The country about Beira is very flat, and at times much of the land becomes flooded, and the roads have to be raised six or eight feet to be passable. During our stay there the Portuguese Governor and suite paid a visit to the New South Wales camp, which had been grandly decorated for the occasion with palms, banana trees, and other tropical vegetation. His Excellency greatly admired the troops and the splendid condition of the Australian horses; also Captain Ryrie's unique exhibition of boomerang throwing.
We had been at Beira nearly a month, during which time troops had been dribbling through to Rhodesia. At last it was our turn to be passed on to Bamboo Creek; we entrained at four in the afternoon, and reached Bamboo Creek at three in the morning—90 miles in eleven hours. It was considered quite a record trip. We had been very fortunate in that the train had kept on the rails the whole way without a break-down or a smash-up; I had noticed broken and overturned rolling-stock at intervals along the line.
About five miles out from Beira we passed through a belt of typical tropical jungle, dense undergrowth of bamboo and scrub, while overhead the trees were decked with parasite plant life, and festooned with many kinds of creeper. The Queensland bean was very prominent, its gigantic pods from six to eight feet in length hanging from the stems.
We stayed at Bamboo Creek four days—quite long enough, judging by the look of the cemetery opposite the camp, which had been well filled from the Imperial Yeomanry who had passed through ahead of us, a number having been employed in the workshops there building rolling-stock.
The town consisted of a couple of tin shanties, where the principal drink sold was bad wine. I had been left behind with a party of men to strike camp and gather up all camp equipment that remained, and entrain it for Urn tali; I was not sorry when we got on our way. After travelling all night we stopped at Mandegas for breakfast and to feed the horses.
The country round here consists of vast plains; the landscape is bare and uninviting, and deficient in water and tree growth. After leaving Mandegas behind, the physical features of the country begin to change; isolated kopjes rise out of the veldt, and bold and picturesque outlines of ranges appear in the distance. We wound our way through the rugged gorges of Massi-Kessi, an important gold-mining district on the plateau which stretches along the Portuguese boundary, and, passing into Mashonaland, arrived at Umtali, in Rhodesia, and pitched our camp in the station yard.
I was favourably impressed with this town on account of the number and character of its buildings, its telephone service, and general up-to-date appearance; it is one of those little towns that are just moving ahead on account of the rich goldfields in the neighbourhood. It is prettily situated in a kind of great basin, almost surrounded by high mountain ranges. A little agriculture is done in this district, a settlement of Dutch farmers having been placed there by Cecil Rhodes, who himself had a model farm a little to the north.
The grass grew very long and rank, and appeared as if it would carry any number of stock. The Chartered Company afterwards put on it a thousand head of cattle which had been shipped from Australia and brought in via Beira. I afterwards met one of the men who had gone over with them and herded them at Umtali; he informed me that the experiment had been a complete failure; although they had arrived in splendid condition, the whole of them died within six months, and he had been stricken with malarial fever.
We were now in British territory, so it was decided to leave the railway and go on "trek" to Marrandellas; the Dutch settlers furnished the transports. Leaving Umtali we took the road through Christmas Pass, and rose several thousand feet as we wound our way through the mountains which encircle the town. The scenery as we rose higher and higher became more magnificent and enchanting; all around us was rank vegetation, among which ferns and beautiful wild flowers grew in great profusion, and gay-plumaged birds flitted about. Occasionally we got a glimpse of a distant landscape of fantastic and rugged grandeur, glorified by the setting sun. The climate being dry and the air so remarkably clear, even at a great distance the landscape stands out very distinctly.
We passed through Old Umtali, which had been a flourishing little settlement before the railway line was built, and had been the scene of much fighting during the last native insurrection. A mission station was about all that remained, and in its garden I noticed old rifle barrels being used to stake young fruit-trees. Along the road were deserted and tumble-down farm houses, once the homes of struggling settlers whom the natives had swooped down upon and massacred; this was made painfully evident by the lonely graves close by.
After five days' trekking through bush veldt country we reached Rusapi, a small trading station on the railway about half way between Umtali and Marrandellas; we bivouacked near the river. I shall always have a lively recollection of this camp. I turned in as usual after dark—that is, I rolled myself up in my blanket, and lay on the ground with my saddle for a pillow. It was a bitterly cold night, but being tired I soon dropped off to sleep. Towards morning I woke with a most awful pain in my right knee, which had become very stiff and much swollen. I began to think of snakes and poisonous insects, but on examination I could find no trace of anything having bitten me. With the assistance of one of my comrades I went in search of the doctor, who examined me, and informed me that I was suffering from a severe attack of "synovitis" (inflammation of the membranes of the joint). He ordered me to be taken on one of the transport waggons and to bathe my knee with cold water as often as possible.
