We went in a very different direction from that of General Ben Viljoen's commando, which took the road to Pietersburg through Leydsdorp. President Steyn celebrated the anniversary of his birthday at Roossenekal, and addressed us in the same spirit as on the former occasion at the Sabie.
Roossenekal is famous for its caves, or grottos, in which the Mapochers hid themselves so well during the Mapoch War. We made use of the opportunity to visit the grottos, of whose formation I should like to know more. What appeared on the outside to be an ordinary hill proved a most wonderful natural building containing many rooms. The old kraal walls and the peach-trees and 'Turkish figs', (prickly-pears), overgrown by wild trees, and an occasional earthen vessel, were the remains of the Kaffir city. Of course we cut our names into the rocks by way of becoming immortal. We could not help speaking with great admiration of the wild Kaffir tribe who from such a hiding-place fought for months for a life of independence. We had no time to visit the grottos further away.
Although our horses were well fed during this time of rest, they profited little, on account of the constant cold rains that fell. We fortunately still had some tents, that we used only in case of rain. Our Commandant was still always in doubt whether to proceed to Pietersburg, for we were quite ignorant of the enemy's movements during the last few weeks. Later on, when he got the information that the enemy were stationed at Pinaars River bridge, and that we could not with safety pass Warmbad and Pinaars River, we had to turn off at Kobaltmyn to the right to cross Olifants River lower down. We had already passed Kobaltmyn in the beginning of July on our journey after General de la Rey. The latter part of our journey, along Olifants River, through Zebedelsland to Pietersburg, was exhausting for man and horse. Some of us often had nothing but a little rice and a small piece of meat for several days in succession. There was scarcely any grass for our horses, and yet we had to ride hard night and day.
After a tiring journey of fully a month, President Steyn's commando arrived at Pietersburg on October 11. Although we had always intended to follow President Steyn to De Wet, my brother and I, with Malherbe, now accepted an invitation from my uncle, Ignace Mare, to stay awhile on his farm at Marabastad. President Steyn left with his commando for Nylstroom. Our horses were worn out, and could not follow the commando. Most of the men had a spare horse that was still in good condition, and although my brother and I had only one horse apiece, we often had to do the hardest work.
My aunt and uncle did their best to make our stay a pleasant one, and our horses were well fed. Soon General Ben Viljoen's commando arrived at Marabastad, and stayed there a few weeks, so that we also experienced the discomfort arising from a lager camped on one's farm. The Boer is deprived by it of all necessaries, and all sorts and conditions of men constantly visit his house. Some of them, the riff-raff of the commando, are very unwelcome guests, for they do much mischief intentionally, and thereby give the commando a very bad name. The poles to which the wire is attached for camping at a farm were yet left undamaged. The burghers were still accustomed to get plenty of dry wood in the Boschveld, and were not yet so demoralized as to work damage without scruple.
We stayed at my uncle's far longer than we at first intended. My saddle had chafed the horse's back so severely that I could not ride it for several months. My brother got an attack of malaria, and just as he was recovering had a relapse, so that President Steyn was so far in advance of us that there was no question of overtaking him.
The commando had already left Marabastad when we started for Tweefontein, near Warmbad, on our now strong, sleek horses. There we joined Commandant Kemp, of the Krugersdorp commando, under Wyk III., who had parted from Ben Viljoen at Marabastad because the latter had on a Sunday afternoon during service fired off several cannon-shots for the edification of a few fast women.
Malherbe, my brother, and I formed a sort of comradeship under Corporal Botman--or, to put it simply, we were 'chums.' At Warmbad we heard many interesting things about the khakies, who had stayed there nineteen days on their hunt after De Wet. We could not understand why they destroyed the bathing-houses, unless it were to deprive our wounded of the chance of recovery.
The condition of the people in Zoutpansberg and in Waterberg, where the enemy had been, was not very cheerful. Everyone complained that there was no sugar to be had, that the meal was getting low, and that soon there would be no clothes. Pietersburg was exhausted by the commandos, and the courage of the inhabitants was nearly at an ebb. They would not yet make the sacrifice that would part them from their families. The enemy had not yet driven them to despair by the destruction of their fields and goods.
Every sensible person knew that the Republics would lose in the long-run in a guerilla war unless something unforeseen happened. At the time that we fled from Pretoria my mother said she would have hope as long as her 'gorillas' remained in the veld. Even if we clung to a straw, the possibility always remained that things might take a favourable turn as long as a fair number of burghers remained in the veld.
The burghers from the different districts now in Waterberg were earnest and full of courage. Noticeable changes for the better had been made. Beyers, a man in whom the men had the utmost faith, was made Assistant-Commandant-General, and was to lead a commando of 1,500 horsemen from Waterberg, Zoutpansberg, Krugersdorp, etc., to the Hoogeveld. The discipline was much stricter. Cooper and Fanie Grobler, who had been accused of high treason, promised to keep a sharper look-out for spies and traitors. And we still always hoped for an eventual rebellion in Cape Colony. That hope was our life-buoy on which we kept our eyes fixed. We felt that there our safety lay, and the enthusiasm of the commando was heightened by the desire to celebrate Paardekraal Day in Krugersdorp on December 15. As a sailor longs for the sea, so we longed for a meeting with the khakies when we left for the Magalies Mountains in the beginning of December. Our commando was light and mobile, with provisions for a short time only. Such heavy cannon as the Long Toms were of no use to us now. Hence-forward we were to live on the produce of the surrounding country, as there was no basis from which we were to operate. Besides this, the khakies very kindly made over some of their provisions, arms, and ammunition to us in a skirmish or battle, so that afterwards we had more Lee-Metfords than Mausers in our possession.
At Krokodil River I had the privilege of seeing how a honey-bird takes a human being to a bees' nest. As we were lying under a tree, a honey-bird settled close to us. Corporal Botman followed it as it flew chirping from tree to tree, and called to it that he was following, until the bird stopped at the hive. The grateful finder always rewards the bird with a piece of honeycomb that he puts aside for it. But I have never been able to discover whether the bird or the insects eat the honey. I know that the 'bug-birds,' that are always seen on or near cattle, do not feed on the bugs with which the cattle are covered, but on the locusts that fly about the herd. Last week, when our guards took us for a walk outside the fort, I noticed that a kind of sparrow in India has the same trick of catching the locusts that are driven on ahead by the cattle.
I shall not try to give a description of the works of the machinery that moved mechanically to the Magalies Mountains, for I should have to guess at the particulars in this historical little tale. Mechanical I call the journey, for there were days and nights in which we were numbed, body and soul, exhausted by hunger and thirst and want of sleep.
When we were at Bethany, a convoy of the enemy was seen moving in the direction of Commandonek. When it noticed our guard, it dragged its curved body with great zeal through the pass. I think the khakies also must have been bored to death on those long, fruitless journeys. We left Bethany towards evening, and reached the Magalies Mountains the following morning after a tiring journey in the night past Sterkstroom, through the Kromriverskloof to the foot of Onuapadnek, or Boschfonteinnek. (I learnt the names from the inhabitants.) In the kloof we passed the burnt remains of the convoy that was taken by Commandant Boshoff--who joined De la Rey after having taken Steyn to his destination--and his brave little troop of burghers. They were obliged to abandon the convoy, however, on the arrival of reinforcements for the enemy. A sickening stench came from the corpses that they had left unburied in their flight.
We rested a few hours at the top of the steep nek. On descending on the other side we came, to our mutual surprise, upon De la Key's lager at the foot of the mountain on Barnard's farm.