When Lelie and her brother, Rennie, learn about the Outeniqua ghost train, the bravest thing that they can do is go find it.
Klein Lelie was nine years old in 1942 and she was really looking forward to her 10th birthday. It was just one day away. In one day, she would “officially” be older than her little brother, Rennie, and would remain so for eleven months until inevitably his birthday brought him to ten too. But for those eleven months, thankfully, she could finally call him Kleintjie again and to say that she was ecstatic about it is an understatement. You see, the two were outrageously competitive, and whenever they could, they always made sure to be older, stronger, taller, tougher and most certainly braver than the other. Bravery after all was the Boshoff’s proudest trait and Lelie wasn’t going to let Rennie enjoy that title just because he was a boy.
It was no surprise that the children were as competitive as they were because there were twelve siblings all in all. In order, there was Nellie, Hennie then Trishie, then Lelie then Rennie – then Minkie, Saul, Rina, Debbie, Sussie and then of course Solly and Jo who both just lay around all day like babies do staring at things and drooling. So, with that many siblings, each little victory was savoured no matter how insignificant, even if that victory was ageing one up to leave a younger sibling behind – or finally succeeding at getting Dad to admit who was the bravest child of the lot.
‘Ik is’ie braafste – vra u vir pa,’ Lelie said again to Rennie for what must have been the tenth time that night, ‘Pa, is ik reg? Is ik ‘ie braafste?’
‘Ja Lelie, u’s altyd reg.’
But dad wasn’t really listening. He was well into his evening’s newspaper reading a short and odd little story on Page 3’s corner that made him smile. Then laugh. And then look up to call his wife to come hear all about it:
‘Liefling, kom luister.’
But Ma was busy in the kitchen with the dishes and wasn’t in the mood for it: ‘Wat nou?’
‘Ik het ‘n storie vir u – van’ie Outeniqua spook trein. Het u daarvan gehoor?’
Suddenly all the children went quiet… dead quiet.
‘Ag nee,’ mumbled Ma, ‘Watter blerrie nonsens praat Pa nou?’
‘SPOOK TREIN OP DIE OUTENIQUA SPOORWEG GESIEN,’ Dad read loudly, and then he lifted the newspaper in the direction of the kitchen so as to show his wife that he wasn’t making it up.
A ghost train – on the Outeniqua? Fascinating thought Lelie, and scary too because the family lived on the edges of the Knysna forest very close to Outeniqua rail that carried the local steam train, the Choo-Tjoe, from Knysna to George and back again. They lived so close to it in fact that all the children would walk along it to get to school – and on lazy summer days when they were all bored to death, they would even explore them as far as the tunnels passed Wilderness, around the hoekie where the tracks pushed through the mountains in dark and creepy tunnels. It was certainly a rush dashing through them when the distant whoosh of the Choo Tjoe’s steam wasn’t far off and even more of a rush when it was close enough to hear its whistle. That was just one of the many brave and stupid things the Boshoff children just loved to do.
Rikus van Schalkwyk sukkel met slapeloosheid en het op Woensdag oggend om tweeuur met sy hond op die Outeniqua spoorweg gaan loop. Daar het hy ‘n trein se voorlug op die spoorweg gesien op die George se kant van die Knysna strandmeer brug:
‘Dit kon nie die Choo-Tjoe wees nie die tyd van die aand maar as it dit nie die Choo-Tjoe was nie, wat se trein was dit?’ Het Van Schalkwyk gereden.
Volgens Van Schalkwyk het die spook trein wit gegloei en vinning opgekom: ‘Ek en my hond moes van die spore afspring – maar net toe ons so gedoen het, het die trein verdwyn! Net daar! Weg!’
Pa laughed again and his wife shook her head. She was right. Nonsense: ‘Weet julle, ik dink die man drink te veel.’
‘Veelsh-te-veel,’ Dad emphasised when he stood. He then stretched and laughed himself into a deep yawn, ‘Kom julle, ons moe’gaan slaap, anders gaan die spook trein kom spook!’
The family stood and broke off into their rooms. The girls shared a room and the boys shared another, except for little Solly and Jo who still slept near enough to their mother like babies do. Each family member fell asleep quite quickly too – each except Lelie. She was too busy thinking about the Outeniqua ghost train and if it was real – and if it was, would she be brave enough to go and see it? This was her chance to prove once and for all that she was the bravest Boshoff of them all.
‘Kleintjie,’ she whispered when she sneaked into the boy’s room to wake Rennie. As Rennie was closest to her in age, he was her favourite too, and although she would never admit it, she sure as sticks wasn’t going to sneak out to see the ghost train without him:
‘Kleintjie, is u wakker?’
