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?’
‘Can you shoot?’
‘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
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