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“Afrikander Cattle” – 2 December 11, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, nature, wildlife.
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San tribesman

This is a continuation of a series that starts here.

Just when it seems that Marais has established that Gool Winterbach’s scouting skills are superior to those of anyone else, that he has better rapport with animals, a higher ability to survive—in other words, that he knows what the Boers called veldkraft better than anyone around—another figure appears on the scene who knows much, much more than Winterbach.

Winterbach and his horse Kousband are surrounded by British columns. He knows that the khakis are looking for a big herd of cattle believed to be hidden in the maze of the Waterberg ravines—but Winterbach has seen nothing but old tracks and does not believe the cattle are present. Night has drawn in and he is trying to come up with a plan. “This was the hour of the deepest silence in the Bushveld. Very soon, the inhabitants of the night would go about their business and from all sides he would hear the joy of the night birds, mixed with the rejoicing and crying of murderous lust and terror which the night always mercifully covered with its dark veil. It was a night when the carnivore left its hiding place to stalk its defenceless prey.”*

Spotted Eagle Owl, a resident of the Waterberg

Winterbach decides to ambush a British sentry post. He carefully conceals Kousband in a dense guarri bush and creeps forward in the darkness, his rifle at the ready. But then, all of a sudden, an invisible hand reaches out of the shadows and catches his right wrist! And a voice calmly says to him, “Stand dead quiet, Master Gool—it’s me, old Hendrik.”

Hendrik is an elderly Bushman, or member of the San. I will use the word “Bushman” here, because it is the word used by Marais and because sources are divided as to whether the term “Bushman” is considered offensive to anybody. After looking at the subject for a bit, I am leaning toward the feeling that while the term is not always considered politically correct, it is often used by the people themselves—somewhat parallel to the situation in the U.S. in which the term “Native American” is considered more correct, but the people themselves generally use the word “Indian.”

Winterbach already knew Hendrik quite well. The Bushman had been famous in the area for his mastery of a large herd of Afrikander cattle. After the war started, not one of them had fallen into enemy hands, despite the constant crisscrossing of the area by British troops.

The classic Afrikander cattle have red hides and long horns

“His Afrikanders speedily became wild—so wild that no stranger could come near them. Only for old Hendrik were they tame…. He lived with them as if he were one of them…. Old Hendrik could imitate the voice of any animal or bird so accurately that no person could ever discover the imitation, and it was with whistles that he communicated with his cattle. He had altered the usual manner of ‘herding.’ Instead of driving his herd, he was always at the forefront. They followed him the way dogs follow their master and if he were separated from them for half a day (he occasionally had to visit the commando to confer with the general), their lowing could be heard for miles and the dust they raised, rushing about, rolled above the trees like storm clouds. They couldn’t rest until they had old Hendrik back.”

Hendrik tells Winterbach that he must calm the cattle. “They noticed you a long time ago, although the wind is coming from their way. They heard you coming down the mountain.” Winterbach is surprised: he had not been aware of any cattle nearby. Hendrik points toward a level area shadowed by candlewood trees, but Winterbach does not see anything.

Candlewood tree

However, as they walk together, he does notice that Hendrik has a small fire burning. He is shocked! So foolish to have a fire when the enemy are all around! But Hendrik laughs and says he’s been watching the English—and Winterbach—for three days, and he knows exactly what they have been doing. He even knows precisely what Winterbach has had to eat the past three days. The fire is visible from only one side, and that side is guarded by the cattle.

For the first time Winterbach sees the cattle. “Under the big trees Gool noticed a stretch of black shadow which seemed to be in perpetual motion. In the dim light of the small fire he could occasionally see eyes shining, like many searchlights aimed in his direction, and then he also noticed for the first time the pleasant odour of a great herd of cattle, breathing.”

Now they must plot a way out of the encircling British columns.

* 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 sunset