Swimming in the Wild

As a child, growing up in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, I used to spend an awful lot of time jumping into all sorts of streams, waterfalls, rivers and lakes.

Having been boxed up at boarding school for thirteen weeks at a stretch there was something peculiarly liberating about this odd habit of mine. It was like my own little unilateral declaration of independence, my response to all those schoolboy pressures to conform.

Swimming in the wild. My sisters, Penny and Nicky, the Pendeke river, Nyanga.

As soon as I got back to our farm, which was situated at the very end of the Old Dutch Settlement Road in Nyanga North, the first thing I would do was rip off my tie, toss away my blazer, basher and anything else that reminded me of the grim monster Conventionality and sprint down to the swift-running stream that flowed past the front of our house with the dogs barking with excitement behind me. Once I felt the water sluicing around me I knew I was home.

The great thing about wild swimming is, of course, that you aren’t usually surrounded by lots of other wild bathers all thrashing about and making a nuisance of themselves (although, in my quest to find the perfect pool, I have been forced to share my space with the odd water snake and river leguaan). Sitting in the shallow end of a heavily chlorinated swimming pool, fighting off hordes of screaming toddlers and being watched over by twitchy lifeguards does not, somehow, generate quite the same feelings of freedom or joy at being alive. Evolutionists would, no doubt, put this fascination with water down to some buried, primaeval, memory, the fact that this is where all life originated, but for me, there was also a spiritual element to it.

Most of the rivers that ran through our farm had their source in Mount Muozi, a striated, sphinx-like peak that jutted out from the Nyanga plateau. Flat-topped, steep-sided and seemingly impregnable the mountain served as the centre of a powerful rain-making cult.

Mount Muozi

This association added an element of both the holy and the supernatural to the whole cleansing ritual. Every time I sat under a waterfall I felt like the water I was immersing myself in had both come from and been blessed by the mountain spirits. Exulting in the freedom and solitude I would lie there, allowing the river to grow around me until nothing existed but me, it and that towering, mysterious mountain.

The day came, however, when, like many a country boy before and after me I succumbed to the lure of the big city and set off to seek my fame and fortune (I’m still looking). My days of running – and swimming – free were over and, out in the big world, I found myself being swept along by a different current, one which, by some strange quirk of fate, eventually landed me in Pietermaritzburg.

Perhaps it has something to do with the current mood of ecological apocalypse or maybe it’s a growing feeling that the present, heavily digitalised, world we live in has just got a little too disconnected from nature for my liking or maybe it’s just my age but in recent years I have found that the old call of the wild has begun to grow stronger again. In fact, you could say the condition has become almost psycho-pathological – at least once a year, preferably more, I have to get away.

In responding to this summons from the Deep I have covered thousands of kilometres, in all four seasons, and in many kinds of weather, searching for uninterrupted sight-lines and views that will feed my unbridled enthusiasm for torrents, cliffs and precipices. While I am easily swayed by scenes of bucolic calmness, I generally prefer a more chaotic and edgy version of nature, the more wild, rugged and unpopulated the better.

A great place to swim is the Orange River which passes through the Richtersveld.

For me such journeys into the unknown are both broadening and restorative, they provide a means of escape from the crowded streets and the routine of everyday life. On the road difficulties are resolved, possibilities open up and, as the horizons widen around me, I can feel my mind expanding to meet them. Indeed, I can think of nothing more bracing for the soul than turning one’s back on duties, following one’s nose and seeing where it leads. Therein lie stimulus, enrichment and a sense of achievement.

In opting, once again, to tread this solitary path I have found there have been other, more practical, benefits as well; all the physical exercise I have got from this endless pursuit of the sublime has given me the strength and endurance to continue sniping away at our, sometimes disheartening and unredeemable, bunch of politicians. And for that, I am truly thankful.

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A Multitude of Crises: Cartoons for November and December 2022

With the latest fuel hikes, the already beleaguered South African consumer would have to find even more wriggle room in their monthly budgets to fill their tanks. They would also have to accommodate the rise in the cost of goods that would inevitably follow these price increases.

With the presidential race hotting up the probe into President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala farm robbery reached a crucial stage. At this stage. the two front-runners appeared to be Ramaphosa and Dr Zweli Mkhize although an adverse finding against the president could affect his chances of being re-elected.

The SAHRC found that comments made by EFF leader Julius Malema constituted incitement to violence and hate speech and requested he retracts them. Having refused to do so, Juju, later in the same week, went on to demand that copies of Jacques Pauw’s Our Poisoned Land be removed from all bookstores because of specific allegations it made against him.

Responding to criticism in parliament over the ongoing Eskom crisis, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan said government intervention, including President Cyril Ramaphosa’s energy plan and Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), should be given a chance to take effect.

The country was plunged into crisis as the section 89 panel set up to investigate the Phala Phala scandal found that President Cyril Ramaphosa had an impeachment case to answer over serious violations of the constitution for exposing himself to conflict of interest, doing outside paid work and contravening the Corruption Activities Act.

President Cyril Ramaphosa secured the political support of the majority of his party as the delay in the vote for his impeachment gave him respite for a week. The president slammed the Section 89 panel for relying on the Fraser accusations in their findings.

The ANC’s acting Secretary-General, Paul Mashatile, referred Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the ANC’s disciplinary committee. This came after she went against party instructions to vote against adopting the Section 89 report on Phala Phala.

With Christmas fast approaching, South Africa continued to suffer relentless load shedding. Eskom was thrown into further disarray with the resignation of its CEO, Andre de Ruyter.

Cyril Ramaphosa was re-elected leader of South Africa’s ruling ANC Party despite being badly damaged by a cash-heist scandal that has dogged him for months. His re-election came at a time when the country was being beset on all sides by a multitude of crises – crises that threatened to get worse with every passing moment of indecision or inaction by Ramaphosa and his government.

Book Reviews

published by Pan MacMillan.

Another week, another book about the chaotic, cataclysmic Donald Trump presidency and the tumultuous fallout from it. The author of this one has probably jumped the gun in rushing to print, since his analysis focuses on the investigation into January 6th investigation whose findings have yet to be published, but it obviously felt it was important to get in early with his take on the proceedings.

As is now common knowledge, the 2020 United States presidential election held on November 3rd, saw the former Democratic vice-president Joe Biden defeat the incumbent president Donald Trump with Biden receiving more than 81 million votes, the most votes ever cast in a US presidential election. Unable to accept the reality of his defeat the soon-to-be ex-president would go on to insist the election results had been rigged although he had next to no proof to back his claims up. It didn’t matter. The doubts he cultivated ultimately led to a rampage inside the US Capitol by an angry mob of pro-Trump supporters, as well as giving birth to the Stop the Steal movement.

Undoubtedly, one of the low-water marks in recent American history, the attempted coup rocked the very foundations on which American democracy was built. It also led to a great deal of soul-searching and heated debate. As a former Republican congressman, as well as the senior technical advisor to the House select committee tasked with investigating the attack, Denver Riggelman, has some claim to know of what he speaks when it comes to the subject. He had access to much of the correspondence and documentation which passed between the various parties and was privy to a lot of privileged information. As such, his book is full of revealing insights and sheds a great deal of light on precisely what happened during those fateful few days. What becomes plain from reading it is that the insurrection was not a spontaneous act nor an isolated one but was part of a deliberate campaign aimed at keeping Trump in office. It is also hard to ignore that much of the culpability lies with Trump himself.

