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Chapter II The Veldt

WRITING in the Friend at Bloemfontein, during the short but brilliant existence of that journal as a ‘commandeered’ newspaper, under the editorial direction of several of the war correspondents, a contributor described the veldt as ‘inexpressible’. And, if you come to think of it, that is just about what it is.

Lonely, mournful, wild, mysterious—all the adjectives you may care to lavish upon it, and something besides that you are not able to say. There is some key-note to it all which is hard to find—something subtle, vague, half-hidden. Lonely it is; terribly lonely in its great distances, its broad stretches of level plain, or rolling downs, without habitation. Mysterious, in its mile upon mile of changeless characteristic, its very duplication of itself. Mournful, in its apparent emptiness of most that makes a country prosperous. Wild, in its half-savage black population, and its almost as half-savage white one. It is beautiful or hideous, sad or bright in the sunshine, as the mood takes you, but always, even unto the worst of its recollection,

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it is fascinating, and fascinating because it is inexpressible.

You may have starved on it, shivered in wet blankets as you lay in its clinging mud, bled on it, buried your comrade in it—but afterwards, when you look back to it, and time shall have wrapped a haze of interest round its sterner outlines, you will remember the charm, the half-unconscious attractiveness, the indefinable something that was of its very nature. At any rate, you will never forget it.

Sunrise—with dew sparkling like diamond points on the long waving grass, the fresh breeze fanning your face, the glorious blue sky overhead boasting of the coming day, the flat-topped purple kopjes far away on the yellow horizon; a white farmhouse, with its deep green setting of eucalyptus and willow, in the middle distance; and the splendid, dry, invigorating atmosphere about you—was always beautiful. In the noontide, the clear sunlight made lakes and lagoons before you, clearer and more distinct even than the mirage of our Western plains. In the evening, the sunset threw long shadows of men and horses across the long levels. And at night, when you lay out on its wide bosom, tucked away snugly into your brown blanket—the bright stars glittering like electric points up in their indigo setting, while the smoke from your pipe curled lazily into the darkness, and you thanked God for a few hours of rest and peace—then it was that the veldt had its greatest charm.

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It might easily have been that one had to muster Sandy Flat or the Black Mountain in the morning. There might have been branding to start on in the daylight, or forty miles to ride through the pine scrub and belar before you should camp again. In the drowsy interval between the last few whiffs of Boer tobacco and sleep, it was not very difficult to imagine oneself spending a night out on the Run, with prospect of a hard day's work to be done on the morrow.

But it was only then, in the dreamy state before oblivion, that you could think such things. All round were the far-stretching lines of picketed horses, looming black and indistinct in the faint light from sparse and tiny fires; the crouching figures of overcoated men cooking their scanty rations for next day's march, and huddled heaps of sleepers between the horse lines.

And if, later, you should awake when the precious fires had dwindled down to points of light, and only the sentries on the lines sat shivering in the early morning chill, you would find something wanting in the veldt-night, something whose absence would strike you as strangely unfamiliar in your experience of sleeping out o' doors. Everything seemed to have become quiet. There were no crickets, no frogs, no ‘'possums’ scratching in the trees, no curlews with their wailing notes, no plover—nothing but dead absolute silence—save the muffled munching of an occasional hungry horse nibbling at the grass beside his picket-leg.

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Now, in the Bush there is never silence, comparatively; everything is quiet and at rest, but all night long you hear the subdued hum of wakeful life of some kind—the ceaseless chirping of crickets, the hoot of a mophawk or a night owl, the wild discordant screech of plover, a frog croaking unweariedly in the creek below you, a ‘willy-wagtail’ trilling his sweet notes in the tree overhead—always some performer in Nature's orchestra playing his little part in the ceaseless symphony of night.

But here, in this naked Africa, everything is stiller than the grave at night. Once, may-be, you might have lain awake and heard the beasts come down to water, and the lions roaring, but now the lions are in the North—none nearer than the Zoutpansberg—and the buck are scared away too far by the presence of all these men and horses to disturb your rest by nocturnal wanderings. And it is this uncanny stillness that reminds you of the fact that you are not at home in the good Bush. There will be no branding to-morrow. It will be harder work than branding, more exciting rides than chasing cattle through the scrubs or down the mountain tracks. And you are never quite certain whether there will be another nightfall for you. But that doesn't trouble you much. If you can get some biscuits and some bully-beef, and a fairly even place to spread your blanket in, the consideration of eternity may easily postpone itself for the time being.

