OUR road ran through the Sabi low country teeming with big game of all descriptions. By day great herds of zebra, wildebeest, and sable stood fearlessly gazing at us, and at night lions prowled roaring around our camps. Of hunting we had our fill, and to me this journey through a strange and remote region was full of fascination, for we were passing through country as untouched as that upon which the old pioneers had looked when first they came north in the days of the Great Trek.
After long marches we reached the foot of the mighty range that runs north as far as the eye can see. From here General Botha sent the commandos on, with instructions to follow the base of the escarpment to the Murchison Range, two hundred miles away. He himself, escorted by the remnant of the Johannesburg Police and accompanied by the handful of officials who still remained, climbed up by a hunting-path to make for a lost village called Ohrigstad in the SteeGpoort Gorge, our way leading by Gras Kop and Pilgrim's Rest amid mountains and forests and gorges more beautiful than any I know of in South Africa.
Now that President Kruger had left the Country, the Transvaal Government consisted of my father and Schalk Burger who was the Vice-President, together with a few other heads of departments, and they naturally followed General Botha up the mountain, as did my brothers and I. We remained at Ohrigstad for a week, but when malaria broke out the Government moved to within a few miles of Lydenburg village on higher ground. General Botha now went off to plan guerilla operations.
He did this so effectively that in a few months' time he had mobile forces in every quarter of the Transvaal harrying and worrying the British far and near, a reawakening that must have been particularly galling to them, considering how close we had been to a general collapse.
All this, however, was still to come, and in the mean-while my brothers and I lay in the Government laager, fretting at our enforced idleness. We endured it for two weeks, after which we made up our minds to leave. My youngest brother was still so weak from his illness that he had to remain, but the other three of us made ready. My brother Hjalmar, who had a queer bent of his own, preferred to go off by himself, and although we tried to keep him with us he rode away towards the eastern Transvaal. He was subsequently captured and sent to a prison camp in India, and I did not see him again. My brother Joubert and I decided to go west. We had heard from a passing burgher that General Beyers was collecting a force at the Warm Baths, two hundred miles distant, so we agreed to ride thither. Our preparations were soon made, for they were simple enough. We shot a koodoo in the mountain, and made biltong, and we collected a supply of mealies from a neighbouring field. This was all the commissariat we had, for now that we were cut off from the outer world through losing the Delagoa Bay line, we were on Spartan diet, and for the next two years such luxuries as sugar, coffee, tea, bread, and soap were only to be had on rare occasions by capture from the enemy.
We said good-bye to all, and set out.
I did not see my father again for twenty months. He remained in the field until the end of the war with the Government laager, handling his rifle like a private soldier when they came under fire, which was quite often, and doing much to keep up the spirits of the fighting men by his poems and his personal example.
It was a long ride to the Warm Baths. Our way went through bush country, with neither track nor road to guide us, for the region we traversed was untenanted save by native tribes and wild animals. I was on my splendid old roan who had carried me from the start, and my brother rode the horse which we had taken back from our native boy at Pretoria.
On the third day of our journey we had a mournful encounter. We came on Commandant Gravett dying of wounds in the bush. He had been hit by a shell ten days before, and his men had brought him here to prevent his falling into the hands of the British. He knew his end was approaching, but he bore his sufferings without complaint, and spoke of his coming death with resignation. He called us to him a few minutes before the end to tell us of his friendship with my father in former days, and a little while after he lapsed into unconsciousness from which he never recovered. We helped to bury him under a tree, and rode saddened on our way.
For ten days we journeyed, straying far north beyond the Olifants River, misled by natives who told us of a commando in that direction. When we came up with this force, it was only a patrol on their way to Secocoeni's country to inquire into fighting that had broken out between two native tribes. Among the patrol were old General Maroola and his brother Swart Lawaai, now serving in the ranks.
They were dressed as in the Natal days, only shabbier from long exposure on the veld, but they greeted us as if nothing had changed since. At length we turned south, and eventually reached Warm Baths, where we found General Beyers with a thousand men. He had been a lawyer before the war, and was now in command of the North-West under General Botha's new scheme of reorganization. He was a brave man, but I never liked him.
