DAVID BRIS­TOW

Getaway (South Africa) - - NEWS -

The story of a free-rang­ing 19th-cen­tury teenager

DAVID BRIS­TOW’s new book is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries about real-life south­ern African char­ac­ters. Here, we pick up ‘Run­ning the Gaunt­let’, the tale of Ge­orge Mos­sop, a 19th-cen­tury teenager who lived life to fullest on the open veld

Ge­orge Joseph Mos­sop was born near Dur­ban or what was then Port Na­tal, in the Colony of Na­tal in the early 1860s. He spent his youth run­ning bare­foot in the veld around Umvoti where he was sup­posed to be at­tend­ing the vil­lage school.

‘Wan­der­lust was in my blood,’ he wrote in his mem­oirs in 1930, us­ing all the scraps he’d writ­ten through­out his ex­traor­di­nar­ily ad­ven­tur­ous life to bol­ster his me­mory. In 1875, at the age of 14, he left home and set off for the Transvaal where, he un­der­stood, the real wilds of Africa could still be found. ‘I be­came a prod­uct of the veld and the wide spa­ces to which I still cling, for I have never lived in a town or near one.’

In 1937, the year be­fore he died, when he wrote a pref­ace to his notes, he ad­mit­ted he had never been to the cinema or seen a cir­cus, although he had once seen an aero­plane sail­ing the sky like an ea­gle, ‘though no bird ever kicked up such a fiendish row’.

His first year of free­dom was spent with a party of Bo­ers shoot­ing game for their skins and to make bil­tong. The East­ern Transvaal Highveld, now Mpumalanga, was the last refuge of the huge herds of game that once cov­ered the en­tire grass­land biome in tens and hun­dreds of thou­sands. Be­fore the ar­rival of white hunters, the Highveld would have hosted a wildlife spec­ta­cle far ex­ceed­ing the now more fa­mous Serengeti Plains.

The re­gion was also cov­ered in wet­lands where wa­ter­fowl gath­ered in vast flocks, and great num­bers of other birds nested in the ex­ten­sive reed beds. How­ever, one by one the reed beds were burned to con­vert the land for graz­ing. The birds moved off, never to re­turn, and nei­ther did most of the wet­lands.

When his hunt­ing party reached the main body of the game mi­gra­tion near present-day Ermelo, the Bo­ers made camp with­out any hint of haste – they had done this many times be­fore. The Good Lord would pro­vide. Oxen were un­yoked, horses knee-hal­tered, tents pitched, fires made, then cof­fee and rusks were handed round. The game was on.

Mos­sop said of the mi­gra­tion: ‘The scene which met my eyes the next morn­ing is beyond my power to de­scribe. Game, game every­where, as far as the eye could see – all on the move, graz­ing.’

It seemed to the in­ex­pe­ri­enced lad that the game ap­peared not to be mov­ing but that the Earth it­self was car­ry­ing the vast herd of an­i­mals along with it. As he watched he re­alised that within the great herd were smaller groups of spe­cific species: a herd of some 500 black wilde­beest moved towards the wag­ons, stopped, wheeled as one with their heads fac­ing the shoot­ing camp, then up went their white tails and off they moved. Then an­other, sev­eral thou­sand strong.

Next came a group of about 200 quag­gas, which were called ‘the ze­bra of the bushveld’. Mos­sop de­scribes them as be­ing taller, of lighter colour and shag­gier than their more com­mon brothers. They charged towards the wag­ons and came to a stop about 60 me­tres dis­tant, their hooves plough­ing into the ground. Their in­nate in­quis­i­tive­ness made them easy to shoot and the writer reck­oned this was likely the last of their kind to be seen any­where.

There were also hun­dreds of thou­sands each of bles­bok and spring­bok. Mos­sop was awed, ren­dered speech­less by the scene, but the Bo­ers calmly went about the busi­ness of ready­ing for the slaugh­ter as if it were just an­other day’s work, stretch­ing

riems be­tween the wag­ons and poles on which hides and meat would be hung.

What must the coun­try have looked like, Mos­sop pon­dered, be­fore the shoot­ing had be­gun decades ear­lier? Black wilde­beest moved past them at a can­ter, hour af­ter hour, mak­ing speech all but im­pos­si­ble. The men shot and shot and shot un­til they could shoot no more. At one point he asked the leader of the group, ‘old man Vis­agie’, if he did not think it wrong to slaugh­ter all the game to the verge of ex­tinc­tion.

‘Can you tell me, Mister Hea­then,’ came the stern re­ply, ‘what good this game is do­ing, run­ning wild over the veld? You dare to say that the Lord did not know what he was do­ing when He placed them here. It is a sin to lis­ten to such words. Never use them again in my pres­ence.’

A year later, in 1879, the Zulu War flared up so the 16-year-old Ge­orge rode back to Na­tal to sign up for duty with the Fron­tier Light Horse, a rag-tag group of self-equipped colo­nials that was mod­elled on the Boer com­mando sys­tem.

Mos­sop’s Bush­man com­pan­ion of the pre­vi­ous year, Ger­swent, pleaded with him not to leave. The wrin­kled old man said the Bri­tish had no hope of beat­ing the mighty Zu­lus. He had seen the Bri­tish, he said, strip­ping naked early in the morn­ing in win­ter and wash­ing in a river. They even put their heads un­der the wa­ter!

The young ad­ven­turer’s jour­ney to join up with Colonel Wood’s col­umn took him on a tor­tu­ous route back across the Highveld and down to the Lowveld.

He got caught in a storm on the Berg es­carp­ment near Utrecht and he and his Ba­suto pony, War­rior, had to brave a night of wind and driv­ing rain ‘camp­ing’ – hid­ing be­hind a rock un­til dawn came and the storm let up. ‘Although my pony was only a few feet from me, I could not see him, so thick was the dark­ness, but I knew that he was stand­ing there with his tail to the blast.’

Moans and groans seemed to grip the moun­tain­side, rush­ing sounds be­com­ing ever louder un­til they seemed to be upon the mis­er­able young man. When a reed­buck ap­peared out of the squall and let out a shrill whis­tle, the man crawled up close to his pony for com­fort. In his day, peo­ple did not pre­pare pad­kos but took what­ever they had to hand. Then it was usu­ally just a strip of bil­tong. Mos­sop fin­ished his while shel­ter­ing be­hind that rock in the storm.

On 6 Jan­uary 1879 he crossed the Ncome River (site of the ear­lier piv­otal Bat­tle of Blood River be­tween the Bo­ers and Zulu army in the time of King Din­gane) and caught up with the Bri­tish army just in­side Zu­l­u­land: end­less wag­ons, teams of oxen, whips crack­ing, driv­ers yelling, horse­men gal­lop­ing to and fro, gen­eral bed­lam.

The pro­ce­dure for join­ing went some­thing like this:

Of­fi­cer to lad: ‘That your horse?’ ‘Yes, sir.’

‘That your sad­dle and bri­dle?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Can you shoot?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Where did you learn?’

‘In the Transvaal, sir, with the Bo­ers, shoot­ing game.’

‘How old are you?’ ‘Sev­en­teen, sir.’ (What was one year’s dif­fer­ence?)

‘See him equipped, sergeant, and put him in a good tent.’

One sea­soned soldier tried with some per­sis­tence to warn him to turn around and head back to from wher­ever he had come...

Find out how the story ends in The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep, pub­lished by Ja­cana Me­dia. R240

WIN We have three copies of this book to give away. En­ter on­line at getaway.co.za

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