When trains first steamed into the hinterland they ran on coal imported from Wales. South Africa was considered deficient in coal. Small amounts were being mined at Cyphergat, Molteno and Indwe. Discovery of the country’s major fields, the largest in the southern hemisphere, lay in the future.
Dr Gustav Fritsch, a German traveller, in 1886 wrote: “There is probably no country where adequate deposits of coal would prove a greater blessing than in South Africa. If cheap coal could be found the railways, so sparse at present, would boldly steam ahead.”
Imported coal was too expensive for the man in the street, so he used wood. This prompted the Cape Colonial Railways to plant ‘fuel forests’. In 1884, an eight-acre blue gum plantation was started on Stolshoek farm outside Beaufort West. Walker’s Dam was built to irrigate the trees. The intention was to harvest 11 tons of dry wood an acre and extend the forest if it did well. “At first the trees flourished, but droughts, scarcity of water and ‘brak’ (saline) soil forced the abandonment of the project within four years,” says Almero de Villiers, a former Beaufort West resident who researched these forests in 1952. “The railways announced the failure of the project in the Karoo with great regret. Successful forests and nurseries were established at Tokai, Ceres, Constantia, and Worcester, where an 80-acre forest met fuel requirements.” Today, scattered blue gums still dot the Great Karoo as a reminder the days when trains ran on wood.