in Knysna, the “Coffee Pot” was part of the holiday fun. Passengers were treated to very leisurely journeys – the train rarely exceeded 6 miles an hour, and beauty spots would be pointed out to the passengers along the way.” [4] If the weather was good, the passengers would sit on benches and chairs set up on an open carriage. The route ran from Knysna to Thesen’s Shop and Sawmill at Brackenhil; then to Parkes Station at Veldman’s Pad (where Mrs. Perks, the ‘Forest Fairy,’ ran a little trading store), and finally to J.H. Templeman’s sawmill at Templeman Station, Diepwalle. The Coffee Pot transported about 28,000 tons of timber a year, and its rolling stock covered about 349,400 miles in total – all without a single serious accident. [26]

The following comments in italics together with the pictures included within the text are taken from notes researched and compiled by Mrs Margaret Parkes & Mrs. V.R. Williams on “South Western Railway Co. Ltd.” on the website [6] The smaller photographs alongside the text in italics are courtesy of Millwood House Museum, Knysna, SANParks, Department of Forestry.

By 1911, the running costs of the railway were a constant worry to the Directors of the Company. There was a general depression in the timber industry, and the distance and costs of transport inhibited local prosperity. But there was a sudden wave of optimism with the discovery of deposits of lignite. The Knysna Lignite Syndicate was formed and hoped to be able to supply locally mined “brown coal” to fire the boilers of the ‘Coffee Pot’ engines. Hopes were high, but sadly, the quantity or quality was inadequate, and by mid-1911 the whole venture fell away.

In May 1916, Knysna was flooded after torrential rains. The flood not only washed away the brand-new concrete bridge over the Knysna river but also some of the railway bridges in the forest. In some places, tons of earth were washed away. Filling and repairs were started immediately and a mere month later, when the first train was again able to run to Diepwalle, approximately 16,368 tons of material had been excavated and deposited to replace what had been washed away.

The railway had to be put out of action during repairs which meant a further loss of revenue. It was a bad year for the Company with World War I and the loss of trade due to the reduction in the number of visiting ships at the port. Meanwhile maintenance and general repairs had to continue to keep the railway line in good order.

At last, in 1919, the Company made a profit! But unfortunately, in that same year the Government moved the sleeper factory from Knysna to Mossel Bay. This was a real blow as the railway would be used even less, with many a repercussion to the fragile economy of the town.

Throughout the 1920s’ and 30s’ maintenance costs and taxation took their toll and soon another engine had to be bought. The S.A.R. provided a 2nd-hand engine no longer required on the Umzinto line. The engine was in good condition and gave many years of service.

But in 1927 perhaps the most serious blow which fell was when the S.A.R. finally connected Knysna with George by the standard 3 ft.6 ins. gauge line and any hopes that they would eventually take over the forest railway were dashed as all narrow gauge lines were considered to be obsolete. Revenues from the wharf had also decreased dramatically as it became so much cheaper to bring goods to Knysna by train than by sea and shipping activities at the wharf died down with fewer ships coming into port.

Financial concerns over the company had still not abated.In 1944 a Committee from the S.A.R. & H. came to Knysna to examine and report on the state of the “Coffee Pot” railway with a view to closing it down. Corrosion was very bad on the line and “broken rails” were likely to become a major problem, and it had already been stated the line would carry no more passengers. Although the S.A.R. & H. recommended closing down the railway due to the deterioration of the line, they were forced to keep it going at least temporarily, because of the shortage of motor transport caused by World War II. It was then decided to have the line re-conditioned with old rails from South West Africa.

In 1946 the re-laying of the track was completed with the second-hand rails and pronounced good for another 20 years. It was a difficult task and took over a year to complete. A modest tribute remains however, in the foot or two of rail set in the pavement on the right hand side of Long Street diagonally opposite Thesen House. But safer rails were not the answer to the problems of the railway. After the end of the war it was used less and less, as it became uneconomical to rail timber and the forestries, merchants and ship owners used private lorries instead. This meant another drop in the Company’s earnings.

