Accidental Tourist

Yes, it is possible to be a back-seat driver on a train

Convinced her Cape Town-bound steam train is heading for disaster, passenger Tamlin Wightman takes charge

29 July 2018 - 00:00 By Tamlin Wightman

Was it magical thinking, my believing I could control the course of the train and avert the obvious accident from happening? A saviour complex? Paranoia? I don't know. But I do know that I got us all home, safe and sound. So you can stop with the name calling.
I'm not delusional. I believed it was up to me to tell the train manager what to do to save the 200 people aboard our steam train - which was returning to Cape Town from Elgin - but that doesn't mean I think I know what's best when a soccer team gets stuck in a cave in Thailand.
I just know that operators (train drivers, skippers, fathers ...) like to push limits sometimes just to save costs. Leaving a wonky train carriage stranded on a mountain pass is pricey.
I could almost hear the train driver thinking: "Let's just see how far we can go."
I wasn't concerned that night had fallen and the wintery cold was whistling down from snow-capped peaks, or about sitting in that fine line between the wrong and right side of the tracks. I had a train manager to track down.
He saw my terror and stated his case.
I replied, "But there's a tunnel coming up, if we do ever make it up this hill, and even with the push of the descent, how do you know we won't get stuck in the tunnel?"
"No, no, that's not an option."
"Yes, but what measures do you have in place to prevent it?""The driver is very experienced."
"Should I be getting out of here and taking a taxi home?"
"Thing is, we're in the middle of the mountains. There is no path that leads to or leaves here."
"Ok. But that tunnel ..."
I had introduced myself to the engine driver and stoker at our stop at Elgin. I knew their backstory. I took their photos. Now I had to know how this man planned to get my family and me home on a train that had stalled numerous times on the way up Sir Lowry's Pass.
Ours was one of only two carriages with the lights still on. I glared at the train manager and finally felt as though he had heard me. It was obvious, I believed he had not thought about the problem of the tunnel, or realised how dire our situation was, until I'd told him.I took my seat as three couples behind me spiralled into the sweet oblivion of wine and whiskey. I had their fate in my hands. I had to focus. I thought of happier times, when our fingertips jazzed with the release of caution to the wind.
I recalled Mom sticking her head out the open window next to me and shouting, as soot flew into her hair and face, "This takes me back to my childhood. Put your glasses on; you'll get coal in yer eyes. Harharhar!"
I remember the sultry curve of the train as it wound with the tracks - careering with such life away from Table Mountain, past sea and farmland and into the mountains.
My mind started back down the tunnel and then I heard him: my train manager.
"Don't be alarmed, folks, but Dominique, the locomotive, has failed. It's best we turn back and wait at the station. We have organised coaches to fetch you and return you to town."
Everyone looked to the sky, their hands held up.
Whether or not I played a hand in this rescue mission was beside the point, I told myself. That's the way of magic: no one really knows how or why it happens. No one except the magician. 
• Do you have a funny or quirky story about your travels? Send 600 words to travelmag@sundaytimes.co.za and include a recent photograph of yourself for publication with the column.

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