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Authors: Bridget Hilton-Barber and Pat Hopkins
Worst Journeys is an anthology of travel disasters that have befallen some of the world’s best-known writers, from the past to the present. The anthology features, among others, authors as diverse as Sol Plaatje, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Charles Bosman, Tim Couzens, John Matshikiza, Denise Slabbert, Don Mattera, and even Mahatma Gandhi.
From the hilarious accounts of Trinity Crimp’s mampoer-tasting exploits, to the tragedy of the Birkenhead and flight SA295, to the holidays that turned into nightmares, these stories are uniquely South African in flavour. Each and every one will grip and enthral the reader.
Bridget Hilton-Barber is a well-known journalist, travel writer and talk radio producer.
Pat Hopkins is fascinated by eccentricity and is a major collector of Boerekitsch - South Africa’s own form of kitsch that so indelibly scarred the national psyche for fifty years after the 1938 Eeufees Trek. His favourite pieces are an appalling rendition of ‘Die Stem’ in a painting and a monster copper-coloured plastic lampstand of the Voortrekker Monument growing out of the Drommedaris. Both appear in Cringe, the Beloved Country.
He is a history and political science graduate from the University of Natal, an award-winning writer and author of a number of books, including The Boy, on Baden-Powell and the Siege of Mafeking; The Rocky Rioter Teargas Show, on the 1976 Soweto Uprising; and Eccentric South Africa.
The Great Trek, which began in the 1835, is central to Afrikaner identity. This journey of escape from the tentacles of British rule contained stories of heroism, hardship and tragedy - none more so than that of Louis Trigard.
His group first settled in the Soutpansberg, but the lure of opening a route to the sea was so compelling that, after a few years, they inspanned their wagons once more. The initial stages of their journey passed without serious incident. On the 10th March 1838 they were close to the Lubombo range. They were somewhere just north of the Massintonto River, where the Lubombo is just a low, 300 feet high line of bush-clad hills.
They crossed the range without great difficulty. Trigard, indeed, seems to have been down with malaria at the time, and with this fever to preoccupy him, he left pages of his diary blank. When he was alert once more, in the middle of March, the trek was on the banks of the Wanetzi River, in the dreary flatness of Mozambique.
They pushed on with all expedition. The oxen were weakening daily, and even the usual Sunday’s rest was forgotten in the trekkers’ anxiety to reach Lourenzo Marques before the tsetse immobilised them. As before, the local Africans had heard of the approach of the trek. In any case, being so close to the Europeans at Lourenzo Marques, they were more knowledgeable and friendly. The principal obstacle to progress now came from the rivers.
In Mozambique the rivers are broad, crocodile-infested streams, treacherous in their eddies and floods. The dugout canoes of the Africans had to be extensively used, and the crossing of the great Komati (Nkhomti, meaning river of cows) alone took three days. Sand and bush and rain hindered them somewhat as well, as the wagons rolled southwards, with the cool breezes of the Indian Ocean sweeping in each night, lulling them to sleep and stimulating, in its treacherous way, the fever already at work in their veins.
News of the advent of the trekkers had already reached Lourenzo Marques. The Governor sent a coloured representative, St Maria, to meet them, with a welcome present of a calabash of rum and some articles of clothing. St Maria had sailed up from Lourenzo Marques in a little ship which was used in trading ventures up the great Komati River. The sight of this perky little vessel lying at anchor amid the hippos and crocodiles of the muddy African river must have been heartening proof that journey’s end was near.
And, indeed, journey’s end was very near. At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon of Friday, the 13th April 1838, they reached the port, firing off their guns in greeting and thanks.
‘When we reached the palisade, the Commander, accompanied by some soldiers, approached the front wagons, which happened to be those of mine and Pieta. There he pointed out a place where all the wagons were to be taken, and there we put them as the Governor had ordered. When we had outspanned, the Governor sent for all of us, men and women. I sent a message to say that the women did not wish to come at once, so it was arranged for the men to go first. As I was very dirty from working with the oxen and the wagon, I hastily donned the shirt given me by St Maria, and the shoes and socks I had bought from him.’
So they were received by the Governor, and he learned from them the reasons for the trek and promised them a place where they could live as they liked. He was friendly towards them, but sufficiently uncertain to make them surrender all their weapons to his keeping.
