From Boatsheds to Battlefields 45 Letter to Dad

Dearest Dad,

At last, I am in my new home and settled for good, I hope. Kotzee is a splendid chap, but jaw! Heavens, he hasn’t stopped for three days and appears half crazy with delight at having a companion.

After leaving Cape Town we had a fine journey as far as Kimberley but from there the rain came in torrents. Through Bechuanaland the scenery was interesting, the country being covered with trees and grass, a great relief after the awful monotony of the Karoo.

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Once the train had to slow down to stopping point to allow a great herd of blue wildebeest cross in front of the engine. It made one realise that civilisation was behind alright.

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It rained right through to Marandellas where I found that it was unlikely that Kotzee could bring in a waggon for months. He had left word however that I was to be taken care of and forwarded to him at the first opportunity.

I had sixpence left and hotel accommodation was twelve and six a day. The owner of the combined hotel, grocer and butcher’s shop, native trading store etc – a building which in itself practically was Marandellas – told me not to worry but stay as long as I liked. I could sign cards for what debt I incurred and pay when able – “a year hence probably” he said laughingly.

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After two days during which the rain hardly paused I interviewed the Native Commissioner and explained my circumstances. He gave me as a guide a wild-looking man who slinging my roll of blankets over his shoulder and putting my iron trunk on his head set-off.

The man was armed with a nasty looking assegai and a battleaxe. Despite the rain, his only garment was a loincloth but he seemed quite happy. He grinned cheerfully now and again talking to me in a queer sounding language not a word of it like Zulu. He looked wilder than he was but I kept my Lee Metford loaded and ready for use.

It was horrible mucky and wet. Our route was by way of narrow twisting paths through grass never less than three feet high and sometimes well over our heads. There were heaps of trees making the prospect look even more miserable with water dripping off them.

Soon after dark, we reached a big river in flood. It looked rotten in the semi-darkness but the guide walked in and I followed. It was rotten. I could just keep my feet and was full of thoughts of crocodiles.

However, we got across to find ourselves in what looked like a white man’s maize lands. Some dogs started barking and we saw a light to which we made our way. As we got near a pack of big dogs charged us but hearing a white man’s voice calling I yelled back and a giant of a man came down the path.

He turned out to be the manager of a big estate and was awfully decent. He took me into his house where his wife nearly wept to see a white man. I was given a deuce of a feed of kudu steak and a bed was made up for me in the kitchen as the house was packed with girl children of theirs. It was hours before they stopped talking to me so when I got to bed I slept like a dead man.

The next day news came that Kotzee had passed some miles away on his way into Marandellas to fetch me. Mr Godfrey, my host, thereupon insisted on my staying with them until Kotzee passed on his way back and sent a picanin in with a note to tell him where I was.

The Godfreys seldom leave the farm and hardly ever see a white man – four of the girls have been born there without a doctor or nurse ever coming near but they are all a strapping healthy looking lot.

Godfrey is an old diamond digger and Boer War veteran. He comes from the Basuto border and I spent hours listening to his tales of the Diggings and the Frontier. I’ve never heard people talk so much I suppose it’s because they are simply starving for a change from the loneliness.

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Kotzee came back three days later and sent a native over to tell us where to find him. Mr Godfrey accompanied me through the Bush and after half an hour’s walk, we heard a waggon coming along. A couple of minutes later took us onto an old transport road and as we entered it a small donkey waggon turned a corner and I saw a queer little figure of a man leading.

He was only as big as me, five feet four, had a great beard and was wrapped in a tattered filthy old overcoat below which peeped the ends of a broken pair of dungarees. a battered helmet which in its youth had been surmounted the outfit. Jove but he looked queer. He greeted me warmly however and we seemed to take a liking to one another immediately.

Mr Godfrey having delivered me safely took his departure and a little while after Kotzee outspanned and we made a meal of bully beef, fried potatoes, warmed up beans and tea.

When our meal was finished the sun had set and darkness fell rapidly so climbing under the waggon we lay down on beds made from cut grass covered with the waggon sail. Snuggling into our blankets, toes to a cheerful fire burning next to the waggon Kotzee and I talked for a while and then dropped off to sleep.

At dawn next morning the donkeys were inspanned and we moved off passing through many swamps covered with long grass and amidst beautiful park-like country.

Somewhere about ten, the waggon was outspanned near a kraal and Kotzee and I walked over to a farm managed by a Dutchman who had been a prisoner-of-war on St Helena. On the way, our road passed the ruins of a house burnt by the Mashonas during the Rebellion fourteen years ago.

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Passing into a range of hills Kruger’s house came into sight built on the slope under some chaotic granite hills overlooking a big swamp of heavy black soil – this he had drained and grows what must surely be the world’s record crops of oats, maize, potatoes, beans and onions.