‘Wat nou?’ replied her brother, in a twilight still.
‘Ons moet die spook trein gaan sien.’
‘Nee wat, is u mal?’ he whispered so as not to not wake his brothers.
‘Is u bang?’ Lelie asked.
‘Ik is ‘ie bang-ie! Ma’ ik gaan’ie nou in die middle van die aand buite gaan loop. Dit gaan reen… Kyk’aar, weerlig ook!’
There was lightning about but not enough to worry Lelie: ‘Bang broek!’
‘Kom dan, wys vi’my!’
Rennie shook his head: ‘In el geval, die trein is’ie werklik nie. U het Ma en Pa gehoor.’
‘Ik hoor net ‘n bang broek praat.’
Of course Rennie was scared. Absolutely! But the more he thought about, the more he just knew that he couldn’t let Lelie have this one over him too. He would never hear the end of it! So, he then decided that he would go with his sister to see the ghost train just to prove that he wasn’t a bang broek – and of course to also show her that ghost trains weren’t real. Doing so would prove he was brave and right!
That night, Lelie and Rennie sneaked out of their bedroom window when the clock struck 1 and made their way down the driveway to the gate. They decided to jump it instead of open it; it made a terribly loud and unmistakable iron squeak when used and neither child wanted Pa to come shouting about with his gun. Not that he would have heard anything anyway with the approaching storm – above them, the clouds flashed white and the trees wrestled with the wind, which made everything a tad more creepy on that lonely, dark night. There weren’t other houses about in the forest either, just theirs, and a lonely, sandy road lead to the Outeniqua rail somewhere down the way through the darkness. Neither thought to bring a lamp so they used the lightning as guide, which in flashes silhouetted everything white but then pitch black again. As it was so, what usually took ten minutes took twenty but eventually they reached the edge of the forest and the Choo-Tjoe’s tracks. The lightning also helped there. It lit the tracks east to west for as far as the eye could see but see a ghost train, they did not.
‘En nou?’ asked Rennie, freezing in the wind.
‘Nou wag ons vir’ie Spook Trein!’
Neither brother nor sister wore a jersey that night and as was normal for them both, their legs were exposed, Lelie’s beneath her white frock and Rennie’s beneath a light pair of khaki sleeper shorts. At least they wore boots, although neither admitted they needed them. Certainly, neither admitted that they would hate to see a ghost train on what must have been the coldest, creepiest night to go ghost train hunting but neither dared chicken out.
So, they both sat in the middle of the tracks back-to-back and waited. Lelie faced westwards and Rennie eastwards but nothing. Not a light appeared either way and as the minutes passed they grew tired of the weather and their stubbornness. Despite both though, neither moved, shivering in the wind. Just then, it started to rain and finally, Rennie had had enough.
‘Nee wat, ik gaan nou terug!’ he finally stood, conceding: ‘Ik’s moeg en koud!’
‘En bang ook!’
‘Genade…’ He swore beneath his breath. Then, he turned and walked away.
‘Ik is’ie braafste!’ Lelie shouted as he did.
Her brother left the Outeniqua tracks and disappeared up through the road that had brought them there. Truthfully, all Lelie wanted to do was to join him but if she left then, she wouldn’t have her victory so she stayed put for five more minutes to secure it. But in that five, the rain really began to bucket and the lighting flashed horrifically. Suddenly mud came down and gushed from the edges of the forest. In panic, Lelie snuck in beneath the nearest tree and crouched for shelter. Rennie couldn’t be too far ahead, she thought, but running to find him scared her so she stayed put and started to cry. Lightning rang out and thunder followed – and then the trees quaked in the moving mud beneath them and the tracks began to flood. Lelie screamed for help.
That’s when she saw it, through the curtain of the falling rain: A light on the tracks. It couldn’t be. Die Spook Trein! It rushed up along side her in the rain and screeched to a halt. It was magnificent, she thought, as it glowed brightly within its halo – and for what she could see and not see, it seemed to stretch on forever. Just then, the nearest carriage door flung open and a hand gestured for her to board:
‘Kom Dogtertjie, spring!’ shouted a man’s voice from above the storm.
What choice did she have? The mud thickened around her and the rain came harder still so she decided to jump across the rushing water to the safety of the dry train. When she did, the doors slammed closed behind her and as quick as it had arrived, the ghost train was off again, vanishing into thin air just like the newspaper said it would.
On board, Lelie gathered her breath as a railway steward dressed in midnight blue helped her up. He then gave her a ticket.
