Whilst we were encamped on the Krokodil River, President Steyn expressed a wish to pay a visit, with the Members of his Government, to the Government of the South African Republic, which was then at Machadodorp. This was no easy task to accomplish, for one would have to pass through a part of the Transvaal where there was a great scarcity of water—it was little better than a desert—and where in some places the Kaffirs were unfriendly. In other words, one would have to go through the Boschveldt. There would also be some danger from the English, since the President would have to cross the Pietersburg Railway, which was in that direction.
However, this plan was approved.
I decided not to accompany the President, but to return at once with two hundred riders to the Orange Free State. I intended to make it known on the farms which I passed on the way that I was going back, hoping thus to draw the attention of the English from our laager.
I called together the Commandants, and informed them of my intention. They agreed that the course I proposed was the right one. Commandant Steenekamp was then nominated to act as Assistant Commander-in-Chief, with the duty of conducting the laager through the Boschveldt.
On August the 14th President Steyn left the laager on his way to Machadodorp; and I myself took my departure three days later. I took with me General Philip Botha and Commandant Prinsloo, and 200 men, and also Captain Scheepers with his corps, which consisted of thirty men. With the addition of my staff we numbered altogether 246 men.
Thus our ways parted—the President going to the Government of the South African Republic, the laager to the north, and I back to the Free State. I had now to cross the Magalies Mountains. The nearest two passes were Olifantsnek and Commandonek. But the first named was too much to the west, and the second was probably occupied by the English. I therefore decided to take a footpath that crossed the mountains between the two saddles. I was forced to choose this middle road because I had no means of ascertaining whether Commandonek was, or was not, in the hands of the enemy.
On August 18th we arrived at a house where some Germans were living—the parents and sisters of Mr. Penzhorn, Secretary to General Piet Cronje. They were exceedingly friendly to us, and did all in their power to make us comfortable.
We did not stay here for long, but were on the march again the same day. Soon after we had mounted our horses we came in sight of a large English camp, which was stationed on the road from Rustenburg to Pretoria, between Commandonek and Krokodil River. This camp lay about six miles to the south-east of the point where we first saw it. Another great camp stood about seven miles to the north-west.
The enemy could see us clearly, as it was open veldt, with only a few bushes cropping up here and there. We now rode on in the direction of Wolhuterskop, which is close to the Magalies Mountains. I thought I should thus be able to reach the great road from Rustenburg to Pretoria, which was eight or nine miles from the footpath across the Magaliesberg. When we were about two miles east of Wolhuterskop we suddenly came upon two English scouts. One of them we captured; and he told us that there was a great force of the enemy in front of us and marching in our direction. What could we do now? It was impossible to proceed along the footpath because that road was closed by the enemy. North and west of us there were other bodies of troops, as I have already said; and there, directly in front of us, were the chains of the Magaliesbergen. Thus we found ourselves between four fires.
In addition to this, I was much troubled by the thought that our horses were now exhausted by all this endless marching. I knew this was also the case with the English horses, but for all I knew, they might have obtained fresh ones from Pretoria. They could at all events have picked the best horses from each camp, and thus send an overpowering force against me. This was one of those moments when a man has to keep his presence of mind, or else all is lost.
Whilst I was still thinking the matter over, troops began to come out of the camps, about two miles to the west of us on the road between Wolhuterskop and Magaliesberg. The scout who had escaped might now be with that force. I had therefore to act at once.
I decided on climbing the Magalies Mountains, without a path or road!
Near by there was a Kaffir hut, and I rode up to it. When the Kaffir came out to me, I pointed to the Magalies Mountains, and asked:—
"Right before us, can a man cross there?"
"No, baas, you cannot!" the Kaffir answered.
"Has a man never ridden across here?"
"Yes, baas," replied the Kaffir, "long ago."
"Do baboons walk across?"
"Yes! baboons do, but not a man."
"Come on!" I said to my burghers. "This is our only way, and where a baboon can cross, we can cross."
With us was one Adriaan Matthijsen, a corporal who came from the district of Bethlehem, and was a sort of jocular character. He looked up at the mountains, 2,000 feet above him, and sighed:—
"O Red Sea!"
