By Steve Williamson (New Orleans, LA United States) June, 2001
Ian Manning's safari memoir would have benefitted greatly from a better editing job. While many of the anecdotes are entertaining, the book is nothing more than a string of them in roughly chronological order. There is no theme, no pacing, and every event is treated with equal weight, whether it is a drunken prank or a tragic death. The book reads like a virtually unedited journal, except that Manning is fuzzy on so many details that he obviously isn't working from a complete contemporaneous diary. But Manning isn't a professional writer, and perhaps he shouldn't be held to too high a standard; his ediitors have no such excuse. If you like safari yarns, and you already have a shelf full of Selous, Baker, Finaughty, Ruark and Capstick, you might want to add this one to your collection, but all the above are much better writers.
Safari Bookshelf (Safari Times Africa, January 2001)
Although Ian Manning, the author of With a Gun in Good Country, has ceased his professional hunting and fishing careers, he is still active in the conservation field and involved with the CITES implementation programme in South Africa.
Although everybody is qualified to write a book about his or her own experiences, Manning as a former professional hunter and fisherman and with experience in the fie1d of conservation consulting and advising, is eminently qualified to not only write on these topics, but also to comment on them.
With a Gun in Good Country starts out without the customary introduction by some or other well-known person, just the preface by the author himself. I kind of liked it. Although introductions are wonderful tools in old books to provide the reader with details he would not otherwise have had any knowledge about, in modem books it has often degenerated into a lot of praise about the author, who everybody should know, is just another fallible human being like the rest of us.
With a Gun in Good Country starts out with the normal background about how the author ended up in the business he was writing a book about. Having had the privilege of meeting and dealing with the well-polished and gentlemanly Ian Manning a number of times, his adventurous streak and the rough and tumble of his early days came as quite a surprise.
Typically Manning, the 295-page book is written in an easygoing style. It is a joy to read. Appropriately spiced with humour where it needs it, it really is a book easily enjoyed. The account of Macleod and Savory's Horse being one such instance. Another that I enjoyed immensely was Manning's account of him as captain abandoning his boat Fiji and then ending up ashore long after his boat. His statement to the awed crowd that a repeat performance would follow the next day at 10 a.m. is a rea1 classic. The book sports a lot of photos, amongst them many of the renowned and late Johnny Uys. The photos are inserted into the text.
Towards the end of the book Manning changed the emphasis from hunting accounts to events and facts that have a different slant. This part of the book conveys a message about hunting practices, African events and policies and a number of other issues affecting our continent and our sport. This a tendency becoming increasingly apparent as authors like Manning and Pires have started to call a spade a spade and te1l the truth rather than sweeping it under the carpet. It is hoped that this will serve our sport and conservation well.
With a Gun in Good Country can be ordered for US$ 85 plus postage from Trophy Room Books, PO Box 3041. Agoura. CA 91301, USA. Tel: +1-818- 889-2469/ Fax: 889-4849
Monday, October 29, 2007
Posted by I.P.A. Manning at 10:10 AM
Sunday, August 12, 2007
PART FOUR - WHITE HUNTER
'Fair flowers that are not gathered in their prime
Rot and consume themselves in little time.'
Venus & Adonis
1 Return to Luangwa
In June, 1969, I came back to the Luangwa to hunt for Luangwa safaris, first flying up to Fort Jameson where Norman Carr, one of the partners, ran the business. The field operations were run by his partner, Peter Hankin, from a bush headquarters at Chanjusi in the Luangwa. I arrived at Chanjusi, feeling a little like the once successful actor attempting a comeback after a period of absence, for I had left for Canada fully two dry seasons ago. To return again and see the vistas of Cathedral mopane and the open plains of Nsefu covered with all manner of wildlife made for an emotional homecoming.
I have often wondered whether leaving cropping and opting for university was a wise decision. Macleod and I had always had it in mind to go from one hunting-based adventure to another: to India and Bangladesh to deal with maneating tiger, to Australia to crop feral domestic stock, to the Matto Grosso to...well...to simply go and see what we could find...if not jaguar there would always be wine, women and lots of song. We had plotted so many safaris together while seated next to Mazunga pools that my decision to leave, to opt out for university, must have been a severe letdown to him. It was certainly highly egocentric. Ambition, I was to learn, can provide the iron bars for a cage.
Chanjusi was built so that it could be reached via the hills from Lundazi for it was not possible to drive from Cropping or Mfuwe in the rains as the roads were impassable and the rivers flooded. So Chanjusi existed solely for this reason.
On one of those lovely crisp June mornings, Peter Hankin and I sat next to a small fire laid in the open a little way from the small office where he usually busied himself with paper work. In a long steel shed behind was housed the liquor and tinned goods. Further back lay the workshop with its drums of fuel and the partially dismembered bodies of Landrovers. All about us stretched the bush and somewhere in the distance some villages, for I could hear their drums announcing a beer drink. Closer still to the base camp, and hidden by the thickets of creeper growing on the edge of the camp, lay the temporary huts of the safari crews and base camp staff.
From out of the dark a white jacketed figure appeared, his feet bare, bringing him silently to the fireside. The man placed some mopane wood on the fire and departed. Peter sat silently opposite me, immersed in the sort of reverie brought on by a good glass of whisky. I knew little about Peter though I had occasionally met up with him at Mfuwe Lodge when he was between hunts. His family were ex-Indian army from the days of the Raj and had come to the Fort Jameson district as tobacco planters. When the tobacco scheme died, they stayed on, the father died, the mother working as the matron at the school. Peter drifted into an occasional elephant poaching career in the Valley, eventually starting up the safari company in partnership with the Warden of the time, Norman Carr. Peter's own life remained something of a mystery: it was common knowledge that he had married a Swiss woman who bore him a son and departed for England. There were black women, as was usual with a lot of the early settlers and hunters, and one of them bore him a son whom I met years later, a kindly and gentle mathematics professor. The success achieved by John Hankin, reared by an uneducated village woman, was entirely due to Peter who sent him to schools in Rhodesia.
A hyena called somewhere out in the dark and I could smell the early evening of Africa - they were the sort of sensations and sounds which become so much a part of living in the bush that when you leave it you feel forever unsettled. I awoke the next morning with what I can only describe as an 'end of term feeling' which those who went to boarding school will remember, a feeling of great joy and anticipation, of freedom brought about by the coming of the holidays, and freedom, for a while at least, from institutional life.
For the season, Peter gave me the south Munjamadzi corridor, an area bounded by the Munjamadzi river in the north, the Mupamadzi in the south and the Luangwa river and Muchinga escarpment in the east and west respectively. This would make up the sixth camp which Luangwa safaris were to open in the whole of the Luangwa. Towards the escarpment lay the Chifungwe plain, a tall grassland plain of rolling hills where in July, 1966, Johnny and I had counted 2,000 elephant from the air. It had not been hunted professionally before, and apart from a track leading from a pontoon at Chibinde to the escarpment and to the Great North road south of Mpika, there were no roads.
In the morning a voice woke me, "Hodi..hodi," the call was insistent, far off and a trifle apologetic.
"Ye..es, "I replied, realizing where I was and feeling the rush of excitement to know I was back.
"Hodi..hodi.. Bwana. Time for get up Bwana. Long ulendo by dis time." The figure of a small man in late middle age, weighing no more than 100 pounds, came into view. "I Jackson, Bwana. I cook for you. I show you lefelence." I sat up in bed and focused on the figure in front of me. While I studied him I could hear birds calling all about us: Cape turtle doves, emerald spotted doves, tambourines and the rain bird itself, the red-breasted cuckoo. The small rondhavel lay near the safari garden and through the window I could see a gardener walking slowly along with a watering can held in his hand. From the small stream nearby came the excited chatter of masked weavers and from the direction of the workshops the familiar childhood clang of a hammer on an anvil. Thanking Jackson for the cup tea, I lay back and savoured my first day back.
Breakfast, taken in the outside with Peter, consisted of two eggs lightly fried in butter, fried tomato, fried egg plant, bacon, two thin well done slices of impala liver, followed by toast, marmalade and coffee.
When we had finished Peter wiped his moustache on an impeccably starched white napkin and said, "I've organized your chaps, or shall I say, K has: five carriers, including Jackson, who is your cook - the old blighter, enough to carry in your personal katundu and theirs and all the food you are going to need. You can get paw paws and bananas and ground millet if you should eat it... my chap has made out an issue of a Sako .375 and ammunition, its all I have left, I'm afraid. And the game permit. For heavens sake don't forget that."
Peter gave me a list of the quantities of raw materials required for the camp building - the number, size and length of mopane poles and the designs for the chitenje, the dining room, the kitchen, toilets and shower room, and the bedrooms. Not a nail or a piece of twine was to be used. In addition, he had even worked out the gwazas - the daily quota of work for each man depending on the particular job in hand, whether it was cutting thatch or poles, or collecting loshi - the rope fibre made from raffia palm leaves. To send labourers off without a gwaza was to court disaster, something I had learned while preparing the land and planting tobacco by hand at Mkushi.
I was going to have to work fast for it was ten days before the clients arrived. I had no campsite, no camp and no roads, and I knew little of the area, though the local people would sort that particular failing out. Peter's final instruction was for me to expect him with the clients in exactly ten days time. There were two of them, both doctors from Milwaukee.
After breakfast I walked over to the steel shed. A few bedraggled chickens belonging to Nduna, the mechanic, scampered off from beneath my feet. But I was not the cause of their sudden squawks, for a yellow-billed kite appeared suddenly overhead. The gloom inside the shed was pierced by dust laden bars of light and I waited for my eyes to accustom themselves to the gloom. There were four rows neatly stacked with safari fare: matches, candles, instant coffee, tea, sugar, flour, rice, tinned vegetables, salt, pepper, assorted spices, curry powder, the inevitable Tabasco sauce, soap, tinned yeast and powdered milk. At the end of the shed were the crates of beer and liquor which kept a good safari oiled and made insensate, a bad one.
