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“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.

Bushveld

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