Minus eight in Memel

When I first started to work out what a mountain bike route along the Drakensberg might look like, I was pleased to see that the trail would likely pass near Amajuba.

Amajuba was one of the defining battles of the first Anglo Boer war, December 1880 to March 1881. This was the precursor to the real deal 20 years later when Boer and Brit blasted one another for four or so years. These days, these wars have been re-named the South African wars, on the basis that a far wider cross-section of South Africans participated rather than just Boers and Brits.
To me, the earlier name better evokes what this struggle was all about—the British are not South African, so why call these the South African wars?

For context, remember that there was no Jo’burg when these protagonists shed blood on Amajuba. This was in 1880. Gold was only discovered in Jo’burg seven years later.

There was plenty of gold in Southern Africa though. As noted by TV Bulpin in Lost Trails of the Transvaal, the Kaapsehoop/Barberton area was at this time the most prized real estate in the world.

There were lush farms in the Volksrust area, including one owned by Pieter Joubert, commandant general of the Boer republic. But this was no land of milk and honey, at least not during winter.

One Frank Oates, a natural historian who travelled through these parts during winter in the 1880s, wrote that ‘a more wretched country can hardly be conceived. Not a tree to be seen, and half the country burnt as black as if, the dry grass is set on fire, it burns for weeks. ...

‘The Dutch boers have farms at intervals. They seem miserably poor; no milk, eggs, meat. I don’t know how they live ... there is scarcely any water; the road in many places very bad and strewn with the bones and skeletons of oxens, wildebeeste and other animals, which have been picked clean by the vultures.”

On February 27 about 450 Boers attacked 405 Brits who were occupying the summit of Amajuba. It was a klap of note, only one Boer dead and five wounded compared to 92 dead Brits, 54 captured and 134 wounded. The Brits sued for peace.

We are starting this trip on Laing’s Nek, the pass which crosses the Drakensberg from KwaZulu-Natal into Mpumalanga. We begin where the tar road joins the Quaggasnek road, about 15km south of Volksrust and in the shadow of Amajuba.

It looks to me like this is very good quagga country, but you’d have to go back several decades before the battle of Majuba, to the 1850s, to have seen the last quagga in these, or any parts.

Lucille and I are joined in this three-day sojourn by Cally, who hails from the area, having grown up on a farm between Ladysmith and Newcastle. She has helped plan the route and has made inquiries from locals about some of the more obscure passes we have found on the 1:50 000 maps. All assure us that these passes do not exist but this does not daunt us as we would rather trust the 1:50 000 maps than local knowledge.

The wind is blustering when Cally’s boet, James, drops us. It is swirling and appearing to come from multiple directions. I tell myself that it is coming from the north knowing full well that it is actually coming from the south and bringing a cold front with it.

It is the third week in July and by rights we would be well-advised to wait a few weeks for better weather, but the mountains have been calling so we have stocked up with warm gear, bought larger backpacks and come down to ride anyway.

This first section beyond Amajuba is characterised by rolling hills, all brown now. There are no particular features to the area besides a Transnet pump station which sends petrol or gas through the mountains. I will have to check the map to work out what is being sent where.

This particular section of the trail will be shaped in the main by two rivers, the Klip and the Wilge. Both run into the Vaal, but through very different routes.

The Klip starts about halfway of this section of the north-eastern Free State and runs north. Then it turns east and is the border of the Free State with Mpumalanga, before joining the Vaal and flowing to the sea.

The Wilge runs south-west after starting not too far from where the Klip begins. It drops down to Swinburne and then turns west. Along the way it will be bolstered by KZN water which has been pumped into the Sterkfontein dam. Not too far from Jo’burg, near Frankfort, the Wilge, too, joins the Vaal.

Our progress towards the Klip is slow. The headwind must add at least 50% to our effort. A large sign tells us that the Seekoeivlei is 8km away.

The hippos were shot out here at more or less the same time that Boer and Brit squared up to one another at Amajuba. But now they’re back. The Seekoeivlei has been declared a Ramsar site and a 5 000 hectare reserve fenced off. This will keep the hippos inside their own area, possibly originally a source of tension with the settler farmers.

