ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
A few years later Mr. Cameron put a man in charge of the mill and set off to seek his fortune at the Gold Diggings which had been proclaimed at Duiwelskantoor in the Barberton district. Mrs. Cameron with the four children, for Bessie and Lionel had been born at Potchefstroom, went to her parents in Pretoria.
After some months had elapsed, Mr. Ziervogel, the Commissioner for the Gold Fields, sent her a telegram summoning her to the diggings as her husband was dangerously ill. On receiving the bad news, she made hurried preparations for the long journey and taking her baby, Lionel, with her, set out as soon as possible by coach. In this way she travelled as far as Middelburg where she heard that two wagons had left for Duiwelskantoor the previous day. With the object of overtaking these she managed to hire a cart and horses and started off in pursuit at dawn next morning. She retains a very vivid picture in her mind of the native driver of the cart as he closely resembled an ourang-outan in appearance. Great was her relief when they overtook the wagons at eight o'clock in the evening, as in her anxiety to catch up with them the journey from Middelburg had seemed tedious beyond description. The wagons, owned by Dreyer and Groenewald who were accompanied by an English youth named Frank, did not follow the usual route but proceeded along a little-used farm road consisting of mere rough tracks which further on pursued a winding course through the picturesque Godwan Valley. The men gave up the vehicle that had the katel in it to Mrs. Cameron and her babe.
That evening they met two small wagons owned by some Boers who were returning from Duiwelskantoor. She asked them whence they came and they replied: "Uit die hel en more gaan julle die hel in." ("Out of hell and to-morrow you will enter hell.")
Next morning she appreciated this description for she and her companions reached a place that seemed utterly impassable. It was so dreadful that it beggars description. Carrying her baby, she set off on foot, accompanied by Frank. After their departure,the front wagon, the one in which she had been travelling, was completely unloaded and all the oxen but the two hindmost, which had to guide the vehicle, were outspanned. The brake was put on and the back wheels were tied with chains to the buck. Riems were fastened to the one side of the buck and all the men-folk, including the native drivers and touleiers, hung on to these to prevent the vehicle from capsizing, if possible, ad it passed over the dreadful place which slanted steeply to one side. The two oxen were started off and the men strained at the riems with might and main, a sudden rush, and the wagon seemed to balance itself on two wheels, a breathless second of anxiety, then the vehicle righted itself and was safely out of the danger zone.
Roundabout lay many evidences of accidents. Here a broken wheel, there a piece of rotting tent-sail bore witness to the numerous conveyances that had come to grief there.
When the first wagon reached the place where Mrs. Cameron and Frank were waiting, the former put the baby on the katel, and with the aid of the youth set about making a fire so as to have hot, refreshing coffee ready for the men when they should return with the second vehicle. On looking up after having stooped to see if the water was boiling, she felt as though her blood was freezing for she saw a native in full war-paint, with assegaais, knopkierie and skin shield complete, coming through the trees towards her. Back to her mind in a flash rushed the reports they had heard of the Swazis being on the war-path against the followers of Sekukuni. In her mind's eye she saw Dreyer and Groenewald carefully cleaning their guns the previous evening so as to be prepared in case of their meeting a Swazi impi (a band of natives on the war-path). Surely she was face to face with one of these savage hordes. Terrified, she shouted to Frank but got no response and could see him nowhere. Hastily she threw a covering over the baby, advanced to the front of the wagon, and with her heart beating great, hammering, suffocating thumps waited the approach of the kaffir. No impi followed him so with an air of bravado she shouted out, "Sakubona!" ("Good day"). The native responded in a friendly tone and she breathed more freely. He came up to the wagon and asked her if she had seen some oxen which had strayed. He gave her a minute description of them in his own tongue and stated that he had been searching for them for several days. By the time he had finished speaking her heart began to beat in normal fashion. On being informed that she had not seen the lost animals, he strolled leisurely away.
When he had departed she set about looking for Frank and after a short search found him hiding in a hollow among some tamboekie grass which was quite ten feet high. By this time the water was boiling merrily and the second wagon had arrived in safety. When the travellers had partaken of the fragrant coffee they rested awhile, after which the wagons were reloaded and the journey resumed.
The mountains with the Godwan River winding among them made a wonderful picture. The stream flowed with so many curves that the travellers had to cross it six times in all.