I signed for the Sako.375 only to be told by K that it had a history of jamming. This was not encouraging news but as there was no other rifle I would just have to make do. I then drew out enough rations for a week and went to inspect my motley crew of men drawn up by Jackson outside.
K, Peter's assistant, drove us down to the river. The track from base camp to the river wound its way through a few isolated stands of Borassus palm fringed with the small fan shaped Phoenix palms and then, after cutting through a belt of desecrated mopane, led down to the alluvial plain and the large trees of the riverine belt. The river was a greasy flaccid ribbon snaking its way towards the Zambezi far to the south. It was falling noticeably and within the next two weeks a small steel pontoon would be in place to ferry vehicles across to Luwawata camp on the opposite bank. But there was no hunter there yet, and apart from Brian Smith and Joe Joubert, who were further north, I appeared to be the only one in the field.
We crossed over in a small rowing boat, its crew commanded by Jackson. Except for one other man, who showed some signs of intelligence, they were as motley a crew as could be obtained. They were probably some of Chief Chanjusi's relatives whom he had foisted on Peter. The tyranny of the extended family had survival value at a time when Africans lived off the land, but there were early signs in the Zambia of 1966 that it was being put to new and corrupt use.
On the opposite bank, Jackson took off his hat - an odd assemblage made up of scraps of wool, and splashed water onto his face and head. One of the men, his short hair pulled into a series of knots, wet a handkerchief and tying the ends into knots, placed it over his head. A Tsetse fly bit me on the end of my finger, reminding me of the months which lay ahead in their company.
Hoisting their loads, and I my rifle, we made in a diagonal line for the Munyamadzi, leaving the grey and greasy Luangwa behind. It was midday so there was not much game about, except for a troop of baboon who stood some way off in the shade. One of them gave a rather half hearted bark. Behind them were a few impala rams. They too seemed dulled by the torpor of midday.
Following on immediately behind the pencil thin legs of Jackson, I thought of how glad I was to be out walking in the bush again: the sun shone; I was off to build my own camp, to receive my own clients; I had a liberal pot licence of 4 impala and 2 buffalo; and a supply of whisky which, if carefully rationed, would last until Peter arrived with the clients. One behind the other we made our way through the bush walking for the most part on elephant paths strewn with their dung, and slowly, by degrees, approached the river which had its source on the escarpment to the west, now a dim blue wall on the horizon. Somewhere on this river I was sure I would find a suitable campsite. My requirements were good dense shade, a good view for the clients and a sandbank where I could filter the water.
"Jackson!" I called.
"Jackson, do you know a good campsite?" I asked, realizing as soon as I opened my mouth that it was a stupid question to ask, as stupid as to ask how far a place is. "How far is a good campsite? " I blurted out. Its the question a Paleface cannot help asking in Africa.
" Yes, Bwana, " replied Jackson. "Velly god place for sah, for peoples, Amelican peoples, Germany peoples, all peoples eat nice, sleep nice, kill plenty hanimals with sah: elefanti, kalambo, nyati...what and what. "
"Okay...okay." I replied, and was grateful when, his duty obviously done to his Bwana, he could now concentrate on his load and the njira ahead.
Reaching the Munyamadzi, we sat down beneath a Sausage tree and surveyed the river. Two large crocs slid off a sandbank a little upstream and a school of hippo took note of our presence by some communal, 'Har..har..har' calls. I was tired, being unaccustomed to walking. I found that I looked around a lot, both down at the ground and then at the sky and bush. I was out of sorts, like a man in an ill fitting suit. Added to this my sneakers were still new and they rubbed with great precision at an area on my small right toe. My shorts ground away at my thighs and I gave thanks that I had not been conned by anyone into wearing underpants from which man hath no greater freedom. My discomfort and rather Mr McGoo like stumblings about, made me empathize with my clients later on. Arriving newly minted, without time to absorb the new sights , smells and impressions, their struggles to adapt were far more painful than mine.
In the northern part of the corridor there were few villages, except for those lying on the edge of the escarpment where safaris rarely operated. In my section a series of small villages crowded down upon the track running up to Chief Nawalya's masumba - his traditional court and residence. I was en route for Nawalya's country. His people were Bisa who came originally from the plateau and owed allegiance to the Paramount Bisa chief, Kopa, whose masumba lay on the plateau west of Mpika. Here the language was Chibisa.
We crossed the river a little south of the grove of ebony trees known as Nyampala. Feeling the opaque water surging around my waste and watching it rise up around Jackson's armpits with 20 yards still to go was an uncomfortable feeling. I thought of its reputation for large crocs. Yet I also knew, as did the carriers, that there was not much chance of a croc taking someone in the dry season. One of the early Portuguese explorers of the 17 Century had even remarked on this. But in the rains it was a different matter. This was the time of flooding and the dispersal of fish. Whatever the cause, crocodile maneating cases in the rains were not uncommon.
We made camp at Nyampala, my bed being placed under a sausage tree - fortunately there were no sausages, for I well remembered when Joe Joubert was felled by one. Jackson began to set up my bed and mosquito net. A little further away the boys laid down their own blankets, each blanket placed next to the other, all except for Jackson's who placed his five yards away, as befitting his position as cook and capitao. His blanket and personal toilet articles remained tied in its bundle for he had tea and the evening meal to make.
"Jackson!" I called, feeling the need for some conversation.
"This is a nice place, Jackson." Perhaps this place would do, I thought. Why go traipsing around the country when I had so little time.
"Ah, Sah." he said, shaking his head. "Better place dat side." He pointed rather haphazardly to the west.
"Where are the people?"
"People dat side, follow on river, " he said as he stirred the pan. "Other peoples dat side..other tlibe, not tlibe for Jackson. Chief live by dat side and big chief falaway." The onion, now well cooked, was energetically stirred. "Ah, dis peoples eating zebla and 'ippo meat. Tlibe for Jackson not eating dis meat for animals."
The four other men sat on their haunches around their own cooking fire: the young waiter of the haute coiffure, two camp men of robust build and cheerful demeanour, and the last a shifty one-eyed man whose position as assistant cook owed something to the presence of Jackson, who as cook, stood supreme in the camp pecking order with only the chief tracker, the chilongozi, enjoying the same status.
While I was thinking over Jackson's remarks he served me a concoction of fried bully beef and onions - with a dash of curry powder added, and mashed potatotoes. This was followed by tinned peaches sauteed in butter and then served a flambe, with the aid of nip from the bottle of black rum. One bottle per safari, Peter had said ; for cooking. With the meal finished I sat back with a whisky and watched as the sun dipped behind the horizon. One blink and it was gone. I then undressed in the light of the fire and slid naked between clean sheets. Nearby the men's fire blazed higher and through the fine gauze of the netting I could see them moving about, one of them stacking firewood.
I awoke in the middle of the night, the camp site lit by a single fitful flame spurting out of a mopane log. It was cold. Outside the net rose the vengeful whine of mosquitoes as they tried to find a way in. The men were wrapped in their blankets, their heads covered. A leopard sawed down near the lagoon. A little later he called again, this time closer to the camp.
"Morning sah. Tea leddy!" called Jackson. It was already daybreak, and cold. I could smell onions cooking.
"Morning, Jackson..How are things?"
" Good morning, sah, hoping you ?" he said, shaking his head and clicking his tongue against his gums. "Lions shouting too much by dat side. Hey..hey..hey.." Again he shook his head. Some horrible image must have gripped him for he suddenly did a good imitation of someone with a severe case of facial cramp.
"Good, Jackson, Very good," I said, enjoying the morning entertainment.
"Ai..ai..ai. Lion too much hunger. Eat peoples ."
"Nonsense , Jackson..plenty of animals for lion to eat."
But Jackson was not convinced and walked back to his fire.
We struck camp early that morning and walked up river. It would soon be hot so it was not wise to tarry for the middle of the day was too hot to be out walking in the sun. "How far to this place?" I asked Jackson, hoping that perhaps for the first time a mazungu could be properly enlightened.
"Not far, sah," came the inevitable answer.
"How many hours, Jackson?" I asked impatiently, still asking the impossible. I reflected that a mazungu is a strange animal -as any muntu can tell you.
We made along the top of the river bank: red-necked francolen scurried off into the grass; some baboon barked, though without much enthusiasm. As the sun rose the tsetse flew out from the shade and settled on the shoulders of the men. They are attracted to black, though I had the impression they bit white flesh more often. Jackson had a dozen on his back for a long period. I watched, curious, for tsetse are supposed not to like the heat, yet they stayed there for an hour.
We now entered a rougher stretch of country with broken ground and numerous elephant potholes - cylindrical pits. There were also patches of thicket which snatched at my clothes, and large swathes of seven foot grass where I took the rifle off my shoulder, for walking in long grass near villages can be dangerous for many are the buffalo who are peppered with shot and bits of reinforcing rod and lie sulking in the grass waiting for someone to punish. The rifle began to press heavily down on my shoulder. Clearly I was soft and unfit. I was also irritable.
"How far still, Jackson?"
"Not far by dis time, sah," came the reply flung over his shoulder.
"Jackson!" I called in desperation.
"Sah!". Jackson stopped and now regarded me warily. He was well into his Sixties and had once cooked for one of the Governors. He viewed me now as one might an insect. Something in my voice had made him draw up, narrow his eyes and await what was coming.
