John Dunn: Part 5 – Through a Desert Wonderland to Kalkfontein

Now faded in the mists of time, the Bondelswarts Rebellion of 1922 is a mere footnote to the history of Southern Africa. In the early years of the 20th century, the whole of the area was in tumult. South West Africa was captured by the South Africans from the German colonisers in 1915. With South West Africa now controlled by South Africa in terms of a League of Nations mandate, the khoikhoi peoples of southern SWA were also restive. 

This series of blogs covers the first-hand account of a South African Police Force officer, John Dunn, who was involved in the suppression of a rebellion by the Bondelswarts people in southern SWA. 

In Part 5 of the series, John Dunn describes in exquisite detail the beauty of the trip from the Orange River through the dusty town of Warmbad to the railhead at Kalkfontein. 

Main picture: John Dunn in later years

Early next day, we commenced the passage of Goodhouse Drift to the Protectorate side of the river, ex-German SWA. So difficult was the going that it took us until four in the afternoon to get the wagons over. The descent to the river was so steep and the braking apparatus of the old wagons so flimsy, it was amazing that half the donkeys weren’t killed. Poor things, they were positively shoved down on their haunches, willy-nilly. One wagon only came to grief, the off wheel striking a large boulder, it capsized, strewing stores and supplies in all directions. It was a tedious business crossing the river. It was accomplished only by hitching two teams to a wagon. Eight yelling drivers, with whips ever in readiness, gave the donkeys no alternative but to do their best.

With the assistance of 40 naked members of the Squadron, the passage of the river was eventually made. The ascent of the opposite bank was another nightmare, but an ever-memorable sight. Two teams, sometimes three, were hitched to a wagon, but were unable to move it a yard up the sheer-faced cliff of sand. Willing hands, however, in the form of a hundred khaki clad figures, hurled themselves to the wagons, and man-hauled them as if possessed, until they were literally carried to the top by their exertions.

The management at Goodhouse Estate very kindly sent over several bags of delicious oranges for distribution to the Squadron before leaving. An orange eaten under normal conditions may be a commonplace affair, and not much to write home about, but under such circumstances, and in the terrific heat, it was a luxury indeed. They were lush.

At 6:30 that evening, we left for Raman’s Drift, a few miles further along the river. To describe this final stage of the trek with the same donkeys, would be mere repetition. It was sand, sand and whip all the time. Notwithstanding that the wagons were becoming lighter every day as forage and men’s rations were consumed, it took just 12½ painful hours to traverse the remaining six mile stretch of sand.

It was a pretty beat outfit that struggled in to the awaiting men at 7:45 the next morning. The men who had made the journey in an hour and a half, had, perforce, to pass another night without blankets, and groused accordingly, not having the slightest conception as to how the donkeys had suffered. I realised on that trek that man, speaking generally, is a selfish brute. Needless to say I was anything but popular.

Raman’s Drift

That short six miles was the last straw. The donkeys just about managed to get the wagons to their outspan and, when the terrible whips had ceased to crack, donkey after donkey was seen to collapse.

We spent a whole day at Raman’s Drift – quite an historic spot in a way – being the scene of many battles in bygone days. It was here that the Germans shot three policemen at the Police Station on the Union side of the river, on the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.

I took shelter from the boiling sun in what was formerly the German Police Station – an imposing building for such a forsaken part of the world – and in 1922 was occupied by a solitary native constable. Although winter, the heat was terrific. I was told by a German farmer living in the vicinity that an egg lightly covered with sand and left in the sun, would soft boil in 15 minutes. It was interesting to learn that it had not rained at Raman’s Drift for over five years.

The only thing of interest, apart from the old German Police Post, was the military cemetery, in which some dozen or so Germans had been laid to their last rest. Every grave was singularly well cared for, with the headstone giving particulars of the one interred, and each grave had an Iron Cross wonderfully well worked in black stone and white marble taken from the mountains in the vicinity. The majority of those interred were killed during the German wars against either the Hottentots or Hereroes.

It was characteristically German to have a night debouche before abandoning the post on the approach of Union troops, scattered around in the vicinity of the police station and the lonely cemetery were dozens of champagne, hoock and beer bottles, a lasting testimony to their foresight.

