From Boatsheds to Battlefields 48 Third Letter Home circa 1913

Dearest Dad,

Kotzee has been away nearly a fortnight with the waggon and I am feeling simply desperate. Without the donkeys and boys, I can do nothing except write, bathe and moon around. I walked ten miles over to a ranch but found nobody at home – got back utterly weary but couldn’t sleep. I’m so sick of boiled monkey nuts and beans. We’ve lived on them for weeks and haven’t had tea or sugar for a fortnight – meat I’m forgetting the taste of. Still, I’m not fed up with the life and its hardships only with the lack of anything to do.

I would like to go over more often to our nearest neighbours the two Englishmen but Kotzee hates them. Honestly, I’m beginning to think Kotzee is a bit mad. He keeps bragging about how he was a Boer spy in the Great War and was put in gaol as a rebel. Now if there’s one thing I can’t stand at any price its a beastly disloyal South African. One can understand Irish Catholics or any Irishman living in Ireland and being rebels – after all Ireland is a country inhabited by a Celtic race ruled by a foreign power in armed occupation of the land.

In South Africa, a mixed population of whites rule themselves under the protection of Britain and are themselves the Power in armed occupation of a land that really belongs to the Blacks. Kotzee, however, won’t agree only rave – I asked him what personal grievance he had – he has been born and bred under the Union Jack, has never been under its folds, his people are wealthy distinguished citizens of the Empire, his Uncle is a peer of Britain and the second citizen of Africa. Kruger I could understand being anti-British but he isn’t, though a Burgher of the Transvaal Republic he fought against Britain and was a prisoner of war at St Helena for nearly two years.

But Kotzee can only rant and rave absolute nonsense. He boasts of refusing to ride transport with an Englishman, and about a dozen other cases of cutting off one’s own nose to spite one’s face. It all makes me sick and honestly, he not only talks like a madman when on the subject but looks like one.

I’ve found all the Englishmen I’ve met to be splendid fellows and our two neighbours, in particular, have been awfully good to me. Their place has a rather gruesome history. It was owned by a pioneer one of a kind one reads of – father a judge in the Indian Civil Service, one brother a general in the British Army, another in the navy. He himself lived as a sort of unofficial king amongst the natives. One night two or three chaps including Kotzee were over there and Devereux seemed awfully depressed. He bucked up whilst playing poker and afterwards made tea or coffee for the lot.

The others slept in an outbuilding and during the night heard a shot. Nobody bothered as when dogs keep barking at night lots of fellows go out and fire a round or two to scare any intruders.

Next morning, however, when going into the dining room one of the guests found Devereaux at the head of the table with his head in his arms – thinking him asleep he went up to shake him when to his horror he found Devereux’s head in a pool of blood and a revolver grasped in his right hand. The poor chap was stone dead and had left a letter asking the others to bury him on the top of a high hill opposite the house.

He wanted his spirit to sit there and watch Wedza and the farm he had made. There’s a beautiful orchard around the house – guavas, oranges, loquats, lemons and other fruit – queerly enough looking down from Devereux’s grave the whole orchard is a huge Union Jack.

Nearly everybody about here seems queer – one chap, of good English family, has been all over the world and was blockade running during the Russo-Japanese war – now he lives all alone right away in the hills quarrelling with his only neighbour an old Highland ex-shepherd and ex-regular – Black Watch. The Highlander to is queer – he had sunstroke badly in India and gets all kinds of funny ideas.

Airth the manager of a ranch adjoining us is another Highlander – a jolly fine chap but gets awfully drunk on kaffir Beer – Hunter another Highlander is a very wealthy trader but also drinks heavily – sometimes they all get together and booze for a week.

It’s too dark to write and beastly cold.

Love to all,

Mick

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 34 Then came the rain.

The original

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Recap B&B 33: 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.

Many of these Boers had known no other home than their wagons. Generation after generation had been born and reared in these spending their lives moving with their flocks of sheep and herds of goats all over the vast North West Karoo. Few could read or write, they intermarried until they were so closely bred that degeneration was becoming obvious.