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One day, it came to pass that a ‘Rimington Tiger’ and the writer foregathered at the back of a battle—the one having been sent upon a message and being unable to find his regiment again, and the other with a dead-lame horse whose leg sinews had been wrenched by a fall into an ant-bear hole. Both were tired, and hungry, and thirsty, and uncertain whither to turn, or what to do in order to reach their own units—so they decided to lunch. The ‘Tiger,’ who was of a meek aspect redeemed by strong blue eyes, was the fortunate possessor of a canvas water-bag about three parts full, and a pocketful of broken biscuit; and the writer had a little tea and a very much smaller quantity of sugar. So, some way behind a low ridge, along the crest of which recumbent ‘khakis’ sputtered ceaselessly with their Lee-Metfords, an economical fire was lit, and fed by little sticks and roots from the scanty bushes which supplied the only wood available, and afterwards, when the flame was strong enough to ‘go alone,’ with pieces of dry cow-dung. Little white clouds occasionally formed in the air above the ridge, and then groups and driblets of men came away from the firing-line to a field dressing-station over to our right. We were too absorbed in the contemplation of our almost boiling mess-tin to take much notice.

Suddenly a Boer shell came howling beyond the ridge, and banged up a heap of dust and gravel just short of where our cooking operations were being

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conducted. Things screamed in the air shrilly, so we concluded that our meal would be more inviting if partaken of in some place where such ill-timed and intrusive interruptions were less likely to inflict themselves upon us. Therefore we moved the can and a fire-stick laboriously to another position, and finished the brew under difficulties. The Boer gunners, for some reason best known to themselves, continued to shell the spot where we had been, probably with an idea that stronger re-inforcements were sheltering behind the ridge. After a meal, less abundant than welcome, the Rimington delivered himself of sundry emphatic opinions concerning his native land.

“The country's no dam good,” he said. “I know it from King William's Town to Bulawayo, and it's not fit for a white man to live in. Y'd like to try ten thousand acres? Well, y're better out of it, by a long chalk. Locusts, rinderpest, scab, fluke, foot-rot! Droughts, floods, fires, fever, that's what it is! Crops! What's the use of crops when there's locusts to eat 'em? Good as Australia? Well, Australia ain't much, then. You take it from me—keep clear of Africa, leave farming to the Kaffirs. Mining's the on'y thing, an' y'haven't a dog's show without capital. Rhodesia's the worst of the lot. The country's no dam good.”

But, in spite of this particular Rimington Guide, himself a native of Cape Colony and obviously a pessimist; in spite of scores of other men who should

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know, and who have spoken of it in a similar strain; in spite of one's own prejudice against a place where one has enjoyed hardship and danger and discomfort, the writer is still of opinion, however little such opinion may be worth, that the country is good—better far even than the general run of Africanders give it credit for being.

Up to Modder River—when en route to Bloemfontein viâ Paardeberg, Osfontein and Driefontein—the country is disappointing. One cannot speak with any knowledge of the karoo after viewing it from the window of a moving train, however leisurely that train may proceed. (And South African trains do not hurry—especially troop trains.) It looks poor, barren, destitute of herbage, or indeed of anything edible, but there were glimpses of flocks of shorn sheep which were in far from poor condition. Some were almost fat. Their only visible means of support was apparently a small, scrubby bush, growing hardly more than a foot or two in height, and not unlike the species of salt-bush known in Australia as ‘cotton-bush’.

But generally, thereabouts, the country is wretchedly inhospitable in appearance. Gradual rocky slopes, broken here and there by kopjes and low ranges of stony hills, stretch up beyond De Aar and past the Orange River, until you reach the Modder. Here, there is at least promise of something better. The plains are level, and the soil more promising, and if

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the surface had not been churned up into endless dust by an army it might have been grassed.

Before the war, Modder River was a favourite ‘watering place,’ whither pic-nic parties and Sunday schools came from Kimberley. In springtime the banks were knee-deep in grass, they said, and aglow with beautiful wild-flowers. Now they were cut up by the numberless tracks of waggons and guns, littered with the impedimenta of a great host, scarred with the marks of recent battle. The pretty cottages of the village were torn and pock-marked by shell and bullet, and the drift itself—the beautiful, lazy, tree-shaded drift—a discoloured bog.

Out from the Modder station, on the road to Jacobsdaal, the long plains seemed more like the veldt one had read of than anything seen hitherto. Beyond Osfontein farm—in the early year, just after the rains—it struck one as being almost the best country one had ever seen.

Miles, and miles, and miles of rolling downs stretched away right up to Bloemfontein. Long, waving, succulent grasses, as good as the best our plains produce. You rode through it with the sensation of riding through a field of ripening wheat. It seemed a pity, almost, that all these thousands of horses should trail through it, trampling it down, and wasting it needlessly. So thick and luxuriant was it that it caught in your stirrup-irons, your scabbard ‘swished’ through it. When you lay down to sleep at night you were

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in a little grass-walled enclosure. It seemed like an ideal ‘fattening’ country. And it never looked better than in the early morning, when the sun had painted it gold-green, and the long shadows of the kopjes lay across it like dark carpets. Sometimes we saw the fattest of fat cattle—but terribly mongrel cattle.