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Kruger was most hospitable and we remained at his house until next morning feasting on kudu steak, roast haunch of reedbuck, red bread made from a tiny native grain mixed with flour, new potatoes and a jolly good bread pudding.

The following day our journey was resumed and that afternoon the waggon reached home.

to be continued…

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 23 Farming and Romancing

End of 22nd Entry: A large plate of maize meal porridge, a couple of freshly laid eggs and heavy meal of course brown bread put Mick on excellent terms with himself.

Breakfast over Van Zijl and the boy harnessing a pair of sturdy ponies to a light single poled cart drove off on a tour of inspection.

Half an hour’s drive brought them to a pumping station where Mick was introduced to a hard-featured Australian named Wallace who was in charge of a suction gas plant which pumped a large stream from a broad river up to an irrigation furrow. Half an hour was spent in explaining the working of the engine to Mick and then Van Zijl re-entering the cart drove into his lands.

Some four hundred acres lay under irrigation furrow of which a hundred were under cultivation. He explained that the Government was contemplating a scheme whereby a large canal would bring over two thousand acres of his lands under irrigation – “I took over this farm as a debt a year ago valuing it at fifteen shillings per acre – it is worth £2 per acre today and if the canal is built may be valued at £200 per acre in a couple of years time” he said. “I am willing however to give your Dad an option at forty shillings per acre over 700 acres or to rent them to him for two years at £40 per month. I will be advancing the implements and superintending the working of it until you are capable of doing it yourself.”

Mick thanked Van Zijl profusely and promised to write to Mr Osmond that night – inwardly he thought “Well Mick you won’t be staying anyway – perhaps Dad will let me go to sea.”

At one of the lands Van Zijl stopped at a plough pulled by sixteen oxen. “Now Mick if a farmer wants to show his employees how to do a job he must know how to do it himself. I don’t believe in false pride – to master a job a man must start from the very beginning. I want you to take the leader’s place on that plough for a few days, then lead mules, once you know a leader’s job I’ll put you on holding the plough and then to driving. Meanwhile you’ll learn to milk, handle animals and implements after which you will be able to take an intelligent interest in farming.

Three weeks of hard solid work followed. From dawn until breakfast time Mick worked in the stable, byre and dairy – after breakfast fetched the oxen or mules or held the plough or handled the long bamboo whip with its twenty-five foot lash. At midday his lunch was sent to him – a bottle of separated milk or cold coffee, cold meat and badly cooked bread – then after an hours spell back to plough, harrow or waggon. Just before sunset the animals were freed and walking back to the homestead Mick once again took up the farmyard routine until long after dark. A hasty sluice and a poor meal followed with an hours devotion ending the day.

Mick cursed with all the fluency gained by much mixing with hardened sailormen – unbosomed himself to Wallace with whom he had struck up a firm friendship.

“I like the work – I don’t mind leading and I love holding the plough or handling the whip – I want to learn to ride, drive, milk and the rest of it, but I hate Van Zijl he’s just a creeping — and his wife’s a bitch.”

The Australian laughed – “You’re right Sonny – that’s the worst of these lawyer blokes and book farmers – everything is theory and not practice – an ordinary boss is bad enough but a lawyer one is a bastard. I’ve worked on sheep runs, cattle stations, copra schooners and been in the army and I never struck a boss that hadn’t something wrong with him. Still if you’re lucky you’ll be a boss yourself one day and then your employees will curse you – it’s always a comfort thinking that.”

Mick found little opportunity for riding – once or twice Van Zijl took him out and Mick to his delight managed to sit the stallion which having been a pet from birth proved easily manageable.

A long course of twisting about and hanging onto ships rigging and mountain precipice had given young Mick all the nimbleness of a monkey and being entirely without nerves riding came easily and naturally to him.

Relations between Mrs Van Zijl and Mick became more and more strained – Mick complained openly about the food especially the quality of the bread – Mr Osmond wrote stating that he neither was nor ever would be likely to assist Mick financially and the Van Zijls began to look sourly at him.

Miss Van Zijl, a sixteen year old school girl, came to the farm for her holidays – like most South African country girls she was a robust pretty damsel full of rich blood – fresh from a boarding school and longing to play with boys. Susie immediately began to make eyes at Mick – Mick’s Celtic blood flamed and on several occasions Mrs Van Zijl’s eyes looked suspiciously at a flushed daughter who in answer to her calling had appeared with some excuse for her absence. Mrs Van Zijl watched, Mrs Van Zijl laid traps but Mick was a wily bird and Susie was experienced. Mrs Van Zijl felt, knew that her daughter and Mick were enjoying a little boy and girl romance but poor Mrs Van Zijl could gather no proof.