South African Military History Society

1881 - 1981
by M.C. (Midge) Carter

The lights from the Holiday Inn filtered into the bus illuminating their faces with many mixed expressions - placid, apprehensive, excited. Quiet words were spoken - a little banter, the chatter of a few children - last minute instructions, humorous and otherwise, from friends through the windows. The motor started and we were on our way, a little behind schedule. The bus driver took off like a headless fowl heading northward to the foothills of Majuba. Knowing what was to come some dozed or tried to. This would be the last chance to relax for many hard slogging hours that lay ahead.

All too soon the bus was bouncing down a veld track, its lights sweeping the anthill studded grass right up to the trees which surround the British Mount Prospect cemetery.

Once off the bus Col. Duxbury briefed us. He gave us a last opportunity to return on the bus because from here on there would be no going back. We would have to climb right over Majuba and down the other side before we would see our transport again. We waited briefly but no one budged. Each person was committed, men, women and a few youngsters, varying in age from 9 to well over 60, 41 in all.

We numbered off twice so that everyone would remember his number, for in the dark only our voices would indicate whether we were still in position in the column. The bus turned and started back. We picked up our packs and with Dr. Briscoe and Col. Duxbury in the van set off on our historic climb. Majuba summit was 9 km away.

The damp grass muffled our footsteps. Occasional flashes of lightning showed for a fleeting second the outline of Majuba and the long steep climb ahead. The pathway glowed from the phosphorescence of numerous glow-worms marking our passage through the night. The faint reflection from the low cloud made visibility possible. Soon a gate. The word passed down - "Close the gate!", "Confirm gate closed!" We stopped and started again. "Confirmation gate closed". On we went again. Next a barbed-wire fence, then another - soon a main road and traffic even at that hour, 11.00 p.m. - from here we started ever upward. We were heading straight up Inkwelo by the same circuitous route General Colley had taken 100 years ago to the hour. We stopped for a brief rest, The distant lights of Newcastle aided by cloud cover gave the night an eerie light, a benefit lost to Colley. On again and upward. Pack straps were straining on shoulders. Few words now. The night strangely quiet except for the distant sound of traffic and the upward tramp of many feet. Two men with packs of 58 lbs simulating the British soldier's load were doing well. At one brief rest a welcome bottle of Old Brown sherry appeared from Ken Gillings' pack. The march was definitely getting better!! At this point a soft rain fell briefly; but despite the thunder and lightning, thankfully, the storm kept away. After an age of ascent, we reached the remains of a redoubt set up that night 100 years ago by a detachment dropped off by Colley to protect his rear. From here we swung north. The going was level, easy and fast.. A whistler picked up the strains of 'Colonel Bogey', soon others joined in. Some breathless Souza and numerous others barely recognisable finally gave way to heavy breathing as we now tangled with the slow and very difficult struggle through the forest., We left the pathway and started the ascent of Majuba proper. The darkness was absolute, the pathway, littered with fallen branches, stumps, and all, constantly bore upward. Our rests became more frequent. Occasionally we would reach a clearing and progress would speed up. After one such rest somebody realised he had dropped his spectacles. The column halted, torches appeared and a systematic search commenced. Under the circumstances an almost impossible task, long grass, inexact location and darkness, but in less than 5 minutes they were found, a cheer went up and we were off again.

Soon the summit of 'Sailors' Knoll' loomed in the darkness the grassy slopes growing ever rockier; gullies, brambles and sheer exhaustion started breaking the column up. Often two steps up resulted in one slipped backward. The hours slid by. The rifle I carried by now weighed a ton. No longer gently carried, it became a dependable walking stick. The last few hundred yards disappeared upward. Our party scattered up the mountain. Then the mist closed in. It was damp and cold; but there was not much wind. At this juncture the need for a hot cup of coffee became paramount. It was past 4.00 a.m. so with my young son helping I got my faithful petrol stove underway boiling up a cheering brew. We gathered a couple of other stalwarts around us out of the mistr and in no time we had a billy of hot reviving coffee to cheer us on. Those last few hundred yards were no problem now and we reached the summit as the mist lifted away to reveal the first light of a new day.

Exhausted bodies lay scattered about. Some had been on top for nearly an hour huddling anywhere for shelter, but time to rest was not now and we had to get started for the northern base area.

Down in the shelter of the bowl, where the cemetery now stands, we grouped briefly while Col. Duxbury recounted the events 100 years earlier. While a bottle of wine was passed round we took a roll call. Six people were missing. A quick search accounted for some. A second roll revealed still two unaccounted for. Ken Gillings recalled seeing two bodies earlier below the southern lip of Majuba, so with tireless energy he bounded off. Sure enough he found them fast asleep. Pictures were taken and then the rapid descent commenced.

But the drama had not finished yet. As I was bringing up the tail a young soldier looking decidedly seedy asked me for help. Slowly we made our way down and he was handed over to Dr. Felix Machanik at the bus. Somehow in the rush the previous day he had neglected to eat and this had caught up with him. Thankfully a rest and a hearty breakfast had him A.1. in no time.

The bus ride back was unusually quiet as 41 tired but contented bodies slumbered all the way back to Newcastle. With great satisfaction they rested in the knowledge that their feat will not be repeated in their lifetime.

The names of the climbers are:
Richard Briscoe George Duxbury Andrew Walker Malcolm Meyerowitz
Peter Leggat Bruce Dalgleish Bert Simkins Sheila Terry
Glen Terry Jack Bester Barbara Pretorius Phil Pretorius
Steve Watt Barrie Thomson Richard Tomlinson Ari Amoils
Hymie Amoils Mike Marsh Rob Jordan Ian Uys
Paul Barker Bill Garr Ivor Little Fiona Barbour
Peter Carter Leonard Dann Ann Carter Stephen Carter
Midge Carter Ken Gillings Richard Dey James Findlay
Achilles Kallos Andy Malan Hercules J.v.Vuuren Allan Kretzman
Val Stephenson Barry Stephenson Barbara Neall V.Hickman
Martin Donaldson.      

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