Travels in an Oxcart in South Africa at the Turn of the 19th Century

Auntie Connie in Pretoria as a child with one of her dolls and her nurse

By Connie Hall

Arthur Lewis Hall was a fellow of the Royal Society, a winner of the Murchison Medal and credited by the makers of Earth Story, a BBC documentary, with being one of the first geologists to guess the real age of the earth. Auntie Connie, his eldest, was the first female lawyer in South Africa and my Grandfather’s older sister. She wrote about her experiences as a child with her father, mother and brothers in South Africa as they trekked across the highveld and lowveld. I have never read an account like it.

Why on Earth did they do it? What on Earth induced my young parents, who were both members of large, suburban, university-oriented English families, to leave England only two years after my father was appointed science Master at the Dulwich school in London?

What induced the two to set out, toddler in tow, to make a new life three weeks away on a Union Castle liner? Was it the spirit of adventure? Was it a geologist’s desire to see what things looked like in situ? Or was it, as Kipling says:

“Because something is behind the ranges, lost and waiting for you – go”.

The train journey took three days and three nights, with no accommodation at the end of it. We spent a few nights at a dreadful boarding house where the language in the room next door was so strong it almost set the house on fire. Two rooms in the Diocesan School for girls (now a little theatre) were found, followed shortly by a small house in the then very remote suburb of Sunnyside.

We spent six months of every year travelling in a wagon – the most splendid wagon. It was much bigger than any Voortrekker wagon; and you could stand up in it quite easily. The wagon had a large white tent which covered it from front to back and we slept in it most of the time.

When my brothers started to arrive we needed an extra tent. We also had another tent for the African staff. The wagon was normally kept in Pretoria in the yard behind my father’s office, a single story, red brick building on the corner of Bosman and Vermelun Streets where the Post Office headquarters are now.

When it was time for my father to go off into the field in the cooler months of the year, the wagon was loaded with any amount of tinned food, since there were no fridges of any sort and into a Cape Cart. If we were going north the wagon was railed to Pietersburg, and if we were going east, it was railed to Middleburg.

we made quite a cavalcade

The tinned provisions we took with us included: condensed milk, condensed butter, tinned bacon and a variety of other foodstuffs. We also took a big bag of potatoes, tinned cakes, tinned bacon, 2 or 3 bags of mielie meal, a bag of flour and fodder for the mules.

My father needed to plan everything meticulously, since he was not placing his boots into anyone else’s footsteps. The country had been stripped by war of the provisions an expedition like my father’s might need. Country stores had largely vanished and the ones that remained were poorly stocked.

The only shops were properly stocked were the shops owned by Indians and their contribution to the return of normality to post-war Traansvaal cannot be exaggerated. The Indian shopkeepers were frugal and enterprising and they helped many a farmer through a bad patch with barter – which was an acceptable form of exchange to many of them.

My father worked in the area from Pretoria as far north as Pietersburg and a little further and in the east as far as the Lebombo Mountains and the Mozambiquan border into Swaziland. When we arrived at Pietersburg or Middleburg it was usually very late at night or very early in the morning and we went straight off to the local hotel to gather everything for the trek.

The teams of mules were ordered ahead and provided for by the local establishment. We had 12 mules, spanking beautiful creatures they always were; 10 for the wagon and 2 for the Cape Cart. Together with our staff of 3 African men and our own house man, who always came with us, we made quite a cavalcade. Our wagon was about 20 feet long and at least 6 feet wide.

He used a series of Higgins inks and an exceedingly fine steel pen, with which he would indicate the geological structures with incredibly fine and steady strokes.

Then there were my mother and father and our nurse, and of course the growing family of children. If we travelled 10 to 14 miles a day, we did very well. When we had moved sufficiently, we would look for a shady place with water.

For us children the most important thing was to find a large tree with a good bough to take our swing. Of course we didn’t move every day. My father would find a good place and he would work there for about a week, going out on foot with one of the African men and coming back in the evening.

My father took with him the official maps that existed, some fine, but none too accurate – as he found to his annoyance. On these maps he noted down his day’s work each evening at a small folding table. He used a series of Higgins inks and an exceedingly fine steel pen, with which he would indicate the geological structures with incredibly fine and steady strokes.

The light that he had to work by was a unique one, shaped like an hourglass. The top half was filled with paraffin in which was set the the metal wick holder. The lower half contained some kind of clockwork mechanism, which was wound up each day to give a most splendid steady light. After the map reading came the final specimen preparation of the rocks brought back to the camp each day. Each was chipped into a regularly shaped rectangle which he carefully labeled and noted in his diary.