Equally disturbing is the fact that the effort to overturn the result of the election involved officials from all levels of government (including the military – Riggelman claims that at least one hundred of the rioters who stormed into the building that day had military experience), as well as many members of the Republican Party.

In addition to showing how Trump deluded the American people, and probably himself, Riggelman’s book is also a part memoir. By his admission, he grew up in the conservative edge of the Bible Belt “among the true believers” and it took many years to shake off the yoke religion had placed on his worldview. This gives him an insider’s take on how the far right and extremist groups like QAnon operate. Fed a combustible brew of fire and brimstone Biblical tub-thumping, biased TV and, more recently, the sort of delusional mob group-think that characterises the darker recesses of the internet it has led to a conspiratorial mindset which has, in turn, now seeped into the mainstream.

Frighteningly, there is every likelihood that in the future the system could produce more tenants in the White House just like Trump: shallow, dishonest, opportunistic, vicious and at times almost comically incompetent.

There are lessons to be learnt from all of this…

published by Bantam

There is something enjoyably familiar about sitting down with another book featuring Lee Child’s iconic hero, Jack Reacher. It is like being reacquainted with an old friend after a gap in time. One of crime fiction’s more engaging creations, the latest book featuring the laconic drifter differs from all the previous ones in that it has been co-written with his younger brother Andrew Child to whom Lee intends to hand over the reins of the franchise.

Not that any difference in style is immediately apparent. No Plan B begins in a predictable fashion with Reacher turning up in yet another remote, dusty, fly-blown mid-American town only to find himself once more at the centre of all the action. In this case, a young woman appears to throw herself under an approaching us. Naturally, all is not as it seems with the sharp-eyed Reacher, alone among the various on-lookers, noticing what everybody else has failed to see – the woman was deliberately pushed by a man in a hood. The police don’t buy his version of events, the death is ruled a suicide and the case is closed. For an avenging angel like Reacher, who sees it as his mission to battle injustice, this obviously goes against the grain and immediately decides to carry out his own investigation. The deeper he digs, the more he realises this wasn’t just a random act of violence but is part of a much larger and more sinister conspiracy that has its centre in a supposedly model prison in a small Mississippi town. Once they get wind of the fact Reacher is hot on their trail, the conspirators do their best to stop him from reaching his destination but they fail to factor in his unique talents or his relentless determination.

In many ways, No Plan B is vintage Lee Child. The theme is tackled cleverly with well-concealed sub-plots and several strong set-piece action sequences. If there is a slight difference in the form it lies in the dialogue. When it comes to cynical, snappy one-liners and put-downs – usually delivered as – Reacher despatches, in suitably violent fashion, yet another villain – Child is normally a reliable performer but here the writing seems oddly underpowered with few of the memorable quips that have proved such a feature of his best books in the series.

Book Reviews

published by Jonathan Cape

A young schoolboy’s infatuation with and uncontrollable feelings for his music teacher (and hers for him) and the impact it has on the rest of his life is at the heart of Ian McEwan’s latest book, a tale of sullied yearnings and unrealised hopes scanning one man’s lifetime.

Beginning with his parent’s wartime romance and not especially happy marriage, the book takes us through his boarding school days during the suffocating vestiges of 1950s morality and the embryonic promiscuity of the 1960s. Along the way, it also touches on such burning historic events as the Suez Crisis, the Cuba Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall and – even more up to date – the Covid pandemic. Recounted in chronological order, as well as with the occasional flashbacks, it gives the book a raw episodic quality that, at times, makes it feel more like a biography than fiction.

Dropping out of school early. the protagonist leads a life in which he never seems able to connect or realise his true potential. He takes on a number of unpleasant and unremunerative jobs eventually settling for the slightly dead-end job as a lounge pianist. While obviously intelligent and talented, his literary projects don’t quite take off, and his relationships are fragmentary and not always satisfying. In a reversal of the traditional order where it is usually the man who puts his selfish emotional needs first, his first wife abandons him and their infant son to pursue a solitary career as a writer, Later, he has an on/off relationship with a married woman who at first leaves, then returns to and finally leaves her husband. All this is played out against events in the wider world.

Combining quick social observation with a profound understanding of our troubled times, Lessons beautifully captures the warp and weft of our often messy, unfulfilled lives while, at the same time, providing a richly nuanced portrait of a man who suffers his share of abuse and loss while never really achieving his ambitions. Somehow he endures them all and winds up with a measure of peace and understanding at the end.

Published by Struik Nature

The distinguished naturalist, William John Burchell is generally regarded as one of the greatest of the early African explorers. Making up in enthusiasm and tenacity what he then lacked in experience, his bold expedition deep into the South African interior laid the groundwork for much subsequent scientific research and has added considerably to our understanding of the country’s natural history in the nineteenth century. Equipped with a custom-built ox-wagon but none of the expensive equipment which modern science requires he managed to amass an astonishing 63 000 specimens of plants, bulbs, insects, reptiles and mammals on his 7000-kilometre journey which took him through some of the driest parts of the sub-continent, as far north as Kuruman. It is a mark of both his considerable achievements and the esteem in which is still held that so many species still bear his name (Burchell’s Zebra, Burchell’s Coucal etc)

Among Burchell’s many strengths were an indefatigable curiosity and imaginative sympathy with the natural world, coupled with openness towards the people he encountered on his arduous four-year expedition. In this, he was atypical of the day.

Burchell described his outbound trek in his famous Travels in the Interior but never got around to completing the volume describing his return trip via the more lush and densely vegetated eastern coast of South Africa even though it proved every bit as productive and as fruitful in terms of what he discovered as what had gone before. The authors, Roger Stewart and Marion Whitehead, have sought to fill this gap in the narrative by delving back into the records and revisiting many of the places he passed through.

Fortunately, Burchell was a painstaking note-taker and prolific letter writer and this intriguing, well-researched biography is brought to life by the many extracts from his correspondence. In addition, he was also an accomplished artist and his delicate watercolours add immeasurable value and vividness to the text. From downs to mountains, from dunes to semi-desert, they provide a comprehensive microcosm of the country as it appeared back then as seen through the eyes of a highly observant and intrepid young explorer.

Walking Back to Happiness…

: If you are in a bad mood go for a walk, if you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.”-Hippocrates

Pic courtesy of Sally Scott.

I can feel the sun on my back, already warm as toast, as I set out through the farm gate following the road that leads down to the protea field and then past the tall pines where a clamorous row of black crows are having a huge argument over which direction to fly. I know in a general way where I am headed and what I will most likely encounter along the way although each day always brings its subtle differences. I don’t, normally, wonder too deeply about my motivations for doing what I am doing. Going for a walk is just something I do and enjoy. I find it healing. Outdoor therapy. It helps me to think. It is my form of meditation. If I am feeling down in the dumps it gets me – mostly – back on the right track.

There are no limits to where I walk. I am quite happy to keep exploring the same patch of ground because over time you develop a sense of intimacy with it that comes from an accumulation of particular observations. Likewise, there is a special fascination in testing one’s expectations in less familiar backgrounds. The important point, I think, is to be able to relish both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

The habit of walking manifested itself at a very early age. When I was about three years old my father, an airline pilot with a yen for country life, decided to relocate us from our house in the then Salisbury (now Harare) to a smallholding in Umwindsidale, about thirty kilometres outside town. He chose to call our new home “Dovery” after the crooning Cape Turtle Doves that were such a feature of the place. For me, their call remains one of Africa’s most beautiful, evocative and comforting sounds.

