From the tropical Zambesi regions and the torrid Kalahari plains, down to the 34th parallel at Cape point, a great diversity of climatic conditions is met with. To the north and north-east are the steaming, death-breeding low lands, abounding with dank virgin forests and scrubby stretches; and to the north-west extend the arid, sandy, and stony levels. There are the temperate and fruitful inland reaches along the southern and south-eastern littoral, and again further inward the vast plateaux at 2,000 to 6,500 feet elevation, which represent nearly one-half of the sub-continent with quite other climatic aspects. In the southern and western provinces of the Cape Colony the rainy season occurs during the winter months, probably because of the proximity to the trade wind influences prevailing over the South Atlantic; over the rest of South Africa the winters are dry and sunny, the rains falling in summer, most copiously in December and January, the effect being that there are hardly any winter rigours, and the heat of summer is minimised. The most agreeable climate is that on the higher plateau levels: never hot nor altogether cold, and yet virile and bracing; something like the climate on sunny days found in the higher Alpine regions in summer and in the mild Algerine winters. This climate is found from the Queenstown district at about 3,000 feet elevation, extending north and westwards over the Stormberg, the Orange Free State, and along the lordly Drakensberg range and its spurs some 200 to 300 miles into the Transvaal, where the highest plateau levels occur between Ermelo and to near Lydenburg, viz., 6,500 feet. The Harrismith district near that mountain range is at a similar altitude with an identical climate.
These high tracts are called hoogeveldt or highlands. Their altitude rises steadily with the advance northwards towards warmer latitudes, and with the compensating effect that the climate in the Queenstown district, Bontebok Flats for example, at 3,000 feet elevation, is exactly similar to that in the eastern portions of the Orange Free State at 5,500 feet, right up to near Lydenburg at 6,500 feet altitude, and being some six degrees further north than Queenstown. The northern half of Natal also partakes of that character, though there, as well as over the rest of the eastern slopes of the Drakensberg mountains, the country is more broken and hilly than on the western side. The Cape Colonial high veldt near the Drakensberg range is intersected by high continuations or spurs, but north and westwards those plateaux assume more the real aspect of continuous high plains. There is a gradual descent to the west; from occasional hilly ranges those dwindle to kopjes, and to still less elevated "randjes" occurring in clusters more and more apart, until yet further westwards one gets to the merely undulating sterile approaches of the Karoo and the plains around and beyond Kimberley, which merge at last in the still lower Kalahara desert.
Within 200 or 300 miles from the Drakensberg slopes the country is well-watered, and the rainfall ample and generally regular, but westwards this abundance progressively decreases with a more tardy and precarious rainy season, occasioning at times severe droughts accompanied with correspondingly protracted and very hot weather.
Those high plains make up one vast green sward from the time of the spring rains in September to April. From May the absence of rain, together with the night frosts, shrivel up the herbage, giving the country a pale-brown aspect. This continues until the return of spring, varied with large expanses of black, caused by accidental or intentional grass fires, and here and there a few green spots in specially sheltered and moist localities.
Those burnt spaces may extend for miles, and are for the time veritable deserts. The landscape being quite black and the atmosphere generally very clear, it is obvious that objects of any lighter colour would be conspicuous at very long distances: an ideal background for khaki targets.
Most of the land is well suited for agriculture, but by far the largest proportion is as yet used only for raising sheep, horses and cattle. Angora goats also thrive in the hillier parts. About forty years ago the Karoo plains, the Orange Free State, and Transvaal were, so to say, monopolised by milliards of game. Standing upon an eminence or a swell one could see in all directions, as far as the eye could reach, innumerable herds of all sorts of game grazing, resting or gambolling; the different kinds would be ranged in separate groups and could be distinguished by their special colours—the black-looking wildebeest (gnu) next to the striped quag-gas, the white-flanked springbocks, blesbocks with a blaze on their foreheads, the larger elands and other kinds of the antelope species. Almost all those vast herds have disappeared since, having been killed off by natives and Boers for their hides and for food, or else scared away farther north, where rinderpest extirpated nearly all the rest in 1895-1897.