The historic decision was taken on 7 November 1947 to liquidate the South Western Railway Company and close down the railway by S.A.R. & H., and was sold to a sugar mill in Natal. The official closing date was fixed for 30 April 1949, and it was Tom Botha who drove the last train on the line. It was a sad day for the people of Knysna to have to bid farewell forever to their unique and beloved little “Coffee Pot” railway and Knysna certainly lost one of its quaint old characters. [6]The fate of the locomotives from the Knysna ‘Coffee Pot’ Line. [22]

The Route of the Line

The Knysna terminus of the line was located on Thesen Island. Thesen Wharf was, at the time of the construction of the railway in the early 1900s, a timber structure which was already showing its age. In 1910, the wharf came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Railways and Harbours. From 1911, the South Western Railway, under agreement with the new administration, took on responsibility for handling all the landing and shipping of the cargo on the wharf. [14]

In 1911, the construction of a concrete wharf (popularly known as Thesen Jetty) was authorised
to replace the worm-eaten wooden one. According to Parkes [15, p132] only three
reinforced concrete wharfs were built in South Africa, the first being at Robben Island, the
“White Jetty” at Mossel Bay and the Knysna wharf. She maintains that the Knysna wharf is
the only one of this type remaining on the continent (Parkes [15], p132).

Thesen Island only started being industrialised in the 1920’s with the re-erection of the sawmill of Thesen & Co which was originally situated at Brackenhill. Among the Thesen papers at the Cape Archives is a letter referring to the power station which generated 13300 KW of power per day for the use of the Industry as well as an additional 23 000 KW per day which supplied the municipality of Knysna. According to M. Parkes [15, p132] at first this was not located on the island but situated in premises next to the Thesen and Company Offices in Knysna. [14]

By 1933, the industrialisation of the island was well underway. The “sawtooth” building housing
the hard wood mill was complete along with a small power station, stores, some residential
structures, workshops and a small pole yard. The wharf is just on the right-hand edge of the picture and the 2ft narrow gauge railway enters centre-left and curves down to the wharf. [14]The much later picture above was taken in 1947 and shows the ongoing industrialisation of Thesen Island. The concrete wharf features strongly in the bottom right of the photograph. The railway feeding the wharf is evident once again entering the image centre-left. [14]

This final monochrome image (adjacent) shows the island later still in its development. The year is 1977 and although the railway is now long-gone its route is still evident and used as an access road. [14]

As we have seen above, the 2ft- gauge line commenced at the wharf and served Thesen’s plant on Thesen Island before crossing the causeway to the mainland.

The adjacent Google Earth satellite image shows the remaining tracks in the wharf road surface. These have been retained into the 21st century as evidence of the existence of the old railway. The Boat-shed visible in the monchrome photo above shows up clearly on this satellite image, right of centre at the top of the picture.

The next image shows those same lines in 2005. They are the last remnant of the 2ft gauge line in the town of Knysna. [6]

In the early 1980s Barlows, one of South Africa’s industrial conglomerates, purchased Thesen Island and its timber treatment plant from Thesen and Company. Barlows soon realized that the timber processing activities could not be continued on this island located in the midst of such a scenic and eco-sensitive lagoon. At the same time there was growing community concern about the environmental and industrial pollution caused by the factory’s activities. As a result the plant’s doors were finally closed. In the ensuing years the abandoned derelict buildings, machinery and waste dumps increasingly turned into an eyesore and a health hazard.

