"You're welcome to visit the place but you won't see much".
This was the comment of the President of the Ferrocarril Presidente Carlos Antonio Lopez when we expressed a desire to visit the main shops of the Paraguayan Railway. Thus it was that later that day we got into a rented mini van.
Sapucay means "shout" in the local Indian language. I had never heard the word before but it is now indelibly etched on my memory.
Sapucay is difficult to find on the map. It is about 110 km from Asuncion. The first 70 are over paved highway. It. is at Paraquari that the fun starts because the rest of the journey is over a very bad dirt road that gets worse the further we go. What can Sapucay be like? A main shop tucked away in the hills cut off from the highway network? We finally reach the village with its red dirt main street. Clouds have gathered in the hills and it is raining. There's a railway shop here someplace but it can only be reached by driving through a field and bumping over the main line. There it is in all its 1894 corrugated iron glory.
The Superintendent comes to meet us in the rain. He is a gentle man who is politely interested to show us how 140 artisans living in a village miles from anywhere can keep a fleet of steam locomotives going in 1984. He casually explains that they do everything here. Eyebrows arch. There is nothing that can be contracted out because the only contact with the outside world is by rail — eyebrows arch still further.
Then we look inside. It is gloomy, partly because there is no artificial light and partly because the rain is now drumming heavily on the corrugated iron roof. As my eyes become accustomed to the gloom I can pick out the shapes of three steam locomotives being stripped down by teams of men obviously used to working in semi—darkness which is only pierced by the occasional flash from welding equipment.
"You do everything yourself?"
He points to the locomotive wheel lathe and the valves that they grind themselves. Boiler work is taken as a matter of course. Eyebrows won't arch any further so we just shake our heads in disbelief. We haven't been caught in a time warp have we?
I dodge to avoid a torrent of rain from the roof and slip on the mud floor. Yes, its a hard packed mud floor and there is a wet mist in the air. When it. rains outside it rains inside!
The workmen are as curious to see us as we are to see them. They look at us with sidelong glances and avert their eyes until we pause to say something in the only true international language. One smile is worth a thousand words in Spanish .
The words "Walschaerts" and "Stephenson" mean nothing to these people. But they can show you how a valve gear works and they know how to fix it from knowledge handed down from generation to generation. There's no book learning or the application of college type scientific skills. This is the school of hard knocks - and the knocks can be very hard because there is no eye protection, no leather gloves, no protective headgear and, in some cases, no shoes.
My mind cries out in disbelief, "This can't be true". But my commonsense cannot deceive my eyes. It is true. In a village miles from the highway network, 140 men are repairing steam locomotives unassisted. They are working under the most primitive of conditions that would have given Charles Dickens material for a lifetime of prose.
Shop power is provided by a steam engine supplied by three locomotive boilers using wood fuel. The associated belts and pulleys form another danger along with the slippery floor and the gloomy light. As if further proof were needed, the forge uses pieces of coconut shell because this produces a hotter heat than the normal hardwood. Next door is a foundry in which all of the forgings are cast - using a forty gallon oil drum lined with fireclay. The moulds are dried out around a wood fire in the middle of the mud floor. I hope my electronic flash has better luck than my eyes!
And then it happened. The familiar soft exhaust, the clank of coupling rods and the squeal of driving wheels protesting a rail. Sapucay comes alive with the sounds once familiar at Swindon, Crewe, Altona and Pointe Ste. Charles. I point my camera through a hole in the wall to record a cylinder casing and buffer beam as it moves slowly past.
I am trying to learn about the forge yet my senses are reaching out to that elusive beast outside in the rain. As the drumming of the rain reaches a crescendo, I can see the engine through a curtain of water cascading from the roof. The camera goes into action amid remarks such as:
"It's too dark and it won't come out"
"You'll ruin your camera"
Yes, I am crazy and to prove it I step through the wall of water to meet this dinosaur in its own environment. There it stands with one buffer missing. It is oozing steam from every pore. The rails are hidden from view by the grass and submerged in water. The crew, engrossed in looking at the gringo, have let the injector overflow.
This is REAL. Preservation has no meaning here (except self preservation). This is not 4449 or 2860. This is a workaday steam locomotive doing a workaday job.
I stand in the rain and raise the camera to my eye. Before I can press the shutter the viewfinder blurs as the tears of my emotion mingle with the rain from my hair. If they can do this in 1984 they can do it in 1994 and 2024? Sapucay is a railway town in the same way as Swindon, Crewe, Altoona and De Aar. Maybe this will be the last resting place for man's faithful servant -the steam locomotive. Maybe I am witnessing what could be the last real steam locomotive on earth.
Swindon, Crew and Altoona are no more, but maybe Sapucay will continue as a shrine to be visited by the privileged few, the faithful who cherish that most human of man's mechanical creations — the steam locomotive.
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, September 1985.