"Come on , Jackson. You've been saying this 'its not far' for bloody ages."
I was behaving badly and I knew it. I also knew he knew it which made me even more peevish.
"It is there, Sah", he said with great finality - as though he were one of his forebears pointing out Victoria Falls to David Livingstone, pointing far up river to a point on the bank where the vegetation appeared to coalesce into one large green mass.
Faced with something tangible at last, I murmured a conciliatory reply, "Okay, lets go."
Jackson turned, placed his large bundle on his head, and made off at the same pace up river. By this time I was convinced that every elephant in the world had passed before us in the rains, turning the whole corridor into a sieve of potholes subtly covered by a thin covering of grass into which I regularly tripped and fell or stubbed my toe. Whenever this happened, Jackson would utter little birdlike mutterings of condolence, "Ah solly for dat...ah solly sah....tsk ...tsk ..guh."
We came finally to the old course of the river beyond which stretched a dense thicket relieved by the occasional Sausage tree towering in its midst.
"Dis good place fo' hanimals, sah. Old place for wiver, running dis side and den is going dat side river again," announced, Jackson, his arm describing the course of the ox-bow lagoon. I looked rather sourly upon this scene. It was not what I was looking for. Unconcerned by our presence, a small herd of puku antelope grazed on the far side of the lagoon. Here before me was quite clearly a stretch of fairly inhospitable bush dotted with the occasional shade tree facing onto a new cut of the river which had not yet had time to produce the riverine woodland so necessary for a good camp. It was also a good place for tsetse fly. I looked at Jackson standing silently near his bundle and nonchalantly rolling a cigarette consisting of raw village tobacco and old newspaper. He licked the ends and placed it between his lips, then patting his pockets, he turned towards me, his face lit in a friendly smile, "Sah, you having match?"
"Now look here you wily old bugger," I growled in exasperation, throwing a box of matches at him. " What are you up to?"
"Up what for, sah?" he retorted, surprise and hurt forcing his lips and eyes tightly together. A wasted Shakespearean acting talent, I thought.
"Come on , Jackson. Why here ? Why here? There is no shade. Not good place for mazungu. We like big trees, NEAR the river.." I was bellowing now, for we had been staggering along for five hours to fulfil Jackson's secret agenda. Realization suddenly dawned on me. "Where is the village, Jackson?"
"Village, sah?" cried Jackson, his look of pain turning to one of mock incredulity.
"Village for Chief dat side."
"You have relations there?"
There came no reply. The young waiter guffawed and turned to one side, his hand covering his mouth. Jackson spluttered out a string of what sounded like precise descriptions of the other fellows ancestry. Kicking of my sandals, I lay back in the shade of a bush, head cradled in my hands and closed my eyes, "Tea please, Jackson."
When in doubt, when contemplating murder, when wounding a lion in Africa, call for tea.
I awoke the following morning, my mouth surrounded by a band of scum normally found at the waterline of a boarding house bath. It felt faintly hairy and tasted of that strange chemical amalgam produced in a chauffeur's glove. My feet were blistered, my legs lacerated, my shoulders red, my face sunburnt and I was suffering from a hangover. Seeing me awaken, Jackson approached bent over in a posture of hideous servility, his hands clapping silently together.
"Tea for sah ?"
Posted by I.P.A. Manning at 10:32 AM
We all preferred going to see the Doctor in the heart of Africa, which was the object in leaving India.
Bombay, 9th September 1874.
We have been away from the Bangweulu for some years now, but wherever I may be, whatever the month, whatever the day, even the hour, I think of those long lovely vistas of flood plain and of the river estuary where we truly lived; there I hope that orderly change holds sway, that the inexorable advance of the thunderheads and the flood and the lechwe and the slow retreat of the rains and the water and the animals - each day showing the measure of the great sweep of history before - still takes place, so that being far away – say on the 17 March, St Patrick’s Day, the day of Cathlin’s and my marriage, I will know that the last heavy rains – the Katumpu, have fallen, that the water is at least nine inches deep on the water meadows, and that the lechwe have taken up their temporary vigil in the termitaria woodland fringing the plains. It is a great comfort.
Kapundu Milimo (garden work - seed time): December
It was mid-morning when first we came to Chikuni; the sun bright, the grass short and emerald green, the occasional reedbuck and tssesebe hewn into the distance with flocks of glossy starlings flashing in the shrubbery of the termite mounds. As the track through the woodland turned gradually to the north, I became aware of a white shining house raised above a great plain advancing it seemed like some ghostly East-Indiaman in full sail the ocean of plain curving away behind it and into the reed beds of the Lukulu river. It was a dramatic entry into our new life.
Two recently erected houses - newly vacated by two biologists, stood on the eastern end of Chikuni Island, a slip of land only truly an island when the annual flood came in January, and behind those , on the far side of a narrow airstrip, stood three tin huts amidst a grove of paw paw and banana trees which housed a game guard, two workers and their families. The island was a 1000 yards long and some 60 yards wide, its shape that of a giant human spoor. And about us was Chimbwe plain, the plain of the hyena, a long tongue of it running off to the west and fringed a mile away to the south by the line of termitaria woodland known as Mandamata. A few hundred yards north of the island - a sign of more permanent water, lay beds of reeds of numerous species, patches of them interspersed with beds of hippo grass and clear pools dotted with lily pads and small islands once cultivated until one came to the Lukulu river itself, and then beyond that the Buteka plain, and beyond that still, on the horizon, the Lukanga woodland. And about all of this was the constantly changing colander of sky, for the land is so flat, the vistas so immense, that it is aptly named: Bangweuluwavikilwashimwangonwana, Where the Water
Meets the Sky, or as we now sensibly know it, Bangweulu.
Our house at Chikuni had been placed on top of a mound of earth leaving a hole beyond the Rauvolfia tree near our back door that filled with water in the flood. It was a small three-bed roomed, prefabricated house, its principal feature being its north-east facing lounge and the window that travelled clear across the side of the building. Even the bedrooms and my office were fitted with large windows so that when we were inside, the plain remained palpably with us.
In the rains came the flood when a thousand or more black lechwe antelope massed about the house, and in the dry season the plain dry, empty of all but a few tssesebe and perhaps an oribi on its way to water, shimmered and danced about us. In bed we had merely to lift our heads, and there it was; at breakfast one felt unerringly for a hot scone, eyes fixed on an elephant in the far distance as it trailed from N’go – haunt of the leopard, towards the cassava mounds of N’gungwa village some fifteen miles to the east. And there was always a breeze for although the reed beds of the Lukulu loomed close by never once did a mosquito venture near us, not even during the rains when Chikuni became truly an island.
This was our home, the place that confirmed for me, for all time, that working close to nature is the supreme joy, but also that paradise remains ephemeral, a state of mind and special circumstance, an epiphany, having – as Thoreau discovered at Walden pond, a beginning and an end.
Apart from our staff, our nearest neighbours were a community of fishermen and two game guards – junior officers of my employers, the Government Department of Wildlife and Fisheries - the Game Department as some of us still refer to it - at Kaleya, a fishing village on the Lukulu. Kaleya lay part of the way towards N’gungwa, a few mud huts placed on a shelf of high ground. In the rains, other fishermen would take up temporary residence here or on some of the raised levees lying to the west of Chikuni - usually near the deep pond of Kalubangkwale, and further to the west, beyond Mutoni, in the great sea sweep of swamp itself, on the small chulus - termite islands – evidence of drier times. We saw few people, fewer still of our own white tribe, but those we did were missionaries from Chilonga Mission - lying some hundred miles away as the crow flies on the Great North Road, near the Government boma of Mpika.
During the first three weeks of our time at Chikuni, Chimbwe plain was miraculously transformed from a brown desiccated expanse of short grass shimmering in the heat, silent but for the occasional melancholy cry of a bird far off, into an emerald green meadow dotted with pink flowers. Long lines of lechwe issued forth from the reed beds and levees lining the Lukulu and walked slowly towards Chikuni, their heads held low, horns thrust forward; a purposive advance on their lekking grounds surrounding our house. It was the end of yet another migration. How many times had that happened before; the herds trekking endlessly twice a year between the line of the Chambeshi that cleaves the swamp from the north-east, and the alluvial water meadows. But there they were, slightly in advance of the annual flood, strolling along like contented cattle, yet soon, like the plain about them, about to spring once more into life.
I learnt later, when a year had gone by, that the male's coat was already darker now about the neck, would grow darker still - especially the alpha males some of whom would have coal black sides, by the time the first leks are established in the first flood. The lechwe had been doing this through the millennia: before the death of Livingstone, before the arab slavers and the Portuguese traders came, before the bushmen and the pygmy long before, who knows how far back, for the Bangweulu basin is truly ancient representing many years of geological quiescence in the turbulence and change of the rift valleys about her.
In the morning we sometimes sat on the steps and felt the wind spring up from the east and blow red dust along the top of the Mandamata, hiding for an instant, a small herd of tssesebe and a few diminutive oribi on their way to the Lukulu to drink or perhaps a skein of knob-nose duck making low across the plain. Or sometimes at dusk, in the dry season, I would walk towards the reedbeds across the short grassed plain as herons and Denham’s bustards made singly towards the safety afforded by the reeds, the sky glowing in the setting sun, the tips of the phragmites reeds afire and the coucal's throbbing call bringing down the night. And standing on the edge of the mud flats with marsh sandpipers calling plaintively .”.tu..tu..tu…tu” and occasionally, painted snipe bursting forth from beneath my feet and crackling away towards the river which now lay hidden in the gloom. As the days passed the grass grew rapidly. We could see it happening. Later, in the afternoon, we might walk the few hundred yards separating us from one of the flooded capillaries’ of the Lukulu to inspect the water level. It was, as Hobito informed us, at its lowest level, even though it had started raining.