In 1991 Dr. Chris Mulder, a South African environmental engineer who received his doctorate in environmental design in Houston, USA, proposed a complete redevelopment of the island into a unique residential marina. As the Knysna River estuary is one of the most sensitive ecosystems in the country and a major tourism attraction, the development of Thesen Islands called for extremely careful and sensitive planning covering ecological, architectural, engineering, aesthetic, social and cultural criteria. After eight years of research and planning by Dr. Mulder and his team, approval was finally granted in December 1998 – but with over one hundred strict and complex conditions. In all, ten years passed from initial concept to final approval, involving twenty-five alterations to the master plan! [19] The site of the works, and indeed all of the Island, is now part of a luxury villa complex based around a series of canals.The wharf on Thesen Island. [18]

The causeway north from Thesen Island to the mainland appears in the adjacent Google Maps excerpt. At the half-point along its length there is, today a raised section (shown below) which allows access by boats and which also allows for tidal flows. There was a bridge at this location in the past, but at the time of the railway the causeway level was maintained across the structure.The old trains used to trundle along what is now Long Street north of the causeway and crossed Waterfront Drive before drifting away to follow the line of Mortimer Street and St. George’s Street to reach the location of the old Knysna Station. It appears that the station was located close to the timber merchants visible in the picture taken from Mortimer Street looking towards St. George’s Street below.The image above is a Google Streetview picture taken from Mortimer Street looking North.

The adjacent schematic map highlights the location of the station building. It suggests that it was on the West side of St. George’s Street just to the north of the timber merchants. [2]

The next few pictures show the Knysna Railway Station which was a corrugated iron structure on relatively open ground on what was then the north side of the town of Knysna.

Pictures of Knysna Railway Station on the 2ft gauge line. These were found on the website of the Knysna Museum. [23]

The adjacent sketch map suggests that, from Knysna Station, the line turned East to head towards Park Station. [6] The validity of the location on this map is suspect. The only plan of the route that I have been able to find in published material is that below which is superimposed on a Google Earth satellite image. It places Brackenhill on the N2 road far to the south of the location on the sketch map. The light blue line was known locally as ‘The Siding’. The image above can be found in the archives of as RHG_Bulletin No.129 Part 2. [16] “There was indeed a branch line in the forests which was part of the SWR’s original track construction. This branch line of approximately two kilometres ran in an extended loop via a cutting (±5m at its deepest) and a wooden bridge from Brackenhill station to the Thesen saw-mill – at the western end of the Brackenhill village – and  Thesen’s large general dealer’s store which was part of the village.” [16]

The RHG Bulletin indicates that most of the route of the Knysna Forest Railway is now on private land. I have used the image above as a reference point to follow the route of the old railway both to the West towards Knysna and to the North towards Diepwalle. The first satellite image below shows the length of the route which as of 4th April 2019 I have not been able to identify.Knysna Forest Railway Station is approximately at the location shown by the green arrow on the left of this image. Thesen Island and its causeway are visible to the south of that location. The red arrow shows the most westerly point of the Knysna Forest Railway that I have been able to identify from satellite images. The images below show the route from that point East at a larger scale.A train takes its ease at the end of the branch-line next to the sawmill. [16]Thesen’s sawmill at Brackenhills. [27]

The adjacent satellite image takes the extrapolation as far Northeast as it will go without being in any way forced.

From the place known as ‘The Siding’, “the main line continued to
Veldmanspad (see the next satellite image below) ….. At the siding there was a single switch point which could divert the train along a branch line which, because of the topography, ran in a wide loop to Brackenhill where Thesen & Co. owned ……… a General Dealer’s store which by contemporary standards was a fairly large
country store.” [16]

The line from Brakenhills to Veldmanspad is not easily visible on Google Earth and it runs far from any highway. The possible route of the line is shown dotted on the Google Earth Satellite images below.The alignment above seems likely from what can be picked out from Google Earth. North of the top edge of this satellite image it is very difficult to identify any particular route for the line until close to Veldmanspad Farm. The route shown below is however speculative. At Veldmanspad, Route 1 follows the line of the modern road. Route 2 seems less likely, but the location at which it leave the R339 is shown in the photograph below.The point where the possible alignment of the old railway leaves the line of the modern gravel road, the R339. The satellite images below assume that the route of the old railway line followed the modern gravel road.At the top of the satellite immediately above the line reached Templeman Station. The location is set aside for a short hike by the forestry authorities. The station served Templeman’s Mill. Both the adjacent picture and the one below show parts of the information boards at the site of the Station

I have been unable to establish beyond doubt the route of the line travelling on to Diepwalle. It seems to me that the most likely route is one which follows the road through the forest.

