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“Afrikander Cattle” – 1 December 5, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, literature, memoir, nature.
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Afrikander wagon transport. Photo taken in 1940s. Courtesy of S. African Railways and Harbours Publicity & Travel Dept.

This is the first of several posts about a story by Eugene Marais titled “Afrikander Cattle.” The story fascinates me for many reasons, which I will explore. It takes place during the Boer War in the Waterberg bushveld of the northern Transvaal (now Limpopo province). The area is now designated as the Waterberg biosphere, an area rich in plant and animal life and containing interesting sandstone geology.

River gorge in Lapalala Wilderness, Waterberg

Eugene Marais

The author of the story is well known in South Africa but not so much elsewhere. Eugene Marais (1871 – 1936) is known both as a poet writing in Afrikaans and as a naturalist. He was a leader in the Second Afrikaans Movement of the early 1900s, writing poems about nature, about black tribal life, and about spiritual questions, among many subjects. He is also considered to be a pioneering ethologist, a scientist studying the behavior of animals. He wrote The Soul of the Ape and The Soul of the White Ant. The latter work was plagiarized by the Belgian scientist Maurice Maeterlinck, who used his knowledge of Flemish to read Marais’ work, written in Afrikaans and not published in English until 1969.

Marais was a complex individual who struggled with an addiction to morphine and eventually committed suicide. I will return to the subject of his life in a later post.

As “Afrikander Cattle” opens, Gool Winterbach, a Boer scout, has been cut off from his commando in the heart of the Waterberg. He watches as numerous British columns move in on all sides, surrounding him. “And for the first time in his scouting service, Gool found himself in a wasps’ nest of enemy columns and scouting divisions. He saved his life at the last minute by riding [his horse] Kousband to the verge of collapse to the great maze of the Banks. Here in the heart of deep, trackless ravines, overgrown bush and impenetrable stretches of black-thorn, he had found temporary safety.”*

Kousband is nearly as well known to the Boers of the area as Winterbach himself, the story tells us. And in fact it was not unusual for individual horses to be famous among the Boers. They were often known by name to people far beyond the owner or the owner’s family. This was brought home to me on my recent trip to South Africa, when I learned that my friend Arnold van Dyk, who is known to grill the student interns in his medical practice on Boer War trivia, would ask them for the name of General Christiaan De Wet’s horse. (It was “Fleur,” a white Arab that he rode throughout the war.)


Statue of De Wet on Fleur in Bloemfontein

And so Winterbach has a powerful bond with his horse. “He had raised Kousband as a pet foal and had taught the horse an astonishing range of tricks which were of enormous advantage later, during his days as a scout. With a single whistle he could summon Kousband. At another signal, he could send him off in full flight, with or without a saddle and bridle. At his command the horse would lie down immediately, and no other command, except from his master, could make him move again. By tying a thong around one of his ears, he could forbid him to neigh as long as the knot remained in position. At his command he could let him force his way into overgrown guarri bush until he was completely invisible and there he would stay without moving or making a sound until his master called him.”

And this description of a bond between horse and rider is one of the reasons why the story speaks to me so powerfully.  It reminded of my own relationship with a horse named Jet, an Appaloosa. I did not own Jet, but I had an arrangement with the family that owned him that I could ride him as often as I wanted, for a nominal monthly fee.

An Appaloosa horse

Jet was a bit scary when I first got to know him. He was big and he had bloodshot eyes. He had a habit of cow-kicking (kicking forward with a hind leg) when I tried to get on him. Until Jet and I got to know each other, I resorted to climbing up on top of the hitching post and stealthily sliding over onto his back.

The trouble with Jet, as with all of the horses owned by the Dickerson family, was that Mr. Dickerson liked to think of himself as a cowboy and used to spur them into a flat-out gallop from a dead standstill. They became very nervous and prone to run away. But Mr. Dickerson had gradually lost his interest in riding, and the family made a little extra income from letting other people ride their horses. The Dickerson place was a big farm in Burke, Virginia. At that time (the mid to late 60s), Burke was rural, and Pohick Road (where the farm was located) was a dirt road. The whole area, except for Burke Lake Park, has since become completely overrun with suburban sprawl.

Over time, I got Jet to unlearn his bad habits. I rode him with a long-shank Pelham bit with double reins. When he started to run away with me, I would pull back hard with the bottom rein, which created quite a bit of leverage on his mouth—and then release as soon as he eased up his pace. He would then start running again, I would pull back, release again, and so on. Many times. The problem was, Jet had become so accustomed to having the rider perpetually pulling on his mouth that it didn’t make any difference whether the person was pulling or not—he would just keep running. But he learned with me that if he slowed down, I would quit pulling on that nasty bottom rein.

After a few months, I was riding him bareback with just a halter and lead rope—no bridle at all. We would canter along comfortably on those long-gone dirt roads. He had a wide, smooth back, very comfortable for bareback riding. I would ride him into the pond at the farm and have him swim across. I’d jump him over fallen logs in the woods. Jet and I had become friends.

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* 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.

Nez Perce men with Appaloosa