Here we were surprised to find our old A.C.C. commando almost intact. After that unfortunate day, when Commandant Malan and seven men were killed, they had left the high veld and had made straight for these parts. This was why we had never come across them during the retreat to the Portuguese border. They were still about sixty strong, under command of a newcomer, a young officer named Lodi Krause, who invited us to rejoin, which we did at once. We remained in the neighbourhood of the Warm Baths for the better part of a month while General Beyers was raising more men, and the time passed pleasantly enough. We hunted a good deal and several times rode out on patrol to Pienaars River, twenty-five miles towards Pretoria, to watch the doings of a large English camp there. On one of these occasions we had a narrow escape. Six of us were approaching a kopje overlooking the camp, when suddenly a strong body of horsemen tried to cut off our retreat. We turned and made a dash for it, passing so near to some of the troopers that I heard them shouting at us to halt, while their bullets whipped around us as they galloped through the bush. We shook them off, however, without getting a scratch.
Except for these patrols and hunting for the pot, we spent a quiet time. Late in November my younger brother Arnt arrived at the Baths looking fit and well, having ridden hundreds of miles to find us, for he too had found life in the Government laager too slow once he was restored to health. We were very glad to see him, and the three of us built a weatherproof hut and fared well as food was plentiful. Rations were chiefly game and mealie meal, last of which General Beyers had accumulated a large supply from the Waterberg farms. He himself was camped close to us a dark moody man who lost no opportunity of holding prayer meetings. With him was the Reverend Mr Kriel, a Dutch Reformed parson, equally zealous; so between the two we were continually bidden to religious services, and they even went the length of ordering all the younger men to attend Bible classes. When my brothers and I ignored the order, General Beyers and Mr Kriel rode over in person to expostulate with us, and even threatened to turn us out of the commando, but we stuck to our guns and heard nothing further of it; in fact we rather gained in reputation, for the Boars, although a religious people, are not intolerant in matters of faith.
I did not care for Beyers, but I liked the old predikant for all his narrowness, and afterwards in the Cape Colony I grew to admire him as a steadfast man.
On about the 7th of December (1900) we were told to be in readiness to move south next day. My brother Joubert now surprised us by saying he was not coming. He said that he was going to be a gunner with a Creusot gun, one of the few still left, and was leaving at once with his new unit. He had always wished to be an artilleryman, and his obstinacy defeated our arguments. He rode away that same afternoon and I have not seen him since, for he was captured and sent to Bermuda, where he still is. General Beyers left a few hundred men and his guns behind to oppose the English columns that were preparing to invade the northern Transvaal, and with the rest, about eight hundred strong, he marched off. His purpose was to make south over the Magaliesbergen to the high veld beyond, in order to carry on guerilla warfare there.
Our first day's trek brought us to the big native star of a local chief named Koos Mamogali. From here we looked across a valley, twelve miles wide, towards the Magalies-bergen. The mountain range stretches east to west for a hundred miles and more and, in this area, forms the dividing line between the high veld and the bush country from which we were emerging. We crossed the valley that night, and by daybreak reached the foot of a disused pass known as 'the old wagon road'. Here there was evidence that General de la Rey had lately been in the vicinity for we found a burning convoy of fifty or sixty English supply wagons, and one of his men who came riding by told us that they had ambushed the wagons in a stiff fight and had taken many prisoners.
We looked on this as a good omen after the unbroken run of ill luck that had dogged us for so long, for it showed that General Botha's reorganization was beginning to take effect.
After a rest we climbed the pass, reaching the top by four that afternoon. From there, southwards, we had a wide view over the grass-covered plains, and far away on the skyline we could even see the smoke-stacks and goldmines of the Witwatersrand. The sight raised our spirits, and the men crowded the edge of the cliff animatedly discussing the improved outlook, for we were back from the wilds to within hail of Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Then we came down the south side, and by dark were off-saddled among the gardens and orchards below. We had had no sleep the night before and were looking forward to a good night's rest, but this was not to be. As we were preparing our supper, General de la Rey came riding amongst us on his famous little white-faced pony, and word went round that we were to attack an English force camped at the foot of the mountain not far away.