Their love never ran out of steam


Douglas No 3, fondly known as Old Tokkie, is one of two steam engines at the entrance to Intaka Island Eco-Centre at Century City. But before this grand old dame took up residence here, she lived a full life in a mining town where she was one half of a profound love story.

The other half was Oom Jim van Rensburg, an engine driver at the Douglas Colliery near Emahlahleni (Witbank), in Mpumalanga.

Oom Jim started working at the colliery in 1958. At the time, the colliery had three steam locomotives – two large ones to haul coal from the mine to the nearest railway station at Vandyksdrift and a small Douglas No 3 engine to help shunt the trucks, and occasionally, to help nudge the larger engines if they were battling to haul coal trucks over the hill, said Llewellyn Janse van Rensburg, the third of Oom Jim’s four sons.

He says the small engine was lovingly called Tokkolos after the small Zulu mythical figure, Tokoloshe, but to Oom Jim she was just Old Tokkie.

“Oom Jim loved steam engines. He used to joke that when he went for blood tests, the doctor had to squirt out the first 10ml, as it was just steam.”

Llewellyn said when his dad worked the night shift, they would listen for the sound of the steam engine coming back from the station.

“My dad would then use the steam engine’s whistle to say to us ‘I love you’ by giving his signature whistle: one long whistle followed by three short ones – tuuuuuuut, tu-tu-tut, repeated a few times. I can still hear it.”

Shortly before Oom Jim retired in 1986, the mine decided to retire Tokkolos, by placing it on display in front of the mine’s offices.

“It was my dad’s honour to extinguish the last fire in her belly, and fasten the hand brake for the last time.”

In a letter Oom Jim wrote in 1991 to Peter Holz, the then editor of Mining World, he spoke of his affection for Old Tokkie.

“I love Old Tokkie… If she could talk, she would say: ‘I love Oom Jim also because he always cleaned me till I looked like a lovely lady with a beautiful dress and shoes’.”

“I always used to talk to Old Tokkolos and said if you pull this load for me nicely, I’ll take you to the drive-in on Friday night. She always obliged.

“Whenever I go to Douglas, I always go to see her and climb into the cab, work the controls and do a little bit of dusting off for her and believe me when I leave, my eyes are wet…”

Llewellyn said his dad’s wishes were to be buried next to Old Tokkie.

“Unfortunately, the mining company decided to use open cast mining on the area where I grew up, including Tokkolos’s prime position in front of the mine’s offices. Tokkolos was removed, and we had no idea what happened to her.”

Oom Jim died on September 14, 1998, and was buried in Witbank’s cemetery.

“The only thing we could do to honour his love for steam engines was to put a headstone on his grave in the form of a steam engine’s chimney and steam dome.”

He said they had always wondered what had happened to old Tokkolos.

“Then, last year, I happened to watch Kwêla on DSTV with my wife, and there was a glimpse of old Tokkolos standing in Century City. I quickly rewound the decoder to see if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

“I was sure it was old Tokkolos. After a bit of searching on the internet, I came to a site that confirmed that this was indeed Old Tokkolos.”

Two weeks ago Llewellyn and his younger brother, Lionel, together with their wives and children, travelled to Cape Town to visit Old Tokkie at Intaka.

“It was very special, and it is wonderful to know that Old Tokkie, the proud old lady, finally has a special spot where she can show visitors a glimpse into the very special role that steam engines played in our history. Oom Jim would have been very proud,” he said.