Two hippos have been trucked in and the reserve is being stocked with other game, mainly buck. We don’t see any hippos. Just the hippo-proof fence.

We are out of time, anyway, and have our heads down pushing towards Memel as night falls. We have ridden 55km.

We’re staying at the Antique B&B run by Charlotte Viviers, a sixth-generation Memelite. Charlotte has numerous self-catering options in the town, which until the arrival of the hippos, mainly attracted bird lovers to check out the bird life on the vlei.

We are accommodated in her home which she shares with her husband and collectibles of every kind. The house doubles as an antique store. You get the sense that there is not much she throws away.

There are collections of boxes, tins, bottles, shells, books, dolls. Generaal Chistiaan de Wet’s sideboard is there as is a frock coat, antique underwear and much, much more besides. You have to think that she is better at collecting old stuff than selling it.

It is Charlotte who told me that the last hippos in the vlei were shot out in the nineteenth century. She says a hippo was tooth was found in recent times in the vlei before the animals were re-introduced.

Charlotte and husband Viv have fingers in many Memel pies. They have several self-catering options, a koshuis, a mohair business, the antiques, a petrol garage, a farm, a church property to run, a tyre business and Charlotte is the local reporter of Memel news.

‘We do all of this,” Viv says sitting happily filling in forms in his dining room, ‘but we don’t make any money”.

The television plays in the corner as they count the receipts for the month and do their tax returns. The reception, like the weather, is snowy.

Through the snow I see to my amazement that Riaan Cruywagen is reading the news. He looks unchanged. Later I wonder if he is on some special Memel version of the news but I guess this is unlikely.

Riaan told us that the Eastern Cape was a sprokies world of white. There were visuals of a snow-white Hogsback. He also imparted the new maize price which Viv noted and the petrol price which is Charlotte’s department. She will have to carefully work out the new price for her garage on Thursday.

Charlotte’s collection instincts come in use. I have lost the small screw from my glasses. Charlotte brings out six or seven pairs of her departed mother’s glasses and we have a fit. I am good to go for another day.

Dinner was at the refurbished Memel Hotel. We drank sherry, orange juice and red wine and ate hamburgers and steak rolls with chips. The return journey by foot to Charlotte’s place was freezing cold.

Charlotte told us that temperatures of minus three were forecast for Bethlehem ‘and we are always three degrees colder”.

There was no plan to leave early. We had eggs from Nguni chickens which were scrambled and then put in the microwave. They were particularly good as was the quince jam from the garden.

Charlotte takes some pressure from other B&B operators who think that her self-catering rate at R70 per head is too low. She seems a little puzzled about this, explaining that she inherited the properties she rents out and thinks she has the right to charge what she likes.

Reports from the farm telegraph say there was a dusting of snow in Newcastle and real snow in Dundee and Swinburne. It had been minus eight overnight and was now positive one (excluding the wind chill which seemed blerrie cold).

We put on extra layers. I borrow long-finger gloves from Cally and we zipped up everything we could. We put our jacket hoods under our helmets and zipped up some more. But when a farmer stopped 5km down the road (not without some prodding from our side, it turned out later) we accepted a lift in his bakkie for 8km which turned into 15km.

The farmer tells us this is not the coldest it had been this year, a few weeks back temperatures fell overnight to minus 14.

Some of the farms here are historically ancient. One which we visit for directions dates back to the 1830’s. The owners live in Jo’burg but the manager, who lives a bachelor-type existence here, invites us in for tea.

Many people get used to entering their homes through means other than the front door. The kitchen, for instance, is often favoured over the front door. Here we enter through the bathroom/toilet and drink tea without milk. Oates would have seen impoverishment as the reason for the milk-less tea, but in this case the reason is the lack of the civilising role which women bring to men’s cave-like ways of living.

We follow the Klip towards Normandien pass, climbing slowly to a smidge under 2 000m where we get a 360° view of our surroundings. Now we are going to lose altitude, careering 15km or so down the Normandien pass into an area known as Die Ark. The GPS says we have travelled 58km from Memel. In times past, Cally tells us, Afrikaners trekked in here, could not find a way through, and became isolated.