It would take much time to fill the sponge of swamp, until finally, the water would begin to rise the 17 or so inches to its peak, for the Bangweulu is flat country, the vast plains and endless vistas of swamp, with only one exit point – the Luapula - at war with evapo-transpiration and the insatiable sponge effect itself. But rise it would. The lechwe knew that. And so they prepared themselves.
The land and swamp in Bangweulu is so inseparately annealed with the sky that I became acutely aware of the shape and play of the clouds, especially when moisture poured off the land and was sucked inexorably upwards forming dense anvils of cumulo-nimbus that rolled threateningly down upon us or merely floated closer like friendly whales. Walking back to the house I would be overcome by an all pervading sense of peace and contentment, and a realization that truth lay embodied in what surrounded us - the eternal unchanging truth, underlined by yet another skein of knob-nose duck that drew low across the tops of the reeds. In the morning, my staff mustered outside the house , an event that was to be the early morning ritual: Cotton Mateyo for a time, but always Kasongo and Hobito.
Hobito hailed from N’gungwa, a small muscular man with a Hitler moustache and toes that ended all in a line as though evolution had restructured his feet according to Lamarckian principles. I would often remind him of the common belief of mainland people that the people of the swamps had webbed feet. Although he spoke little English, his reaction was always to raise his hand to his mouth, cover his teeth, and giggle while trying to hide one foot behind the other. Although he now lived in N’gungwa, in Bisa country (Chief Chiundaponde under Paramount Chief Kopa), his people are the original inhabitants of Bangweulu, people long settled there prior to the arrival of the main wave of Bantu in the late 17th Century from the Congo Basin; yet forced by them to take up a secretive life in the swamps where they lived like sitatunga on beds of floating reeds or on small termite islands like Mbo Yalubambe where the purest strain of baTwa (wild men) live, a people of pygmy origin. On the other hand, Kasongo was a much larger man, an Unga from the large sand island of Ncheta on the Chambeshi where it cleaves the swamp before becoming the Luapula. Both of them were consumate canoemen with deep chests and firmly held suspicions of the main land with its canopied forest and strange survival patterns. They were hunters and fishermen, and not slash and burn agriculturists, with a fierce pride and a well-earned mistrust of those who placed themselves in authority over them. For awhile they were joined by the game guard, Cotton Mateyo, the heir to the Chieftaineship of Bwalya Mponda with his seat, his masumba, lying at Ncheta. Other men came too, but for a brief time. And then there was Kapinga, the gentle fishermen, who caught fish for our table and for Fred the pelican.
We first discovered the airboat parked two hundred yards away in a clear pool of water into which the galvanized pipe, running from the water tower, fed. It was a 10,000 gallon tank, and every few days, Hobito or Kasongo would start up the little two-stroke engine and pump water from the pond into the tank which watered us all, standing twenty feet up on its stand. It was pure clear water of course, water sifted and clarified by the papyrus.
Our drinking water pond was connected by a shallow canoe path to the Lukulu, the same path used by the men when travelling up to Kaleya – or even on occasion N’gungwa, to visit their friends or to buy fish. The airboat had difficulty traversing the dry patch for it was broad of beam and was hindered by the dry grass and reeds on the paths edge. With the 180 h.p engine at full revs, the wash of the propeller blasting back into the reeds, I would push the rudder too and fro, forcing the nose of the boat from port to starboard and back to port again, the men knee deep in the ooze pushing and pulling until we shot off once more beating across the clear ponds bordering the Lukulu.
That first time, in December, I went over to inspect the inlet: a mere trickle of water flowed down the path; the flood had begun. At the same time, a pair of house sparrows, who had long kept us company, left. Their departure came as a shock, as though a valued guest had left without saying goodbye. But it was a general time of leave-taking and bird life soon became scarce in the estuary, the shoebill storks gone, a few solitary spurwing sulking in the sward, a pair or two of pygmy geese in the deep pools, a flight perhaps of fulvous tree duck and sulking on the edge of the reed beds, the occasional rufous-bellied heron.
With the trickle, increasing daily, the fibingu nsobe – translated from chiBemba as the reed of the sitatunga – a cyperus sedge, turned noticeably green and shiny, forming waist high thickets in two feet of water, its hard triangular shaped stems waving halos of leaves and seed in the air. And all around in the afternoon, large mounds of dark cloud shed their water, looking like schools of hydra floating in clear water their tentacles of rain trailing over the earth, turning it green, yet still drumming up the dust. And rainbows crisscrossed the sky and turned to lightning at night.
At sunset a small heard of adult female lechwe, accompanied by their newly born lambs, stood on Chonamangkoswe island and looked towards the east, their heads held at half mast, unafraid and resting. Fireflies sparkled about beyond our windows, and later it began to rain, a heavy crackling roar against the side of the house, rattling the corrugated iron sheets.
One night I heard the excited hooting note of a hyena signalling its return to its wet season home. It had obviously accompanied the first wave of lechwe males back from the Chambeshi and now would hunt them from the comfort of its warren dug into a large termitarium in the Mandamata. Its call seemed defiant, a loud whistling and moaning of : “Here I am. I’m back again.!”. In the morning, my search of the plain with binoculars revealed some scattered herds of lechwe. But of the hyena there was no sign, nor later when it was hot enough for vultures to be born aloft on thermals of hot air, did the swamp folk announce a death.
After breakfast I strolled down the airstrip with the men and looked towards the fibingu and at a lone tssesebe bull standing on the short grassed meadow. He would soon be moving off to his regular haunts on the large plain called Nyamushitu lying to the south of the Mandamata and close to the Lulimala river, for he is a dry land species reliant on hard ground where he is able to use his great speed to escape predators. But for the moment he was content to stand there, standing high and giraffe-like at the withers. But he snorts and runs off in a springing four legged pogo stick motion known as stotting, then stops again, snorts and stares at us.
Chikuni is separated on its heel from a much smaller island by a narrow depression that in the rains feeds water from the Lukulu swamp onto the plain. This depression marks the end of the airstrip. Immediately to the north of the airstrip and embracing the series of islands running west of Chikuni’s heel is a mini depression of some twenty acres. It is the first place to be flooded and the most sought after lek in the vicinity of Chikuni. Here already, with the tssesebe looking out of place, were two adult male lechwe. As we approached one of them chased the other for about 30 yards and then stopped. This clearly signalled the start of the rut, the agonistic behaviour would become more marked, more aggressive as the dominant males demarcated and defended their territories on the most productive water meadows. From a wall of fibingu immediately to the north of the water meadow came the plaintive bleat of lechwe calves. My world was agog with change.
Posted by I.P.A. Manning at 2:10 AM
Saturday, August 11, 2007
- a memoir of South Africa -
Civilization, is before all, the will to live in common. A man is uncivilized, barbarian in the degree in which he does not take others into account. Barbarism is the tendency to disassociation.
Jose Ortega y Gasset - The Revolt of the Masses.
‘But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare ; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men. The titihoya does not cry here any more.’
Alan Paton - Cry the Beloved Country.
‘It reminded me of my ‘white’ Trinidad contemporaries who, as dispossessed and as destitute as the rest of us could only fall back on the bogus aristocracy of colour to preserve their self-esteem.’
Shiva Naipaul - North of South
‘During my lifetime I dedicated myself to this struggle of the African People. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony, and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’
‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence, but an idea; an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.’
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
I was nine years old standing on a hill beneath an old pepper tree; not Navel Hill the shape of a load of sand tipped from a wheelbarrow with the whitewashed horse on its side, but a smaller hill, almost as steep, in the relative quiet of a post-war South African day, listening with the disembodied detachment of youth to the sounds of a town: the far-off whine of a car, a turtle dove cooing and pumping its neck, the harsh shouts of a Sotho woman calling in Sesotho to her friend in the street, a Rhodesian ridgeback growling and snapping at the heels of a delivery boy, the heavy tremulous clap of iron-shod Clydesdale hoof upon the tar, to the eternal ringing of an icecream cart, lament of a dying day. It was after school, soaking up the time before supper when I realized for the first time that something was wrong in South Africa.
Of course, I was also thinking – as I did every waking minute, of the Afrikaner school up the road whose last marroon-jacketed pupils had already left for the day, and that tomorrow I would have to pass the school again in my blue jacket and bear their savage taunts, “Blarry Rooineck.... donderse vokken Engelsman.” And if I came at speed and saw pursuit was unlikely, shouting defiantly in reply, “Bladdy Hairybacks!” The Rooinecks and the Hairybacks, side by side, one country; and in the shadows, the black man, waiting.
Coming up the hill I had been thinking of the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in far-off Kenya, an insurrection freely reported in The Friend, the daily paper where my mother worked, pushing my Rudge bicycle and looking down at the black tar, at the gravel on the verge, at my long grey socks, listening to the whirring of the chain over the sprockets, seeing the clouds in the pale blue Orange Free State sky, once the Orange River Colony sky, where great-grandfather Gordon (my mother’s maternal line) had Irish navvies and stonemasons cut the khaki sandstone for the house from the Maluti mountains. About me was the town, Bloemfontein, the judicial capital of the Union of South Africa, yet no more than a dorp, to which I had come a few years before in 1946 with my mother, both of us deserted for ever by my RAF, Irish father. Yes, I was thinking, something is wrong: race and tribal hatred blights our lives; and what of the future, what of the excitement of things to come, of following the path laid out by our heroes of the past. But it was the absence of real heroes that worried me most as I had taken note that people like Jan Smuts: Boer War kommando leader, General in the East African campaign against Von Lettow Vorbeck, Field-Marshal in the Second World War, Father of the League of Nations, botanist, originator of the concept of Holism, author, former Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, had been replaced in 1948 by some faceless people in ill-fitting suits with strange ideas, ideas which seemed more in tune with the people whom we had just defeated. And they definitely did not fit the mould of my heroes set by Henty, Haggard, Johns & Co.
