The officers agreed among themselves that General Hasebroek should remain at Nauwpoort to defend the nek, whilst the men of Harrismith were ordered to go to the footpath near the house of Mr. Willem Bester, in order thus to afford the commandos a chance of coming out from behind the mountains somewhere near Oldenburg or Witzieshoek. We therefore advanced on Friday to the south of the Roodebergen, up along the Little Caledon. How lavishly does Nature reveal her magnificence here. Awe-inspiring mountains rise into the air with every variety of jagged rock, crowning the heights now tinted red by the winter grass. The sharpest contrast of light and shadow strike the eye from the barren masses of sandstone, and the deep, dark ravines. One feels overpowered—everything is so colossal! It is in such a place and in sight of such mountain views that one must feel oneself a stranger and sojourner upon this earth of ours. Ay, a stranger, for one cannot claim as one's possession what Nature so liberally offers.
We rode on with this grandeur all around, and arrived at the farm of Willem Bester shortly after noon. There we off-saddled at a large wheatstack, whilst a number of men were sent as a patrol to the top of the mountain where the footpath crosses. I was lying on the straw with the others, when General Roux arrived there. From him I learnt much that surprised me, and which by no means served to cheer me. He told me that, after the President and General De Wet had shortly before passed through Slabbert's Nek, the English had broken through there. This had happened in the previous week. And now the enemy had also taken Fouriesburg. There were still burghers in position on this side of that town, but the majority had no intention of fighting any longer. Everything was demoralised. Moreover, nobody knew who was in command: he or General Marthinus Prinsloo. The consequence was that there was no cohesion. Every Commandant acted as he thought fit. Then there were very many who were fleeing with their cattle and waggons, and it seemed as if all those people cared about was how to save their cattle or waggons, or even some little cart. He saw plainly, that as long as there existed such an immense waggon-laager as that which now accompanied the commandos, and as long also as they were encumbered with women and children, nothing could be accomplished. Under these circumstances he considered that, first of all, somebody should be elected who would be acknowledged as Commander-in-Chief. He thought an armistice of six days should be asked of the English in order to enable us to consult our Government. He had convoked a meeting of a Council of War for this purpose, and the officers were to assemble that same night.
We moved up somewhat nearer to the footpath and spent the night at the foot of precipitous mountains in a beautiful kloof. Here we learned that our waggon-laager, for the safety of which we had been uneasy, was still at large and was encamped at Groendraai. That night the officers held a lengthy meeting, and General Marthinus Prinsloo was elected Chief-Commandant. His election was, however, not final, on account of the absence of some of the officers who had still to vote. It was further resolved, mirabile dictu, by 17 votes against 13, to surrender to the English forces! But the Council of War was undoubtedly startled by this resolution, and immediately brought it under revision, resolving anew that they would ask the enemy for an armistice of six days for the purpose of being enabled to consult with the Government. They further resolved that if this were not to be acceded to by the enemy, a commission of officers should reconnoitre the positions, and if these were found to be untenable, they would then continue fighting in the direction of Witzieshoek with the object of breaking through and passing out of the mountains there. The following day we proceeded. I met the Revs. J. J. T. Marquard, M. Heyns, and P. A. Roux, not far from the house of Mr. W. Bester. They were in no very hopeful mood—a fact which did not tend to cheer me, as the Rev. J. J. T. Marquard, especially, had never been otherwise than buoyant.
I could not remain with them long, because I had to proceed with my commando. What beautiful views of kloof, valley, and mountain presented themselves everywhere! Sometimes an immense rock would rise perpendicularly a thousand feet into the air, from the road along which we were marching. Then we would cross a hill and could look down upon the Little Caledon far below, winding its way through a ravine. How this little stream seemed to soothe and comfort, and soften the weirdness of the grandeur. Now it lay still and calm, caressed by lily and bulrush, where it was for a moment held captive by a ledge of rocks stretching from bank to bank; then again it dashed on as if impatient at being impeded in its course by the great boulders which had fallen into its bed from above. But it was not the rivulet,—it was the mountains that held you spellbound and constrained you to think of nothing else.
How sharp was the contrast between the majestic calm of the eternal mountains and the unrest of the men that swarmed below! Everyone kept pressing on. Forward, ever forward! Whither? No one knew whither; but everybody felt himself enclosed within the mountains, as if in the horrid embrace of a nightmare and his only wish was to escape. To escape! no matter whither! and then? This I asked myself, when we had got beyond these mountains, should we then bravely march against the enemy on the plains? Alas! I saw but few indications of it. Yet could I blame this confused multitude? No, they were as sheep without a shepherd. It was then, if ever, that a man—ONE MAN was wanted! Unconsciously the multitude cried for a Leader, and—the Leader did not come!
Long trains of waggons and carts, large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep were driven on with feverish haste. Everywhere one could mark the signs of uneasiness and fear upon the faces of those who were fleeing there. They anxiously inquired of such persons as came from the direction of Fouriesburg or Nauwpoort, where the English were, and whether they might soon be expected.
What grieved me beyond measure was the sight of so many women and children amongst those who were thus endeavouring to escape. Here one might see mothers with babies in their arms, and little ones clinging to their skirts, jumping over the stepping-stones of a river-ford or wading through the water whilst the waggons were struggling across. Yonder again there were others baking bread in ant-hills. Here again you saw girls in scanty clothing, gathering fuel or drawing water, while there was a short halt for the purpose of preparing a meal, and letting the weary oxen rest and graze. Poor women, poor children! Why should they be there?
We rode on, and about noon passed the beautiful farm "Golden Gate" belonging to Mr. Jan van Reenen. He treated the burghers with great kindness, and gave each one a bundle of forage for his horse.
In the afternoon we proceeded on our journey, and when the sun set we stood upon the mountains that look down upon Oldenburg.
Many a time, when visiting as clergyman of the district the members of my congregation there, I had gazed enrapt on the beautiful view of this fruitful plain surrounded by a circle of lordly mountains; and now again, in spite of melancholy thoughts, the charm of the scene entranced me as I looked a thousand feet down. There many carts and waggons had arrived already, and preparations were being made to pass the night on the spot.
We descended by a steep footpath, and learnt that our waggon-laager had not, as we had feared, fallen into the hands of the enemy. It was at that moment still in safety, at the farm of Mrs. van der Merwe. We off-saddled, and soon the mantle of night hid not only the grand views of mountain and kloof, but also the sad spectacle of panic and confusion.