From Boatsheds to Battlefields 33 Drought-Stricken Karoo

End of Entry 32: Mick jumped at the offer and feeling at last that the gates of Romance were opening arranged to leave the beautiful Valley of Contentment.

Far away in the heart of the Great Karoo lies the little Dutch village of Carnarvon. For three days the train has been traveling through the vast plateau – hour after hour, day after day the eye has seen little to break the monotony – white plains stretching apparently into infinity – dotted with endless hills flat-topped, naked but for the scanty covering of small bushes.

Never a tree except where stood a lonely homestead with its attendant windmill. Here and there a flock of grey coloured merino sheep the wool corrugated in great folds upon their neck and shoulders. Now and again a few horses running wild, sometimes a wagon drawn by twenty-two donkeys.

Round the railway stations a cluster of miserable hovels made from beaten out paraffin tins.

All along the line stood powerfully constructed blockhouses loopholed for rifle and machine gun fire – whilst every few miles were tiny cemeteries filled with well cared for graves each with its uniform white cross – the graves of Britain’s dead killed by bullet or shell, died of wounds or typhoid the graves of 1899-1902.

Ever as the journey lengthened the wastes grew drearier and more lonely until at long last appeared a mass of white houses half buried in green patches and spread amongst a forest of windmills.

Many years before Mr. Osmond had been the Magistrate’s Clerk in Carnarvon and his memory had remained green in the hearts of the older generation. Mick who had become very downhearted during the latter stages of the journey brightened up instantly as the train came into the station, and half a dozen burly Dutchmen of apparently prosperous standing picked him out from the other passengers and extended him a bluff good-natured welcome.

Mick spent two days in the village visiting old friends of his father’s and becoming interested in a most vivacious niece of one of them. Then on the third day, he left at daybreak on a mule wagon packed high with lucerne hay.

Two hours through what might have been Arizona brought the wagon to a rather pretty farmhouse standing amidst a few acres of lucerne, oats, orchards and eucalyptus trees.

An oldish Dutchman of rather prepossessing appearance met the wagon and gave Mick a cordial greeting introducing himself as Mr. Kruger the manager. Taking the youth into the house he introduced him to a pleasant looking woman, his wife and to a tall girl, a niece of his who was rather pretty.

Mick settled into the new life immediately – there was apparently no work whatever – some two thousand Merino sheep and six hundred Angora goats were herded over a vast tract of country which had not had rains for six years. Now and again Kruger would count a flock but for 167½ hours in the week, he sat smoking, drinking coffee, brooding or sleeping.

Everyday an average of a dozen valuable sheep died of the drought – the irrigation water became saltish and nothing watered by it grew. Now and again a few tiny clouds appeared on the horizon but by noon they were once again away.

The sun blazed down with pitiless heat – nowhere as far as could be seen was there a leaf or blade but apparently, it didn’t worry Kruger one iota. “It is the Lord’s Will” and that was the start and the end of it. One day rain would come – this year or the year after – there would be perhaps two good years maybe three and everyone who had survived would do sufficiently well to keep over until the next drought.

As the weeks past Mick grew more and more bored – accustomed to a life of throbbing activity, where a man’s daily curse was at the shortness of the daylight hours, and a thousand and one tasks crying for attention, he found it impossible to sit beside Kruger and meditate on the past, present and future.

He flirted desperately with Susie; but she was of a serious nature and deeply religious, besides being older than he was. He went for rides but derived no pleasure from them, having no goal to reach.

Mick began to ride into Carnarvon and sit with a brandy and soda chatting to the German hotel proprietor or go to wild dances amongst the lower type of Dutch. He imagined himself in love with Susie and grew morbid nor did her company help him grow more cheerful – Susie was full of the wickedness of men and the weaknesses of women, and under her influence, Mick began to realise that he himself was a sinner in all probability doomed to everlasting perdition.

The drought grew worse and then came news of good rains some two hundred miles away in Bushmanland.

Day after day great flocks of sheep – Merinos, long-legged Namaqua sheep without wool and carrying tremendous tails of pure fat – some so large and heavy that it seemed extraordinary that the sheep could carry the burden; herds of beautiful Angora goats their bodies covered with long silky mohair, herds of Boer goats of every size and colour. The world seemed filled with moving masses and the air was heavy with their cries.

Day after day the flocks and herds went by accompanied by great tented wagons and pulled by twenty-two donkeys driven by long-bearded Boers with ragged drabs of women and packs of wild barelegged children and savage dogs.

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