Then this boy I see down the long river of the years licks the end of the string and winds it tightly about the yellow cone of his wooden top, tongue clenched between teeth, small brown fists turning about, then lunging down, whipping the top upon the one spinning slowly on the hard packed earth.
Now, years later - in 1984, a man blessed with a wife and children, I had returned to take my rail journey of discovery, to glean what was happening on the platteland – the other country of small dorps and farms of the hinterland, to see how the forgotten people lived. It would not usher up the full truth, but it might allow me to understand this South Africa of 1984, this South Africa of all times.
Donside by the Caledon
An old full bearded man balding in a chair in a bare earthed farmyard. The picture faded a sepia memory of a huntly gordon scot on donside africa cane in brown hands dog laddie about black booted feet horses nearby in the brown stone of their stable and oxen and their wagon long dusssel boom warmed by chickens and shy winters sun. Waiting. Remembering the basuto wars the rush and clamour of ten thousand mounted masutho horsemen and later the boer war. A house cut from the mountain by irish navvies on walkabout laid one atop the other the house of yon celt come from the banks of the don via nova scotia and shipwreck and the woman he saved. And the jumping of ship. To the mountains. Any mountains. Just dassies and scotsmen. Not sassenachs ye noo. Hard men. Steel hands meeting out ready justice. Thou shalt watch over thy neighbour. Oh come with me up yon slope to the sheer sandstone face to the cave of the fish forever interred in cliff face of the white-backed and bearded vultures lammergeyers one far above holding you in the cup of his eye to the caledon river to the swirling muddied cool waters and the guinea fowl fretting at sunset across the river by horse to leribe to buthe buthe to an effulgent mountain pool to generals nek in the trap across the wooden bridge rattling milk cans to fetch the mail and the whiskey scots of course. Long skirted tight bodiced flappers of the farm in the dickey seat or on an oxwagon sixteen strong witman bles jonker and their ilk and half men voorloper picannin bare foot about the earth down to the caledon for a picnic a war coming.
At Generaalsnek station are the giant firs and across the valley to the mountains and the Caledon river, a view of the old family farm. A thin scavenger of a conductor gets down from the train: “Kom, kom, kom aan julle!” he moans, exhorting people burdened down with head bundles to hurry.
Here, down below, lay the territory conquered from Moshesh, the granary of the Free State, where my mother’s family farmed for three generations - including my mother who had managed the farm, Knighton through the war years while her father and mother went to Basutoland, to Mafeteng, to release a younger man for the front, just herself and old and very loyal Masuto retainers whose names, like the bend in the river or a particular mountain, she still remembers. As a small child I watched the ox wagon and the oxen, all sixteen of them, toiling along in the lee of a flat topped sandstone mountain where white-backed vultures nested, all that is left of the elysian fields long ago. Beyond the river lay the Leribe district of Basutoland, a mountain fastness of scattered villages and blanketed horsemen with straw hats.
Moshesh, one of Africa’s greatest leaders – the one arguably with the most impressive and sustained record of leadership ever in South Africa’s history , and the founder of what was to become Lesotho, came to prominence in the 1820’s, a period of great tribal disruption in South Africa. At the time of the scattering of the tribes - probably brought about by many years of drought, when a series of skirmishes and wars broke out, he was living near the farm but across the Caledon on the Hlotse river. Finding his position there difficult to defend from Sekonyela, he moved to nearby Buthe Buthe and took up a position on a hill, which I remember still from school holidays spent with my ever jovial Uncle, Harry Palmer, continuously exhorting, “Jack it up! Jack it up!”, his house and store standing in full view of the mountain.
My time in Buthe Buthe resonates still: there were few people about and the district had numerous dams under the care of Uncle Harry, a keen fisherman. With rod and pellet gun, I wandered the cannibal - and now ritual murder free, vales and hills alone, hunting doves and fishing for blue-gill and bass. I also rode occasionally, an old long-hoofed nag constantly in search of lost change belonging to the much beloved Dr Dyke, a fourth generation Basutolander whose forefather, Rev. H. H. Dyke had come to the country with the Paris Missionary Society, later acting as secretary to Moshesh.
Moshesh’s enemy were the Tlokwa – ‘People of the wild cat’, seasoned warriors led by Chieftainess Mantatsi – famous for her war-axe throwing skills, and her battle leader, her son, Sekonyela, who lived on two mountain fortresses in the area of our farm. Formidable fighters, they forced Moshesh to move his forces sixty miles south to another mountain fortress, soon to be famous, Thaba Bosiu (the hill of night). The area was then infested with cannibals, Peete, Moshesh’s grandfather, being caught and eaten by them as he lagged behind his grandson. The move to Thaba Bosiu is the true birth of the Basuto nation.
Moshesh’s reputation as a fighter and negotiator spread; recruitment from other clans was rapid. The fact that he paid tribute to the Zulu paramount chief , Dingane, starting with women, skins and feathers and eventually ending with arms, ammunition and horses, meant he was left alone to gather strength, the Zulu armies which continuously laid waste the Caledon Valley, concentrating on other fare.
In the early 1830’s, at the time of the Great Trek of the Dutch and Khoikhoi, the fighting methods of the many clans who came together to be known as the Basuto were to undergo rapid transformation. Hordes of Khoikhoi, mounted on Cape horses, first brought to the Cape in 1653 from Java - and added to by Arabs brought from Persia in 1689, soon entered the area now know as the Free State. The Khoikhoi were superb horse and cattle men, and being armed with muskets, found the Basuto easy prey, making lightning guerilla raids and driving off their cattle. Eventually, however, there came the first Basuto victory. After killing the Khoikhoi riders the Basuto victors sat and watched the Khoikhoi horses as they grazed until quite certain that the explosions of musket fire came not from the horses themselves. This was the start of the breed, the Basuto pony, first called by them, khomo ea haka ‘the cattle called haka’ – the khoikhoi name being hacqua. Within a few years, Moshesh united the various clans into a nation of formidable cavalry, giving up their distinctive light shield and making use of their battle axe and assegai, with muskets slung behind their backs. No other tribes adopted this method.
The horses, although added to by the importation by the missionary, Casalis, of Irish thoroughbreds in 1869 - given the harsh conditions of the Malutis, soon became a 14 hand pony, surefooted and of great endurance. Great numbers were bred, some exported to India, 12 000 sold to British forces in the Boer War, and many used in other wars (Omdurman) and expeditions, including the pioneer column which brought western ways to the area now called Zimbabwe. But the drought of the 1930’s and the motor car put paid to them. Today the breed no longer exists, its closest genetic survivors being the Boerperd, the Nooitgedacht – developed in 1953, and the American Morgan.
In 1831, Mzilikazi and the Matabele carried out their last attack on Moshesh before heading off on the journey, which was to see them establish their suzerainty in present day Zimbabwe. They stormed Thaba Bosiu but were repulsed by showers of rocks. In June of 1831 the first whites appeared, four of them, meeting with Moshesh somewhere in the region of present day Ladybrand. Moshesh, soon met with other Europeans and heard of this new breed of men called missionaries. This excited him, prompting him to send a gift of cattle to the French missionaries at Philapolis. It was not too long after that three members of the French Evangelical Society arrived, among them Casalis and Arbousset who were to have a major impact on the building of a future Basutoland. In 1837, Piet Retief met with Sekonyela at Imperani, at their second meeting handcuffing the chief and telling him that he would be freed only when cattle taken from Dingane had been returned. Once the cattle had been released, Sekonyela was freed. This had a massive negative effect on the Basuto and on Moshesh, accentuated by the summary execution of a delegate sent by Dingane to another trekker leader, Andries Pretorius. The loss of trust between Boer and Basuto was permanent.
Finally, in 1853, having seen off the British forces of General Cathcart, Moshesh, despite British warnings, moved against Sekonyela’s Tlokwa and his force of some 800 men, reinforced by 100 mounted Khoikhoi, forcing him to leave for the Cape, many of his men being absorbed by Moshesh. However, two short wars followed with the Orange Free State, leading to the acquisition of Basutoland by the Colonial office and the breaking of Basuto power in 1868. The following year the grainlands of the Caledon valley were taken over by the Free State.
It must have been sometime after the death of Moshesh in 1870, that Hugh William Gordon came to the district, taking up land at about the time that the towns of Ficksburg and Fouriesburg were declared, on land taken from Moshesh and the Tlokwa and known as the conquered territory. Most of the 1870s was a period of great prosperity, particularly for the Basuto who traded and worked at the Kimberley diamond mines, acquiring many rifles as a result. This was the time, first of the Zulu wars of 1878-9 and the early British defeats - particularly the defeat at Isandhlwana, and the start of the disastrous Basuto Gun Wars of 1880-2.
The first sign of the latter was the treatment of Langalibalele, ruler of the Hlubi, a semi-sacred personage, a rainmaker famous throughout southern Africa. Refusing to hand in his guns he took refuge in the mountains with a large herd of cattle. The Government persuaded Molapo, one of Moshesh’s sons and chief of the area across the river from the farm, to bring in Langalibalele, in return for a share of the cattle. This Molapo did, sending his son Jonathan with a small force to guide him to Leribe. Two thousand head of cattle were given to Molapo, an act of treachery, which scandalized all the tribes.