My main memory of the property is the view which was spectacular. From our front verandah, we looked over an open stretch of land, extensively cultivated, along whose edges the Umwindsi (now Mvinzi) River flowed, its path marked by an outline of dark green. Beyond this fertile plain stretched a further succession of hills and valleys, blue and hazy, each one becoming successively paler, in turn, as they rose to meet the sky. From an early age, I liked to create worlds of my own, in which I could slip away unnoticed and undisturbed and the countryside that surrounded our home provided plenty of places where I could do just that.

Umwindsi (Mvinzi) river with my brothers and sister. I am on the left.

The Umwindsi was a lovely little rivulet that tumbled and crawled and blundered its way through a network of rocks, roots and tall shady trees. For a young child, it was a magical place and I spent a lot of time adventuring up and down it, playing in the pools and exploring its secret places to see what lay hidden there.

It was also the ideal preparation ground for our next grand adventure – a move to a remote farm at the northern extreme of the Nyanga mountain range.

The farm occupied a broad stretch of land, mostly valley but bordered on two sides by mountains. Jutting out from the main range were several castellated buttresses which stood like imperious guardians, mute witnesses to the goings on below. Along the floor of the valley stretched miles of grassland with woody patches, winding rivers which fed into one another and soft hills inset with elephant-coloured boulders, many covered with old stone walls, left behind by some forgotten people. Over it hung the intense blue sky of Africa.

The Old Dutch Settlement Road, Nyanga. Our farm was at the end of the range.

The land on our farm hadn’t been worked for many years and felt wild and untamed. At the night the wind would howl down from the mountains and the very air seemed to seethe with phantoms, both good and bad. They whispered to me as I lay in my bed with only a flickering candle, on the table next to me, to keep the shadows at bay. In the moonlight, the whole landscape beyond my window seemed to possess a strange alchemy all of its own, a spirit ancient and impassive permeating the land.

There was much to discover and endless opportunities for exploration. Most mornings when the sky was clean and ready for whatever lay ahead I would set out into the wilderness to see what I could find. I learnt to watch, wonder and recognise all the landmarks: the curves in the road, the shape of the hills, the twists and turns of the mountain streams, the outlines of the fields, the size and weird contortions of the baobab trees. No horizon seemed too far away. The more I saw, the more the place insinuated its way into my soul. It deepened my love for Africa. Sometimes I would go with my elder brother Pete – an avid birder even back then – mostly I would go on my own with just the farm dogs for company. My memory of these walks and the years on the farm have never left me.

It wasn’t just at home that I walked. Bastions of robust sportsmanship, all three of the boarding schools I attended -REPS in the Matopos, Plumtree on the Botswana border and UBHS in the Eastern Highlands – encouraged healthy outdoor activities, seeing it as an essential element in character-building. Most weekends would find me exploring the surrounding countryside.

On the summit of Cecil Kop, Umtali (now Mutare). I am in the middle. My brother Pete is on the left and my friend Stu Taylor is on the right.

Eventually, the idyll came to an end. My life took a turn for the worse. Bad replaced good. War broke out. I got called up.

As an ordinary foot soldier in the army, I got to do a great deal of walking although most of it was not voluntary or even pleasant. Having bullets and mortar bombs whizz past me didn’t add to the enjoyment.

Getting shot at or mortared was not the only thing which occupied my mind patrolling in the stupefying heat of the Zambezi valley. On foot in Africa, one will sooner or later have a hair-raising experience with a wild animal. Of them all, I think it was the lone Black Rhino I was most scared of. To have one suddenly come crashing through the bushes is not an experience I want to repeat too often although I had my fair share of scrapes with this cantankerous character.

On patrol in the Zambezi Valley

Still, the army toughened me up, got me superbly fit and introduced me to some wonderful new scenery so I mustn’t grumble.

The Rhodesian Bush War finally dragged on to its inevitable conclusion. I got discharged. Like all wars, the conflict marked our lives. It left a lasting legacy. In my case, I don’t think I emerged from it suffering from Post Combat Stress Syndrome or anything as dramatic or personality-changing as that. Still, it did leave me with a vague sense of melancholy, restlessness and an inability to settle down. Unsure what to do, the horizons seemed to close in around me. I felt trapped and constricted.

Bored stiff with my office job in the Mining Commissioner’s office in Gweru, I resigned and moved onto my parent’s new farm at Battlefields, near the Midlands town of Kadoma. Needing time to think, I walked and walked. By the end of it, there was hardly an inch of the farm I didn’t know. Walking had, once again, become my solace, my cure. It also made me realise it was time to move on. To go somewhere new. To start my life again in a place where I wasn’t surrounded by the constant reminders of the futility of what I had been through.

And so I packed my bags and moved to South Africa. With me went my nostalgia for landscape which I quickly transferred to my new surroundings. I set about exploring the country. I went on birding expeditions to Marakele, Mapungubwe, Kruger and the Richtersveld. I trundled through the Little Karoo and Baviaanskloof. I walked on the Wild Coast to the sound of crashing breakers. With my sister, the artist Sally Scott, and her family I made countless trips to the Drakensberg. We slept in caves, hiked along numerous mountain trails and plunged into icy rivers.

The Drakensberg had a different feel from the mountains I had grown up amongst in Nyanga. Higher, more precipitous, austere, jagged, cold and with fewer trees they were inhabited by a different set of gods and mountain deities. I loved it all the same. Climbing them, I always felt I had risen above the material plane and entered another, more enchanted, realm. The scenery and views left me breathless.

Mont-aux-Sources, Drakensberg, with my nephew Craig Scott.

When I wasn’t out walking, I worked as a political cartoonist in Pietermaritzburg. As I got older, I grew increasingly disenchanted with city living. Some friends suggested I move up to their farm, high on a hill overlooking the Karkloof Valley. Viewed through the soft, filtered light of the swirling mist, there was something dream-like about its beauty; my heart was immediately smitten with delight. I accepted.

The Karkloof Valley. The view from our farm.

Moving into the country changed the shape of my life. It helped renew my sense of deep connection with the natural world. I spent many happy hours tramping over a familiar circuit of paths, seldom meeting a single person en route. Revelling in the sense of discovery and freedom that comes with this, I developed an increasingly close and intimate relationship with the local flora and fauna. However, nature still managed to spring surprises on me.
Lockdown came. I had always thought that the advances in modern medicine would provide a solution for everything but Covid, at least initially, proved me wrong. The virus transported us all back to the fear-ridden, helpless days of the Great Plague. It reminded us of just how vulnerable we still are and demonstrated that we are still at the mercy of the whims of nature.

Over the next two years my life – like many others – took on a slightly surreal aspect. As part of the locked-down community, I found the days blurring together. Whether it was Monday or Friday came to hold no interest for me. Alone in the house, isolated from the world, I lived in silence and solitude, with only the sound of birdsong, the whistle of a reedbuck, the howl of a jackal and the croaking frogs to sustain me. When I went to town, which was not often, I talked through a mask to other people wearing masks. It felt a little weird and dehumanising at first but I got used to it.

The national confinement stretched on through the months that followed with intermittent breaks. In the end, I learnt to get used to a world with little direct communication, so much so that I almost began to prefer it that way. Again, it was my walks which brought me the most relief, gave meaning to my life, helped me feel less trapped and provided me with a sense of quietude which conquered despair. I was lucky living in the country because the people living in town weren’t permitted to go beyond their front gates whereas I had our entire farm to roam over.

