From Boatsheds to Battlefields 49 Battling Through Life

So Mick lived for nearly a year. Kotzee and himself obtained sixteen oxen from the ranch they have the use of them on condition that the oxen were trained to the yoke, and returned at the end of six months fit for use in waggon or plough.

The two with a few Mashona made bricks and built a house – a weird and wonderful erection whose chimney fell off after erection and whose corners came apart owing to lack of proper bond. Somehow they existed Mick bought a Martini-Henry rifle and 100 rounds of black powder ammunition from the police for £3 sent him by his father – he and Kotzee wore out their boots and walked the country barefooted – more and more the two grew into a pair who looked as though civilization’s breath had never touched them.

But Mick was no fool – he soon found his partner to be a man with no stability of mind or purpose – a visionary and a fanatic.

The two began to argue about Imperialism, Religion and farming. Each began to feel the other an enemy and Mick started to go off more and more to the Godfrey’s, the two English neighbours, Kruger and old Airth. All of them seemed to like him – he got plentiful food at their homes and they thought about everything in the same way that he did.

Then Kotzee’s wife arrived with two beautiful children – Mrs Kotzee proved to be a Christian Scientist and a vegetarian and came from a wealthy family.

The rains began and with it came Malaria – Mrs Kotzee refuse to take quinine or give it to the children – one child died – then Mick went down badly and Mrs Kotzee and the other child were taken ill.

For some days Mick lay delirious without a soul visiting him – he came to himself weak as a kitten and looking like a ghost.

Then came Kotzee with a shotgun practically stone mad raving that Mick had poisoned his family, put his wife against him, ridiculed him to his neighbours and that he would have Mick’s life. Mick thoroughly alarmed grabbed his Martini knocked Kotzee aside and left.

A few days later barefooted and starving he arrived in Salisbury his only possession his rifle and two shillings. At a tearoom, he ordered some soup and fainted whilst trying to eat it. On coming round he found a pretty little waitress doing all she could to help him – the girl told him at once that he had better get into the hospital as he was rotten with fever and advised Mick to interview the Anglican Clergyman who would arrange his entry.

Wearily Mick trudged up to the interview but evidently gave the worthy minister the impression he was drunk. Half delirious Mick understood that the Clergyman couldn’t do anything for him and staggered back to the tearoom for further advice.

The waitress wasted no time but helped Mick to her room and put him to bed. Three days later feeling much better the youth set out on foot for the Angwa alluvial goldfields where a younger brother of his family’s – the family black sheep was earning a precarious living from hunting and gold washing.

Advised that his route was “Follow the railway line”, Mick did – but the Fates sent him along the wrong line until he reached a farmhouse where he was advised to cut across country to the Lomagundi line the one he was on leaving to Cape Town.

That night he came to another farm – a tall bearded man took him in for a meal and hearing his name said: “Well I’m damned – not the son of William Osmond of Sea Point?”

“Yes I am,” answered Mick “Do you know Dad?”

“God Bless your soul youngster I used to live next door to you – nursed you as a baby – Hell it’s a small world.”

For two or three days Mick was kept in bed and well looked after. The Stewart’s to whose hospitable door fate had brought him laughed at the idea of the Angwa pointing out that the place was a death trap and the diggers merely making a bare existence.

The tobacco boom was in full swing and their neighbour Godfrey a brother of Mick’s Marandellas friend wanted a man. Godfrey himself came over to interview Mick with the result that a satisfactory agreement was concluded the youth as soon as he was fit enough moving over to his new employer’s home.

Mick had now had over two years of battling through life and with the exception of three months in the Struan District and six weeks near Grahamstown, his life had certainly not been a soft or easy one. He had become inured to disappointment, used to coarse scanty fare and well able to hold his own amongst any type of men.

His twenty-first birthday was past but with all his rough and tumble experiences Mick still retained the heart of a boy of sixteen with all his idealism unspoilt. A nature full of emotionalism, a strongly developed imagination and the closest possible contact with a father and a mother whose letters showed that however far from him they were in body, yet in spirit, they were always near, kept Mick from many pitfalls. His pen and his imagination were his greatest friends – if with the one he could fight loneliness with the other turn hardship and rough conditions into a game.

Early years spent on the sea and mountain certainly contributed much to his ability to accustom himself readily to any emergencies or calls on his powers of adaptability. They had given him the wiry constitution of a savage and the digestive powers of an ostrich and with Mick, a squall was past was gone – others would come but it was foolishness worrying about them and those that had struck him always left some memory to chuckle over even if only at his own damned innocence or foolishness.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 46 First Letter Home

End of Part 1 of First Letter Home: The following day our journey was resumed and that afternoon the waggon reached home.

