Experience teaches us. The knowledge that we have gained in this war we must pass on to the coming generation. It may be of use in a war of the future, or on some other occasion. Therefore Oom Dietlof will take this opportunity to give his nephews in South Africa some practical hints that may be of use to a burgher in his travels or in a war. If anyone loses his way in the same way that I have just described, he must remember the following way of finding the four quarters of the wind:
The small hand of a watch describes a circle in twelve hours, while the apparent movement of the sun round the earth is in twenty-four hours. The movement of the small hand is therefore twice as fast as that of the sun. If one points the small hand of a horizontal-lying watch to the sun at twelve o'clock, then the hands and the figure XII. lie in the meridian as well as the sun.
In the northern half-circle the sun and the hands move in the same direction. In one hour's time the small hand goes a distance of 360 deg./12 = 30 deg., and the sun goes a distance of 360 deg./24 = 15 deg. If at one o'clock one points the small hand of a horizontal-lying watch to the sun, the line that divides the acute angle between the figures I. and XII. lies in the meridian. So one can always find the meridian.
In the southern half-circle the sun and hands move in opposite directions, therefore one must point the figure XII. to the sun, and then divide the acute angle between the figure XII. and the small hand to find the meridian.
In this way one can at any time find out the direction one has taken. But everyone has not always a good watch, and the sun sometimes hides behind the clouds. Then it is better to have a good compass--but better still not to lose one's way.
Besides such simple articles as a pocket-knife, a water-bag, etc., which are indispensable to a traveller in our country, everyone ought to carry with him a good plaster, a nosebag, and some snake poison; maize (mealies) for his horse, the cheapest and most strengthening food that we know of, can always be carried in the nosebag. Snake poison prepared by a good Kaffir doctor is the only cure for snake-bites or the bite of any poisonous insect. The Kaffirs prepare it from some (to us) unknown shrub, and from the poison of the most venomous snake, which they make into a powder. This powder is used as an antidote by swallowing a small dose--enough to cover the point of a pocket-knife--and also by applying some to the bite, after first having cut an opening into the bitten part with a pocket-knife. Some people protect themselves against the poison of a snake-bite by regularly swallowing some of the poison and vaccinating themselves with it. One can even protect one's self in this way against the bite of the poisonous file-snake of the Boschveld--a snake the shape of a three-cornered file, sometimes from 3 to 4 feet long. It is a fact that the person whose body is proof against the poison of a snake-bite is never bitten, as he is feared by snakes. Formerly I doubted it, but I have myself seen people who have made themselves proof against a bite in this way, and I have also heard it from people in whom I have the utmost faith.
Alcohol is also a good antidote, provided one takes it immediately and in such quantities that it goes to the head. I would recommend everyone always to take a small quantity of brandy with him on commando, if experience had not taught me that some take even a mosquito-bite as an excuse to 'take a drop,' and I am against that on principle.
Often while loading my horse the thought struck me whether the poor brute ever had a wish to protest, 'Surely this is becoming too bad!' and that reminds me that one must be very careful not to overload. The knapsack must not be filled with kaboe mealies (roasted maize) for one's self, while the nosebag of the poor horse remains empty.
More than one prisoner of war has bitterly regretted that he did not take his horse's power of endurance into greater consideration. Now I must take up the thread of my tale.
The following morning the lager would start at three o'clock, and, as my horse was in good condition, the owner of the horse that had been left behind asked me to fetch it before the lager left. He explained to me where I would find it tied to a tree about half an hour's ride from the lager, so I started with a friend at about two o'clock at night. On the way we came across a mule that had wandered away while grazing, ignorant of all the danger he was exposing himself to in the uninhabited Boschveld. The creature gave us much trouble by refusing to be caught and constantly dodging behind a tree, so we lost a great deal of time. On our way back, close to the lager, we heard the whine of the wild-dog, the well-known feared wolf. We thought it very interesting to come across a wild animal of which we had no fear just then. But when we reached the camping-ground of the lager, where only the trolley stood to which the wandering mule belonged, we found to our surprise that both white men and Kaffirs had given up the search for the mule for fear of the wild-dog. They had all congregated round large fires. The wild-dog, however, is harmless by himself; like the khakies, his strength lies in numbers. We had to leave the sick horse to join the bucks of the Boschveld on its recovery, until the horse-sickness came. After a long, tiring, but very interesting ride we arrived at the Sabie, where the rest of the lager was already encamped. The Sabie is about the size of the Krokodil River, and its scenery of woods and valleys formed a sharp contrast to the deadly monotony of the Boschveld that lay behind us. We had crossed the bare desert and were now in a part of the country inhabited by Kaffirs. The following day the lager was removed half an hour further on, and there we remained a few days.