Heading outPic courtesy of Craig Scott.

If you had to ask me then why I walk so much, I would have to concede that – apart from the obvious health benefits – it stems back to a longing to be the boy I once was, innocent again and seeing the world for the first time. My walks remind me of a more carefree period of my life. More than that, though, they have become part of a growing awareness of myself, an increasing reflectiveness and a developing sense of my place in the world and the environment. It nourishes my sense of self-sufficiency. It makes it easier to exist in these tumultuous times.

Time has, of course, dissipated some of my innate restlessness but while I still have the energy in my legs and air in my lungs I intend to keep walking…

Book Reviews

published by 4th Estate

The 1994 Rwanda genocide, conducted mainly against the Tutsi minority ethnic group, was one of the great traumas of the twentieth century. During roughly 100 days between 500 000 to 662 000 people were killed. The scale and brutality of the genocide sent shock waves around the world although no country intervened in the slaughter.

The immediate trigger for the massacre was the downing of the jet carrying not only the Rwandan President Habyarimana but also his Burundian counterpart, Cyprian Ntarymira. Determined to avenge the slaying of their president, thousands of youth militia went on the rampage, bent on exterminating not only Tutsis but any Hutu deemed as being hostile to the regime. The long-standing tension and resentment between the two cultures provided the combustible fuel that sparked a raging riot.

In the aftermath of the genocide the rebel Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who swept through the country and restored some degree of order, was originally seen as the good guys – or at least the more virtuous of the various warring factions. It is a reputation which does not always stand up to scrutiny as author Michela Wrong shows in her often chilling but always compelling account of what transpired.

Wrong, who won deserved plaudits for her book about the rise and fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, In the Footsteps of My Kurtz, and who, as a reporter, witnessed many of the massacres that took place in Rwanda, is perfectly placed to write about the genocide.

In her introduction, she admits, however, the difficulties she had obtaining accurate and reliable information in a society where duplicity and lying are seen as a political virtue but her book nevertheless contains much intriguing anecdotage from many of the principal characters involved. It also has the ring of authenticity.

Opening her account with the assassination in South Africa, of the popular but now exiled Patrick Karegeya, the former Rwandan chief of Intelligence and one-time close friend of President Kagame (the book’s title comes from the sign the assassins left hanging on the door of his hotel room while they went about their grisly business), she then moves back in time, tracing the trajectory of the RPF from its origins in the Ugandan conflict of the 1980s to its present-day position as the ruling party in Rwanda. In the process, she strips away the carefully constructed façade and shows how a rebel movement that once inspired awe and respect and pitched itself as the party of ethnic reconciliation, has become, in true Orwellian tradition, as corrupt, autocratic, vindictive, ruthless and power-hungry as the regime it overthrew – and equally guilty of its own atrocities.

One of the many questions that springs to mind on reading the book is how ordinary people, people such as you and me, were able to act with such barbarity? In part, this can be explained by the country’s toxic history which allowed one side to dehumanise the other and consider them less than human. As Wrong observes “brutality is contagious” and the whole Great Lakes area has a long history of violence. Another interesting question that emerges from the book is just who shot down the jet carrying the two heads of state? Although the truth has never been completely established, much of the evidence points in one direction

Blended with vivid descriptions of place and character, Wrong manages to weld together all the myriad strands of this difficult and shocking period of recent African history in a language that is simultaneously poetic and down-to-earth. The result of much painstaking research, Do Not Disturb demonstrates with terrible clarity the ultimate potential consequences of racism, militarism and authoritarianism.

published by Melinda Ferguson Books

South African journalist, academic and former anti-apartheid activist, Malcolm Ray has set himself an epic challenge with this book – to attempt to explain how the social and economic turmoil that has engulfed so many post-colonial African states came about. This was always going to be a tough task but it is one he tackles with determination and enthusiasm and backs up with a great deal of hard research and careful analysis.

Fundamental to his argument is the whole concept of Growth Domestic Product (GDP) which has become the core creed of most countries’ financial planning. Ray devotes much of the earlier part of the book to explaining how it evolved and how an obsession with it has come to dominate economic thinking.

As originally conceived, the drive to identify and prioritise GDP had its merits. At the end of the Second World War, for example, the United States, as the world’s leading economic power, launched what became known as the Marshal Plan whose purpose was the revival of the world economy after the devastation caused by the conflict. As US Secretary of State George C Marshall, after whom the plan was named, made plain when discussing it, the doctrine was not directed against any country but against “hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos”. Noble in intention the plan initially worked well enough although by the 1970s (and thereafter) those innocent days were long gone. Since then, a growth-at-any-cost-doctrine and unchecked free-market economics have resulted in what Ray calls bandit capitalism which, in turn, has often gone hand in hand with bolstering up repressive regimes – like Zaire’s kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko. Poor countries have found themselves coming increasingly under the control of mostly American multinationals.

Perhaps hardly surprisingly, Ray examines the role played in all of this by organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, who were tasked with monitoring developing countries’ finances and whose extremely unpopular austerity measures had plunged many countries into seemingly intractable debt traps. He also shows how the whole aid for trade doctrine pushed by the US and its subsidiaries has in many cases been a tragic, epic failure.

South African readers will find the chapters devoted to this country especially interesting. Ray provides a compelling and convincing narrative to explain how President Thabo Mbeki’s ambitious economic reform programme came undone, paving the way for the rise of the opportunistic, predatory, Jacob Zuma whose “oligarchy was a populist manoeuvre to seize the ill-gotten gains of an old oligarchy, not for the benefit of the people who made it, but for himself.”

Well-informed, broadly convincing and certainly alarming, Tyranny of Growth is a timely and important book. The strength of Ray’s argument lies in his humanising Africa’s descent into economic chaos and also his posing of the all-important question – who exactly does the growth at all costs doctrine benefit when it has led to the marginalization of the continent and produced not only growing joblessness but an almost obscene inequality in the distribution of wealth?

The answer, he suggests, lies in the flawed economic model we are using…

And the Word is…LOAD-SHEDDING: Cartoons for September and October 2022

In scenes reminiscent of former president Jacob Zuma in the dying days of his presidency, President Cyril Ramaphosa again refused to answer questions in Parliament about the robbery at his Phala Phala farm citing “due process” as a number of law enforcement agencies were investigating the matter. Opposition members remained equally determined to not let him off the hook.

Former president Jacob Zuma summoned state attorney Billy Downer SC, who is the lead prosecutor in his fraud case, and News 24 journalist Karyn Maughan to court for allegedly disclosing his medical records. The case was expected to affect and cause more delays in Zuma’s corruption matter.

Six months into its financial year struggling power entity Eskom had spent R7.7 billion on diesel for emergency generators – far in excess of the budgeted amounts. The news came as the state-owned enterprise implemented yet more power cuts across the country.

Worsening power cuts forced President Cyril Ramaphosa to cut short his overseas visit to deal with the ongoing problems. Back home, he once again listed a number of solutions to fix Eskom and improve its fleet of power stations.

Former president Jacob Zuma’s home province decided not to support his bid to be elected the next ANC national chairman. The KZN provincial executive committee said it had resolved to throw its weight behind Limpopo Premier, Stanley Mathabatha, for the position.