The chiefs were instructed to hand in their guns, Jonathan, Moshesh’s grandson, complied, but his brother Joel, and other chiefs did not. Formerly a friendly and cooperative people, strongly pro-British, they now became sullen and unresponsive. Jonathan and a small following remained loyal however, moving himself and his small band of supporter to a mountain near Leribe. Joel began to gather his forces for attack, brother against brother. A local Free State farmer, Stanton, came to the British Resident’s and Chief Jonathan’s assistance at Leribe (Hlotsi) with a group of irregulars, defending the mission station, to this were added a small force of Cape Troops, the Diamond Field Horse, the Transvaal Horse and a native contingent. Numerous battles ensued, Joel attacking both Jonathan and the settlement. Here the Basuto cavalry, formidable opponents, were seen in action for the last time, one of their axes coming into Hugh William’s possession – now in mine. A purely Colonial war, the sheer cost of the fighting brought it to a halt and a peace treaty signed, the Basuto agreeing to hand over large herds of cattle and their guns. But no such guns or cattle were forthcoming. Joel now immediately attacked Jonathan, a number of hand to hand battles taking place, but by 1883, Joel’s power was finally broken and peace ensued.
And all this across the river. I remember Leribe: just a few houses and stores, one large one with colonial verandah and garden in which lived the District Commissioner, Fox, a family friend, and his daughter, the beautiful Desiree, who lives in my memory for the first kiss of passion stolen in the garden at all of six years old. And on the heights above the Hlotse/Caledon confluence was the old Anglican mission founded by the Rev. John Widdicombe in 1876, the mission almost destroyed in the Basuto wars.
I have a picture of Hugh William Gordon as an old man dressed in a long sleeved shirt and waistcoat and longs - probably close to his death at the age of 89 in 1924, a gaunt face of great character, balding with a full white beard, gnarled hands clasped together, legs crossed, a thick walking stick leaning against his thigh, and behind him a sandstone thatched squarehavel joined to a square building with a tin-roof overhang, and his beloved pug, Laddie, nearby, awaiting a walk. The buildings I don’t recognize as it was taken at old Donside house, the new house being built in 1899 closer to the Caledon. Obviously he must have stayed on there, his son Phillip moving in to the new house. There is nothing now left of old Donside - bar a few stones - and the newer house was burnt down about a hundred years after the first was built, but nearby is the family graveyard where he is buried, and his first son - also Hugh William, who died young, and his wife. Like many a Scotsman, being Presbyterians, they had a close affinity with the Dutch Calvinists, like the Murray family, who built up the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. Hugh William married Maria Oosthuizen and had a son and four daughters – one of them my grandmother. Maria died young in 1895, Hugh William bringing up the children.
Although it could not have been my great-grandfather or great-grandmother – given the dates, Dr Henry Taylor’s memoir records the following during the period he lived at Leribe between 1877 and 1882: “Living near Brandwater was an old Scotchman, who had married a Dutch wife. He was a most intelligent man, and very hospitable, and as I had to pass his farm on my road to Brandwater, I often called in to have a cup of coffee, a pipe, and a chat with him. They had a child which was born with a large naevus (a swelling of vascular tissue) on its forehead, and it was arranged that, when the baby was a little older, I should operate and remove it. One day our conversation happened to turn to Boer superstitions, which my Scotch friend heartily ridiculed. He told me that his wife was a great believer in them, and among other things was firmly persuaded that the naevus could be cured by placing the hand of a dead child on it. A short time after, I was called to see the child of a Dutchman, a neighbour of my Scotch friend, who with his wife had called to ask after the sick baby. The poor baby died shortly after I got to the house, whereupon my friend took me on one side and said, “Doctor, my wife has gone home to fetch her baby, so that she can put the hand of the dead child on its naevus. Of course, you and I know that it is all rot, but my wife is a good soul, and I didn’t want to run counter to her wishes, so I let her have her way.’
The baby was presently brought into the house, and the hand of the dead child solemnly placed on the naevus, amid the dead silence of a large party of Boers who were present. Some time after, I was calling at the Scotchman’s house, and suggested that it was now time for the operation on his child.
‘Doctor,’ he said, ‘ a very curious thing has happened. From the day that the dead child’s hand was placed on it, the naevus began to wither away, and it has now disappeared entirely.’ The two wise men looked at each other in silence.
I had the child brought in, and inspected it. The naevus had quite disappeared. To save our faces we both declared that the cure of the naevus was a mere coincidence, but I saw a twinkle of triumph in the wife’s eye as she said that she ‘knew better’.”
During the Boer war, so the story goes, Hugh William had hidden his son, Phillip in the loft when visited by the Boer patrols, for they would have taken him with them as a recruit. There is also a record of Philip having attended school in Bethlehem, where he would have had to board.
Hugh William remains a mystery. There is so little known, the beating of the generations not preserving that which I ache to know: his parents had lived at Huntley (his mother was Christine Cobham) and had later moved to Aboyne where they became great friends of the Airlie Ogilvie family – he for a time living somewhere near Balmoral; he had served in the Gordon Highlanders, had been a sailor – on the way to Canada being shipwrecked and saving a woman passenger, the only survivors; had sailed to South Africa, jumped ship and earned his living for awhile as a cabinet maker – a skill he had taught himself. Later came the call from Scotland to take up his inheritance – land presumably, but he declined and never did go back. And when it was cold, the wind and rain thrashing the trees outside, he would stare fixedly at the fire, shake his head and mutter, “Oh! The poor sailors in that awful wind !” So little known, so maddeningly little.
Only two documents penned by him survive: one, a fragment of a letter written during the Boer war in 1900 to someone unknown, another, a letter at the outbreak of WW1 to my grandmother. The 1900 letter gives some idea of what it was like to live in the countryside as a Briton during the war, but also throws some light on what happened to the cattle captured from the Boers at the nearby Brandwater basin by Generals Rundle and Campbell.
‘ …whole day, the next afternoon hearing where they had camped I went to report about the oxen but they had already gone. I think it can hardly be supposed that I would be able to keep these oxen when the boers had possession of the whole district.
I was continuously an object of suspicion of the boers and my house was several times ransacked by them looking for papers, saddles, clothes etc, and then I was ordered to join the laager but did not go and lived in dread until General Rundle came and while a patrol was on my farm, gave me leave to go through the Caledon.
Sept 7, 1900…re account of Government oxen left by General Campbell with me, all of them in a very exhausted state. Same week 3 died, next week 2 died, next week 3 died and 1 got drowned in a mud hole.
Oct 14th. 3 boers came and took 32 of these oxen, the foreman’s name was Pretorius. He said he was sent by Veldkornet E. van Niekerk. He would give me no receipt. The others being too poor they left them. 4 of the remaining oxen strayed to my neighbours farm J Schalkwyk but I could not take them back as they had got amongst lung sick cattle and the boers gave orders to him that he must keep the oxen by him until they wanted them.
Oct 31st. A boer corporal named Greyling (?) who used to live in Ficksburg came and took remainder of oxen left. He said he was sent by Commandant Steyn. He also gave no receipt, neither of these men gave any receipt, but they as well as Mr Schalkwyk are well known and if not killed will be able to prove what I state. Also there is here at Leribe a neighbour of mine J. Rensburg who saw the first lot of oxen 32 which the boers took past his farm and they told it was English oxen they had took from me.
I may be accused of negligence in not writing but the English were only a few days gone when the boers came, the post was not open for me and my parole confined me to my farm, besides I had no horse left me, the boers took all of them and there was a boer patrol day and night above my house, and my native servants had all fled through the Caledon. I was left alone with my daughters on the farm.
On 18th Feb 1901 a column came from Ficksburg and fought near my house the …when cattle went through Caledon took at once to Thlotse counted and examined all had my mark HG and no other are still in Basutoland and be seen any day.’
He was later to put in a claim for compensation, Britain – like the Marshall Plan of more recent times, being exceedingly generous to Boer and Briton alike, though probably far less so to the Bantu.
At the end of the war, Commandant Steyn and Veldkornet E. Van Niekerk and five others were jailed. Dr Taylor, by then the Mayor and district medical officer, visiting them every day. At their trial the evidence against them was damning, a hanging being fully expected. However, at the last minute they were reprieved by the terms of the peace which stated that any Boer combatant could not be held responsible for actions committed during the war. Years later, Dr Taylor quotes a letter received from E. van Niekerk in 1913:
I have treated thee dishonestly re your account against me. I have stolen your money through deceive. The Lord Almighty has showed me my transgressions. I have sinned against thee. However, I am not abel to pay you yet, hoping to do so when I am abel. Oh, do forgive me my trespasses against thee, forgive me please.
Your humble servant,
Hugh William lived for 29 years as a widower, single- handedly bringing up his children. When my grandmother, Christian, had moved with her husband and young children to develop a ranch in the Vryburg district at the beginning of WW1, he wrote:
Donside 28th Sep
My Dear Chrissie,
It is over a month since I got your letter and I feel rather small about not answering it, but better late than never you know. I am a lazy one to write letters and the ink is quite done. You wrote of wind and dust. We have had the same thing here. Some time ago we had some rain and snow and we thought the drought was broken but the last little rain we had was too little to do much good and now the grass is completely done and no sign of rain. How it is going to be with the cattle I don’t know. I have used all my chaff and 5 bags of crushed mealies, besides a lot of forage on the milk cows and poor cattle, but now I have nothing left and they must take their chance. You very kindly invite me to go and see you all at Stranraer. I would like very much like to go but there is no money coming in and always some going out that I will have to put it off until some other time when things improve. I do long to see you all and Jim especially, he must be a fine fellow. I am glad to hear that he does a lot of mischief, it is a sign that there is some life in him.
