From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
I was returned unopposed for the Low Country and my wife, who is more politically-minded than I am, was returned for Parktown North, an important constituency of Johannesburg. She was the first woman Member of Parliament in South Africa.
The election being over and won, Parliament met in Cape Town for a brief session; and then, as when I first became a Minister, I set out to visit a portion of my kingdom as yet unvisited.
I decided to inspect the Kalahari, which lay under my control. This desert lies between German South-West on the one side and the Transvaal and Southern Rhodesia on the other, a breadth of four hundred miles or so; and lengthways it stretches from the Orange River in the south to the Okavango swamps six hundred miles northward.
Much of it is good cattle country, it contains plenty of game, and there are roving tribes of bushmen – the most ‘primitive’ of all human beings.
Some officials who were to accompany me went on ahead to Kuruman, the mission centre where the Moffats and David Livingstone had laboured a somewhat unfruitful vineyard in years gone by, and I followed by air. At Kuruman I had cars and a lorry with petrol and water; and sending the plane back to Pretoria, we started off.
Using the dry bed of the Kuruman River, we travelled for two hundred miles to its confluence with the Molopo, another dead river that flows at rare intervals after heavy rains, perhaps twice in a century.
In this country of eternal sand we ploughed along at about ten miles an hour. After days of heavy going, we reached a point where the Nosop and the Oup, two more fossil rivers, join together, and now we lumbered up the Oup to Mata-Mata on the southwest frontier.
Some time before, the Trustees of the Kruger Park had set aside a triangle of ground in this area, a million acres in extent, as a sanctuary for gemsbok (Oryx Gazelli) and the true hartebeest (Bubalis Cama). These varieties had nearly been exterminated by nomad poachers and bushmen hunters. We had selected the land by looking at the map, for none of us had ever visited this part of the world before; indeed, very few people in the Union had ever heard of it.
Now I pushed cross-country from the Oup to inspect the Reserve, and I was the first member of the Board [of Trustees of the Kruger Park] to see it – a waste of dunes, which we navigated by compass. We developed a technique of our own for crossing the sand-hills. The secret is to deflate one’s tyres to half-strength, and never to attempt a dune on the slant; to accelerate and run straight ahead, so that the impetus carries the car eight to ten feet upwards and the engine stalls; then to go back along the ruts the wheels have made, and make another charge that carries one a short length beyond the first attempt. Continuing the process, the rise is topped at last. It is a cruel strain on mechanism and chassis, but we crossed a long succession of dunes in this way, and went right through the Reserve in a few days at an overall pace of about two miles per hour.
We saw gemsbok and hartebeest, and an occasional bushman running at the sight of these strange monsters invading his ancestral hunting-grounds; and we saw several Kalahari lion, a smaller and less yellowed species than those of the Transvaal.
I had arranged for a camel patrol to await us, and here again I learned something new about lion. We emerged on the Nosop River one evening, and as we pitched our tents I was surprised to see the camel drivers hobble their animals and turn them into the bush for the night. We had seen a lion slinking at dusk, and to me it seemed wanton cruelty to send the camels thus helpless into the dark; but the drivers were easy. They said a lion will never attack a camel, hobbled or otherwise; that a lion only attacks from the rear and, as a camel always faces round, they are not molested. My own belief is that lion cannot bear their musty smell, but at all events our camels grazed unharmed. I rode a camel now and then, but on the whole I preferred to walk.
Having inspected the Reserve, we continued, travelling up the bed of the Nosop River to a point shown on the map as Union’s End. Here we found a tribe of half-breeds that had been marooned for over two years, a subsection of Simon Kooper’s nation, about a hundred strong. They had come to Union’s End to hunt, but a drought had cut them off and they had been obliged to remain at this spot ever since, for here was the only water within a hundred and twenty miles.
Luckily for them the South African Government had put down a borehole for our troops during the 1915 campaign. The hole was a hundred and seventy feet deep and as there was no pump or windmill, the only way they could reach the water was by letting down a gallon paraffin tin at the end of a long line of gemsbok riems. It was a full-time job, and they worked in relays night and day. Had the thong broken, the tin would have fallen down and blocked the borehole, and they would all have perished. They had never seen a motorcar. I offered to send back for lorries to evacuate them, but they were too terrified of these strange vehicles; so I left them there. I learned afterwards that they got out in safety with the next rains.
Animals in these parts do not drink, for there is no surface water. They obtain moisture from the Tsama melon and other herbage.
As for lion and other carnivora, they are said to drink the blood of their prey, but according to the bushmen they quench their thirst from the liquid in the large intestine of the beasts they kill. I was told that hunters in the Kalahari find enough water in a gemsbok’s paunch to have a drink and a wash; and that, once they become used to it, fresh water is insipid and tasteless to them.
As we returned down the river we came on two honeybadgers. We have an Afrikaans saying, ‘tough as a badger’, and I would add ‘brave as a badger’, for as we passed them I saw a pair of cubs, the size of hedgehogs. I was on the driving seat of the water lorry at the time, and the badgers thought we had designs on their offspring. To them the lorry must have looked about twenty times the size a mastodon did to a paleolithic hunter, yet they were unafraid. They charged forward in defence of their brood, and the valorous creatures actually bit and hacked into our tyres, squealing with rage the while. I ordered my driver not to injure them, and the brave creatures trotted off in triumph to collect their young.