ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
Two Journeys by Wagon.
In 1868 Mr. Russell's lease of the mills expired and he could not get a renewal, so the family trekked to Maritzburg while he travelled about to look for a good business site. He decided to go to Bloemfontein for this purpose. Elizabeth wished to accompany him, as she did not want to let the chance of such a trip pass, so it was arranged that Annie should take her place at the school.
When the travellers reached the Tugela, the river was up and there were between three and four hundred wagons waiting to cross. These belonged to the Boers from the Free State and the Transvaal who went once or twice a year to Natal to get supplies. These wagons, with their ox-hides filled with salted butter slung hammock-wise under them, made a sight never to be forgotten. The butter thus carried was exchanged for goods to the shopkeepers who packed it in barrels and shipped it to Mauritius.
The Boers, in their blue moleskin trousers, short jackets and velskoene, made picturesque groups as they sat chatting and smoking around their camp-fires, while they patiently waited for the river to go down. The women-folk, in print dresses with short bodices and full skirts, with black aprons embroidered with gaily coloured woollen flowers, and with coloured mittens, completed the scene. They bustled about serving coffee with beskuit, and handed round dried fruit and biltong of which they carried huge supplies to sell to the shops.
After a delay of eight days the Russells with their wagon and oxen were able to cross the river on the punt, a huge, flat raft worked by cables and pulleys. They had gone only a couple of hundred yards after crossing when the wagon stuck fast in the mud and the disselboom broke. Mr. Russell had to walk to Ladysmith to have a new shaft sent out.
Along the road they met Meredith Fannin and Newman Robinson. The latter was the brother of John Robinson, who was then Editor of "The Natal Mercury," and who was knighted some time later and became the first premier of Natal when that country received responsible government in 1893. These two men with their wagon had tried to cross the swollen river at the drift, but the water was so deep and strong that they had had to cut the neck-strops of the oxen and pull the wagon back to safety. While doing this they had lost some of their goods which were swept off the vehicle and washed down stream.
In those days all wagons meeting along the way travelled together, as the people naturally enjoyed having company on their long slow treks, and also they helped one another when the need arose. Elizabeth considers that there was much more kindness, real unselfishness and friendliness then than there is now-a-days. By the time the Russells reached the top of the Berg, after having gone through van Reenen's Pass, their wagon was one of a company of about forty. This made the journey most enjoyable and at the outspans the travellers were all like one big, jolly family.
On the Berg Elizabeth saw the tombstone erected to the memory of the two brothers, Pretorius, who had been murdered by some Basutoes. Strange to say, in later years she met the wife of one of these men. This woman related how, after her husband had been murdered, she had fled with her two children towards Harrismith and how some people named Butler who lived near that village had taken them in and had been kindness itself to her and the children in their hour of need and tragic bereavement.
Beyond Harrismith the travellers met with a wonderful sight. Almost as far as the eye could see was one huge, living, moving mass of game - wildebees, blesbuck, springbuck and quaggas. It was an indescribable, unforgettable sight.
Many of the native drivers of the wagons made merry music with accordions as they trekked. One of their favourite tunes was the Oslo Waltz, and whenever Elizabeth heard this melody afterwards it would bring back the journey vividly to her mind.
On reaching Bloemfontein she was greatly struck with the prettiness of the town and the stucco work on many of the buildings. She and her father had a letter of introduction to Mr. Collins, one of the three men whom the Volksraad had appointed to act temporarily as head of the government during President Brand's illness. On reading the letter he invited them to stay at his home, and they enjoyed their visit thoroughly as they were treated with true hospitality not only by their host and hostess but also by all the people they met during their sojourn in the capital.
While here Elizabeth saw a swarm of locusts for the first time in her life. During the invasion of the town by these destructive insects she witnessed a rather gruesome practice common among the natives. A number of them, having filled a grain bag with the little creatures, poured boiling water over them to kill them, after which they spread them out to dry, and later on ate them as though they were some toothsome delicacy.
She was offered a situation as governess but she did not accept it as Bloemfontein was too far away from her home. Her father was not successful in finding a business site to suit him so they returned Maritzburg.
Shortly afterwards he decided to go to Heidelberg in the Transvaal and this time Annie accompanied him on the trip. He was favourably impressed by the trading possibilities there so he opened a shop in which he carried on a wholesale and retail business with great success. As he was unable to speak Afrikaans, he installed a Mr. Lading, who was bilingual, as manager.
Ellen Russell had been ailing for some time so it was arranged that she and Elizabeth should go up-country to their father in the hopes that the complete change would restore her to health. Two wagons were taking goods to Mr. Russell so the girls travelled in the tented one. Under the katel, which was fixed in the customary way in this vehicle and which served the girls as a bed, boxes containing a large quantity of gun-powder were packed.