That ride, which lasted seven days, was one of the most agonising of my experiences. I sat on the top of the waggon, which was loaded with supplies, and was unable even to lie down with any comfort, while the bumping and jolting intensified the pain until it became almost unbearable. At night, when we outspanned, I would lie under the waggon out of the night dews. Sleep was out of the question; I could only listen to the jackals and hyenas howling round the camp.
In the daytime I would try to chum in with the Dutch driver, but I found him extremely taciturn; he would sit on the front of the waggon and smoke all day, and it was only when we got stuck in a drift, or at some other tight pinch, that he would get off and flog the oxen most unmercifully. One of the oxen, which was a bit of a warrig-al, or a "bi-schellum" as he termed it, he named "Englishman," and when the whip was being used poor "Englishman" received more attention than the rest of the team put together. Racial hatred was then at a very high pitch, and no opportunity was lost in giving expression to it. Although, perhaps, since peace was declared opinions are not so openly discussed, in the hearts of the Dutch race this hatred undoubtedly still exists, and is likely to exist through generations yet to come, though in the meantime it may be kept in check through the rifle and at the point of the sword.
As we continued our journey, on one occasion we got stuck in a drift or ford, among rocks and boulders. After several unsuccessful attempts to get out, our team was supplemented by another span; the result was equally unsuccessful. A third was then attached, making a span of nearly sixty oxen; again they tried to start, the drivers and natives shrieking, slashing, swearing, and shouting as though Pandemonium were let loose. This time the pole broke, and the waggon was left standing in the stream; eventually it was got upon the bank and the teams outspanned while the pole was repaired. When nearing Marrandellas the troops went on into camp, leaving the transports some five or six miles out on the road. We had camped for the night, and my leg was so stiff and painful that I could not put it to the ground. I was anxiously waiting for the morrow, when I would be able to go into hospital and get some kind of treatment.
During the evening a spring cart was sent out from the camp to the waggons for the officers' kits, and I embraced what I thought was an opportunity of getting into hospital instead of spending another night on the veldt. I was put in the cart, and all went well for about two miles, when we came to a drift with a steep bank on either side. As soon as we started on the upgrade, the horse stopped dead, and neither whip nor coaxing would make him move. After about an hour wasted in various expedients, and when the resources of the driver had been exhausted, he decided to take the brute back to camp and return with a fresh animal, promising faithfully to return in about two hours.
I lay on the ground wrapped in a horse-rug, quite alone, and waited; hour after hour passed, but no driver returned. The night was extremely cold; I had no fire, and very little covering, and I did not get a wink of sleep. All night long wild animals made the night hideous with weird and blood-curdling sounds. Lying there in the dark, helpless and unarmed, I could hear the sound of sticks breaking only a few yards away, and as my ideas of Rhodesia were largely associated with lions and other man-eating carnivora, I concluded that before morning there would be a vacancy for a sergeant in my regiment.
Shortly after daylight the driver put in an appearance, and a start was made for the camp, which was reached about 8 o'clock. After being examined by the medical officer, I was taken on to the hospital and admitted. The hospital was a low, corrugated iron building, filled with canvas stretchers, and each patient had to provide his own bedding, which in many cases was teeming with vermin. The food was wretched and the attendance worse.
The food consisted principally of hashed-up "Maconochie ration" (a mysterious kind of tinned meat and vegetables) and boiled rice, with occasionally a bit of bread in lieu of army biscuits. This would be placed in the doorway by the cook in a couple of large pots, from which the patients had to help themselves; those who were unable to get up ran a risk of getting nothing at all unless they had a comrade to serve them.
There were three or four hospital orderlies, whose time appeared to be occupied in bossing some half a dozen Kaffir boys. I would have almost starved if I had not been able to get provisions from outside, which my comrades purchased for me from the canteen; most of this food was "commandeered" by the night orderlies while I slept. A wash was a luxury and a bath unknown. My knee had first been strapped in plaster, then blistered, and afterwards put in a splint and tightly bandaged, and I was ordered complete rest. No part of this treatment seemed to do me any good. After I had been in hospital fifteen days, a Medical Board came and sat around me, and examined me, and decided to invalid me home to Australia. I pleaded to be allowed to remain, or sent to the Cape for a change; but I was informed that it would probably be months before I would be fit for mounted duty again.