The farm is almost square in shape, the lands and steading lying near the boundary furthest from Marandellas which was about thirty miles away. It takes a donkey waggon, however, five days to do the thirty miles owing to numerous swamps and a terrible road. Where the ground isn’t boggy, it is loose deep sand and the last ten miles consist of steep hills with the road in a terrible state.

No repairs had been done since the Pioneer Column made it and in the rainy season, the ruts became watercourses. Traders and transport riders keep making deviations where possible, so in places, one finds a dozen parallel roads the older ones perhaps six feet deep in the ruts.

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Pioneer Column

We have three native huts made of saplings planted in a circle which is held together by four rows of a thin supple wood split bent around the huts and tied to the walls by tambo the inner-bark of a tree. This tambo seems to be universally used in Rhodesia instead of nails, screws, bolts or for any purpose where tying is necessary.

The huts have high conical roofs thatched with the long veld grass which stands like fields of ripening rye all over the country. The grass after being dried is combed through a rake made by driving ten-inch nails through a bit of plank.

One hut is our living one, another the storehouse, the third the kitchen and the furniture consists of a large packing case as table, two beds made by planting four forked poles in the ground laying two smooth poles lengthways through the forks, binding short cross sticks at two inch intervals along the frame and laying a thick mattress of dry veld grass sewn up in a couple of opened sacks sewn together.

Our washbasin stands outside on a paraffin box and our trunks complete the plenishing of the little frontier home.

CU photo of Bernard Leffler
This photograph of Bernard Meredith Leffler was taken for the Farmer’s Weekly

The view from the homestead is glorious – ten miles away is a great mountain which is almost pure iron where native smelters make weapons for war and the chase, together with agricultural implements and household utensils for most of Mashonaland.

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The huts nestle against a granite ridge which divides two immense black swamps. On either side and before us are rivers and beyond the river in front is a wild mass of granite cliff and boulder full of trees, Tambookie grass fourteen feet high, caves and clefts. Leopards are plentiful in this savage bit of broken country and have already killed one of our donkey foals.

Just in front of the huts, we have a fairly big stretch of well-drained red soil above which Kotzee has led a furrow from the top of a small waterfall in the river by easy gravitation he can easily lead all the water he wants for irrigation from this.

Small game is plentiful – reedbuck, duiker and steenbok chiefly but there are kudu and sable on the farm – six miles from us the country changes into a vast wilderness of the wildest most broken land I’ve ever seen – it reminds one of some other world – a world that God has forgotten. Mountains composed of a single smooth piece of granite. Deep canyons filled with hills and immense boulders – words cannot attempt to describe it for its too huge, too wild, too God forsaken.

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This country is full of game – lions are abundant, eland, kudu, sable, waterbuck and every other kind of animal seem to be there. Baboons live in blooming herds of thousands.

Kotzee and Kruger between them have proved that wheat can be grown on a commercial scale either under irrigation or in the big swamps. Oats do wonderfully well as does barley. From what I’ve seen and heard there isn’t anything in the world that can’t be grown. Transport is the whole trouble, not the ability to produce.

Every farm has swamps composed of the rotting away of decayed vegetation. Through the centuries these swamps undrained, grow rice to perfection and beautiful oats or barley. Drained they would produce record crops of maize, potatoes, onions, wheat.  For years one could grow a summer crop of maize and winter ones of barley, rye, wheat, oats, potatoes, onions etc. on them.

Today however one is not allowed to use oxen for transport owing to East Coast fever restrictions – mules are too expensive and the loss from horse sickness makes them unpayable – donkeys are too slow. It’s wicked seeing untold acres of land suitable for any crop and to realise that twenty-five miles of swamp and sand make it all just a wilderness.

Labour is as big a problem as transport. The Mashonas are frightened of cattle, are so dense that trying to drive an idea into their heads is like trying to hammer a nail into a stone and if you look sideways at them they’re off and away for good and ever. One Xhosa with his two fighting sticks would hammer a hundred of them.

They grow an extraordinary variety of grain – two traders handle fifteen thousand bags of maize, monkey nuts, ground peas – the last named grow like potatoes or monkey nuts under the ground – rapoko – a tiny red grain which is their chief food – rice – white, red and black varieties, Kaffir corn, millet, sweet potatoes and native beans – a kind of cowpea. Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and fowls are plentiful. Honestly the Mashona live in a Paradise – most of their time is spent lying on rocks having sunbaths and drinking beer whilst their women do the work.

Snakes are plentiful – both black and green mamba – cobras – black, yellow, brown and branded ones, puffadders and even twenty-foot pythons. The lizards are wonderful both in size and colour while scorpions and all kinds of spiders swarm.

From what I hear the thunderstorms are the worst thing hereabouts they and the white ants. Nobody worries about malaria or blackwater – but take them as necessary evils. Crocodiles are plentiful so one has to be careful when bathing in or crossing rivers.

Well, I’ve written this during spare hours in the past week and am sick of it.

With love to all,

Mick

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