When they outspanned Elizabeth instructed the native driver to make the fire for their cooking some distance away. This was unusual, so a man from one of the other vehicles which had joined them along the way strolled up and enquired what the idea was. She explained that she was taking this precaution because a quantity of gun powder formed part of their load. She shakes with amused laughter as she tells how, following this conversation, the other wagons were seen hurrying away with all possible haste. Within half an hour they had all been inspanned and had disappeared over the first rise.
When the sisters were about twelve miles from Heidelberg, the wagon stuck fast in a patch of mud near the house of some Piekies. The driver went to the homestead to borrow an extra span of oxen. He returned with a message to the girls inviting them to the home of the dwarfs. They proceeded thither and were shown into a room with many geranium plants on the window-sills. Biltong was suspended from the rafters of the roof.
The Piekie who received them was about four feet in height. He had a very short body, disproportionately long legs, a flowing brown beard and big, flashing, dark eyes. They had scarcely seated themselves when the second dwarf put in an appearance. He came swinging in on crutches. His build was just the opposite to that of his brother in that his body was extremely long and his legs very short. By the time he had seated himself Elizabeth felt as though she had arrived in the Land of Goblins. As this thought passed through her mind the two sisters of the Piekies entered the room. In build the one resembled her brother with the short body and long legs, while the other, who also used crutches, was formed like the second man. The two brothers had married normal women and there were a couple of small children, each clad in a single chemise-like garment, playing about the house.
The man with the crutches started to play his violin for the entertainment of the girls and the one with the beard asked them to dance with him. They were terrified almost out of their wits and stammeringly refused this request.
When they expressed a wish to return to their wagon, the mother of this strange family of dwarfs, who had come into the room in the meantime, opened the door of a darkened room and from under the bed on which her husband, an invalid for the last ten years, was lying pulled forth a box from which she took a loaf of beautifully fresh bread, and this she gave to the departing guests.
The Piekies were really hospitable and obliging. They lent the girls a span of oxen to pull the wagon out, gave them some luscious fruit from their orchard, and in the evening sent them a jug of lovely, fresh milk. Elizabeth, however, could not partake of all these good things as the sight of the misshapen little people, kind though they had been, had had such an effect on her that she shuddered at the idea of eating anything that had come from them. They turned out to be some of Mr. Russell's best customers, and he was greatly amused at her not wanting to eat anything that had come from them. He got much of the butter he bought for his shop from them, and excellent butter it was too.
Further on the sisters touched in at a small house at the road side. The woman who received them wore a skirt of gebreide skin, and she was totally blind. While they sat chatting to her, they were surprised to see how her sense of touch had been developed. She threaded a needle and sewed by just feeling her way with her sensitive fingers.
By the time they reached Heidelberg there was a marked improvement in Ellen's health. She remained with her father while Elizabeth, after spending a week there, returned, accompanied by Annie.
What a time they had when they reached the Vaal River Flats. It was the rainy season and the wagons kept sticking in the mud. They had to be unloaded, raised with a jack and pulled out with an extra span of oxen. The travellers would then proceed for about a hundred yards or so from the spot, reload and start off again. They would go only a short distance when the vehicles would sink down into the mud again and the same performance would have to be repeated. It was so bad in parts that sometimes they made only three miles progress in a whole day.
When they had almost come to the end of this tedious part of the journey, a man from one of the other wagons that had joined them shot a wildebees which he offered to Elizabeth in exchange for some ground coffee. She had only one cupful left but he was so anxious to have some that he was willing to make the exchange. Her native driver skinned the animal, and, after cutting a portion of the flesh into strips for biltong, she shared the rest with the other travellers Everybody thoroughly enjoyed the fresh meat.
In parts of the Free State where they outspanned there was no wood to be had for their camp-fires. To overcome this difficulty they would make a hole in the bottom of one of the ant-heaps, which were dotted all over the veld, and another at the top. Into the lower one they would stuff old, dry grass and bushes and set these alight, while the other acted as a chimney. Soon the ant-heap would start burning slowly, and some hours later they would have a mass of glowing coals. On these they boiled their kettles, grilled their meat and baked their as-koek.
Near Harrismith the wagon in which the girls were travelling capsized. The tent was smashed to pieces but they were not hurt at all. Two men named Marais, passing that way with cart and horses, kindly offered to drive them to the neighbouring village. The native boys, however, managed to fix up the tent roughly so the sisters decided to continue their journey by wagon.
When they reached the dorp, Elizabeth sold her wildebees skin for 4/6. What with this, the fresh meat and the biltong, she reckoned she got good value for her cup of ground coffee.
Game was exceedingly plentiful in those days roundabout Harrismith. One of the storekeepers, a Mr. Evans, a told her that he had bought two hundred thousand wildebees skins that year.
The girls arrived at home with two little bos-apies for pets. They fastened them to a tree in the garden, but the poor little animals hanged themselves by jumping from branch to branch and so entangling the cords by which they were fastened. Elizabeth sighs as she regrets this thoughtless cruelty.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web by Joan Marsh(2002) a great-grand-daughter of ERCameron