At one such crossing a crowd returning from the diggings was on one side of the river while Mrs. Cameron and her companions were on the other side. Both parties spent the whole day rolling rocks away to make the road through the stream passable. When the crossing was considered safe, Mrs. Cameron in the tented wagon passed over first and all went well. Then the second vehicle entered the water but stuck fast in mid-stream, and the men had to wade in and carry off the greater part of the load. An extra span of oxen was hitched on, and, amidst shouts of encouragement and the loud clapping of the long whip, the willing animals, straining every muscle in a mighty effort, jerked the wagon forward, but alas, one of the big hind oxen was killed in the struggle.
Mrs. Cameron, greatly interested in the Gold Fields, asked the returning diggers innumerable questions but the replies were all most discouraging.
A little further on she was met by a Mr. Zeederberg with cart and horses. The Commissioner, knowing the circumstances, had kindly sent this quicker means of transport to make the last part of the journey less tedious for her. The cart went up hill and down dale. The road was dreadful, in fact in many places it seemed utterly impossible for them to get through in safety, but the journey was completed without mishap. The scenery was grand.
They reached a place called Rebels' Camp, and, as there was no trace of a road from this spot, it was impossible to continue by cart so they proceeded on foot, a couple of natives carrying the baggage. A short distance ahead there was a natural gateway through a huge rock which had trees on either side of it. Just beyond this the picturesque mountain crags looked like a wonderful, old castle, the gateway forming an artistic, rocky entrance to its grounds.
The travellers passed through this portal and arrived at a hut, the inmates of which not only gave them welcome refreshment but also provided them with a native boy to carry Lionel. Mrs. Cameron was very grateful as her arms were aching with the weight of the babe after the arduous walk.
From here it was only a short distance to her destination where she was warmly welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Ziervogel with whom she stayed during her sojourn at the diggings. Their home was a big, unlined tent. They were extremely hospitable and after she had had some supper, her host accompanied her to her husband's bed-side. She stayed with Mr. Cameron, who had already passed the crisis and was on the mend, a short while and then Mr. Ziervogel insisted on her going to bed as she was tired out after the long and difficult journey.
When she had extinguished the candle she found her room very light as the bright moonlight streamed through the unlined tent. Baby Lionel was soon in the land of dreams and she stretched out her weary limbs in anticipation of a luxurious sleep. However, she was just dozing when she was called back to consciousness by the raucous singing of, "We'll hang Johnny Brown on a sour apple-tree," by a boisterous crowd of men. They stopped in front of the tent and yelled to the Commissioner to come out immediately. He complied with the request, departed with them, and peace reigned again. After half an hour had elapsed he returned and retired to bed.
Mrs. Cameron settled down again to sleep, but just as her thoughts began to get hazy and she was about to enter slumberland, she was once more rudely awakened by the same performance of singing and calling to the Commissioner. Those men, who had evidently had too much to drink, continued this little game at irregular intervals throughout the night, and Mr. Ziervogel, who had a safe containing the money received for licences, his business documents and books in his room, had each time to accede to their request, as he knew,if he refused to go out, they would either rush the tent or set fire to it. He managed to quieten them down towards morning and they did not return.
Once again she settled down to enjoy a much-needed rest. She was soon lost in deep, dreamless sleep, but at dawn was awakened by the braying of a hundred or more donkeys. This must actually be heard to be appreciated.
While she waited at Duiwelskantoor for her husband to get strong enough for the journey to Pretoria, a number of men, who had gone down into the Lowveld to prospect, returned, and most of them were seriously ill with malarial fever. At the diggings there were two doctors, one of whom was a French creole from Mauritius. This Dr. Gregory was a great, big fellow who always wore a heavy gold watch chain across his ample expanse of waist. He attended about forty of the malarial patients and all with the exception of two recovered. The only medicine he administered was a small powder but it acted like magic. The patients attended by the other doctor all died. He evidently did not understand the disease. Owing to its high altitude Duiwelskantoor itself was very healthy.
One morning a man named Bray, accompanied by a native boy, arrived at the Gold Fields. He was so down on his luck that he did not even have food to eat. His sole possessions were two donkeys. The diggers subscribed and gave him a bag of mealie-meal. That afternoon his donkeys strayed and he sent his boy to search for them. After a few days the native returned with the animals and also brought back with him a piece of rock with gold showing in it. Next morning he guided his Baas to the place where the sample had been found and that was the beginning of the Sheba Mine.
Bray had been unlucky in business at Marico and had gone bankrupt. After the discovery of the Sheba, however, he soon made his pile and paid off his creditors in full. A company was formed which took over the mine from him, and Mrs. Cameron heard that at one time the shares rose from £1 to £300. To-day the Sheba has been closed down as it does not pay.
