From Boatsheds to Battlefields 53 Taming the Wilderness

On returning from a long holiday in Cape Town;

An ox wagon deposited Mick,  four natives, their worldly goods and an assortment of agricultural implements on the banks of a broad river flowing between high banks. Having brought the new manager and his assistants the waggon departed leaving its former passengers to their work of taming the wilderness.

Mick’s first work was to put one man onto collecting wood, making a fire and getting a kettle of water on. Meanwhile, the other three were sent to chop saplings, strip away pliable tough inner bark for tying purposes, cut grass for thatching and to generally busy themselves in preparing for the erection of the Estate Manager’s residence.

Having got the staff at work the Manager armed with his Martini set off along the river to survey his domain. Some months previously two spans of oxen each with a four furrow disc plough had been sent down to break up as much as they could of the rich alluvial riverbank.

The estate had nine miles of river frontage which gave them almost that length of twenty-foot deep chocolate soil varying in width from three or four yards to a couple of hundred. This was the actual bank – beyond lay swamps of heavy black soil of inexhaustible fertility which years after bore enormous crops of wheat. From the swamps, the ground rose in a gentle slope to a heavily timbered ridge beyond which lay the broad watershed of forest country.

Walking down the river bank Mick was gratified to find large acreages of rich soil broken up and amazed at the plentiful signs of big game. Soon he paused in wonder at some enormous footprints a thrill running through him as he remembered that the river was full of hippopotami. A little further on he came to a sight which made him realise that a farm alive with game was not an unmixed blessing.

Quite a fair acreage had been rushed into maize which had grown splendidly. Its growth had surprised and pleased Godfrey but his pleasure and appreciation was nothing to that of a family of hippo.

Cursing at the destruction before him Mick walked through a large field of what had seemingly been a ten bag to the acre crop. Hippo paths ran everywhere – waterbuck, Kudu, sable, wild pig and small buck appeared to have been as attracted as the hippo and Mick groaned as he wondered how on earth he was going to grow crops for markets instead of feed for a teeming game reserve.

Coming through the further end of the field he reached the ploughs – congratulating the natives on the work they had done, he spoke of the quantity of game he had seen. The natives instantly began to explain that this was indeed a Paradise for big game and proposed accompanying him to begin the work of destruction at once. “It was a long time since they had had meat,” remarked the spokesmen

Taking one of the boys Mick pushed on but though signs were plentiful game itself was not and eventually, he returned empty-handed to his camp

The next few weeks gave him little leisure – cattle and more boys arrived, his hut was built. What the game that left of the maize crop was reaped, shelled and dragged on the rough sledge to a siding nine miles away. Cattle kraals – rough log and bush enclosures were made – a strip of land broken up for tobacco seed beads, lands selected for tobacco and all the time hard ploughing of the rich maize lands went on with four four furrow disc ploughs.

Realising that his hut had been built in a death trap – a great swamp on two sides, the river a few yards in front – Mick pushed on the construction of a Robinson Crusoe building at the edge of the forest. From here he commanded to truly wonderful view hills, river scenery, bush country and the Umvukwe Mountains.

Though with little leisure on his hands quite a lot of game fell to the old Martini. Apparently, no hunting had taken place for years resulting in the game being quite unafraid of man. Elephants passed through on their way from Hartley to Lomagundi reports came of lions – once a herd of magnificent sable antelope black bodied, white-bellied under a forest of curved horns trotted curiously up to the very building he was erecting – hardly a day passed without a seeing game and the camp was seldom without meat sometimes shot from the door or window of Mick’s hut.

The river yielded quite good fish and gave some exciting sport shooting at crocodiles or watching a family of monstrous hippo at play.

So Mick shot sable, kudu, waterbuck, tsessebe and reedbuck, went to look at elephant, watched hippo, found alluvial gold in small quantities and spent Sundays panning the river bars or fishing. He was never lonely, but always full of content.

Now and again a pile of newspapers reached him all full of the Wars between Montenegro, Greece, Serbia, and Turkey.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 47 Second Letter Home

Dearest Dad,

I have now thoroughly entered into the daily routine and must say this is an ideal sort of life. The weather being bitterly cold in the early mornings we only begin stirring about eight.

The hour seems ridiculous for a farm but neither love nor threats will get a Mashona to move before the sun begins to kill the frost and warm up the earth. At eight a picannin brings a kettle of boiling water and we make tea. Having no cows we drink it black and weak. At about half-past, we get up, have a wash outside, dress and begin the days work.