I hope to continue research on this line to confirm the route taken between Brackenhill and Diepwalle. Please, therefore treat the notes about the remaining length of the route with a degree of caution. …..

Given the layout of the land, it seems highly likely that the old railway followed the shoulder of the modern gravel road as shown on the adjacent satellite image. Towards the top of the image there a road junction. Turning left leads the explorer to the site of a large and old indigenous tree, the “Big Tree.” Heading straight-on keeps to the main gravel road. Bearing right takes on along what appears to be the old track-bed of the railway into Diepwalle.

The Google Streetview picture below shows the junction.The route from here travelled approximately northwards and the curved a little towards the East as it entered Diepwalle.

The satellite image below shows the whole Diepwalle site. The railway terminated here. Sadly, I have so far been unable to determine the layout of the railway at Diepwalle.

The two images above are display boards at Diepwalle. [28]Elephant Walks are provided from Diepwalle today. [29]

The weekday schedule  was for the train to depart Knysna at 8.30am and to visit Brackenhill where it would arrive at about 11.00am and leave ten minutes later, arriving at Diepwalle at about 1.00 pm. The locomotive would then return via Brackenhill, to Knysna by about 5.00 pm. [16][24][25]




The South Western Railways ex Natal Government 2 foot Railway narrow gauge 4-6-2T – SAR class NG.3 No.4 – is seen here with a load of timber from the Knysna Forest. The image comes from the South Western Railway Co. Ltd. web-page and it is used there with permission from the Transnet Heritage Foundation. Neg. No. 049638. [6]


  1. R.A. Butler; The Stinkwood railway; The Railway Magazine No. 600, April 1951, p249-250, p271.
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  7. Stinkwood: Stinkwood (Ocotea bullata – in South Africa Stinkhout) is the common name for a number of trees or shrubs which have wood with an unpleasant odour. [8] Stinkwood occurs from the Cape Peninsula to the Eastern Transvaal, but is absent in the Eastern Cape. It is a Protected Species, and is listed as Endangered in the South African Red List. Stinkwood is considered one of the most highly prized timbers in the world. The Tree is a medium to large evergreen tree, and can grow up to 30m in height. The bark is grey and mottled with white and orange circular patches, becoming rough and scaly. It has horizontal ridges and corky spots when young, but becomes flaky and dark grey-brown with age. The tree usually has a single stem, but sometimes shoots develop from the base of the stem or from an old stem, and these may grow into trees. The bark is greatly sought after for use in traditional medicine. The simple, alternate, leathery leaves are large and a glossy dark green with wavy, entire margins, with paler green below. They have conspicuous “bubbles” (bullae) in the axils of the lower lateral veins. This makes it very easy to identify the tree. Young leaves and leaf stalks can be quite red. Flowers are male, female or hermaphrodite. The small, yellowish-green or creamy flowers are in loose clusters in the axils of the leaf stalks near the tips of the branches. December – February. The fruit resembles an acorn. It is yellowish green to purple when ripe, with a large soft seed – about 20mm long. March – June.  [9]
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  10. Yellowwood: Yellowwood is distributed across East and South Africa (Podocarpus latifolius, family Podocapaceae [11][13]), it is an easily worked wood which makes little demands on tooling. Trees are slow -growing and can easily reach 600 years of age. [12] Timber has a fine texture and straight grain. Colour is yellow and turns a rich ochre when finished. [13]
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  15. Margaret Parkes & V.M. Williams; Knysna, the forgotten port: The maritime story; EMU Publishers,1988, 2004.
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  17. Sidney Moir; 24 Inches Apart; Janus Publishing. Second Edition Revised. 1981, (originally published in 1961).
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