The following day, my father would set out again in a large, wide-awake shaped , drill shirt with long sleeves to protect his arms from the sun, riding breeches tucked into shining heavy leggings, ending in heavy hobnailed boots. Round his neck he had his field glasses, water bottle, pouch containing pipe and tobacco and his note book. He was a big, strong man, and, except for tick fever, he was never ill. He always used an Alpine stock, probably a relic of his youth when he was an enthusiastic Alpine climber.

However, apart from his work, he never did any climbing in South Africa. Unless the stock of food in the pantry was running low he never carried a firearm in his daily work, although he had a shotgun and a heavy revolver in the wagon – just in case.

The most beautiful bread used to come out of ant heap ovens.

We used to love to chew the gum from the Mimosa trees when we were in the Lowveld. If there was a suitable ant-heap near our camp, a slice was cut out from the top to bottom of it and it was hollowed out in the centre to make an oven for baking bread. The most beautiful bread used to come out of ant heap ovens. If there was no ant-heap available then we would cook in an enormous cast iron pot. I could hardly get my little arms around it, and it was about 10 inches deep.

When my two brothers arrived we gave up the Cape Cart and got a “Spider”. This was a four wheeled vehicle which had one seat, but it also had a sort of tray underneath the seat. My father had a cushion made for this and we children sat on it. I can remember mile after mile we used to sit there, with our legs swinging over the edge.

We played mouth organs and Jew harps and ate naartjies and oranges – it was wonderful. No child today can have a life that touched ours. My dolls had to be very small because there was not much space to pack them. Two of my dolls were called Teeny-Wee dolls and they were, like my other dolls, made of China. They were dressed in intricate detail in traditional Austrian costume. These dolls, which were only half the size of my little thumb, were constantly getting lost and my tears and trauma that followed prompted my father to keep them in a matchbox in his waistcoat pocket. In the evening, when he returned home, I would be allowed to play with them.

We would often be woken up at night by the roar of lion, but I was more frightened of fires – we always went out in the driest time of the year and I was terrified of the fires that we could see sweeping over the hills. I remember one night we were woken up and went to God’s Window [a high cliff top in the Lowveld with a view] and looked down at a huge forest fire – a spectacular, but terrifying sight. I also didn’t care much for flooding rivers. and we had some frightening experiences crossing them.

One time I remember well, was when we crossed the Blyde River in full spate. The mules were swimming and the water was rushing under the Spider. We had a dog called “Watch”, who adored water and he always insisted on swimming across rivers. This day we had to wait for over half an hour for him to come up the bank after he had been swept downstream by the torrent.

We would often be woken up at night by the roar of lion, but I was more frightened of fires – we always went out in the driest time of the year and I was terrified of the fires that we could see sweeping over the hills.

When we used to go to Sekkukhuniland in the Middleburg district, my mother and I must have been among the first white females to come through the district because we were objects of much interest. The woman came for miles to stand in a big circle round the camp and watch us. They were particularly amused when my mother combed my long red hair and like all little girls, I complained bitterly when the comb stuck in my tangles.

We sometimes went down the Long Tom Pass, of course tar roads were unknown in South Africa at that time. The road used to be bad often, with big dongas cutting it. We would have to look for rocks or sometimes a suitable tree to cut down to fill those gullies in order to keep the wagon reasonably level. On one occasion the wagon fell right over whilst I was inside.

To prevent this sort of problem my father and mother and all the men all had to stand up with long ropes pulling against the fall of the wagon and to keep it reasonably level as we went of these frightfully handmade efforts at mending roads. One morning in the Sekhukhuniland, dawn was just about breaking when we were woken up by a peculiar stamping sound, shouting and general hub-bub outside.

My father was apprehensive because there had been an uprising in the area. So with his revolver handy, he carefully opened one of the flaps in the wagon. He saw a large crowd of African men dressed up in paint, dressed in spears, shields, feathers and skins. There were about 50 to 60 people there. And our men were sitting around the fire calmly chatting to some of these fellows! My father was very worried and he shouted out to our men to find out what was going on. They laughed and said that the local chief’s son was coming out of school now, and that these were his friends going out to meet him. They had seen the white chief’s camp and had come to greet him.

During his attendance as a South African representative to the Geological Congress in Spain. And my father, as the only French speaking member was selected to sit next to the Queen of Spain at the official banquet. He also attended congresses in Russia and the USA as an official delegate as well as undertaking the total organisation of a congress in South Africa. My mother was a sterling woman all the way. They formed a vital partnership. They were guides, helpmates, philosophers, friends and helpmates to each other. Their love and concern for a country they made their own, left a rich heritage for South Africans, for generations to come.

Published in Loco Voco 1986 and edited by C. C. Callaghan.

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