This is a terrible war in Europe, a war not of thousands but millions. It is terrible. That Kaiser has a great deal to answer for when the war is over. I think they will yet get the beating they deserve, challenging the whole of Europe when he thought the French and English were in difficulties.
That fellow Beyers is a fine fellow to give up his command of the defence force the way he did, the whole Hertzog lot ought to be put with the German prisoners at Pretoria and left there. I don’t think you need fear any of the natives rising, there is no sign of that, on the contrary they seem willing to help if they could. We are having terrible warm days and not a cloud in the heavens, if clouds do come there is always a strong wind to blow them away.
Will you be able to come and see us at Christmas, we should all be so glad to see you and Alex and the children. I expect it will be the last I will have the pleasure of spending with you, anyway I am getting very crankie. Kiss the children for me and love to you all and Alex. How does he like farming?
Philip, Hugh William’s only son, I remember well, as my mother and I were frequent visitors to Donside. He married an Afrikaner woman, Ellie, the sweetest and kindest woman of creation, whose children, though carrying the name Gordon, are Afrikaners. My mother and I would often drive down to see them for a long-weekend. They were retired, living quietly in the old stone house - their son Hugh having built a house elsewhere on the farm. The old house lay to the south of a mountain in which white-backed vultures nested. In winter, icy cold, one waited for the sun on the verandah and the magnificent breakfast which was to come; in the evening we would sit about the fire with a large drawing of Major Wilson’s Last Stand (commemorating the fight with the Matabele on the Shangani river in far away Rhodesia) over the mantle piece – for there was no television then and no electricity, the conversation of times past punctuated by the occasional impatient ringing of the party line – both curse and blessing. My earliest memory of the house was of sharing a room with my beloved Grandmother and of her long hair being set afire by a candle, fortunately hurriedly extinguished. I remember too a dog come from Basutoland after the sheep, being caught and swiftly relieved of his testicles and sent howling off back from whence he had come. Life was tough on the mountain, and rustling and theft had always been a problem on the border as the Masutho considered the grain lands their property – a legitimate claim.
When they were both elderly, I drove my Great Aunt and Uncle on a visit to Aunt Ellie’s relatives on the Rand; the last they took together. When I left the country, mother and my cousin Jennifer continued the visits until Aunt Ellie died. Uncle Philip was placed in an old-age home miles away soon after, and like his sisters, and like most people of those times, he one day simply expired, alone.
Next to Donside was Riverland – a leased farm, where my Grandfather Alex Andrew’s and my grandmother farmed after the failed attempt to ranch cattle at Vryburg. Alec had been a trader in Basutoland and married my grandmother at Donside in 1907. They spent the years on either side of WW1 there – separated by the Vryburg venture, a life of slow and measured pace - one mimicking the passage of the ox wagon, the house always filled with house guests and wonderful food. My mother had a tutor at home, but her brother, Mac and two sisters, Marion and Eileen, for a time being taken across the river on horseback to be taught by a lady at Leribe. Since Hugh Williams arrival there had always been close relations with Leribe (Hlotse Mission), particularly with the French missionaries and members of the British administration. Our maid, Sarah, who is part of my earliest memory, named me after Paramount Chief Seeiso, who ruled briefly but sent large numbers of auxiliaries to the war front – a massive gesture of solidarity with the protectors of his people, the British.
Leaving Generaalsnek, we carry on and pass through Mount Morkel. The Henchman has taken up his position in an overhead bunk and is playing patience while the beautiful vistas of the Malutis slide past him and out of sight. It is late afternoon and the land is a soft moulding of greens and light browns. We pass through Meynell - named for Mrs Meynell, a dear family friend, dead now. A fiscal shrike bears down upon an insect, catches it, then swings back to his perch. His is a reassuring friendly figure dotting the scenes and pictorial vignettes of my journey. Yellow Leader sticks his head into the compartment. “I’ll check you now,” he says, to no one in particular.
At Fouriesburg, a steady stream of people make their way from the canteen to the train. ‘They prefer it that we live because we look too terrible when we get sick and die. If we just grew thin and turned into paper and then into ash and floated away, they wouldn’t give a stuff for us. They just don’t want to get upset. They want to sleep feeling good,’ writes Coetzee, the words carrying a terrible menace here on the train with Yellow Leader and his half sane sensibilities.
The three of them stand in the corridor and play the last touch game of children, giggling, reaching forward to touch, the half-hearted attempt at escape. Their overweening need is palpable and sad. The Henchman comes into the compartment and stares out at them, and they back at him. His claims on the girl are diminishing.
Two of the jockey’s young brothers and sisters traipse into the compartment. Yellow Leader, the girl and the Henchman sit down to play with them. But their play now becomes cruel and obscene. The children are made to say things, which in their simple fresh minds are transposed into an obscenity. Yellow Leader’s face lights up in a glow of sheer unadulterated joy. To black out this painful sight I start listening to Sarah Vaughan singing ‘April in Paris’. And night comes.
The train surges on ‘hubbahubba hubba…’ In a valley down below are strung the lights of Bethlehem. It grows cold. The journey now enters into a new phase where the present traveling company is joined by an invasion of Afrikaner high school girls on their way to Ladysmith. They crowd into the second class compartment oblivious of the fact that I want to sleep. Yellow Leader produces a bottle of brandy and the Henchman some cokes. The school girls titter and begin drinking. One of them lights a cigarette in the compartment. I have now become the quintessential 20th century man adapting to steadily declining conditions, eventually living in a broom cupboard and liking it. When I tell her to stop they all file out into the cold of the corridor and then just as I am on the verge of sleep they traipse back in again to top up on brandy. One of the girls reels against the small table and spills coke over me and into my open brief case. I journey deeper into the broom cupboard. From here anything can happen, and man will not blink.
In the dark we pass Harrismith, long the site of a British garrison after the Boer war where the one time commander, Lt General Sir H.M.L. Rundle was also Vice-President of the Harrismith Golf Club, on his death in England in 1934 he left the club money.
My relief at reaching Ladysmith at midnight stops just short of a euphoric screech as I part for ever from Yellow Leader and the Henchman, who have by now placed each other in Coventry. In the bitter cold I make my way over to the station to catch the train for Glencoe. It leaves at 4 o’clock “No. You can’t buy your ticket now. Youse must wait until 4 o’clock,” insists the stationmaster.
It is cold; bitter cold. Outside, ranged against the station wall, are numbers of blacks seeking shelter. The canteen for blacks is open, the white canteen closed. I find a waiting room for first and second class passengers: ‘Whites Only’ insists the sign. The room is small but wonderfully warm and like the station itself has been here for a long time, perhaps since the siege of Ladysmith. In the corner is a small iron fireplace with three rough benches set against each of the walls and a large table taking up much of the space in the middle. Two men occupy a bench each; one a genuine railway traveler: unhealthy face, two knapsacks hanging from his back on which are tied two white enamel cups carrying its own complement of traveling ants; the other man is a tramp come out of the cold. I stretch myself out on the vacant bench. The door suddenly opens ushering in a young man dressed in a dark overcoat and carrying a suitcase. I sit up and move over. He looks dead tired.
“What train are you waiting for?” I inquire.
He lifts his thumb, “Hitching,” he mumbles. “Came in to get out of the cold.”
Tomorrow is Good Friday. South Africa is on the move.
The man spreads himself upon the table and is soon fast asleep. Crash. The door bangs open, “Kom julle! What train are you waiting for?” It is the stationmaster, confronting each of us in turn. I have the impression I may still be in the army, or perhaps on the way to the front in the Great War. But, recognizing me, he says nothing, “Uit, uit!” he brusquely commands the others and sends them out into the cold. “Dis nie vir mense wat die spoorwee nie gebruik nie.” ‘It’s not for people who don’t use the railway.’ I fall asleep again. Crash, the door flies open. It’s the stationmaster again. Has he changed his mind? I prepare for battle.
“The bus to Glencoe is going now,” he announces. “Do you want to go by bus?” I hesitate for a moment.
“Yes. What has happened to the train?”
“It’s been rerouted through the OFS.”
Outside the station some tweny-five whites stand huddled among their suitcases. We board, piling the luggage in the aisle. It is bitterly cold. Numerous cigarettes light up in the confined space; 4 o’clock in the morning, the journey now revealed as an escape from a holocaust. A middle-aged man dressed in a safari jacket and shorts with a bulging stomach stands near the driver, clearly our self-appointed master-of-ceremonies.
The bus heads towards Elandslaagte, remembered for the rout of the Boers in the Boer War by the British in a fierce tropical downpour, one leaving many casualties on both sides – notably among the Gordon Highlanders.
After some tacking about on back roads, a large crowd of blacks loom out of the dark.
”Whoa!” shouts a deep voice.
“Whoa yourself. Jy’s verdwaal,” mutters the driver. (‘You’re lost.’)
“It’s a coon,” observes a man behind me.
The blacks shoulder their luggage and head towards the door. The man in the safari suit announces, “This is not your bus.” The crowd resigned to its fate, retreats. The bus turns and heads back for Glencoe. Why had we gone to Elandslaagte in the first place? Finally, we are at Glencoe and a train awaits. And this is the same station where the Boers moved in on the newly vacated station, recorded by Dietlof Van Warmelo in his book, On Commando, “I entered the stationmaster’s house, a well-furnished house with beautiful pictures, books, and mirrors. Some massive silver mugs and other articles of value were lying about. The family had only just dined, for the cloth was still laid. I ate of the food on the table, wrote a letter home with pen and ink, and left the house. Later on, when I returned, it had been thoroughly looted and some of the mirrors smashed.”