I replied, "The children of Israel had faith and went through, and all you need is faith. This is not the first Red Sea we have met with and will not be the last!"
What Corporal Matthijsen thought I do not know, for he kept silence. But he pulled a long face, as if saying to himself:—
"Neither you, nor anybody else with us, is a Moses!"
We climbed up unobserved to a bit of bush which, to continue the metaphor of the Red Sea, was a "Pillar of Cloud" to hide us from the English.
We then reached a kloof running in a south-westerly direction, and ascended by it, still out of sight of the English, till we reached a point nearly half-way up the mountain. There we had to leave the kloof, and, turning to the south, continue our ascent in full view of the enemy.
It was now so precipitous that there was no possibility of proceeding any further on horseback. The burghers had therefore to lead their horses, and had great difficulty even in keeping their own footing. It frequently happened that a burgher fell and slipped backwards under his horse. The climb became now more and more difficult; and when we had nearly reached the top of the mountain, there was a huge slab of granite as slippery as ice, and here man and horse stumbled still more, and were continually falling.
We were, as I have said, in view of the enemy, and although out of reach of the Lee-Metfords, were in range of their big guns!
I heard burghers muttering:—
"Suppose the enemy should aim those guns at us—what will become of us then? Nobody can get out of the road here!"
I told them that this could only be done if the English had a Howitzer. But I did not add that this was a sort of gun which the columns now pursuing me were likely enough to possess.
But nothing happened. The English neither shot at us, nor did they pursue us. Corporal Matthijsen would have said that they were more cautious than Pharaoh.
We now reached the top of the mountain—entirely exhausted. I have ascended many a mountain—the rough cliffs of Majuba, the steep sides of Nicholson's Nek—but never before had I been so tired as I was now; yet in the depths of my heart I was satisfied. All our toil was repaid by the glorious panorama that now stretched out before us to the south. We saw the undulating veldt between the Magaliesbergen where we stood, and the Witwatersrand. Through a ravine we had a view extending for many miles, but wherever we cast our eyes there was no sign of anything that resembled the enemy.
As it was now too late to off-saddle, we began, after having taken a little rest, to descend the mountain on the other side, my object being to reach a farm where I hoped to get some sheep or oxen for my men, who not only were tired out, but nearly famished.
We went down the mountain—well, somewhat quicker than we had climbed it; however, we could not go very fast, as the incline was steep. In an hour and a half we reached a Boer farm.
One can imagine how the burghers recovered their spirits as they ate their supper, and what it meant for them to give their tired limbs a rest.
The following morning we found good horse-provender, and plenty of it. It was not as yet the habit of the English to burn everything they came across—they had not yet begun to carry out that policy of destruction.
I now felt quite easy about the safety of our camp. The attention of the English would be turned in quite another direction.
I was quite right in this view of the matter. For I heard a few days later that the enemy had not been able to pursue the laager as their draft-cattle and horses were so completely exhausted, that they had fallen down dead in heaps. I heard also that they had soon been made acquainted with the fact that I was on my way back to the Free State, where I would soon begin again to wreck railway lines and telegraph wires. They had also discovered that President Steyn had left the laager and was on the road to Machadodorp.
It was on the 18th of August, 1900, that we were able to eat our crust of bread in safety on the farm just mentioned, and to let our horses have as much food as they wanted. It seemed that for the time being a heavy burden had fallen from our shoulders. That afternoon we crossed the Krokodil River, and stopped at a "winkel" under the Witwatersrand, which had been spared as yet, although it was nearly empty of stores. Fodder, however, was plentiful, and thus, again, we could give our horses a good feed.
I now received a report that a strong contingent of the enemy was on the march from Olifantsnek to Krugersdorp, and accordingly we rode off in the night. We found that this force was the very one that had flanked our laager the previous week, when we were passing Ventersdorp. The road which the enemy were taking was the same which Jameson had marched when he made his inroad into the South African Republic.
My intention was to cross the enemy's path before daylight the following morning, which I succeeded in doing; and we heard no more of this force. I proceeded now in the direction of Gatsrand.