‘Nee dankie,’ she politely refused, but he handed it to her anyway. It read:
Die Spook Trein
Passasier: 1 X , Lelie Boshoff
‘Hoe weet Meneer my naam?’
But before that question was up, the railway steward disappeared down the isle and continued about his ticket-giving business.
Everything about the ghost train was quite like a normal train thought Lelie, except that the outside seemed to bolt by exceptionally fast, even in the storm. Eventually the train was moving so quickly that the rain hit the windows horizontally and the lights that they passed, blurred into white lines. Inside, she was surprised to find it quite full: Luggage leaked from the over-hanging compartments above the neatly seated passengers who paid Lelie no notice whatsoever as she walked along the isle to find a seat. Just then, a boy’s head popped out a few rows down and with a wave of his hand excitedly urged Lelie to go sit with him. He was younger than she was, maybe by year or two. Maybe three.
‘Waar’s die volgende stop?’ she asked immediately as she sat, worried then that the train was taking her too far from home.
‘Ek weet’ie,’ replied the boy with a smile, ‘Ek’s Danie terloops, maar jy kan my Bokkie noem as jy wil.’
Lelie ignored him: ‘Ik moet nou afklim – Ma en Pa gaa’t woedend wees!’
‘Wat’s jou naam?’ asked Bokkie.
But Lelie ignored him again: ‘Is u n’ spook?’
‘Nee,’ he replied, ‘Ek dink nie so nie. Is jy?’
‘Wat? Is u ‘n spook of nie?’
‘Wel,’ he replied, ‘Weet jy… dus net dat…’
Bokkie dropped his head sadly and started to tremble and sniff.
‘Huil u?’ Asked Lelie.
‘Nee,’ he wiped his tears away, but when he did, more came: ‘Ek het my ligaam verloor and ek kan’ie dit vind’ie!’
‘My ligaam, dus verloor!’
‘So, u is ‘n spook.’
‘Nee! My ligaam is net verloor!’
Lelie didn’t quite understand. If he had lost his body, surely he had to be a ghost but as he was so determined and sad that he wasn’t, Lelie thought it best to drop it. Bokkie then leaned his head on her shoulder and cried some more. To comfort him, Lelie awkwardly patted him on the head like a puppy.
‘Sal jy my help?’ he then asked.
‘Nee, ik kan nie – jammer – ik moet nou afklim. My boetie en my ouers wag vi’my sekerlik by die huis.’
As sorry as she felt for him, she just couldn’t help little Bokkie – she didn’t have time. So Lelie stood to leave and shook Bokkie’s hand to say goodbye: ‘Sterkte Bokkie! Ik hoop u gaan jouw ligaam vind.’
‘Waar gaan jy nou?’
‘Bestuurder toe. Ik moet nou afklim. Hy moet die trein stop.’
‘Kan ek saam kom?’
‘Ik veronderstel…’ Lelie supposed.
Walking from carriage to carriage to find the front took longer than they ever could have imagined. Carriage after carriage came and went so many times that twice they had to take a seat to rest. The train was as long as it was ghostly and it took them at least four hours to reach the front carriage. On their way, each carriage they passed was as quiet as the last except for the front one where a long queue of chatty passengers waited at the driver’s door. Finally, thought Lelie. They too, she imagined, were hoping to chat to the driver to disembark but without any luck. Those right at the front just knocked and knocked but the train just kept on moving.
‘Wat nou?’ asked Bokkie.
Lelie didn’t know.
Just then, the illusive railway steward walked in behind them.
‘Kom almal, terug na julle plekke toe asseblief,’ he politely ordered.
‘Skuus Meneer,’ asked Lelie, ‘Waars die volgende stop? Ik moet nou afklim en huis toe gaan. ’
‘Ek weet’ie,’ replied the steward, ‘Nou asseblief, terug na julle plekke toe Dames en Here, asseblief, kom nou.’
Just like that, everyone turned and returned to their seats but Lelie was having none of it. Something was off. Something was fishy. So as the others filed past her, she and Bokkie stayed put:
‘Daar’s n’ slang in’ie gras hier,’ Lelie whispered.
‘n’ Slang in die gras?’ Bokkie replied.
‘Wat? Ja. ‘n Slang in die gras – het u dit nooit gehoor nie?’
‘Slang…In…Die…Gras…’ Bokkie said again, then somewhat stupidly as if he’d been tranced.
‘Wat gaat’aan met u?’ Lelie asked.