It was a case of another day, another crash as a runaway truck lost control on the N3 at Townhill and crashed into a barrier blocking the main Jo’burg to Durban artery for hours. The problems on this dangerous section of the highway have been exacerbated by the ongoing roadworks near the Peter Brown off-ramp which had caused huge snarl-ups.

As the country endured yet another extended wave of load-shedding, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed an amendment to the ministerial handbook which would have seen taxpayers forking out for ministers’ water and electricity – as well as other benefits. After a vociferous public backlash, the new perks were later scrapped.

The term load-shedding was announced as the 2022 South African Word of the Year by the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB). The announcement came as Eskom painted another grim picture of the load-shedding schedule for the week…

Opposition parties slammed President Cyril Ramaphosa for failing to take decisive action against Cabinet ministers implicated in state capture. Among those listed in the Zondo Commission Report were Mineral and Energy Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe and Deputy State Security Minister Zizi Kodwa.

Book Reviews

Published by Weidenfield & Nicholson

Just over a century ago, Russian society suffered a massive convulsion, the after-shocks of which are still being felt across the world to this day. A widespread discontent amongst peasants, workers and soldiers, serving on the WW1 battle fronts, both with Tzarist imperial rule and a system of government they regarded as anachronistic, corrupt, extremely unequal and exploitative, led to a series of revolts and uprisings which culminated in the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty. The deposed monarchy was replaced by a liberal Provisional government (Duma) which did not last long and was, in turn, overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

The Bolsheviks were, by no means, the majority party but their leader Vladimir Lenin – ably assisted by Trotsky and Stalin – was more than happy to sacrifice ethics on the altar of the cause, tell useful lies and suppress harmful truths if it got him what he wanted. Their ruthlessness, obsessive vision and scorn for all forms of conventional morality helped propel them into power.

In Marxist mythology, both the revolution and civil war that followed are usually cast in heroic terms but the reality, as this book makes only too clear, was anything but with both sides displaying an almost limitless capacity for killing once the means were in their hands – thanks in part to an indoctrination programme that persuaded murderers that their victims deserved their fate.

The more vulnerable or threatened they felt, the more brutal they got. Terror begot yet more terror.

Most famous amongst the many murders carried out was that of Tzar Alexander and his family, whose execution, in cold blood, represented, in the author’s words, “a declaration of total war in which the ‘sanctity of human life’, as well as notions of guilt and innocence, counted for nothing.”

Opposing the Bolshevik’s Red Army were the Whites, a somewhat shaky and improbable alliance of moderate socialists, reactionary monarchists and members of the old military officer class. Like the Bolsheviks, they were quickly corrupted by the cause and perpetrated their share of horrors and atrocities. At various stages, both sides were aided and assisted by several outside powers, including the US, England, Germany, France, Poland, China and Japan..

Riven with internal divisions and wide ideological differences, the Whites, in the end, proved, no match for the single-minded dedication and relentless determination of the Reds. Their victory helped usher in the modern era of the all-powerful, all-seeing state.

In this fascinating and meticulously researched account author Anthony Beevor, who earned plaudits for his previous book Stalingrad, takes the reader on a chronological journey through events, showing how an incompetent and out-of-touch tsar, a group of ruthless revolutionaries and a catastrophic world war, all combined to plunge Russia into a maelstrom of human hatred and destruction. Offering new insights and drawing imaginatively on a range of eyewitness accounts, it provides a powerful panorama of a watershed moment in history

With Vladimir Putin seeking to rehabilitate the memory of Josef Stalin with his own dangerous gamble in Ukraine, the legacy of these years remains as relevant now as it ever did.

It is why histories like this one must continue to be written and read.

Published by Jonathan Ball

The Anglo-Boer War which took place between 1899 and 1902 was one of the seminal events in South African history. It came about as the result of a deliberately aggressive policy adopted by imperial Britain – and in particular the high commissioner at the Cape, Sir Alfred Milner (hence its other name: Milner’s War) – towards the Boers of the Transvaal and Orange Free State republics. The major prize on offer was control of the incredibly rich Rand goldfields.

In the end, it did not turn out to be the quick dust-up many of the British had anticipated and for a while, the Boers actually held the upper hand, a situation which only changed when the British poured in more troops. At the end of the conflict, twenty-five thousand British and imperial troops were dead, many of them by disease rather than enemy fire.

More than this, it provided Britain with its first taste of modern warfare and it proved a humiliating lesson for a country which then laid claim to a substantial portion of the world.

The war was also modern in the sense that it was one of the first to be photographed extensively thanks to advances in photographic technology and the introduction of hand-held cameras. Tinus Le Roux, a South African photographer, has sifted through thousands of these old black and white photographs and selected a representative sample which he has then hand-coloured with the aid of a computer to give them an added freshness and lustre.

Put together in chronological order, the first volume of his The Boer War in Colour covers the conventional phase of the war, from October 1899 to September 1900. The result is a triumph of judgement and selection, that offers a vivid new picture of a country preparing for and then torn apart by what effectively became a civil war; a war that left behind a legacy of bitterness that still lingers on today. Famous faces are there but perhaps it is the portraits of ordinary burghers, civilians and soldiers going about their everyday business in a time of great upheaval and change that gives these iconic historical photos their power and poignancy.

Travels Back: The Lure of the Frontier

Although its importance has long since declined, the “Great North Road” was, in its time, one of South Africa’s most famous roads and considered of great strategic value, in spite of the fact it passed through some of the harshest, driest, least populated parts of the country. Skirting, for much of its length, the north-western border of the country, it was the original highway into the interior and favoured by many of the early traders, hunters, transport riders and missionaries. The significance of the road was not lost on the politicians either. The conniving arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes saw it as the key to British expansionism, and the opening up of the African continent. As part of his plan to outflank and contain the Boers (as well as ward off the threat posed by the Portuguese in the East and the Germans in the West), he sent his ‘Pioneer Column’ up it to annexe all the land north of the Limpopo.

Adding to its allure for me was the fact my ancestors also toiled up it in their ox-wagons, in 1892, as part of what became known as the Moodie Trek (see Travels Back: Trekking with the Moodies). Having received the blessing of Rhodes, they had set out with high hopes for their promised land but within a year of attaining it, their leader was dead. Unable to carve out a life there, many of the others drifted on.

A rebel group, who, on reaching Fort Victoria, had elected to continue on to Salisbury in the north rather than struggle on to their original destination – Gazaland in the east -, fared slightly better, in many cases finding a more permanent base to operate from.

After the demands and travails of their journey it must have felt good to be able to put down roots although, having only been established a few years earlier with the arrival of the Pioneer Column, Fort Salisbury was still barely a town. A few robust iron and wood structures, as well as mud-brick houses, had sprung up alongside the tents and grass-thatched, pole ‘n daga huts of the original settlement. It still had a frontier feel, a hint of the American Wild West with its wagons, stagecoaches, noisy bars and men on horseback with guns.

Stagecoach (Pic: Stidolph family collection)

Determined to establish their place in the sun, my ancestors wasted little time. Within months, another thatched hut had been added to all the others – a photograph from the time dutifully records it as “Moodies First House in Salisbury”. From an architectural standpoint, it wouldn’t have won any design awards but judging by their self-confident, languorous poses its occupants were pleased enough. It was a start. Wanting a place he could call his own my great-grandfather John Warren Nesbitt lit upon a happy patch of fertile agricultural land in the Mazoe Valley, just north of Salisbury – an area which would play a small part in my family annals as we shall see. Unfortunately, it was here the sins of his past caught up with him for he was told by the BSA Company that he could not register it because he had broken the terms he had agreed to when he signed up for the Moodie Trek. Undeterred he would go on to acquire two other farms, one in Goromonzi and one in Nyanga, both of which he duly named after himself (Warrendale)

Moodie’s first house in Salisbury.

