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“Afrikander Cattle” – 4 December 28, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, literature, nature.
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Waterberg landscape

This is the final installment of a series that starts here.

Observation of nature. That’s what it’s all about. Not idealization of nature, not reverence for nature. Let me give you an example from American literary history: the diverging approaches of Emerson and Thoreau, those well-known New England Transcendentalists. Walking in the woods around Concord, Massachusetts (where Thoreau had famously built his cabin on the shore of Walden Pond), the two would be conversing. Then Thoreau would stop, noticing the unusual profusion of acorns in an oak grove this particular winter, jotting down a note about it to add to his journals. Emerson would seat himself comfortably on a log and begin pontificating on grand themes of the universe and the human connection with it.

Nothing wrong with either approach, but who would you want by your side if you had to find your way across a confusing complex of beaver ponds and alder thickets? You, the readers of this blog, understand my particular bias. I would want to notice the particular asymmetrical mountain on the horizon to my left as I started across the ponds, and to make sure it was over my other shoulder as I retreated. Not that I’ve always been successful at these kinds of things by a long shot—but at least I understand what might be involved in getting out of such a place.

The story of Eugene Marais, “Afrikander Cattle,” brings together all those wonderful themes of human observation of nature, communication with animals, ingenuity in working with rather than against the obstacles and the difficulties of wild places. In this story, the setting itself is essentially another protagonist.

Bushveld scene

The Waterberg area that Marais describes is obviously not an easy place to navigate. As I read, I revel in the descriptions of its obstacles: the infinite varieties of thorn trees, the smooth steep rockfaces, the shadowy ravines. These are the kinds of places that it takes years to learn how to negotiate.

Reading the story brings me back to the reasons why I got interested in the Boer War in the first place. I could see how these people knew how to pay attention to, for instance, the exact number of dry stream valleys you have crossed or to the tiny movements—possibly hostile—that can be detected on the ridgeline. The other thing that intrigued me was that these people fought as citizens, not as soldiers.

One could argue that the story of Marais in “Afrikander Cattle” is unrealistic, or perhaps a kind of magical realism, like that of Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A Boer scout rides his faithful horse bareback, without even a halter, and is able to control his movements precisely by a kind of harmony of man and beast. And then the scout is actually upstaged by Hendrik, the Bushman, who can control the exact movements of a large herd of cattle. But I would say, based on my experience in working with horses (see the first installment of this series), that I believe these things could literally have happened.

It’s also worth pointing out that Marais, an Afrikaner who supported the movement to have his language recognized internationally for its literary value, was nonetheless able to go against the prejudices of his people and to appreciate African tribal culture.

Marais was an unusual and sensitive man, one who was tormented for many years by an addiction to morphine and who ultimately committed suicide. He had the intensity and he had the vision, but he did not fit seamlessly into his world. He experienced tragedies and disjointed events. His young wife died shortly after the birth of his son. During the Boer War, he wanted to aid the cause of his countrymen by joining a German expedition to ship supplies to them via Portuguese East Africa—but he was devastated by malaria.

He is better known for his poetry and for his scientific works about the group behavior of animals than for his prose. For an interesting and insightful discussion of his poetry, please see the essay by my friend Roon Lewald, here.

His addiction killed him in the end. But we can say quite emphatically that his ideas did not die with him at age 65, in 1936, from two self-inflicted shotgun wounds.

* All quotes from “Afrikander Cattle” by Eugene Marais and translated by Madeleine van Biljon. In A Century of Anglo-Boer War Stories, edited by Chris van der Merwe and Michael Rice. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1999.

Eugene Marais, 1871-1936

The Bald Mountains in dense fog December 23, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians.
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Seth gives helpful info to guys holed up at Jerry Cabin

I’d told Seth O’Shields that I was interested in exploring the area around Hot Springs. He’s done a lot of interesting hikes in the area. So we set December 22 as the day to have an adventure in the Bald Mountains along the A.T. northeast of Hot Springs. We’d talked about a fairly high-mileage option, so I chirped up and suggested a 7:00 a.m. meeting time in downtown Hot Springs.