In the morning when I wake the sun is out shining on long yellow vistas of grassland dotted with sleek Brahman cattle. We pass through Bloodriver, so long the Boer incubus of their Afrikaner nationalist hegemony, commemorating the 16 December 1838 when, under Pretorius, they killed some 3,000 of Dingane’s Zulu in retribution for the massive slaughter of their own people in February of that same year – including women and children, at Weenen, now commemorated as the public holiday, Dingane’s Day. From this melancholy place we clatter through Scheepersnek and, as Paton writes, ‘Thunder … over battlefields of long ago.’
At Vryheid there are only a few Europeans amongst the many blacks milling about on the station. I walk up to the ticket office. A white woman is busy serving a black man at his appointed counter. She is impatient, “Come on, come on!” she commands, rattling her pen against the steel bars. The man begins again, leaning further down to be able to see under the piece of paper pasted on the small glass window at his ticket counter. I take a taxi up town to a hotel for a wash and breakfast, and later seat myself in the lounge and read Michael K. Two rough looking women enter and are joined by two younger men. They order a double round of drinks. An elderly man, a cripple, enters and seats himself in the corner. The two couples begin talking in sentences of mixed English and Afrikaans. The more voluble of the two men, the one with black, greasy hair, babbles, “Hey! I had me a 1000 cc iron. Another ou by the Lucia Mall, we sommer came together when we pulled away. Hey. I felt such a poepall.” Then with barely a pause, he continued. “Hey! When I was in the airforce I wanted to go twenty-three miles. Ronnie, my mate spokes to him a question?”
Then he gazed at the ceiling while his brain booted up and clarity returned.
“My mother worked all her life long. She scrubbed other peoples floors, she cooked food for them, she washed their dishes, she washed their dirty clothes, she scrubbed the bath after them, she went on her knees and cleaned the toilet. But when she was old and sick they forgot her. They put her away out of sight. When she died they threw her in the fire. They gave me an old box of ash and told me, ‘Here is your mother. Take her away, she is no good to us.’”
Back at the ticket office I find a white man now commands the counter. I inquire about a ticket. Behind us a drunk black man hoves into view and rattles a coin against the window. “Wait, man!” calls the ticketmaster in exasperation, “Can’t you see I’m busy.” He turns towards me once more, “Bloody Kaffirs”, he growls. Late that night I wake, and we are at Breyten.
It is January, 2006, twenty-two years since I passed here on my rail journey, Thaba Nchu mountain on my right, on my left the silent railway line - now no longer in daily use, and beside me my 90 year old mother set on a visit to the places of her childhood; perhaps for the last time.
Thaba Nchu – the Black Mountain guarding the spirit of the great man, Chief Moroka, his illustrious family and the Rolong tribe, is a four hour drive from Johannesburg, the road passing through the old boer town of Winburg, and down to Thaba Nchu, now no longer part of the Bophutatswana homeland of yore, the time of separate development, of apartheid. We book in to a modern hotel with a casino, built in what once was the town park, and after some tea drive the short distance back to the town, past some old houses, unoccupied, fallen into disrepair, thence to the town centre itself, shop after shop – most of them selling furniture, many well dressed blacks strolling about in leisurely fashion, clearly with money, provided perhaps in the form of welfare payments made by the ANC Government to eleven million of its people in South Africa.
We take the road to Tweespruit, skirt the great mountain, then turn off to the Orchison farm lying close by. Finding Cynthia out, as well as her son and his family, we return to the hotel.
I then drive back to the town centre, in search of MacDonald Moroka, grandson of that great man, Dr James Moroka, founder president of the ANC and grandson of Chief Moroka. I am directed to a small set of rooms on the main street where MacDonald practices as an attorney. Greeting the Rolong waiting inside, I take a dining chair, cross my legs and await events. But, as is the custom, being white – and obviously a member of that slice of mankind who are always in a hurry, I am shown almost immediately into MacDonald Moroka’s office.
The office is dark, a curtain drawn to keep out the glare of light from the main street. A short man, his colour that of any person in the waiting room, giving no hint of his part European background, inquires as to what he can do for me. He tells me of growing up in Thaba Nchu, of his opposition as a student to the Bophutatswana regime. He produces some colour photographs, stark evidence of the torture performed on him and his fellow activists by the police while he attended the University of the North. Before that he had left school and gone into hiding for two years, later moving to the Cape to do his matric. All of this is told with no hint of anger – though he mentions that he would like his torturers to be brought to justice one day. He picks up the phone and speaks to his mother who lives nearby in the old family home.
Driving back the way I had come, and collecting my mother, I soon enter the driveway of an old Cape Dutch house built in 1922 by the medical doctor, James Moroka, a small sign proclaiming the house to be a national monument. We are met by McDondald’s mother, Gladys. A friendly and hospitable woman, she leads us into the sparsely furnished house and gives us tea. Her doctor father-in-law, I learn, had encouraged her marriage to his eldest son, despite the fact that she was a Xhosa and his son a Rolong. For he – like that great man Chief Moroka, his grandfather, had wanted to see all South Africans living in harmony, with tribal and racial divisions set aside. Then I learn something not suspected before. James Moroka was actually the son of a Scot, Dr Daniels, who had practiced in Thaba Nchu for years and had carried on a secret liaison with one of the Princesses. I am led to a portrait of her, a beautiful and striking woman dressed in the European fashions of the day. What had happened to her, how had she ended her years. Dr James had followed native custom and taken five wives. Gladys escorts us out onto the broad stoep.
“During World War Two, his wives used to sit out here and sow clothes for the troops up at the front”.
Later, back in the town, I inquire of the present Chief Moroka. His name, I learn, is Albert, an ineffectual chief with a drink problem.
I stop at the Second World War Memorial Gate standing a little back from the road. Someone had half levered off one of the memorial plaques; grass surrounds the cracked pillars, the gate rusts, untended. No sense of history here, no sense and value of what Thaba Nchu has to tell the world.
Back at the hotel I call Cynthia, to learn that my childhood friend, Roly Ross, had died a few months before. And so we drive out again to Cynthia’s farm, for lunch, the farm where I had spent many happy hours as a schoolboy with her and her husband, Angus, dead at the age of thirty-five. Angus’s father had come out to South Africa on the Milner settlement scheme after the Boer War, building a small stone house in an endless vista of grassland. Here Angus and his brother, Hamish, grew up. When their father died, Angus - being the eldest, gave Hamish first choice of which part of the farm to take; he chose the undeveloped part – since sold by his children, some of whom live in the nearby hamlet of Tweespruit.
I tell Cynthia of the prosperity of blacks in Thaba Nchu and learn from her that they cannot find staff, that no one comes to the farm anymore to look for work, and that in the last five years they had already lost four tractor drivers to HIV/Aids. So her son and daughter-in-law now have to drive the tractors themselves; this in a land of massive unemployment.
In Ficksburg, we book in to the hotel, then drive the few hundred yards up to Erwee Street. But Grandfather Andrews’ house is now a memory, and gone too, Polly’s boarding house. And so out on the road towards Fouriesburg, passing the flat-topped hills where the People of the Cat, the boers and the English fought not so long ago. We call in at the home of the current owner of Donside and Riverland, a man called Pretorius, his small modern house and garden laid out on the side of the tar road, and ask permission of his wife to visit the farms (for they do not live there, it being too dangerous with the Basuto ever in raiding mode), then drive to the Mountains and Caledon river of my early life, and of my mother’s, perhaps the only truly happy period of her long life. We try the road up to old Donside house, but it is untended and in one part simply merges into plowed land; and so round the curve of the hill and on to the Riverland house, now a ruin since Cathlin, Bronwen and I had visited years before. Across the river in Lesotho, in the distance, the Maluti’s rise steeply; a settlement clings to the lower slopes, sparse of grass, scarified.
Mother is silent. I stop on the lonely road to tend an overheating problem and trudge back the way I had come to a small dung encrusted pond where I extract water for the radiator. A few birds sing, but shorn of its people, its family of land carers, gloom descends upon me. We make our way back to the tar and drive on to Fouriesberg for lunch. At the petrol station I make the acquaintance of two Masuto, over for the day in their jalopy to buy Lucerne for their cattle at R80 a bale.
It is time to go, back to Joburg via Rodendal and Senekal, scything the loveliness of the Witteberge, our land of memories and childhood innocence.
And driving through this old land I am assailed once more by the memory of that young boy come with a jolt upon consciousness on that hill in Bloemfontein more than fifty years ago, where once, for the first time, the wretchedly ill South Africa had been revealed to him. And now, all these years later, here he was again; and little had changed: the Afrikaner hegemony merely replaced by that of the Black African National Congress, the scramble for gold of Uitlander and Afrikaner now transmogrified into a frantic politically correct harvesting of production by the favoured ANC few, where violent crime had driven well-off South Africans into their own Legoland laagers of fake Tuscany housing and golf estates - these walled, security encircled prisons of their own making, or had sent them packing for Perth, for London, anywhere that is where they could be free of racial prejudice and crime, and where they could live without the mustard gas stench and eternal ennui of the black/white problem. And what of the poor blacks in their shanty towns and their endless night of rape, murder, muggings and social dislocation.
And I had sent myself packing again as well, weary family in tow, ready for another lurch back to old, unfenced Pleistocene Africa, beautiful of course, but increasingly plundered by its own leaders, witchbound, bereft of the promise it once held out for the advancement of civilization in Africa, confirming – as if I did not know it, that the waPajero don’t really want us there either.
But there will come a time, I’m sure, when the trains will once more whoop with delirium upon the rail, where young boys and girls will again be consumed by that delicious end of school-term feeling that only a train journey truly creates, and where the odious appellations, black and white, will forever be left behind in their derelect siding.
Posted by I.P.A. Manning at 2:23 AM