From there I still went on, and crossed the Krugersdorp-Potchefstroom Railway, about eight or ten miles to the north of Bank Station.
The line was then not guarded everywhere. There were small garrisons at the stations only, and so one could cross even in the day time. To my vexation, I had not a single cartridge of dynamite, or any implements at hand with which I could wreck the line. It was painful to see the railway line and not be able to do any damage to it! I had made it a rule never to be in the neighbourhood of a railway without interrupting the enemy's means of communication.
We arrived now at the farm of Messrs. Wolfaard, who had been captured with General Cronje; and here I met Commandant Danie Theron, with his eighty men. He had come to this place to avoid the troops lying between Mooi River and Ventersdorp. His horses, although still weak, were yet somewhat rested, and I gave him orders to join me in a few days, in order to reinforce me until my commandos should come back. My intention was not to undertake any great operations, for my force was not strong enough for that. I intended my principal occupation to be to interrupt the communications of the enemy by wrecking the line and telegraph.
With regard to the main line in the Free State I must remark here that things there were in a different condition from what they were on the Krugersdorp line, which we had crossed. The Free State railway was Lord Roberts' principal line of communication, and he had provided guards for it everywhere.
During the night of August 21st, we arrived at Vanvurenskloof. How delightful it was when the sun rose to see once more the well-known mountains to the south of the Vaal River in our own Free State!
"There is the Free State," we called out to each other when day broke. Every one was jubilant at seeing again that country which of all the countries on the earth is the best. From here I despatched General Botha with the purpose of collecting the burghers of Vrede and Harrismith who had remained at home, and of bringing them back to join me.
We remained only as long as was necessary to rest the horses, and then at once went on. The same evening we arrived at the farm of Rhenosterpoort, where our laager had waited since we had crossed the Vaal River more than a week ago.
The proprietor of the farm of Rhenosterpoort was old Mr. Jan Botha. It could not be that he belonged to the family of Paul Botha, of Kroonstad, for Jan Botha and his household (amongst whom was his son Jan, an excellent veldtcornet) were true Afrikanders. And even if he did belong to the family of Paul Botha, then the difference in his feelings and actions from those of other members of his family was no greater than that, alas! which frequently occurred in many families during this war. One member put everything at the disposal of his country, whereas another of the same name did everything possible against his country and his people. But there was no such discord here. The two old brothers of Mr. Botha, Philip and Hekky, were heart and soul with us.
Potchefstroom was not at that time in the hands of the English. I rode over to the town, and then it was that the well-known photo was taken of me that has been spread about everywhere, in which I am represented with a Mauser in my hand. I only mention this so as to draw attention to the history of the weapon which I held in my hand. It is as follows:—
When the enemy passed through Potchefstroom on their way to Pretoria, they left a garrison behind them, and many burghers went there to give up their arms, which forthwith were burnt in a heap. When the garrison left the dorp the burghers returned. Amongst them were some who set to work to make butts for the rifles that had been burnt.
"This rifle," I was told by the man who showed it to me, "is the two hundredth that has been taken out of the burnt heap and repaired."
This made such an impression on me that I took it in my hand, and had my photo taken with it. I am only sorry that I cannot mention the names of the burghers who did that work. Their names are worthy to be enrolled on the annals of our nation.
After having provided myself with dynamite, I left Potchefstroom and returned to my commando, then quietly withdrew in the night to Rhenosterkop. From there I sent Veldtcornet Nicolaas Serfontein, of the Bethlehem commando, in the direction of Reitz and Lindley, to bring the Kaffirs there to a sense of their duty, for I had heard that they were behaving very brutally to our women. The remainder of the Bethlehem burghers under Commandant Prinsloo and Veldtcornet Du Preez, remained with me to assist me in getting under my supervision the commandos which had escaped from behind the Roodebergen. These were under the command of General Fourie, and some were in the south of the State. I left Captain Scheepers behind me with orders to wreck the line every night.
That evening I went to Mr. Welman's farm, which was to the south-west of Kroonstad.