Not too surprisingly, this willy-nilly parcelling out of land among the white settlers, at the expense of the local tribes, caused a certain amount of resentment and bitterness, as well as a desire to shake off the yoke of the invaders. In 1896, the Ndebele, who had occupied much of what came to be known as Matabeleland, launched the first sustained campaign against a colonial authority anywhere in Africa. Although a warlike people (they had conducted periodic raids into Shona country) with numbers on their side, they had no answer to the British Maxim Machine Gun and the revolt was eventually crushed. The settlers who had helped suppress it were rewarded with yet more land.

Salisbury laager. Note Maxim gun.

In Mashonaland, the white community was caught napping a little later on when – encouraged by the failure of the Jameson Raid in South Africa – the supposedly more docile, downtrodden Shona also rose up in a similar rebellion. My great-grandmother Marjorie Coleman and her two grand-daughters Josephine ( better known as Josie – my father’s mother) and Nora were to get a foretaste of what was to come when they narrowly escaped being killed as they were returning from Umtali to Salisbury and found themselves surrounded by an armed horde. Fortunately for them, the order to kill all white people would only come a few hours later and they were allowed to continue on unmolested.

In the short but bloody conflict which ensued another relative, Randolph Cosby Nesbitt – the brother of John Warren and uncle of my father – would distinguish himself as one of the heroes of the beleaguered white community holed up behind their defensive laager in Salisbury.

A captain in the Mashonaland Mounted Police during the rebellion, he led a patrol consisting of only 13 men to rescue a group of miners who had been surrounded by over a thousand rebels, armed with an assortment of Lee- Metfords, Martini-Henrys and old muzzle loaders, at the Alice Gold Mine in the Mazoe valley. J.W.Salthouse, the manager of the mine, had had the good sense to fit out a wagonette with bulletproof iron sheets to give protection to the women and one sick man. Riding alongside this, Randolph and his men succeeded in getting the beleaguered party – which included three women – back to Salisbury, some 27 miles away, despite coming under particularly heavy fire as they fought their way through the long grass and well wooded, hilly country that bordered the Tatagura river, on the side of which the road ran. Considering how outnumbered they were, their casualties were surprisingly light, with only three of the small rescue party being killed and five wounded. The arrival of the exhausted little group back at the Salisbury laager was greeted with gasps of astonishment as everybody had given them up as dead.

For his actions Randolph was awarded the Victoria Cross (see picture below), the first Rhodesian to receive Britain’s highest award for gallantry and combat. As a national hero, his medal used to be housed in the National Museum in Salisbury. The famous episode also became the subject of a popular book – Remember Mazoe by Geoffrey Bond.

There exists a snapshot of Randolph in officer’s regalia posing outside the old BSAP Mess in Nyanga, the same area where we would, much later, buy our own farm. Backdropped by a high mountain and a house that looks like it was built by elves, it is a study in contrasts and, somehow, captures an era.

With his snowy hair, military dress, spread-eagled legs and a mouth masked by a large moustache, he looks every inch an imperial officer. Handsome with something of a sportsman’s build, he comes over as a man who cannot imagine failure and who is clearly accustomed to being in a position of authority, command and living a life of discipline and order. From every pore, he projects purpose and certainty. Tough, resourceful and obviously used to leading from the front, one can easily imagine him remaining calm and collected in the face of overwhelming odds.

Sitting beside him, the loyal, supportive, spouse, his wife cuts a more demure, feminine figure although, in her own way, she, too, exudes an air of quiet competence. Calm, steady-eyed, in her sun hat and long dress, one can easily imagine her organising tea parties or quietly setting out to recreate the comforts and dignities of the Victorian upper-middle class in the depths of the African bush.

Standing behind them are two, uniformed black servants. They are staring dutifully at the camera but with looks, one can’t quite interpret. Whatever they are thinking, they are not letting on

In the light of history, there is a slightly surreal quality to the picture. Little could that imposing couple have foreseen or foretold that within eighty years their secure, timeless, confident world would be gone; the era of their mastery would be over, the colonial order they represented would be dismembered, their monopoly of political power lost or that White Rhodesia would have been swept away.

Within nationalist historiography, the African resistance of 1896-7 became popularly known as the First Chimurenga War and provided both an inspiration and a dress rehearsal for what was to come. Seventy years later the country would once again find itself facing an armed uprising as the ZANLA and ZIPRA forces led by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo clashed with the Rhodesian security forces of Ian Smith. This time around, the Shona – who would go on to become the dominant political group in an independent Zimbabwe – were better prepared and better equipped. They ensured they had plenty of weapons, something the Soviets, who were then involved in some Empire-building of their own, were only too happy to supply. Once they had replaced the white government they turned their attention to their former foe, the Ndebele, settling a few old scores with the help of some instructors from North Korea.

Largely ignorant of (or perhaps just indifferent to) the cataclysm of social change their arrival had unleashed on the local tribes and happily oblivious of what lay ahead, the whites carried on creating new urban centres and taming the land. Not without reason, they were immensely proud of what they were able to achieve in so short a period of time. The tribes who had been ejected from the more fertile, productive land, however, probably saw it through more jaundiced eyes. When her husband died, Marjorie Coleman opened the first boarding house in Salisbury which, although on a small two-room structure, was evidently able to accommodate 32 boarders at a time. Ironically my grandmother’s sister Nora, who achieved the rare distinction of living in the country longer than any other white, would survive to see both the first and second Chimurenga wars and the rapid dismantling of all of Rhodes’s dreams for the country.

Although Nora would live on to become the grand old lady of Rhodesia, her sister, Josephine, having given birth to four children, including my father, would die, while she was in confinement with her fifth, Joseph, on the 21st of August 1921. She was only 33. From the pictures I have seen of her, she was an attractive lady, with a smile both gentle and a little whimsical.

Sarah Susannah Nesbitt (centre) and her daughters Josephine and Nora.

Her husband, Alan Stidolph, a slightly more austere figure, later got remarried to Marion Hughes and around 1948 they moved to Broadlands Avenue on the Avondale Ridge, in Salisbury, where they built a double-storey house, named Badsel after the family home in Kent.

Alan Stidolph – lying in front, mysteriously clutching the end of the walking stick. I am not sure who the others are. (Pic: Stidolph family collection)

When Alan died he was buried in the nearby Avondale Church where my father’s ashes would, in turn, be interred.

There are numerous other black-and-white photos from these bygone eras stored away in my files under the heading ‘Family Mix’. And what a mix they are. Frozen in time and place with their peculiar hairstyles (the ladies’ abundant hair usually bobbed up on top), strange clothing, their starched and frilled dresses, their old-fashioned jackets, neck-ties and wide-brimmed hats, their pipes, their faithful mutts and gawky children (is that really my father in flannels with a tennis racket?), they provide a link to a now departed world of over-dressed Europeans and half-naked Africans, of conflicting cultures, class systems, languages and tribal differences. Precious keepsakes of the past, the pictures also help give these now long-dead relatives an identity, a sort of existence, a life of their own – although, since they left so little behind in the way of letters or memoirs, their stories must, sadly, remain forever incomplete, their inner lives mostly unknowable.