At about eleven comes a halt to set about preparing a meal which combines breakfast and lunch. This consists of sourdough bread made and baked by ourselves from rapoko and wheat meal mixed – the rapoko now and again we vary by using Kaffir corn which combined with the wheatmeal or flour makes a great sustaining bread.

With the bread, we usually have rapoko or corn porridge with an occasional change to rice or maize – all four are good but Jove do I long for milk and cream. Dry bread, milkless porridge and black tea doesn’t sound appetising, but when hungry they go down all right and anyway as long as a man feels full it doesn’t matter much what sort of stuff he puts inside himself – not as long as it is nourishing anyway.

After skoff work starts again, continuing until about five when we set to on getting the evening meal ready. This is a sort of Irish stew – potatoes, native beans, shelled monkey nuts or peas which has been simmering on the fire since noon.

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Now and again we trade a fowl for some salt or a cartridge case. Sometimes Kruger or Airth the manager of an adjoining ranch sends us a bit of buck, and once or twice I’ve shot something – If we’re lucky enough to have meat we gorge to bursting point – if we haven’t, well! we add a bit of curry powder and some powdered stuff from a soup sausage – a sort of concentrated mixture of pea-flour, bacon, herbs and stuff. This thickens and flavours the stew and it goes down rapidly enough.

After eating we play euchre or go to sleep. Neither of us has any money so candles or paraffin are unobtainable luxuries. The old Lee Metford I brought up with me is the only weapon we possess and is almost useless. At 100 yards it throws eighteen inches to the left.

At present hunting is a mug’s game for the long dry grass prevents the hunter from seeing the buck and the rustling and noise of a man moving in it is enough to frighten anything within a hundred yards. One’s only chance of securing game is by going out with a shotgun and some dogs.

A buck hearing something moving in the grass generally lies down – if a hunter is accompanied by dogs they will put it up and a charge of heavy shot provides a few days supply of meat. Otherwise, it is sheer luck coming on a buck perhaps standing under a tree or feeding in an open space where the grass isn’t too long.

In a month or two the veld fires will start and then everybody assures me I will see all the game I want to. I must get a Martini-Henry rifle then, as the heavy lead bullet doesn’t give a buck a chance of getting away. I hate wounding anything and it is marvellous the vitality shown by a wounded animal. I’ve seen one run over a mile with the whole of its entrails dragging from it.

Wild things always seem to either be killed instantaneously or to fight desperately for life against most awful wounds and it is really terrible the sort of mess a soft-nosed or a bullet with its end nicked into a cross makes. If one strikes a bone or anything but soft flesh it mushrooms and splits.

There are quite a number of people in the district but all on the other side of it. Between Marandellas and ourselves, there are the Godfreys and Kruger – beyond are two young Englishmen growing tobacco in partnership and beyond them again are two fellows living in the hills doing a bit of trading.

Behind and in front of us is all native reserve and wild uninhabited country. From Marandellas towards Wedza is where settled country is – there people are going in for growing Virginian cigarette tobacco on an extensive scale and experimenting with citrus fruits, cattle breeding and general farming.

From all accounts, there are fortunes to be made from tobacco but a lot of capital is needed. Flue curing barns are required; and with transport at 5/- per 100 lbs, carpenters and bricklayers at 30/- to 40/- per day and all found, it needs £300 at least to build and equip a standard flue-curing barn 16 feet by 16 and 20 feet high. Then one requires unlimited labour – on the other hand, the profits are big.

At an average yield of 500 lbs per acre sold at from 2/- per lb for scrap to 4/6 for best Brights, the growers base their average price at 1/6 per lb or £37-10 per acre – one barn will cure 10 acres or at least £375 worth of ‘baccy’ in a season.

We want to try and build a small flue barn ourselves and also air and sun cure a couple of acres of tobacco as a start – with wheat, oathay, barley for the brewers, potatoes, trading and transport riding we should soon be on our feet but Oh Dad its cruel work starting with nothing.

Every day we are offered maize at 2/6 per 203 lbs by the Mashona and can dispose of it at 9/- to 12/- at Marandellas. Native beans cost us 8/- per bag and sell in Marandellas at from 20/- to 30/-, ground nuts 3/- to sell at 8/-. Rice 10/- to sell at 20/- and the same with everything else.

Our waggon can take 20 bags of maize – so an eight to ten-day trip would yield only £7-10. Beans pay us best but we’ve never enough cash to buy a full load.

Ever your loving son,

Mick