Their wants were few – their diet simple and they went along the road of life hated by their cousins who lived more civilised lives and whose flocks of well-bred sheep and Angora goats were everlastingly being infected with scab and other diseases by the passing animals of the Trek Boers.

Then in a land where water was as precious as gold, those, who by dint of great expenditure of labour and money had constructed dams and erected windmills, felt murderous when riding to sheep posts or carefully preserved grazing, they found some thousands of sheep and goats had gone by leaving a barren wasteland behind.

To Mick came many a thought of what the country would have been like were the Union Jack not flying. As in the Western States of America, the rifle would surely have been the law and many a frontier tragedy been enacted.

Britain however never has tolerated lawlessness and be a man a Boer, French, Canadian or Paddy O’ The Bogs he soon realises that Britain’s arm is long, and Britain’s law is merciless.

As the unending columns of sheep and goats passed, Kruger too, began to feel the call of his blood until one morning he packed a wagon and moved on with two thousand purebred sheep. Mick helped by a son-in-law of Kruger’s remaining in charge of the farm. Two weeks later what was left of a magnificent flock returned mostly on wagons which the owner had hired at big prices and sent with loads of lucerne hay to save what he could of his sheep.

The tales brought back by Kruger were terrible – rain had fall over a small area in the Gordonia District and some quarter of a million sheep and goats had trekked there from surrounding areas. Armed farmers had kept the trekking farmers strictly to the width of ground allowed by lay as stock routes. Tens of thousands of lambs and kids had had their throats cut to save the drain on their mothers – speculators had bought purebred Merinos at two shillings and ridden every bale of hay they could get transported to the area. Sheep and goats were dying at the rate of a thousand a day.

Then came the rain – not a shower – not a soaking pleasant rain but a torrential mass dropping from the black heavens whilst the earth rumbled and shook to the awful thunder crashes. Rain fell in heavy, solid, falling cascades of water driven by streams of blue fire – the hills seemed filled with dancing red demons as furious storms of lightning broke on them.

Mick tramping back from a farm ten miles from Kruger’s homestead was caught in the very centre of the storm. When leaving the horizon was thick with piled masses of clouds beginning to travel fast up into the sky. Six miles from Kruger’s homestead came the first flash of lightning and a heavy black cloud above the lad seemed to drop slowly and surely earthwards.

Beginning to feel frightened Mick pushed on with the longing swinging stride of the mountains anxiously searching for some place of shelter. Another crash and a long jagged streak of fire struck almost on top of Mick and the crack accompanying it half stunned him. Then came the rain. Bewildered frightened almost out of his senses the water streaming in torrents from him Mick ran blindly into the welter.

In a few minutes, the veld was a gigantic lake with wicked swirling currents flowing through Рthese were old sunken roads, ditches, and watercourses Рmany were six to ten feet deep with a thousand hills, and miles of flooded country pouring their water into any channel which could carry it away. Every drain was soon a raging mill race.

Several times in crossing them the boy was all but swept off his feet but doggedly he kept his course certain he would perish but determined to die fighting. As he grew nearer home he found it becoming more and more dangerous fording the streams and stripping off his clothing he fought on naked to the skin carrying his sodden garments. Even stripped and swimming strongly Mick found it touch and go with one or two of the crossings.

Then suddenly the storm passed by him – overhead was a dark violet sky in which the jewels of Mary were shining before him was a rain-soaked, sweet-smelling land already the force of torrents was abating.

Swimming the final formidable ravine Mick donned his garments and chilled, exhausted but still smiling made for the friendly light of Kruger’s house.

A week later the world was a wonder mass of tender green and vivid colour splashes carpeted with flowers in their millions and the air, still with the crisp tang of the winds that had wrought the miracle, was sweet and clean to the nostrils.

Six years of drought were gone and once again dwellers in the great lonely North West breathed happily as they watched their well-contented flocks and herds.