Bokkie was thinking deeply about something that had been stirred on from Lelie’s idiom:
‘Dit was n’ slang…’ He then said, ‘Dit was ‘n slang in die gras…’n Poffadder.’
‘Wat praat Bokkie nou? Is u mal in die kop?’
‘n’ Slang het my gebyt…Op die plaas… In Fort Beaufort… Ek onthou dit!’
Suddenly, out of nowhere he hugged her, which didn’t impress her all too much.
‘Lelie, my engel!’ he continued with her in his arms, ‘My verlorde ligaam is op’ie plaas in Fort Beaufort. n’ Poffadder het my daar gebyt – en ek moet terug gaan! My Ma hulle wag vi’my, net daar by my ligaam. Ek moet terug gaan. Ek moet! Help my, asseblief.’
Fort Beaufort was well out the way, thought Lelie, and she had been on the train for awfully long as it was but if she could help Bokkie find his body, surely her parents would understand. She felt sorry for the boy in any case and couldn’t just leave him: ‘Wel,’ Lelie supposed, ‘Ik veronderstel… ’
He hugged her again: ‘Dankie Lelie.’
Lelie’s plan was a simple but dangerous one and when she explained it to Bokkie she appreciated his adventurous spirit and his willingness to be a part of it. She would crouch next to the driver’s door and nod when she was ready. As it was, she was ready and nodded. So, as planned Bokkie pulled the fire alarm with a jolt and the train screeched wildly to a stop: The overhanging bags came tumbling down onto the passengers beneath them – and like luggage themselves, the passengers too were flung about. Even Bokkie, who was prepared for it, lost his balance and went stumbling down the centre isle in the squealing inertia.
When it finally stopped, the driver’s door flung open in a huff and the driver charged out without noticing Lelie who then quickly slipped in behind him and locked him out. Lelie had never driven a train before so anticipated to do so with some difficulty but surprisingly, she got the train going again quicker than she thought she would. Behind her, the stranded driver kicked and banged but nothing was going to stop her. Lelie flat out ignored him.
Klein Lelie wouldn’t have been able to tell you how she then turned that train around and steered it in the direction of Fort Beaufort anymore than how ghost trains are real, but as true as the train was ghostly, it then turned around just by her wanting it to and headed to Fort Beaufort. As the driver of the train, she seemed connected to it like a mind to a hand and wherever Lelie wanted it to go, the train listened.
Over the mountains and through the Karoo it sped at a blinding pace until eventually Fort Beaufort came into view, and the farm just beyond it where Bokkie’s body lay poisoned by a Puff Adder. His mother sobbed over his body and his father, praying, squeezed his son’s hand as Bokkie slipped closer to death.
Of course, none in the living world noticed the ghost train as it pulled up nor its cloud of settling steam, nor did they see the spirit of little Bokkie disembark. From the driver’s compartment, Lelie waved goodbye to Bokkie through the window and watched him return to his lost body. He thanked her with a smile and when he did his spirit disappeared into his flesh and he re-awoke to his parents.
Klein Bokkie had lived and Lelie had saved him.
Lelie smiled at the family reunited. But as she stared at them, she suddenly realised that she couldn’t remember her own family. She had brothers and sisters, she remembered, younger ones and older ones, but what were their names again? And a house – but where? It was in a forest, she was sure, somewhere, but where? As much she tried to fight it, she too couldn’t remember where she had left her own body as it lay beside the railway in an Outeniqua storm, drowning in the mudslide floods.
‘Waar?’ She wondered and wondered and wondered again as she drove that train, ‘Waar is my ligaam?’
But the longer she went without her body, the more she forgot her reason to live, lost then forever – op en af, op en af – as the driver of the Spook Trein, collecting the souls of the dying as she went. For Klein Lelie was the little girl from the forest who eventually became a ghost – the ghost of the Outeniqua and the driving spirit of its winding and unending spook trein.
To this day on some stormy nights, even now as the Outeniqua tracks fade away into history, you can still sometimes hear the ghost train as it comes by collecting the souls of the Southern Cape. If you go looking for it, do so at around 1 – sit back to back on the tracks and wait for its ghostly light to appear.
Board then if you must. But do so at your peril.
This story was inspired by the ghostly Afrikaans masterpiece, ‘Die Lorrie is Weg!’ and is dedicated to its author Dottie Brown nee’ Boshoff (1938 – 2014) and her eleven siblings who also once played along the tracks of the magnificent Outeniqua and within the shadows of its fantastic forests.
‘Die Spook Trein van Outeniqua’ is part of The Short Story Collection and is copyrighted here by its author, Kyle Brown. Published 13 January 2017.