In the earlier days, and even not so long ago in some parts, the farmers' crops required guarding during the night against the depredations of game. This is still so in the north-western plains of the Cape Colony, as already remarked. In May most of the Harrismith district farmers and those of the Transvaal high veldt move their sheep, horses and cattle to winter in Natal, Swaziland, and to the other extensive low lands most adjacent, to return after the spring rains in September or October. Sheep and horses could not with safety remain longer in those warm regions, as then the fatal malarial blaauwtong begins there to attack sheep, and horse sickness becomes virulent as well. The high veldt, as said before, is exempt from that danger.
Some of the wealthier farmers can arrange it so that they and their families can winter at their comfortable high-veldt homes and send attendants with their cattle to the low veldt, while others, not so well favoured, must close up their houses and accompany their flocks to winter in the warm tracts, where they live in their wagons and tents and escape the outlay for winter clothing.
Owing to the scarcity of wood on the high veldt, kraal fuel used formerly to be the staple substitute. This would be obtained by penning up sheep over-night. The deposits were after a month or two dug out in thick flags, which, after being stacked and dried over the kraal wall, would burn nearly as well and as brightly as wood. The discovery of coal beds in so many accessible places in the Cape Colony, Natal, and in the two Republics has since superseded that sort of fuel to a great extent.
The small divergence between summer and winter temperature upon the high table lands will be seen from the following table taken from observations at 5,500 to 6,000 feet altitude in the Transvaal:—
In winter—28° to 40° at night; 35° to 70° by day in the shade. In summer—40° to 60° at night; 50° to 90° by day in the shade.
It is not often that 85° is reached, and rarely above. This applies equally to the more southern and thus colder latitudes of Queenstown, at 3,000 feet elevation, and to the eastern half of the Orange Free State, at 4,000 to 5,000 feet, the warmth increasing, as said before, proportionately with the descent in altitude, and on occasions of tardy summer rains.
The winter is the most enjoyable of the seasons, being an almost uninterrupted continuation of fine sunny weather. On occasions there would be spells of boisterous weather with a rather sudden and inclement decrease of temperature, brought on by cold south-east winds; if these are accompanied with rain in winter, which, however, rarely happens, it would sometimes turn to sleet or even snow, or else to hard freezing at night. The snow would, however, thaw with the warmth of the sun, and so restore the temperature as before. The bracing quality of the climate mostly consists just in those variations of cool nights and warm days, and the occasional days of comparatively cold, boisterous weather. The latter must indeed be provided against, for even in December—that is to say, in the middle of summer—it would be imprudent to travel without great-coats as well as waterproofs, so as to be protected against unexpected changes, from say, 100° in the sun, almost suddenly to 40° with a driving wind, accompanied perhaps with rain. Such transitions are trying in the open, even if one is well clad, and the blustering weather is sometimes so severe, if it happens in winter or early spring, as to approach the character of a blizzard. One such lasted about thirty hours in the early spring of 1881. It swept over the entire South African plateaux and destroyed great numbers of sheep and cattle. These fell exhausted in their flight before they could reach some sheltering hills or ravines. In situations where such protections from the cold south-east wind were far apart the veldt was on the following day found strewn with their carcases, and upon the still more extensive and unbroken plains antelopes even perished in enormous numbers simply from exhaustion in trying to escape and find shelter from the cold wind.
I will just describe one of those occurrences, the severest in my experience and well remembered by the Free State and the Transvaal Boers—it was, I think, in 1881. One sunny day, early in August (spring time), at a place about twenty miles east of Reddersburg, in the Orange Free State, the wind veered to the south-east, and by afternoon had begun to blow fairly hard and cold, about 35° Fahrenheit—that is to say, about 35° below the temperature of a few hours previously. I had managed to get some milch cows driven near to the kraal, where there would have been very fair shelter for them, but luckily, as the sequel proved, they refused to enter, and rushed past in a scared way, just snatching up one mouthful of forage which had been thrown down to entice them to stay, and making off as hard as they could. The wind did not abate till the day after, when tales kept pouring in of terrible losses of sheep and cattle killed by the cold wind; sheep in open plains had suffered most, and cattle which had been kraaled were nearly all dead, whilst the herds of cattle and horses which had been left grazing out had been driven away and were also believed to have died. At the farm of a certain Andries Bester, near by, some seventy head of cattle in very good condition were found dead, piled up to the level of one of the kraal walls, showing the struggle which some thirty others had in escaping over the mound of dead cattle to the outside of the kraal.