During her sojourn at Duiwelskantoor, Mrs. Cameron, always a lover of the Great Outside, went for many walks amid the magnificent scenery. One day during her rambles she reached the edge of a steep precipice and lay down on the brink to gaze her fill at the wild beauty of nature. The scene that met her sight was awe-inspiring. The gigantic, picturesque, weather-beaten crags, the luxuriant vegetation below them, and far, far down in the distance the peaceful, sun-warmed valley brought to her one of those wonderful moments when a human being feels the near presence of God. All this exquisite beauty stirred her to a reverential awe of the Almighty, while she felt herself to be an insignificant atom.
She was greatly interested when Irwin and Culverwell, two men at the diggings, decided to go on a prospecting trip to the De Kaap Valley. Before setting out they obtained some powder from Dr. Gregory as a preventive for malaria. Near Queen's River they found gold. They pegged out a claim and proceeded to mark out the head-race and the tail-race. Imagine their surprise at finding evidences of an old head-race and tail-race in the exact spots they had marked off for this purpose. When they started digging they came across some nuggets partly covered with mercury. This, of course, proved conclusively that the claim must have been worked at some previous time. Nobody knew for certain who the first workers had been, but it was thought that possibly they were some of the Portuguese who had settled on the East coast of Africa.
Towards the end of her stay Mrs. Cameron witnessed a terrific storm. All the elements seemed to be at war. The reverberations of the thunder in the mountains made one continuous sound of low rumbling punctuated by deafening crashes at each vivid flash of lightning. Many places in the neighbourhood were struck. Such storms were frequent in the rainy season in those parts.
As soon as her husband was fit to travel, they returned to Pretoria to the Russells' home, where they stayed until he had fully regained his strength. He then went back to Duiwelskantoor to settle up his affairs there, while she and the children proceeded to Potchefstroom.
Along the way she outspanned near a store, the owner of which came down to the wagon. He walked to the disselboom and started jumping backwards and forwards over it like a lunatic. He uttered no single word, he just kept on jumping to and fro. He appeared to be mad from heavy drinking. The kaffir driver approached him and told him to go away, but, instead of departing, with one straight, swift blow to the boy's face he drew blood. Mrs. Cameron deemed it safer to go on so they inspanned immediately and put some distance between them and the drink-maddened store-keeper before they out-spanned again.
The wagon in which they travelled belonged to Mr. Bodenstein who was then Voorsitter of the Volksraad. It had been on a business trip to Pretoria, and, as it had to return to the owner's farm near Potchefstroom, Mrs. Cameron with her children had been offered a free trip on it. When they reached the farm they spent the night there and the next day proceeded to the village by cart.
When she went into matters at the mill, she found that the manager had not been treating them fairly, so she gave him notice and undertook to run the mill herself until her husband should return.
A few days later, a farmer from the district brought two wagon-loads of wheat to be ground. He asked to see the manager, and when informed that she was acting in that capacity during her husband's absence, he refused to have his grain ground there as in his opinion a woman was not capable of running a mill properly. She was intensely annoyed. He went off to the other mills but they were too busy to fulfil his order soon, and and as he was in urgent need of the meal, he was forced to return to Cameron's. When the wheat had been ground he was so pleased with the way it had been done that he became a regular customer, in spite of the fact that the manager was a woman. She tells this with justifiable pride.
After a month or so her husband returned from Duiwelskantoor. He was the first to grind wheat into flour at Potchefstroom. When his customers had flour ground the seconds seemed such a waste that she suggested that they should try making brown bread of it but they did not take to the idea at all. She was determined to create a market for the seconds, so one Friday she baked a big batch of bread from this wastage and it turned out a great success. She put a number of these loaves on the early morning market on Saturday and they sold readily as the people were curious to sample them. The buyers found this new kind of bread delicious and from then onwards the Camerons received more orders for seconds than they could fulfil.
When first introduced, flour was greatly liked and soon there was a big demand for it. The customers supplied the material for the bags, and Mrs. Cameron, who possessed a sewing-machine, charged threepence apiece for making them.
Some while after the Camerons' return from Duiwelskantoor their fifth child, little Nellie, was born. They stayed at Potchefstroom until the beginning of 1887 when they decided to sell the mill, after which husband and wife parted and never met again.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web by Joan Marsh(2002) a great-grand-daughter of ERCameron