And yet people tell you that it is hard to live here, that farming or grazing do not pay. There is the scab, and the rinderpest, and the fluke; and when you're done with all of them, the locust and the drought.

Heavens! they don't know what drought is. Undoubtedly scab, and rinderpest, and fluke, and locusts are formidable things—when you sit down and look at them. What an utterly hopeless, deadly state a man's soul must be in when he can calmly contemplate a visitation of scab, rinderpest, fluke or locusts as the justly incurred manifestation of God's wrath, with whose course it would be impious to meddle, and the only remedy for which is a casting back for sins committed that may have merited punishment, and a resolve to avoid such errors in the future!

According to the Boer mind, you don't get scab in your flock because you have omitted necessary precautions in your methods of sheep-farming, but because you have perhaps stolen a pair of boots when you visited the dorp at Nachtmaal, or because you didn't attend Nachtmaal, or ‘took down’ your neighbour over a horse-deal when you did. And it is easy

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to understand how difficult it would be to bring about any concerted action towards counteracting the effect of such visitations as the aforesaid, or stamping out disease altogether amongst such people.

One can only, of course, speak as a tourist speaks of a country he has run through. One's practical knowledge of the veldt and its products is probably limited to some observance of the value or uselessness of its ant-heaps as ‘cover’ and such purely warlike uses. But, in the light of common reason, in comparison with what our own pastoralists and farmers have to contend with in Australia, in view of its fertility and natural advantages and rainfall, one cannot altogether accept the veldt as bad country, or as country in which it should be difficult to make both ends meet—not to speak of their overlapping. It is well watered naturally and it has splendid facilities for catching rain in tanks and dams. It is fertile—Kaffirs grow great crops of mealies almost by scratching up the soil with a stick. Had it not been for the excellent grazing that it was nearly always possible to obtain for the cavalry horses in the Free State and the Transvaal it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the rapid movements of the Cavalry Division would have been impossible.

But more weighty than all in arguing favourably to the veldt is the fact that it has supported so large a savage population as it has done in the past, and does still to a lesser extent. After all, the great test of a

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country's fertility and value—perhaps the only sure test—lies in the number of human beings and wild animals it will provide a living for.

Perhaps the truest light in which one may regard the veldt is in that of a field that has lain fallow, has never been thoroughly tried, has never yet been given a wholesale chance of showing what it can do.

Considered as a campaigning ground ‘much may be said on both sides’. For the defence, the veldt is fortified, and well fortified, by its kopjes. Every kopje is a natural stronghold. But it is too open to really make a stand in, unless it be on the banks of rivers where scrub and brushwood afford ‘cover,’ and steep banks shelter from shell-fire. For the attack it ought to be free from possibilities of ambuscade. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have been always so—but that is another story—it should have been. There can be few countries in the world where scouting should be less difficult. Open country, a clear atmosphere, little timber, an almost unavoidable skyline, are natural features that do not readily lend themselves to the concealment of large bodies of men or horses. Consider the difficulties that would present themselves in our veldt country here—the plains. Belts of timber—some kind of cover nearly everywhere—would render the reconnaissance of positions a task of infinitely greater trouble than was the case in the open veldt of South Africa.

Compared, indeed, to almost any part of Australia,

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the veldt possesses features that render it much less dangerous for the attacker than would be the case here. It is, too, a country where roads may be almost disregarded, and where, consequently, the troubles of transport are very much less than in timbered, hilly, or ‘sticky’ localities. And, in view of its facilities for grazing, as mentioned above, it was most excellent country from the point of view of the horse, the mule and the ox.

From the domestic standpoint, the veldt was bad—very bad. Its timberless nature was the cause of the greatest hardship that the army had to endure—want of firewood. Sleeping in the open air, even if the weather be wet, is not such a very uncomfortable business, provided that you can obtain a good fire. But when you have no means of cooking the raw beef and flour you sometimes get by way of rations; when you are soaked to the skin, and cannot keep warm; when you have no chance of drying one-half of your body at a time in the glow of a cheerful blaze—then, indeed, is war hard, and stern, and comfortless. Many times did Tommy Cornstalk sigh wearily for just one good ring-barked paddock, for just one big log of the many that were lying all over Australia unappropriated to light his fire under.

On first acquaintance the veldt appears to be an ideal ground for the manœuvring of mounted troops. Its looks belie it, however, to a certain extent. It is undermined everywhere by holes and burrows of

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a peculiarly treacherous kind. They were said to be the work of the ‘meer-cat’ or the ‘ant-bear’. Whatever made them, they were always pitfalls for the unwary—and for the wary too. Unless you watched where you were going at the ‘trot’ or ‘gallop,’ you almost always came to grief, and, if you were not damaged yourself, the subsequent state of your horse's leg-sinews generally necessitated your walking for a day or two, or even ‘commandeering’ from friend or foe, a remount of sorts, according to your skill as a horse-thief, or your luck.