Battlefields by Motorbike Underberg to Kimberley

Motorbikes at McGregor museum Kimberley
McGregor Museum, Kimberley

A small woman on a big, dual-purpose motor cycle with an NUD (Underberg, KZN) registration plate invites conversation. I was on the way to explore battlefields by motorbike.

Roadworks near Bloemfontein

First in the long queue of motor vehicles, I was straddling my stationery motorbike at one of the many stop/go barricades on the road to Bloemfontein. The road worker manning the block greeted me..

“Everything costs so much now, because of the Zuma government”, he volunteered.

“What government would you choose instead?”  I enquired curiously, my voice muffled in the full-face helmet.

“Maybe the EFF, maybe DA. The DA at least has a plan for this country. This ANC government has made us a lot of promises but there is no work. Even under apartheid most people could get a job,” he said.

He looked up. A column of cars was approaching from the opposite direction.

“You see, you didn’t have to wait too long. We try to keep things snappy here” he clicked his fingers, smiled broadly and jauntily moved the yellow barricade to one side for me.

Battlefields by motorbike

Two of us had just embarked on a five-day motor-bike trail from Underberg. We wanted explore some of the Boer war history. On the first day we had stopped in Senekal, where an enormous man looked oddly at the motor bike and then at me. We began to chat, to find that he was a poet and writer of lyrics for Afrikaans songs. He was also bigger than anyone I have ever seen off a rugby field.

“Afrikaans is a very expressive language and lends itself to song lyrics and to poems. The Afrikaners are a nation rooted firmly in South Africa and will remain an independent nation, no matter what happens.

Thinking about his words that night, I wondered what the face of South Africa would look like today, if those tens of thousands of Afrikaans women and children had survived the Boer War concentration camps.

People and landscapes

The people I had met thus far in the Free State differed as much from those in KZN as did the landscapes. Once over van Reenens Pass there had been an almost magical change in our surroundings. I wondered whimsically if this change had been wrought by the magic-mushroom mountain tops on each side of the road, some resembling rows of misshapen goblins and others vast, rock bungalows. In the low ground, willow trees clothed in light green spring foliage marked out watercourses against fire-blackened veldt. Sometimes pink peach blossom and the olive-green shine of gum trees contrasted against golden fields of mealie stubble. Through the dusty haze grotesquely shaped rock formations seemed to appear and disappear.

The animals changed too; reed buck and duiker in KZN gave way to blesbuck and springbuck in the Free State.  Sheep became more plentiful and some appeared to be avidly eating freshly-turned soil in a ploughed field. The big, black and white cows of KwaZulu-Natal were replaced by much smaller, white cows with pink muzzles and pale eyelashes reminiscent of pigs. I saw ostrich, korhaan, lapwings and sociable weavers’ nests. Each small town’s mediocrity was surprised by the majestic solemnity of at least one enormous church.

Diamond City

Eventually the hazy distance sprouted tall, geometric shapes and I knew that we were approaching the Diamond City. As we still had enough daylight to explore, we went in search of Carter’s Ridge, west of the town. This was the scene of a sharp action during the siege of Kimberley in 1899.

Siege of Kimberley

The Boers held this high ground and the British, on 28 November, launched an assault on the Boer position. They took the Boer laager and the first two of a succession of four redoubts (defensive positions or forts.) As the British stormed the third redoubt their popular commander, Colonel Scott Turner, was shot through the head. The attack lost its momentum and the British withdrew, under fire, to the town.

Carter’s Ridge

Leaving the bikes next to the road we walked towards the monument which stands tall in arid veld, about 300 metres from the road. The municipal rubbish dump is close by and fierce winds deposit debris liberally over the historic site. However, it is still an emotive place, despite the litter and the fact that the top of the memorial has been struck off by lightning.

I sat on a rock that was once part of the Boer fort and imagined the British appearing through the dead ground to the southwest, fixing their bayonets and charging full tilt against flying Mauser bullets of the defenders. I found some very rusty tin plate and some thick chards of porcelain.

The Boer laager was close by and perhaps these relics date from then; but they could be more modern too.

Cecil John Rhodes

We rode from there back to the town and passed the dramatic statue of Cecil John Rhodes mounted on his horse. I was pleased that this remnant of our unpopular colonial past has been allowed to remain. An interesting fact linking the Carter’s Ridge memorial and Rhodes’ statue is the fact that Colonel Scott Turner’s father-in-law was the manager of the bank that had lent Rhodes the money to make his Kimberley ventures possible.