There I received a report that the commandos under General Fourie were in the neighbourhood of Ladybrand. I sent a despatch to him and Judge Hertzog asking them to come and see me, with a view to bringing the burghers under arms again, in the southern and south-western districts of the State.
This letter was taken by Commandant Michal Prinsloo and some despatch riders to General Fourie. The night that he crossed the line a train was passing, and he wrecked the railway both in front of it and behind it. The train could thus neither advance nor retreat, and it fell into the hands of Commandant Prinsloo, who, after having taken what he wanted, burnt it.
With regard to myself, I remained in the neighbourhood of Commandant Nel's farm.
Here I had the most wonderful of all the escapes that God allowed me in the whole course of the war.
On the third evening at sunset, a Hottentot came to me. He said that his "baas," whose family lived about twelve miles from the farm of Commandant Nel, had laid down their arms, and that he could not remain in the service of the wife of such a bad "baas." He asked me if he could not become one of my "achterrijders."
As he was still speaking to me, Landdrost Bosman from Bothaville, came to pay me a visit.
"Good," I said to the Hottentot, "I shall see you about this again." For I wished to cross-question him. I then went into the house with the Landdrost, and spent a good deal of time in writing with him. Late in the evening he went back to Bothaville and I to bed exactly at eleven o'clock.
I had scarcely laid down when the Hottentot came back to my thoughts, and I began to grow uneasy. I got up and went to the outhouse where my Kaffir slept. I woke him up and asked him where the Hottentot was. "Oh, he is gone," he replied, "to go and fetch his things to go with the baas."
I at once felt that there was something wrong, and went and called my men. I told them to saddle-up, and went off with my staff to the farm of Mr. Schoeman on the Valsch River, to the east of Bothaville.
On the following morning before daybreak, a force of two hundred English stormed the farm of Commandant Nel. They had come to take me prisoner.
From Schoeman's farm I went to the Rhenoster River and found Captain Scheepers there. He reported that he had wrecked the line for four or five consecutive weeks, as I had told him.
I also received there the sad news of the death of the never-to-be-forgotten Danie Theron, in a fight at Gatsrand. A more brave and faithful commander I have never seen.
So Danie Theron was no more. His place would not be easily filled. Men as lovable or as valiant there might be, but where should I find a man who combined so many virtues and good qualities in one person? Not only had he the heart of a lion but he also possessed consummate tact and the greatest energy. When he received an order, or if he wished to do anything, then it was bend or break with him. Danie Theron answered the highest demands that could be made on a warrior.
One of Commandant Theron's lieutenants, Jan Theron, was appointed in his place.
From there I went with Captain Scheepers to the railway line, where I burnt a railway bridge temporarily constructed with sleepers, and wrecked a great part of the rails with dynamite. I then proceeded to various farms in the neighbourhood, and after a few days, with Commandant Michal Prinsloo, who had joined me, I returned to the same part of the railway in order to carry out its destruction on a larger scale.
At twenty-five different places a charge of dynamite was placed with one man at the fuse, who had to set light to it as soon as he heard a whistle, that all charges could be ignited at the same time, and every one be out of the way when the pieces of iron were hurled in the air by the explosion.
When the signal was heard the lucifers were struck everywhere, and the fuses ignited.
The English, keeping watch on some other part of the line not far from us, on seeing the lights fired so fiercely on the burghers that they all took to their horses and galloped off.
Only five charges exploded.
I waited for a moment, but no sound broke the silence.
"Come on!" I said, "we must fire all the charges."
On reaching the line we had to search in the darkness for the spots where the dynamite had been placed. And now again the order was given that as soon as the whistle was blown every one had to ignite his fuse.
Again there was a blunder!
One of the burghers ignited his fuse before the signal had been given, and this caused such a panic that the others ran away. I and a few of my staff lay flat on the ground where we were until this charge had exploded, and then I went to fetch the burghers back.
This time everything went off well, and all the charges exploded.
The bridge I had destroyed had been rebuilt, and so I was forced to burn it again. When this was done we departed and rode on to Rietspruit, where we up-saddled, and then pushed on to Rhenosterpoort.
 General Store.