The fictional hamlet of Aloe Glen sits on the railway line that was built in the 1870s to connect Cape Town to the diamond fields of Kimberley and the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. The greatest challenge to those early engineers was the route over the Hex River Mountains. The gradient was 1 in 40, and the line had to accommodate 100m curves. A standard gauge would have been inadequate so a new Cape gauge (3’ 6’’) was developed and is still used throughout the continent. Even so, such was the steepness of the terrain that special banking engines had to be coupled to the rear of the steam trains to push them up and over the Pass. A 180m tunnel was part of the initial plan. In 1989, a new route was completed which included four tunnels, the longest of which is 13km. This finally eliminated the tortuous grind to the top of the Pass.
The train drew into the station on squealing brakes. Smoke swirled along the platform and I closed my eyes for a moment against the chance of cinders. Julian picked up his bag and climbed aboard. I watched him find a seat by a window. He touched a hand to his lips and mouthed something. The conductor shouted and waved his flag. The engine exhaled steam and the train began to move. He was gone. The platform emptied. I watched until the rear light disappeared into the veld, and turned away.