At night four of us were persuaded to go eel-catching in a crocodile-pool that we had discovered a little further on. We made a large fire to entice the eels, and, as we were none of us great lovers of angling, we made a splendid bonfire, as there was plenty of dry wood to be had.
There was something particularly attractive in these large fires on those quiet, dark nights of the wilderness. The glow threw a sombre light on the water that gave one a creepy feeling, as if a crocodile were on the watch for us in the water, and lions at our back between the large trees. What must they have thought of us?
The bank of the river seemed to be about 6 feet high, and not very steep. We made the fire closer and closer to what seemed the bank. I saw someone lift up a huge branch, walk to the bank with it, and plant his left foot firmly on the ground. The reeds gave way beneath him. What seemed a firm bank, by the glow of the fire, proved to be a mass of reeds and grass, and the poor man fell down a height of 6 feet, his fall being hastened by the heavy branch he held. For a moment we stood irresolute. To jump after him into a crocodile-pool! But he called for help, and we had to act immediately. Fortunately, one acts almost instinctively in such cases. One of the others slid down the bank--the thought striking him: 'If only there are not two crocodiles!' Landing on a horizontal branch, he stretched out his hand to the drowning man, someone else took hold of his left hand, and so they were both saved. If a crocodile had been in the neighbourhood, he would probably have stood on the defensive. Such a queer, two-legged animal who led the attack in such a strange but decided way must have roused his respect.
This piece of fun put an end to our eel-fishing. We had caught only one eel--and a man.
The following morning there was parade for President Steyn. His speech to us was touching and to the point, and showed that he believed in a good ending to the war, if the burghers were capable of enduring such hardships as at present. Then he also told us in what a hurry he was to reach his burghers, as he was afraid that the enemy were doing all in their power to make them turn against him. We all liked President Steyn very much.
On our journey through the Selatie Goldfields, past the Marietje River to Pilgrim's Rest, we crossed the steepest mountain that I have ever seen. A double span of oxen was harnessed to each waggon. The oxen were lent us for the occasion by the Boers living on the plateau in front of us. After every few steps upwards we had to put stones under the wheels to prevent the waggons from slipping back. It took our little lager nearly all day to reach the plateau. Then we had a most magnificent view of the Boschveld that lay behind us. In the distance the Lobombo Mountains were visible on the boundary of the Portuguese and Transvaal territory. The first rains had fallen on the plateau, so the green grass was a refreshing change for our eyes. The horses would be able to graze well, and the good feeding would soon make them lose their old coats, and then they would be sleek and glossy again.
From the high plateau we descended, over a 'lumpy' veld, with an oasis here and there in a hole or valley, or on the top of a hill, to Pilgrim's Rest. Some miles before we reached this little town we passed beside the water-works that supply a strong stream of water for the machinery of the gold-mines. We simply stormed the shops, that were still well supplied with provisions, and bought all sorts of luxuries and necessaries for our journey. From Pilgrim's Rest we once more crossed a steep mountain, along a road that for length and height has not its equal. In the neighbourhood of Ohrigstad, a little town that we left to our right, I asked a Boer woman whether the fever did not make one's life impossible there, and I got a very naif reply: 'No; this year the fever was not so bad. We all got ill, but not one of us died.'
The rest of our journey to the north of Lydenburg, over Spekstroom River, along Watervalop, over Steenkampsberg to Roossenekal, was very tedious. The uninhabited Boschveld was very interesting, and we had sufficient provisions then, but the poor, uncivilized Boer inhabitants of the Lydenburg district were unable to supply us with necessaries, the want of which we were beginning to feel. We could not buy a loaf of bread anywhere. And it is anything but pleasant in a time of war to come across such lax and unenergetic people as they proved to be. The men were nearly always at home, and appeared to be discouraged and unwilling to fight. We had all lost our sweet tooth. That one could tell by such expressions as: 'Even if you give me sugar:--' But occasionally we got a more desirable substitute, when a beehive was discovered in a cleft of a rock. Some of our men are particularly clever at discovering a hive. I have often seen a man stand gazing up at the sky, walk on a short distance, and again stand gazing, and after awhile appear with a bucket of honey. By watching the flight of the bees they find out in what direction the hive is. A practised eye can see the rising and settling of the bees above the hive from a great distance.