"TUNNEL VISION" - WAAINEK TUNNEL, GRAHAMSTOWN

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John C McConnachie
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"TUNNEL VISION" - WAAINEK TUNNEL, GRAHAMSTOWN

Post by John C McConnachie »

It’s one of the earliest railway tunnels in South Africa lying just west of Grahamstown on the now disused Alicedale line.

It splices through a not very prominent hill adjacent to the so-called “Highlands Road” at a spot known as Waainek at the top of the Howieson’s Poort Pass on the N2 approximately 5 kilometres outside Grahamstown on the way to or from Port Elizabeth.

The tunnel is about 250m in length with gentle cuttings at either end and each arch-shaped entrance is adorned by an impressive stone portico.

Entering the tunnel on foot from the Grahamstown side, as one can now safely do without the danger of being met by a train, is like entering a cavern. Water drips down from the opening forming a clear pool of water around the rails at one’s feet making it quite slippery underfoot and the brick-lined entrance is covered in lichen.

Beyond the entrance, the first 50m or so is cut through jagged rock which envelopes one from all sides and above. Stepping from one railway sleeper to the next, darkness surrounds one but, looking back, a sharp glare of light floods in from outside and looking down the tracks to the view beyond is the backdrop of houses on the far hills of distant Grahamstown.

At the far-end of the tunnel, the entrance from the Highlands side is also brightly lit so one is at all times reassuringly in contact with the world outside.

Suddenly, after about 50m there is a step in the walls of the tunnel which is then lined in dressed stone except for about 20 courses of brick at the crown of the tunnel, the centre rows of which are soot-covered.

That lasts for about 10m before the dressed-stone is terminated at a little above head-height, above which it is all brick for a distance of about 90m in 5m sections with one section of about 9m.

At this point the glare from the Highlands side is quite strong and one only picks up the detail of one’s surroundings by shielding one’s eyes.

It’s also necessary to see where you’re putting your feet.

To left and right of the railway line is a furrow at the foot of each wall of the tunnel in which one can occasionally see broken bottles, old cooldrink or beercans and empty cigarette boxes thrown from trains when the line was still operational. Some are obviously quite recent (the line was still operating very marginally until about two years ago when the service between Alicedale and Grahamstown was terminated), others are of much older origin.

Approximately 80m from the Highlands end of the tunnel one comes across an arch-shaped doorway on one’s left-hand side carefully bordered in dressed-stone. It seems to lead into a passage and there’s no way of knowing how far the passage extends except by entering the doorway with one’s arm extended in front of one. In fact it only extends about an arm’s length, just deep enough for a person to safely remove themselves out of the path of any oncoming train.

It was windy on the last occasion I explored the tunnel and at times the roar of the rushing wind at either end gave one the sensation that a train was entering from behind or up ahead. The sound must have been overpowering in the days when steam engines regularly traversed the tunnel. Not to mention effect of the smoke and fumes.

I cowered inside the recess, capturing the sensation.

It’s with a sense of relief that one emerges at the far side, back into the bright light of day with the parallel railway tracks stretching ahead, enjoying the freedom of the picturesque countryside and the hills which the line traverses.

I clambered up to and onto the top of the stone entrance portico, not unlike the gateway of an ancient fort.

In the solitude one could almost hear the ring of the stonemason’s tools and the echoes of conversation rebounding off the opposite walls of the cleft leading to the tunnel’s entrance.

I looked in vain for some signature left by the stonemason in the expertly shaped rock but not even a date was to be found.

My research, however, tells me that the tunnel was the work of George Pauling in 1875. He completed an apprenticeship in railway construction in England before joining a member of his family who was working on railway construction at the Cape.

The development of railways in South Africa was still in its infancy and Pauling, who had experience of tunnel-building during his apprenticeship, was fortunate to win the contract for the Waainek Tunnel at Grahamstown, the first of the two tunnels he built on the line.

A larger-than-life character, Pauling also won the contract to construct the Grahamstown-Port Alfred line and went on to become involved in many projects in Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. His experiences are documented in his fascinating auto-biography, “Chronicles of a Contractor”.

The second of Pauling’s tunnels is about 10 kilometres further along the line towards Alicedale. It’s less than half the length of the Waainek Tunnel but is built on the curve as the line skirts the top of a deep, wooded valley before it reaches the Atherstone siding.

The two tunnels are a monument to the engineering expertise of a man who established himself as one of the foremost railway engineers of his day.

JOHN McCONNACHIE
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John Ashworth
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Re: "TUNNEL VISION" - WAAINEK TUNNEL, GRAHAMSTOWN

Post by John Ashworth »

Welcome to the FOTR Forum, John, and thanks for a very interesting post.
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Derek Walker
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Re: "TUNNEL VISION" - WAAINEK TUNNEL, GRAHAMSTOWN

Post by Derek Walker »

I second that.... very atmospheric, but at the same time very sad.
Not quite on the rails.
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Chris Janisch
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Re: "TUNNEL VISION" - WAAINEK TUNNEL, GRAHAMSTOWN

Post by Chris Janisch »

Most interesting. I had the dubious privilege of doing a footplate on 19D 2753 during the last week of steam on the line, and will never forget that tunnel. Just before entering we all grabbed wet cloths and crouched down while the loco hammered uphill, then plunged deep into the dark recesses. It seemed to go on forever and I had to feel for the crew who did this every day! It was a major relief to emerge at the other end- but that was one experience never to be repeated.
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Nathan Berelowitz
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Re: "TUNNEL VISION" - WAAINEK TUNNEL, GRAHAMSTOWN

Post by Nathan Berelowitz »

Really nice read this. Thanks a lot. I felt I was walking through there. Old tunnels have a mysterious air about them.
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Steve Appleton
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Re: "TUNNEL VISION" - WAAINEK TUNNEL, GRAHAMSTOWN

Post by Steve Appleton »

What an evocative report, John. Reading it feels like being there which gave me the shivers too! Thanks for contributing this fabulous piece to the FOTR forum.
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Melvin Campbell
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Re: "TUNNEL VISION" - WAAINEK TUNNEL, GRAHAMSTOWN

Post by Melvin Campbell »

John C McConnachie wrote:It’s one of the earliest railway tunnels in South Africa lying just west of Grahamstown on the now disused Alicedale line.


To left and right of the railway line is a furrow at the foot of each wall of the tunnel in which one can occasionally see broken bottles, old cooldrink or beercans and empty
e cigarette boxes thrown from trains when the line was still operational. Some are obviously quite recent (the line was still operating very marginally until about two years ago when the service between Alicedale and Grahamstown was terminated), others are of much older origin.

Approximately 80m from the Highlands end of the tunnel one comes across an arch-shaped doorway on one’s left-hand side carefully bordered in dressed-stone. It seems to lead into a passage and there’s no way of knowing how far the passage extends except by entering the doorway with one’s arm extended in front of one. In fact it only extends about an arm’s length, just deep enough for a person to safely remove themselves out of the path of any oncoming train.

It was windy on the last occasion I explored the tunnel and at times the roar of the rushing wind at either end gave one the sensation that a train was entering from behind or up ahead. The sound must have been overpowering in the days when steam engines regularly traversed the tunnel. Not to mention effect of the smoke and fumes.
JOHN McCONNACHIE
Thanks for sharing your experience. It's really funny that, you found empty eig boxs :P
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