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Near Krokodil River, on Carlyle's Farm, President Steyn and his attendants separated from De Wet's commando, and went in the direction of Zoutpan to Machadodorp. We were about seventy-five men in all. The little commando consisted of carts, a few trolleys, and horsemen on strong, well-conditioned horses. The Free Staters nearly all had one or two spare horses. Our own commando still always consisted of twelve or thirteen men, and the small ambulance waggon which we used for provisions. The French doctor had remained behind with De la Rey. We moved very fast. At Zoutpan--a sunken kopje like the mouth of a crater, with a pan at the bottom, from which the salt is got--I met some old acquaintances, who pretended to have come there for salt. During our talk my suspicions were roused by their curiosity, and by their knowledge of President Steyn's arrival. I also doubted their tale that their trolley stood behind a kopje, and not at Zoutpan, and I warned the Commandant against them. He became very anxious, and made us move on as rapidly as possible, for once we had crossed the Pienaars River all danger from khaki would be past. It was a good thing that the Commandant made us travel so fast, for we had only just outspanned at Pienaars River the following morning when the khakies' bomb-Maxim began firing at the outposts of General Grobler's Waterberg commando, which was stationed there. We had only just time to inspan and ride off to the Boschveld, towards the Olifants River, where we would be safe, while General Grobler disappeared in the direction of Warmbad.
At Pienaars River I made the acquaintance of General Celliers, who was loudly proclaiming the way in which he would squash khaki if only the burghers would fight. He is the exception to the rule that all braggarts are cowards. Most of the braggarts have gradually disappeared from the scene, but the deeds of this hero were always in accordance with his words.
We heard afterwards that a detachment of the enemy had followed us, but we had had too great a start, and had besides taken a short-cut of which they knew nothing. It would not have been easy for the khakies to overtake a well-mounted commando like President Steyn's.
We were also told that the enemy knew of the arrival of President Steyn, which strengthened my belief that the two suspicious characters at Zoutpan were the informers. Whenever we, as the attacking party, made prisoners, they always declared that they had known all about our plan of attack--probably to discourage us with the thought that through the treachery of our own people the enemy always knew all about our movements.
For a long way we followed the same road that we had taken with Commandant Boshoff to Rustenburg. We arrived safely at Waterval-Boven (President Kruger having already retreated from Machadodorp), where we stayed a few days and heard the famous Battle of Dalmanutha (August 27)--the most awful roar of cannon that I have ever heard.
From Waterval-Boven we went to Nelspruit, to which President Kruger had moved in his railway-home. We gave our horses a week's rest and passed the time fishing and hunting. We were content there, as we got plenty to eat, and our horses, too, were well fed--an important matter to us just then. Circumstances were forcing us to attach much value to all sorts of trifles that we would formerly not even have noticed.
If once one has suffered the pangs of hunger, one learns to value the comfort and luxury of home; and if one has wandered about for weeks without seeing woman or child, one learns to appreciate their gentleness and charm and to understand Schiller's Zuechtige Hausfrau in 'Das Lied von der Glocke.' How often in our wanderings we longed for good literature during our long, tiring, monotonous rides! And how terrible was the thought of the moral hurt we were suffering--voluntarily in a way, yet forced to it by a sense of honour and duty. For in this lay the grievousness of the war, that a powerful nation--influenced by a few unscrupulous leaders--was trying to annihilate a small nation that demanded the right of existence, and was therefore forced to defend that right. It was a happy time for us when we had the opportunity of turning our thoughts towards literature and other things than commando work.
The privations that we had already endured were small indeed in comparison to those which awaited us. It was well with the Uitlander optimist who remained in our country while the Republics could give him the comforts he demanded as his right, but who, as soon as things went wrong, and he saw nothing but misery in the future, left for his own country--there to sit in judgment on our peasant-nation. How I long for the gift of being able to express myself, to give a true account of the self-denial of our burghers and of the misery that we endured! How my heart bleeds when I think of the great sorrow that has come upon my poor people!
When the enemy approached the Delagoa railway-line, President Steyn left with his escort for Hectorspruit. I had to follow with a trolley for which there was no room on the train. Because of the disorder that reigned everywhere I had to wait nearly three days before I could start. I was pretty nearly famished on my arrival at Hectorspruit, and ate greedily of the remains of the porridge left by some burghers, among whom were two sons of State Secretary Reitz. President Steyn's lager had in the meanwhile become 250 men strong, under Commandant Lategan, and was then at Krokodil River.
At Nelspruit I met a couple of old friends, Malherbe and Celliers, with whom I left for the lager. They were both Transvaalers who had been studying in Holland, but had returned before finishing their studies on account of the war. The commando was well supplied with weapons and ammunition, as the Delagoa Bay line brought plenty to our store. What became of the rest I do not know, as President Steyn was in a hurry and our commando left first for the North.
The ford at Krokodil River was about fifty paces wide--made for the occasion and difficult to cross. The trolleys and waggons that had to cross to the lager on the opposite side gave us much trouble, as they sank deep into the sand. We harnessed a double span of oxen to the waggons, undressed ourselves, and had to swim alongside the animals to get them through. Occasionally something dropped from one of the waggons and had to be fished up in a hurry to save it from the strong current. There was much shouting and laughter, and if any crocodile had been in the neighborhood he would have suppressed his hunger until the storm was over.
On the banks of the river there was a constant shooting at fish and game, and even at crocodiles, who showed themselves occasionally. There was game in abundance. It seemed as if all the game of the Transvaal, that is becoming so scarce, had fled to this part.
We were on our way to Pietersburg through the Boschveld of South-East Lydenburg, which might be called a desert in winter. It was a journey difficult even for a trek Boer, and more than difficult for a large commando. A man called Bester was our guide. Some two years before he had made the same journey on a hunting expedition, and now he was able to follow the ruts which the wheels of his waggon had made then, and which would be in all probability deepened by the summer rains. Our means of transport were chiefly carts and trolleys, on which we also put our bedding to lighten the burden of our riding horses.