Spectres in a hazy, monotone landscape, they glitter on the edge of my imagination but I can never quite grasp them.

GALLERY

Some more photos from the Stidolph family collection:

This photo is titled ‘Picnic on the Shashe River’ although the surrounding trees, which look like Miombo woodland, suggest another location. I have no idea who any of the people are but they presumably have some connection with my family.
From the family collection. Again, I have no idea who the man with the pipe is but the photo does give you a good idea of the master/servant relationships of the time
Picnic time. My father, Reginald Neville Stidolph (top left), his mother, Josie (top left second) and father, Alan (top left third). Around 1920.
My father’s siblings: Phyllis, Jack (who later served in the RAF and was killed during WW2) and Harold at the wheel (who would go on to become the Provincial magistrate for Matabeleland). Kutema in the background.

My father’s Uncle Randolph’s medals.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

Many thanks to my eldest brother, Patrick Stdolph, whose research into our family history filled in many of the blanks…

Travels Back: Trekking with the Moodies

I grew up in the dying days of Empire, that now fast receding period in history when the British nation spread out across the globe and ended up laying claim to and governing a substantial portion of it. Their motives for doing so were numerous, their impact (both good and bad) enormous. In terms of size and influence, it was the greatest empire of all time. As the historian, Niall Ferguson put it, in his critically acclaimed book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World: “No other country in the world came close to exporting so many of its inhabitants…The Britannic exodus changed the world.”

For better or worse, I am a product of this mass exodus. My father’s grandfather, Harold Edward Stidolph, a musician, organist, composer and writer of verse, was among the countless many who decided to try their luck in the colonies arriving in Cape Town around 1884, ship unknown. Patriotic and devout (if his verses are anything to go by) and very much a man of his time, he took to South Africa with enthusiasm – among other things, touring the Cape Colony with Ede Remenyi, a popular Hungarian violinist who had worked with Franz Liszt.

Harold Stidolph.

There are Scots and Irish in my ancestry on my father’s mother’s side and their connection to this country goes back even further. In 1817, Benjamin Moodie, the last Laird of Melsetter in the Orkney Islands, facing ruin and a drastic decline in social status, led a party of indentured Scotsmen out to South Africa, on the ship Brilliant, with the intention of establishing a settlement in the Cape where he hoped to recoup his position and fortune. For various reasons – a separate story in itself – Benjamin’s feudal visions were never fully realised but he did end up buying land at Groot Vader’s Bosch near Swellendam which his descendants still farm to this day.

Not my side of the family though. For reasons unclear, Benjamin disinherited his firstborn son, James – from whom I am descended – which meant Groot Vader’s Bosch was left to his second son. It was a decision I had good cause to regret the moment I first laid eyes on the farm with its magnificent old house sheltering on the slopes of the beautiful Langeberg.

What is known is that James equipped with a wagon and a load of either timber or of saleable mixed goods decided, to head inland towards the Orange river to seek his fortune. He fell ill near the northern borders of the Cape Colony, got taken in by a Boer family, and was then nursed back to health by Sara Van Zyl (whose South African family tree dates back to the days of Van Riebeek) who he subsequently married.

She bore him eleven children one of whom, Thomas – or Groot Tom as they called him because of his size and amazing strength – would also uproot his extended family and take them off in search of pastures new.

The trek that he would lead – the Moodie Trek – was an experiment, in that it marked the first organised attempt to establish a European settlement from the south in Gazaland. The inspiration for it had come from George Benjamin Dunbar Moodie, a young adventurer from Natal who, having explored the area and realised its potential, put the idea to his uncle Thomas, then a wheat and maize farmer in the Bethlehem district of South Africa. Taken in by Dunbar’s glowing descriptions (”the prettiest country I have ever seen”) Thomas agreed to lead the trek. Hoping, like his grandfather before him, to create a new Melsetter in the wilds, he led a small delegation of interested farmers, in January 1892, to see Cecil John Rhodes.

It must have been a relatively easy sell. Rhodes’s interest in the area was well known and had, over the years, grown even greater (to say nothing of his grand plan to attach the whole of the continent to Britain). Realising the importance of establishing a European settlement in Manicaland to act as a buffer against the Portuguese who were actively seeking to resuscitate their ancient claims to “Monomatapa”, as well as outflank the Boers of the ZAR by claiming the territory north of the Limpopo, he readily agreed to the proposal once suitable terms had been arranged.

Having obtained the necessary backing Groot Tom returned home. There was much to be done before they could set off. Most important, he needed people. To this end, Groot Tom set about recruiting a group of mostly Afrikaans-speaking farmers to join him. In the end, the party that set off on this long, arduous journey was made up of 29 families consisting of 37 men and 31 women, with 17 wagons and 350 horses and cattle. Where they paved the way, others would follow.

Dunbar Moodie did not join the trek party but instead sailed up to the port of Beira, in Mozambique, and then travelled via Umtali to Salisbury before linking up with the trek in Fort Victoria.

On the 8th May 1892, cheered on by a crowd, the trek rumbled out of Bethlehem “with a great lowing of cattle, whipping and whooping”. They were joined by an ox wagon in which rode John Warren Nesbitt (the Nesbitts were of Irish extraction), his wife, Sara, and their very young daughter, Josephine – my grandmother – who had been born on the farm of White Hills near the old gold-rush town of Barberton (in present-day Mpumalanga).

The seeds of my future life in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe had been laid.

Route taken by the Moodie Trek.

The wagon train struck out into the interior, heading across the open high plateau until they reached Zeerust. From there, they followed the route taken by the old hunters, missionaries, transport riders and, more recently, the Pioneer Column. For much of its length, it skirted the north-western border of South Africa, leading them across the dusty, flat plains until eventually, they sighted the waters of the Limpopo, glimmering in the distance. It is likely they crossed the river at a point, now known as Rhodes Drift, just west of its confluence with the Shashe River. From here they headed up into the Tati Concession area (now Botswana).

The Limpopo. The trek most likely crossed several kilometres upstream.

This is a harsh, arid country. In summer the sun hammers down relentlessly, and water is often hard to come by. Coming in fast, huge thunderstorms sweep across it, the lightning illuminating the landscape below in jagged flashes. There were other perils to be faced. Awareness of animals must have bought an awareness of details. One can imagine their senses growing attuned to lions, hyaenas and elephants, all of whom were common in these parts.

As often happened in these emigration stories, all did not go quite according to the script either. Groot Tom had hoped to complete the trek in four months but such were the hazards and hardships they encountered along the way it took them that amount of time just to reach Limpopo and then another four months to get to their final destination.

At Macloutsie, just over the border, there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease amongst their cattle, many of whom grew so weak they were eaten alive by the hyena that prowled around their camp. This delayed them for another month. There were also attacks by lions and shortages of water. Snakes proved an ongoing problem with several of their dogs being killed by the fearsome, deadly, Black Mamba. Undeterred the party struggled on. Ahead of them lay more hills, more flatness.

They reached Fort Tuli on 12th September, Occupation Day where they were able to replenish their diminished supplies. They also organised a dance (“the jolliest I have ever attended” according to one of the trek members). One of their concerns for the next leg of the trek was the possible hostility of the Ndebele raiding parties who were active in the area. Apart from one or two small incidents, they got through unscathed.