The next day all those thirty head were found grazing some fifteen miles westwards under the lee of hills near Reddersburg, where they had found safe shelter. Everybody's cattle were recovered which had not been kraaled, including mine. This was the case as well with cattle which had been tethered to their transport wagons and which succeeded in breaking loose, whilst the rest were found dead where they had been tied.
There was no possibility of restraining cattle or horses from stampeding—they did it from the instinct of self-preservation, for, whilst running with the wind, its force of driving cold was proportionately lessened, and some loss of heat was made good by the exertion of running, which they had to keep up till in safe shelter of hills or ravines.
Had such a cold storm overtaken an army or patrol, the situation would have been exactly similar, and would have been an ordeal even to experienced Boers or Colonial farmers, and if an enemy had been located near Reddersburg, all the cattle and horses would simply have fallen into his lap.
The obvious safeguard would be a rug for each horse and mule, and for oxen the erection of a shelter against the wind, consisting of all available wagons and stores, or else, if practicable, to move at once to a sheltered locality and always provide a good reserve supply of forage or other provender. That sort of boisterous, cold weather continues sometimes, with more or less severity, two or three days. The want of food and inclemency besides would result in killing the weak cattle and weaken the rest so as to be incapable of work for some days after. The difficulty consists in that such inclement changes occur so suddenly, and that their severity and duration cannot be forecasted.
Upon other much less severe occasions entire gangs of 20-50 Kaffirs, travelling from the warm north to the diamond-fields or gold-mines, and not sufficiently provided with blankets, would be found at their camping places huddled together, nearly all numbed to death. The months when such surprise weather is most liable to occur are from "July to October," before and during the earlier spring rains. It is then, and even up to December at times, that the Drakensberg and other mountains resume their snow-capped winter decorations for some days. There is a saying which fairly well applies to the high-veldt climate, i.e., that cold and inclement weather is not met with until well in towards summer, especially about the time of spring rains, and that hot weather of any considerable continuance mostly occurs in spring. This will be understood upon considering that the midsummer months, December to February, are cooled by very frequent and copious rains, whilst the heat accumulates more during the preceding sunny spring months, which are interrupted at rarer intervals by short showers only.
Upon the whole, and despite the few eccentricities mentioned, the high veldt is favoured with a climate which, for genial comfort all the year round, exempt from prolonged winter rigours and excessive summer heat, is not found anywhere else in the world, or only in rare privileged spots. It is withal most healthy, promoting the highest possible physical development and even longevity.
Under such favoured conditions the hand of man only is needed in providing good habitations, planting trees, in the culture of the soil, and some irrigation labour, to transform nearly every little farm within five to ten years from a bare pastoral monotony to a really idyllic spot. There are many such already in Basutoland, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal, as well as in the Cape Colonies and Natal—veritable Eden-like places, as it were bits dropped from heaven. With a continuance of peace these could be multiplied to any extent each year, thus rendering those sparsely inhabited tracts the most beautiful areas in the world, with a prosperous self-sustaining population, quite apart from considerations of mineral wealth.
The foregoing description of the high-veldt climate points to clothing composed of woollen fabrics as the only rational and safe attire for men travelling or taking the field. No constitution could be expected to hold out against the ever-changing temperature and weather if depending upon being clad, for example, in a cotton suit; this would only do on warm days for men who are certain of being safely housed at night and sheltered during rainy weather. Horses and mules in the open should be provided with woollen rugs during winter and spring.