Until the 1960’s, women in the area could be seen wearing the traditional kappie.

We stay at the Horseshoe, a sprawling ranch owned by the Dippenaars. Old man Dippenaar, (82) has been assigned to ensure we are welcomed and accommodated. Normally son Koot would do this but he has a catering business in Newcastle and will only be back later.

Koot’s mother is the usual stand-in, but she is ill, so old man Dippenaar is it. He is full of stories and has much charm in a manner which makes Basil Fawlty appear hospitable.

He is ready to tick me off on a few points for what the British, a Christian nation, did to the boers. ‘You British,” he starts —

‘I’m not British,” I tell him. ‘Then what are you?”

‘I’m South African”.

The maps have suggested two possible routes out of Die Ark. Both are shown as tracks, probably no more than routes for taking cattle to summer feeding. One is Keay’s pass, the other Roger’s. We are yet to meet a local who knows of either.

We make plans for the next day with dark, ominous clouds building. It looks as though the weather will set the plans.

There is not much to do except stay near the warm fire and watch the dark clouds roll in. Looking out at the mountains I see a raging fire, many metres high, which is no more than a 100m away. I rush outside after alerting our hosts. It is a controlled fire, of sorts.

There is a small settlement which includes a few homes and what appears to be an abandoned school. About 20 people are burning a fire break.

One walks in the front with a rake. He gathers some dry grass which he lights from the flames, using this torch to spread the fire.

Behind him walks a picannin [child]. His job is to stomp on the rats which dash for cover from the burning grass. There are plenty of rats to be stomped. I go back to the indoor fire and tell Cally and Lucille about what I have seen. Cally thinks they are probably not rats, but field mice.

Old man Dippenaar has four of his own sons and a fifth, Thabo, who is adopted. Thabo speaks of a track up the mountain which fire fighters use. From the description it will connect with Roger’s pass and take us to the top of the escarpment.

It is sunny in the morning and reasonably warm.

Roger’s is a 500m vertical climb over a few kilometres. At the top we have a clear view into the Wilge valley and the route to Swinburne.

Many of the farms we have passed are farmer-less. Many have been consolidated. In cases the farmers have left the farms in the management of their staff. They visit periodically but increasingly derive most of their income from businesses in town. In other cases, Jo’burgers own the farm and visit on the occasional weekend.

Very few cars pass us as we make our way towards Swinburne. We can see the mountain behind it from 30km away. We can also see the main Drakensberg range, which looms over KZN at heights up to 3 000m, in the distance.
Cally has good eyes and spots more than her share of buck and birds, including a small herd of wildebeest which she insists on calling gnus.

I am on one of the last of many climbs before the road finally crosses the N3 and heads down to Swinburne. I stop to take a large swig of water, turning my head in the process. There, about 50m away, staring at me, are three Sable antelope. There is no game fence to hold them in. They look at me. The largest one snorts. They carry on eating.

The rugby is ending as is the day as I get to the Riverview Lodge, about 75km from Horseshoe. Barbie the goat gives a welcome bleat. The pub is full of people drinking beer and watching the Boks play the All Blacks. We have beaten New Zealand.

We have hot showers and eat curries and steaks washed down with beer, cokes and more wine.

In the morning we breakfast with James, Cally’s mother and sister. We have a big story to tell, about the wind, cold and the snow which still lay in the shade on the last day.

There are other big stories. One is that part of our route will be covered in a new dam which will be used to pump water up the mountain to create power for peak energy use. Special plans are being made to create a new nesting site for the bald ibises which nest in the area.

Another is about a farmer who was thrown out of the Free State because of his cattle rustling activities. He moved into KZN where he continued the practice, both incurring the wrath of local farmers and finding himself in a protracted court action which eventually resulted in his favour.

These are all big stories. But there is a personal one which gives some satisfaction. There are bits and pieces of the trail here and there still to do, but for the most part, there is now a continuous mountain bike trail from one end of the Drakensberg to the other.

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote. Read more from Kevin Davie

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