At 7:00 I arrived in drizzle and dense fog, and it was about as dark as the hind end of a black cow in a coal mine. It seemed absolutely insane to be setting off on a hike. It had been hard enough just seeing the edge of the road along the twists and turns of Hwy. 25/70 past Marshall and Hurricane and Tanyard Gap. So we took the only sensible option and went down to the diner for a breakfast of delicious sweet potato pancakes. By the time we got done with that, it was light enough that hiking seemed almost reasonable. But we opted for a shorter route, going up the Jerry Miller trail to the A.T. and then past Fox Cabin Gap and Bald Mountain to the Fork Ridge trail with a short roadwalk at the end to bring us in a triangular route back to the car. We needed Seth’s good knowledge of the roads and his 4-Runner to get up the last icy unpaved section with a stream ford.

The Jerry Miller trail has a nice cascade along it. I was conducting an unsuccessful experiment with using something called Cat Crap to keep my glasses from fogging up. (I’m going to have to go back to using contacts for winter hiking, even though the prescription is pretty out of date since I never use them for anything else.) So we stopped, I wiped off my glasses, and then I could see the cascade.

Jerry Miller cascade

A bit higher, the trail followed an old road through a pleasant forest with quite a bit of Virginia pine. The slushy snow got steadily deeper, maybe 4 or 5 inches on this section, just enough to make it a bit of a slog. We reached the junction with the A.T. and contemplated a sign there that is so weathered that the letters have become literally invisible.

Seth contemplates the blank sign

We decided to make the short side trip to Blackstack Cliffs. Seth claimed that on other trips to that spot, clouds lower down had opened up, due to some specific meteorological condition that seemed to occur there. Unfortunately, the condition was not occurring that day.

View of the interior of a large, dense cloud at Blackstack Cliffs

We ate lunch nearby, thinking optimistically the clouds might dissipate during that time. Nope.

Back to the A.T. Our next section had two route options, an open semi-bald ridgetop section exposed to bad weather, and a more sheltered sidehilling section. Since we would have no views, and it was quite windy—real hypothermia weather with the dampness—we opted for the sheltered route.

Two options

The wording seemed funny to me: it sounded as if BOTH trails gave you bad weather, though the intended message was obviously  “Take the Bad Weather trail to AVOID bad weather.”

As we climbed over Bald Mountain, we kept running into patches of windblown slushy drifts where we were postholing up to a foot or more in depth, which made it a bit of a grunt. We were amazed to see ATV tracks in the snow where some moron had come up the Fork Ridge trail, knocked down one trail sign and stolen another. They, and others, had left quite a bit of trash along the way as well. I dedicated one large pocket of my parka to crushed beer cans, while Seth took charge of the candy wrappers and cigarette boxes.

Seth wanted to check out the Jerry Cabin, one of the oldest shelters on that stretch of the A.T. So we continued a bit past the Fork Ridge junction and were much surprised to discover five jolly hikers inside. They had decided to give themselves a break on their multi-day trip and hole up in the cabin and, basically, drink whiskey. Actually, they were surprisingly sober considering the very large bottles of Southern Comfort and other similar poisons out on the table. We had a very entertaining conversation about the working telephone that used to be mounted on the wall of the shelter, imagining various scenarios of it ringing and some cheery stranger calling just to say hello. Those guys were really lucky, because Seth was able to offer them some good detailed advice about the different options for daily objectives between there and Hot Springs.

We descended Fork Ridge and had a fast icy roadwalk (no problem—we both wore microspikes on the whole trip). There were two fords of Big Creek that involved wading in fairly fast current, but no one got swept away. As soon as we reached the car, the clouds started to break, and we experienced some beautiful shifting crepuscular rays and changing windows of blue sky as we drove back to Hot Springs.


Another view of the Jerry Miller cascade


“Afrikander Cattle” – 3 December 19, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, literature.
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Waterberg rock

This is a continuation of a series that starts here.