The McGregor museum in Kimberley has a Boer war exhibit that is informative and comprehensive. There I learned about George Labram, the man famous for manufacturing the Long Cecil gun. He was an American who arrived in Kimberley in 1893 to supervise the installation of a washing plant at De Beers mine. He had no engineering qualifications, having come up from the bench but the general manager of De Beers was so impressed by his dedication and skills that he persuaded Labram to accept the position of engineer for the company. He was in Kimberley on the outbreak of the Anglo Boer war in 1899.

Long Cecil Gun

The Boers besieging Kimberley were able to shell the town with impunity because shells from the British field guns were not able to reach them. It was obvious that a gun with a longer range was needed. Labram noticed a column of steel 3 metres long lying outside one of the workshops and believed it could be used to manufacture a gun. He had no experience of gun building, nor a gun-construction manual and so he had to rely on whatever printed material he could find in the town for information.

Once armed with a little book-knowledge, he approached Cecil Rhodes for permission to manufacture a big gun. Rhodes agreed immediately and operations began the day after Christmas. The shaft was drilled out to a bore of 38mm and strengthened with hooped steel.

A week later, rifling was cut in the barrel and the sights fitted, the carriage and trail were made from plate-steel and the wheels taken from a disused steam engine. Shells were cast out of steel with holes in the noses of each, which were threaded to take percussion fuses. The propellant was sewn into serge-wool bags and taped with silk.

Long Cecil gun, Kimberley
Long Cecil, Kimberley

Testing the gun

The gun was ready to be tested, but Colonel Chamier of the Royal Artillery refused to try the gun as he said regulations stipulated he should not fire any weapon that had not been previously tested in a RA testing station. And so Rhodes sent for his company secretary’s wife, Mrs Pickering, who pulled the lanyard to fire the first test shot. It was a resounding success, the shell landing 7200 metres away.

Labram’s death

But, tragically, Labram was soon to die, the victim of a Boer shell which hit the roof of the Grand Hotel, where Labram lived. After travelling at an angle through three walls, it entered his room. He was taking off his coat at the washbasin as the shell struck. It exploded, blowing his hat out of the window, mutilating him terribly and burying him under rubble. He died instantly, although the manservant who observed the hit from the door was unscathed.

It was ironic that Labram usually stopped in the hotel lounge for a chat and a cup of cocoa on his way to his room but, on this occasion, had gone straight up to his room to get ready for dinner with Cecil John Rhodes. Had he spent some time with his friends downstairs, as he usually did, he would have been unharmed. The siege ended only six days after his death.

Gladstone cemetery

Our last day in Kimberley included a ride to the Gladstone cemetery where we were able to close the circle, finding the graves of Scott Turner, who died on Carter’s Ridge, and that of George Labram. The cemetery’s look of dereliction was redeemed by the presence of two African Wood Hoopoes.

On that note we began the long ride back to Underberg, stopping in Bethlehem for the night. There we met a local attorney, now retired.

“I was told a story by an old lady in Bethlehem, that I have never forgotten,” he said.

Boer War story

“As a child during the Boer war, she lived on a farm in the district. The men were on commando and the women and children had to conceal themselves from the British to avoid being taken off to a concentration camp. They used to hide during the day in the big storm water drains. In winter it was dead cold underground and this little girl loved sitting in the pool of sunshine that found its way through a hole in the ground that was open to the sky.

One day they were sitting in this warm spot when they heard hooves and voices above. Thinking it was the commando they were not afraid, until someone recognized the voices were speaking in English. The children were all suffering from winter coughs and colds and their mothers stuffed their mouths with the soft cloth of flour bags (their dresses were also made from these bags) so that their coughs would not be heard above ground.

At length the horses moved on and the little band of mothers and children remained undetected.

Joiner

On the way out of Bethlehem we passed the place where a farmer shot and killed his cousin for being a Joiner, during the closing stages of the Boer War. Joiners were men who joined the British against their compatriots in order to speed the end the war.

Buller’s relations

We also passed a farm that is owned by descendents of the General Sir Redvers Buller, commander of the British army in Natal.

Our return route into KwaZulu-Natal took us through Golden Gate, where fantastic rock formations resemble inverted boots, hammers, anvils and robot-men balancing against pale blue skies.  Against the stark background of burned veldt the colossal pink, red, cream and striped cliffs leaped out at me. On Oliviershoek Pass it began to rain.

Only 6 degrees Celcius, my visor fogged up and the only alternative was to leave it open, allowing in a freezing draft to numb my mouth and creep down my neck. Hot coffee near Mooi River dispelled the chill somewhat and the ride to Underberg was cold but fine.

It had been a wonderful 5 days. We had ridden almost 2000 kilometres through scenery that is unsurpassed, discovered some gems of history, heard fascinating stories and met wonderful people.

Your tour

Book your ‘Battlefields Tour by Motorbike’ tour  by contacting nicki@campaigntrails.co.za