They were to face more drama, however. Upon reaching the small settlement of Fort Victoria (modern-day Masvingo) a major falling-out occurred amongst the trek members when it was discovered in which direction their true destination lay. It would appear that a large number of the party had not been paying close attention when the objectives of the trek had originally been spelt out. Now they could not understand why, instead of following the wagon wheel marks up to Salisbury and the more healthy highveld, they were branching off into what looked like wild, untamed, malaria-ridden country. Or maybe they were just exhausted after months of trekking under the hot African sun and this caused some confusion in the mind…

Looming large amongst the group of dissidents was John Warren Nesbitt who, having been appointed correspondent of the trek, proceeded to pen an angry letter to the Tuli Chronicle, a newspaper, I must confess, I did not even know existed (considering that Tuli is in one of the most remote and isolated parts of modern-day Zimbabwe one wonders what its circulation figures were).

Unable to reach an agreement the party split up into two groups with one half continuing on to Salisbury while the other trekked on to their original goal, Gazaland and the Chimanimani Mountains.

Having written an equally indignant letter refuting John Nesbitt’s allegations, Dunbar Moodie decided to take advantage of the impasse by getting married to his cousin, Sarah Moodie. For their honeymoon, they chose the nearby, mysterious Zimbabwe Ruins, which were to become the subject of much contentious debate. They were, in all likelihood, the first European couple to choose this site to celebrate their nuptials…

Zimbabwe Ruins.

The Gazaland-bound group set off on the last leg of their journey. It proved every bit as challenging an ordeal as what they had already been through. Before them stretched yet more miles of wilderness, the initial terrain was rough and broken, then flat but extremely hot. The party was afflicted with malaria, and their animals succumbed to horse sickness and other ailments. Reaching the Sabie River, with the Eastern Highlands now in plain sight, Groot Tom decided to stop and celebrate. The party gathered together under a large baobab and a demijohn of brandy was produced. The ragged survivors beneath it must have seemed like some ghostly apparition. As one account, now in the National Archives in Harare, put it “Our stricken folk and wagons presented a pitiful sight. The enthusiasm of the men under the circumstances brought tears to the eyes of the owner of the demijohn of brandy (Mrs Dunbar Moodie). The demijohn was brought to the light of day and added considerably to the zest of celebrations.” Dunbar put it more pithily. In his diary, he simply recorded: “Got squiffy – all of us.”

They crossed the river at what would subsequently become known as Moodie’s Drift, just south of the present-day Birchenough Bridge, then headed up the final steep stretch. Eight months after they had set off, the loyal remnants of Tom Moodie’s original group finally reached the rolling green hills and mountains of what would become the new “Melsetter”, still full of high hopes and ideas about how they were going to create an ideal rural society on the land. For the Moses-like figure who had guided them, there was to be no happy ending of rippling crops and pasture lands full of fat sheep and contented cattle. Within a year of pegging his farm, Waterfall, Groot Tom had succumbed to malaria and blackwater fever and was dead. You can see his grave still there to this day, by the side of the main tar road. Above his name is inscribed the dedication “For Queen and Empire”.

The inscription is hardly surprising. The Moodies lived in an era when many of those who had gone out to the colonies were conservative by nature and loyal to the crown. They saw themselves as emissaries of established imperial power, the bearers of a universal, unquestioned, order, part of a civilising force whose duty was to uplift the rest of mankind. The fact that the people they subjugated in the process did not always see it in quite such heroically romantic terms did not occur to them or else was conveniently overlooked.

A memorial to the trek was later put up in the centre of Melsetter. Because of its unwanted associations with colonialism, it was dismantled after Robert Mugabe came to power. The village was renamed Chimanimani, after the nearby range of mountains.

Chimanimani Mountains

After Tom’s death, his wife Cecilia Moodie, returned to her relatives in South Africa where she died in 1905, She was buried on the farm of Rietvlei, today known as the Rietvlei Nature Reserve, south of Pretoria.

For many of the other emigrants, it would prove an equally, fragile, brief interlude. More died, others moved and moved on again leaving behind them an ominous hole. Soon there would be very few of the original trek members, or their descendants left.

For their part, the breakaway group had, in the interim, continued trundling their way towards Salisbury which, at that stage, consisted of little more than a village of tents, pole and dagga huts and a few brick homes sprawled around The Kopje. Bit by bit the town would spread out from this hill slowly engulfing the surrounding veld, vleis and acres of long, pale grass until eventually, it became the modern city of today with its concrete skyscrapers and buildings, just like metropolises all over the world.

The arrival of the dazed and travel-stained home-seekers amongst the bare scatter of buildings caused something of a stir. As was so often the case in frontier towns, the majority of the early white settler population was young and male, so this unexpected infusion of more women was a cause for great celebration (according to Sarah Susannah Nesbitt, who later wrote an account of her experiences, there were only eight women and a few children in the town when they arrived, not counting the Roman Catholic nuns and sisters).

Sarah’s daughter, Josephine Nesbitt, would go on to marry Alan Stidolph, the son of Harold, mentioned above. They had five children together, one of whom was my father, Reginald Neville Stidolph. Another piece in the family jigsaw had slotted into place.

During my youth, none of this meant much to me. It is only that I have reached an age when I am only too aware I am living on borrowed time and have started doing some serious stocktaking of my life it has assumed a much greater significance. Each generation passes something on to the other. If you want to understand the present, the best place to start is usually looking back.

I met none of the folk here described, not even my grandmother who died at a relatively young age, but – like my father before me (another adventurous spirit) – I think I have inherited a few of their traits. I possess something of their wanderlust, curiosity and desire to seek out new frontiers. I, too, like to test myself against nature by periodically returning to a harsher – and more simple – mode of existence than the more safe and sedentary one I live on a daily basis. I have never, admittedly, subjected myself to such an exhausting physical ordeal as they did on their long trek (in my case a hike in the Berg or along the Wild Coast usually suffices). For this reason, if no other, I find their achievements awe-inspiring.

I am aware, however, that not everyone views my ancestors’ achievements – their ‘opening up of the continent’ – in such a heroic light. I am equally aware that the legacy they left behind brings its own political, spiritual and psychological baggage. Through no particular fault of mine, I was born on the wrong side of history, under a now-defunct set of ideas and beliefs; a political system which denied basic political rights to others and led to an ever-widening turmoil in the sub-continent. A certain amount of guilt attaches itself to this, an awareness that British rule was not quite as enlightened as it often tried to present itself to be. It is not something that can be easily wished away; the best thing one can do is acknowledge, understand and learn from it.

History, as we know, abounds with ironies and this story has its little postscript too. The collapse of the former Rhodesia triggered a massive reverse trek as many whites, fearful of their future under Robert Mugabe’s hard-line, Marxist-style, regime, packed their bags and became part of a new diaspora. Many of their concerns appeared justified, too, when his government launched its chaotic and violent land grab which sent the economy into freefall.

I was part of this general exodus, swept along, by the turning tide from the country of my birth. In a sense, I had returned to the starting point, and the journey had gone full circle…

REFERENCES:

Many Treks Made Rhodesia by C.P. Olivier (Published by Howard B. Timmins)

The Scots in South Africa: Ethnicity, Identity, Gender and Race, 1772-1914 by John M. Mackenzie with Nigel R. Dalziel (published by Wits University Press)

Overberg Outspan by Edmund H. Burrows (published by Swellendam Trust)

Experiences of Rhodesia’s Pioneer Women by Jeannie M. Boggie (published by Philpot& Collins)

Many thanks to my eldest brother Patrick Stidolph whose research into our family tree I have also drawn on here.