Riding the Caboose to Court


Ethne Laurie and Basil Prior

 Riding the Caboose to Court

When Basil Prior was discharged from the Transvaal Horse Artillery in 1945 he got a job as a mining contractor underground on the Globe and Phoenix Mine. He lodged at the mine single quarters. Like many returning ex-servicemen he had no car. They were scarce as hen’s teeth.

Riding the Caboose to Court

Ethne Laurie  lived on the Cam & Motor Mine with her parents.  She was working for Barclays Bank in Gatooma, forty miles away from Que Que. After Basil’s two pm Saturday shift he had just enough time to catch a mixed goods train which left Que Que for Gatooma at 2.30pm.  Mr Bahadur, an Indian shop owner in Que Que, was also courting a girl in Gatooma, and he and Bas would often share a compartment.

Que Que was where the train crews from Salisbury and Bulawayo changed.  Train timetables were rather relaxed, depending on whether the crew wanted to get back to Salisbury early on the Saturday evening or whether they preferred to work overtime.  They had an understanding with the traffic controllers and crossing points were revised accordingly.  This necessitated phoning the Station in Gatooma every time to enquire when the “11 up” was  likely to arrive.  It was invariably late when something was on the go in Gatooma.

Ethne would travel down to Que Que to spend the weekend with her Aunt Iris and Uncle Dave Stewart. She’d catch the train which left Gatooma between 10.15 and 11.00am–the Bank closed early on Saturdays.  The Station staff were very accommodating about these trips.  Sometimes the goods train had a caboose with a couple of compartments attached to the guards-van.  On other occasions there were no compartments, but a helpful guard would allow her to share his coupe (strictly against the rules).  When the guard would stick to the letter of the law, the Station staff in Gatooma would take a garden bench from the platform, attach a return label to it and put it into the goods van for her.  The doors of the van would be left ajar. She would sit on the bench for the duration of the journey.

Soon she got to know the water towers, pick-up sidings and crossing points en route.  When the steam train was approaching the Umseweswe river tower, where it would take on water, the engine driver would give some warning blasts on the hooter.

There was a country hotel on the banks of the river and a waiter would be dispatched on a bicycle immediately with a basket of cold beer for the train crew.  Ethne would see him rushing down the hill.  On one occasion the train, suddenly pulled up on an unscheduled stop.  Peering from the van she could see nothing except a ganger’s cottage on the side of the line.  The driver hopped off to cadge a few from the obliging ganger.

Her stepfather would leave his car at the Station so she could drive herself home to the Cam & Motor Mine.  She’d only get to Gatooma in the early hours of the morning.

Thanks to Nigel Prior for Snippets from his Mother’s Memoirs and the photographs.