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A shunter remembers his whaling days

By Barry Livesey - january 2009

Like most young men leaving school in the 1970s, I had a gap of 6 months before going to the Army (July intake) so I approached the SAR&H and was given a temp job working the Steam trains in Durban.

One month was spent hauling the flatbeds for the Whaling Station .This was Jan/Feb  of 1975. My typical day would be as follows:-

Mom would wake me at 03h00. Dressed in dungarees and with my food “trommel” head down Marriott Road on my Yamaha Y50 to the Point Ferry.

Parking the bike next to the Clerk Of Works hut ,I would catch the ferry across to West’s (the station nearest to the Whale Slip Yards)

From 04h00 – 05h00 my task was to drop the firebox on the steam engine, fill up with water ,restart the fire and generally polish every conceivable object on the loco that could be polished.

At around 05h00 my boss (the Steam Engine Driver) would arrive via the goods train from Fynnlands and I would make his morning coffee before heading onto the shunt line when the Steam had built up .

This was fantastic as we always caught the early morning summer sunrise as we chugged around the bend towards the Whaling Station so we could reverse the flat beds to the slip-ways.

The night fisherman who were after the big sharks would be returning from the south pier by this time and the size of some of their catches were awesome. There was this chap called ”Mr Jacobs” who always seemed to catch the largest of the night.

Once the flatbeds where in position ,the Whaling crew would hook up and winch the whales up the slipway, at all times “flaying” the carcasses with long flay rods to,I assume, reduce the water content?

Sharks would be milling around in their droves and follow the whale carcass up the ramp whilst tearing pieces off. On on one occasion, due to excessive blubber/slime on the quay, one of the workman fell in and fortunately grabbed onto the sharp end of the knives keld out to him by colleagues and was dragged out of the water. He sustained some severe cuts to his arms and hands but no shark bites, and missed work for quite some time.

I recall “selling” scraped-off shark skin in cold drink cans (after cutting the lids off) to the local fishermen to catch the big Grunter hanging around the piers. In return, I was given fresh fish which I cooked up on my fire spade,with onions/tomatoes and spices, in the loco's furnace, and which I served to my driver and I (and the flayers who would be hanging around at meal time).

The work involved shunting the flatbeds to the whaling station around the corner ,off-loading the whales,cleaning /washing down the trailer and returning for the next “load”- this was quite easy work for and I was able to nip off to cast a rod from time to time, always landing something edible.

The coastline there churned with a mass of red foam and diving sea-birds .The smell was terrible.

My day usually finished around 19h00 (thanks to overtime) and we used to hand over, head for the local old Victorian Hotel (now demolished - cannot remember the name – my folks used to go there after the War for a night of Dancing in the Ballroom(+- 1948) and have a Black Label Quart before heading for the return ferry and onto the bike and home .

On an occasion or two, fighting off the prostitutes, I was able to negotiate a good price on some huge crayfish ( 3 kg plus) from the Chef. I usually arrived home as black as spades,stripping at the kitchen doorway,  and into the bath at around 22h00. A long day in anyone’s book, but an experience I will always remember.


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