I was taken, with about forty other invalids, and put on board the train. The accommodation was disgraceful, and the management scandalous. A few men who had rheumatic fever were helpless and incapable of moving, while others were debilitated and weakened by malaria and dysentery; all were indiscriminately herded together in a couple of covered-in trucks, amongst baggage kit and rations. The rations provided consisted of the usual boulli beef and biscuits, with a little jam—no "medical comforts," not even bread.
There was one carriage on the train that was monopolised by an Imperial Yeomanry officer and a few of his men, who were being "invalided" home as useless; in his charge we were sent to the coast. Dr. Kelly, a Victorian who accompanied us, did all in his power under the circumstances. At Umtali he arranged for us to be supplied with suitable food from the railway refreshment rooms, and here we secured a stock for the remainder of the journey. Another carriage was attached to the train, and four of us commandeered a compartment, and made ourselves comfortable in a four-berth sleeper. An Imperial Yeomanry lance-corporal came along, and affecting a lot of bounce, wanted to eject us, as the room was wanted for some of his comrades. We told him what we thought of him in good Australian language, and remained in possession.
Leaving at 7 in the morning, we arrived at Beira at 11 the following day—running through without a break in the journey, as the broad gauge railway had been completed. We pulled up in the station yard, as there were then no platforms to the stations. Our kit and baggage were thrown out on the metals, and we were turned out to find our way as best we could to the Beach Hotel, where we were to be billeted. No arrangements whatever had been made to take us from the station to the hotel, a distance of about half a mile. After waiting alone for a considerable time, I hailed a good Samaritan who happened to be passing. He kindly placed his car and "boys" at my disposal, and put me down at the door of the hotel just in time for lunch, the first respectable meal I had had for months.
We remained in Beira three weeks waiting for a boat to Capetown. In the meantime, under the treatment of Dr. Kelly, my knee had greatly improved, and during the last week I was able to get about with the assistance of a stick.
It is said that when one is in Rome one must do as Rome does; the same applied to Beira. Sports, cricket matches, and bull fights are always held there on Sunday. On the second Sunday after our arrival, the opening of the Vasco Da Gama Park, which is prettily situated on a jungly sand-dune at the back of the town, took place. In the afternoon athletic sports were held. The most amusing event of the day was the natives' race, in which between three and four hundred natives of all sorts and sizes competed; native policemen were stationed round the course, and frequently used their knob-kerries upon the heads of luckless natives who tried to take a short cut.
On the Sunday following, a bull fight took place—the ideal sport of the Spanish and Portuguese nations. It had been much talked about; wild bulls had been procured, and a splendid day's sport assured. We Australians thought it rather an amusing farce. The wild bulls turned out to be a couple of hump-backed native cattle, small under-sized beasts, with very little spirit about them. One was brought in and pursued round the arena by a gorgeously-dressed matador, who annoyed and worried the poor brute by striking it with darts. When at last it turned and showed fight, it was immediately hustled out of the ring, and another of a milder disposition brought in. Much of the same by-play was gone through, but this time the matador, by a quick movement, threw a cloak over the bull's head, and falling between its horns, was carried round the arena. This final masterpiece was greeted with wild and vociferous shrieks by the onlookers.
While staying at the Beach Hotel, I made the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Upsher, a well-known South African big game hunter; he had just returned from a trip to England, and was busily engaged in fitting out a shooting expedition to the Zambesi for an Austrian count. I was extremely anxious to hear him recount a few of his experiences and hair-breadth escapes, but, like many whose lives are spent chiefly in the bush, away from civilisation, and amid surroundings constantly fraught with danger, he was singularly retiring and taciturn.
In dealing with native prisoners, the Portuguese have rather a novel method, which is almost a survival of the Marshal sea of Dickens' days. Convicted natives must provide their own food, which is obtained by the sale of native work; two natives are chained together with heavy chains, and, escorted by a native policeman, are allowed to hawk their wares round the town for sale.
The Beira Constabulary, dressed in their smart khaki uniforms and Baden-Powell type of hats and armed with cutlass and revolver, are rather a formidable body of little men. In conversation with one, who could speak English well, he told me he had been a soldier and had fought in the Kaffir wars during the early settlement of the town. He became quite excited when relating his experiences, and stated that "the Kaffirs swarmed upon us in thousands, and we shot them down in millions! and then the terrible fever! and the breakdown of the commissariat! We had no food and were starving, and as a last resource had to eat dead Kaffir. The big church over the way was built in commemoration of the troops who died during that terrible war."