Raman’s Drift

Farewell was taken of what remained of our sore-backed, long-eared, and sad faced friends, the Steinkopf donkeys, and it was gratifying to know that they could return over the same trail with empty wagons. Although one could safely wager that the whips would be just as much in evidence. The balance of stores, forage et cetera, having been transferred to new transport, we moved off at 5 pm up the two-mile slope out of the mountains. We had only six wagons, drawn by as fine a looking lot of donkeys as were ever seen. What an amazing contrast these splendidly fit animals to the played out, but gallant, band of donkeys we had left behind – a grim and sordid sight – prostrate on the sand at Raman’s Drift.

The trail still comprised heavy sand, but the well-trained animals were able to do their stuff. On a signal given by the driver, a whole team, 18 strong, would get into their traces like one man, pulling like Trojans for seven minutes, and then on a word from the man with the whip, would pull up panting. Four minutes for a breather and on the command “trek” the little blighters would pull as though their very lives depended upon it.

 

Up, ever up hill, we went climbing into the solitude, into an atmosphere cool, misty and remote. Every mile had its breath-taking view of immense overhanging crests. The scenery was magnificent.

The terrain on the Protectorate side of the river was bushier and there was always a little grazing for the animals, but water was just as scarce as on the Union side. Large camelthorn trees put in an appearance, but such tracks as there were, still comprised miles of thick, loose sand, so that our progress was becoming as uncertain and as hazardous as ever. The new conditions thrilled me. I enjoyed every mile of the journey. On some days I would ride a small pony that had been wonderfully well trained to amble. What a surprise considering all things.

Far away under the low hills I would roam for a shot at a buck, always returning with the knowledge that the teams were trekking merrily along and were not, every now and again, being knocked down by their drivers. Whirlwinds were another feature of the Protectorate. They could be seen in the distance as moving pillars of dust swirling across the land at astonishing speed creating strange, isolated commotions, and then disappearing as abruptly in the same wizardly manner as they started.

We halted one evening at a waterhole not many miles from Warmbad.  I shall never forget the experience. There were a few Hottentots and Bushmen families domiciled at the spot, all the younger members of whom were naked and were eking out an existence under the most appalling conditions. They seemed to be, and probably were, three-quarters starved. It is a marvel how the poor wretches managed to keep body and soul together. They were in such a state of emaciation that it made me shudder to look at them. I gave them a few tins of jam and a half case of bully beef. Poor things. They could hardly believe their eyes and offered me a goat – as skinny as they were – in return.

Warmbad barracks, early 20th century

Mulling over what I saw, I could not help wondering what kind of administration existed in that part of the world in those days that such a state of affairs could be allowed to happen among the few Hottentot and Bushmen families domiciled within a few miles of civilisation.

Steam could be seen rising from the “pit” in the vicinity from whence their drinking water came. On using it, it was found to be really hot. At the hot springs, the thermal region of the Protectorate, the horses and donkeys drank greedily and, strange to say, appeared to like it.

My memory of that trek is a confused vision of a lovely winding road opening up vistas of valleys and mountain peaks, of tangled bamboo thickets and coca nuts. This small strip in the wilds of SWA, if not exactly flowing with milk and honey, was at least abundant with a profusion of the most delicious fruits. The days when I rode my shooting pony, which was scarcely larger than a palfrey, I was full of the joys of life.

Donkey cart in front of the Warmbad S.A. Territories Ltd building, early 20th century

 

A pony that ambles lifts both legs on one side alternatively with those on the other side. Such a pony is most comfortable to ride and is ideal for shooting from the saddle in the bush, or open veld. With this valuable acquisition between my legs, I was in clover and had visions of good sport ahead and regretted being unaccompanied.

I could always return to the convoy with the knowledge that the spans were trekking merrily along and were not, every now and again, being knocked down by the drivers. On one of my shooting trips after wild turkey, the largest of African game birds, I was puzzled with what appeared to be an extraordinary friendship existing between the wild turkey and the secretary bird. The latter was a raptorial snake eater resembling the crane from the tufts if feathers at the back of the head, not unlike pens stuck behind the ear. In the veld it struts majestically around and, being so tall, is often mistaken for a human being. Its habits are for it to secure a snake at the back of the head, apparently to avoid the poison. Fly fairly high with it into the air and release it. The fall stuns it, and the bird is then able to enjoy a meal at its leisure. Although classed as vermin, they are most religiously protected by law and heavy penalties are awarded if found guilty of destroying one. But what this bird’s characteristics has in common with the wild turkey, is beyond me.