In the evening, the trekkers were all entertained to tea and cake by the Governor and his wife. Then the men were entertained by the trader, St Maria, who told them, in the broken English that was the language of the coast, that they must appoint an intermediary in their dealings with the Governor. While they drank they argued this point, for the stubbornly stupid Jan Pretorius had ever been a man who wanted no one to speak for him and would speak for no one himself.
Feelings ran high on the matter. Carolus, surly, but a little wise in his cups, muttered: ‘This is the misfortune of the Afrikaner, whenever he undertakes anything, each one wants to be his own boss, and in that way everything goes wrong.’ Trigard was forbearing in the foolish quarrel.
‘I told Pretorius that he was not dealing with his brothers-in-law, and could not begin to threaten people with his gun. He asked who he had threatened to shoot, so I reminded him that he had once threatened to blow Antoine’s brains out.’
„You are always itching for a fight,“ I added, „so if you want one, then have it out with Carolus, as he is of the same kidney as you are. I am already fifty-five and I have never come to blows with any man, if you are so anxious to distribute knocks, you may also receive some.“ There was much talk, and when Carolus chipped in I told him to shut up, and went into another room. Jan also retired to his wagon. Our host had imbibed so freely that he did not know the next day at what time we left.’
The loss of their precious guns upset the trekkers considerably. Carolus even wept. He would rather have been taken prisoner himself than have lost his gun, but the Portuguese soon assessed their visitors as friendly, and the next day the guns were all returned.
The trekkers rested after their arduous journey. On the 28th April, they joined in an elephant hunt to drive some of the marauding giants away, but besides excitement the hunt produced nothing.
The dark angel had already thrown a shadow over the trekkers’ camp. Fifty-three people (trekkers and their servants) had arrived at the fort after a journey remarkable for the safety the party had enjoyed. But then they started to go down with malaria, one after another.
Old Daniel Pfeffer, the schoolmaster, was the first to die, then pretty Katryna Albagh, and then rugged Hendrik Botha. Martha Trigard went down as well. The Governor’s wife took her into the fort and nursed her with such physics as were known in those days, and all human kindness. Trigard moved among his stricken followers and did all he could, while his mind was ever on his wife. She, sweet soul, rallied and relapsed and fought, and longed to be back with her beloved family. Trigard worshipped her.
Each day he spent as many hours with her as his responsibilities allowed. He shared her hope and despair as the fever took its erratic course each day. All around him his people were dying. Twenty-six only were destined to survive and be shipped down the coast to Port Natal and safety.
The pages of Trigard’s diary are almost ended. May 1st, 1838, is the last of the detailed entries. As we turn to it, let the grey dawn slowly steal over the restless ocean and the wind come whispering from the back of beyond to the shores of Mother Africa.
‘I got up at cock-crow to see if there was any news of my dear wife, but as all was quiet at the Governor’s house, I went back to bed. I could not sleep and, at second cock-crow, I got up again. It was still dark as I waited impatiently for the doors to open. When they did, I sent Carolus to ask about his mother. He came back and told me she was a little better but very weak. I went at once to her, to wish her good-morning. She answered me so softly, that I could not understand her words.’
„Does my dear wife know me?“ I asked, and she answered: „As if I would not know you.“ She spoke with such difficulty, that suddenly it came over me, that all I dreaded was true, and that I would never see her well and strong again. Then I lost all hold upon myself and, in the depth of my sorrow, I knew not what I said or did. The children wept with me and their grief made mine harder to bear. I bade my wife farewell in this life and told her of my hope to meet her in the home of the Heavenly Father. I no longer bemoaned my fate but prayed for strength. All our sorrow and care was in vain. The Will of the Lord be Done.’
‘About eleven o’clock, Almighty God called her away - in Him I place my trust. My worthy and adored love had entered into blessedness. Of that, indeed, I felt sure, but the thought brought me no consolation. Grief overpowered me so that I hardly knew what I did.’
‘The Governor and his wife both did their best to comfort me - but for me there is no place in this world. My dearly beloved is taken from me for ever.’ Thus died a noble love. Trigard followed her to the shadows a short while afterwards. Of the story of his trek there is nothing more to tell. Like many another human tale, hope marked its beginning - tears marked its end.