Old Hendrik the Bushman and Gool Winterbach the Boer scout are deep in the ravines of the Waterberg, hiding from the numerous British troops that have encircled this rugged place of thornbush and rockface. Hendrik’s herd of wild Afrikander cattle stand nearby in a great pool of black shadow, quietly breathing, their eyes catching a beam of moonlight here and there. Winterbach despairs of any escape. “And now, old Hendrik, we’re finished. I’ve taken a good look at the area and we won’t get out of here. You’ll have to give up your animals and I my life. It’s my own fault that I let myself be trapped like a stupid wether in the the corner of a kraal.”*

But Hendrik has a plan. “…The first thing we have to do is make the cattle accustomed to you. Just hold my arm and never make a sudden movement and never lift your other arm. Leave your gun here.” Hendrik leads him in slow circles through the herd. “Their reception was diverse. Most of them raised their heads and tested the stranger’s smell with distended nostrils…. Several times an enraged young bull, with a muffled roar and lowered head, came past his mates towards them, challenging in a cloud of dust. In such cases old Hendrik pushed the scout behind him, faced the enraged animal head-on, grabbed it by one horn and turned its head aside. Only a few words from the old Bushman were always enough to restore immediate silence and to let the threatening bull’s temper evaporate. Never before had Gool seen anything like it.”

Cattle of southern Africa

Hendrik has selected a place—a wide ravine—where they and the cattle can get through the British encirclement. Winterbach is skeptical. It is guarded by many rows of tents, and two mountain guns overlook it. Hendrik fastens a long line of sinew to Winterbach’s wrist and ties the other end to his belt. He takes Winterbach through the herd and blows on a calabash flute in the pattern of droning cicadas—a signal to the animals. “In a deathly hush the herd immediately rose and moved soundlessly through the soft dust of their sleeping quarters to bunch together at one central point.”

Hendrik and Winterbach move forward to where they can see the British sentries patrolling back and forth. Winterbach looks down into frightening black depths and suddenly realizes that Hendrik plans to lead him down the face of the treacherous ravine. “Invisible tree trunks and undergrowth was the ladder by which the two climbed fifty feet down and fifty feet up the other side, not without effort and danger.” Then they move along at a fast jog on a footpath surrounded by hook-thorn. Eventually, the exhausted Winterbach realizes they have passed the enemy lines.

But the cattle are still behind those lines. Hendrik takes out his flute again, this time imitating the call of the tufted Bushveld owl. “But old Hendrik, the cattle can never hear it, whatever your plan with them might have been, they’re miles away from us.” “They’re much nearer than you think… We walked in a huge circle to get behind the enemy. Listen!”

Hendrik uses the sight of the Milky Way over a baobab tree as a point of orientation

An incredible sound comes to their ears. “It was like the far-off rumbling of storm water over a rock-strewn river. The sound was immediately picked up by the enemy sentries. They could clearly hear a bewildered ‘Halt, who goes there?’ from one frightened soldier.”

The meeting of cattle and soldiers is screened by clouds of dust, “but Gool could see burning logs scattering in all directions and people, blankets and bits of cloth along the line flung into the air with frightening violence. The noise was terrifying. The thunder of hooves and the enraged lowing of cattle were not enough to muffle the screaming, swearing and moaning of badly injured humans.”

Over the next couple of days the cattle gather near Hendrik again as he moves from the bushveld to the higher-elevation middleveld. And Winterbach’s beloved horse, Kousband, finds his way out. Winterbach at last rejoins his commando, long after his comrades had assumed he must be dead. “He came riding up on Kousband, barebacked with not even a rope for a halter.”

In the next and final installment of this series, I will return to the subject of author Eugene Marais himself—a mysterious and fascinating individual.

* All quotes from “Afrikander Cattle” by Eugene Marais and translated by Madeleine van Biljon. In A Century of Anglo-Boer War Stories, edited by Chris van der Merwe and Michael Rice. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1999.