Warmbad

The wild turkey, too, has its peculiarities. When I wanted a pot shot, I would circle around a bird on my pony at some little distance at a fairly sharp pace, and gradually close in. The bird, intent on watching events, the poor thing would almost sit down and follow the course of the pony round and round until it becomes dizzy. I think that it eventually becomes partially hypnotised and it wasn’t uncommon to catch a half dozen alive by this means in the course of a few hours.

We were still a few miles from Warmbad itself and enquiries elicited that there were usually herds of buck just over a range of low-lying hills in the distance. I dispatched a Hottentot to scout around and, on no account, to disturb anything that he might see. He was back in an hour or so and reported buck in all directions; hundreds of them he said. My pony was quickly saddled and with binoculars slung over my shoulder, I left hurriedly to investigate such a favourable report.

I approached the hills very gingerly for fear of being spotted, or scented, and stampeding the lot. Just below a likely looking hill, I saw an amazing spectacle. There were buck everywhere; hundreds of them as my assistant had reported. With my glasses, I could easily pick out impala, blesbok, hartebeest, springbok and many species I had never set eyes on before. Even a smattering of zebras was with the herds which were all grazing unsuspectingly in serene abandon.

Something must have irritated them for they seemed to have become restless, and it wasn’t me. A few zebras appeared to be assuming the role as policemen. They all stood erect and were very much alert. It was all over in a few minutes and the herds soon had their heads down again.

On this occasion there was no doubt about the regal kudu displaying its massive spiral horns – a worthy trophy of the chase fit to adorn the hall of any home – it was grazing with its mate, a female which, I believe, is hornless. I was well aware that I should not get in more than one shot – maybe two, with luck – before the herds vanished in dust. I took very careful aim at the big fellow and, for the second time in the Protectorate, missed a kudu. I became panicky and in desperation I fired a shot at random into the middle of the fleeing herds and had the good fortune to drop an impala. I felt ashamed. Anyway I was at least compensated for the time that I had spent, but that is not true sportsmanship. My assistant was a spectator to this incident, must have been very downhearted when he saw the big fellow going on his way. However, he collected the impala, which was quite a handful, and slung it onto one of the wagons.

Police fort at Warmbad

Before daybreak the following day, we were off again. At 11 am Warmbad burst into view in the distance. In the wilderness, this small hamlet of a few dozen houses and shanties, and a very well-built church in an unfamiliar setting, made a charming picture. Being mounted at the time, I was the first to enter the place. A strange site was seen on the outskirts. Quail in their thousands were on the verge of migration. The air was so thick with them that a stone aimed in their direction scarcely failed to bring down a bird or two.

Yes, the Protectorate is decidedly a land of strange and unusual incidents. School children, with stones as missiles, were carrying sugar pockets filled with the birds. I was informed that it wasn’t uncommon and seldom a year passed that quail were not seen assembling in the neighbourhood for migratory purposes. What a romantic entry it was for me loaded with a number of these delicious birds – it is a game bird allied to the partridge – but definitely more delicious in flavour and a luxury indeed served on toast.

With an unquenchable thirst, I soon became acquainted with the one and only – in those far-off days – hotel, and there enjoyed drinking German lager beer – quarts of it – that will for ever be memorable.

The Squadron put in an appearance shortly after noon, followed by my convoy, and were quartered in the other German police station buildings. The station itself was an imposing building built in the old days on fort like lines with a view, I take it, to sheltering the inhabitants during Hottentot raids.

The Edward Cook Memorial at Warmbad

The magistrate very magnanimously threw open the famous hit spring baths for the Squadron’s use. The spring water had to be left to cool down before it could be used and had a most soothing effect on one’s tired body. The baths were sumptuously appointed and during the German regime were well patronised by visitors from all parts of the world. A pleasing aspect of our brief stay at Warmbad, which will ever be remembered, was the amazing hospitality showered upon us by the residents and officials.

The journey to Kalkfontein – about 60 miles from Raman’s Drift – too five days, but like previous treks the greater part of the trail lay through sandy country with very little water and was terribly trying for the donkeys.

Everybody had had enough Kalkfontein showed up, another morbid looking spot in the desert. The police special train was waiting at a siding in the station.

At De Aar I reluctantly bade farewell to my newly found friends.

 

Sources

Typed manuscript by John Dunn

Photos from Wikipedia

 


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