and lighter pockets (mine contained but seven shillings), we trudged up
the one and only street. Here and there stood a digger, or a
storekeeper, glancing with amused contempt at the raw "new chums." I
happened to be wearing a pair of new moleskin breeches that were
several sizes too wide for me. These were the occasion of a good deal
of derisive comment. One man sang out to a friend across the street
"Say, Jim, them looks like town-made legs and country made trousers,
Joe's limp, also, was the subject of ribaldry. On the whole we must
have been a strange looking pair. Feeling rather small under the
scrutiny (not bethinking us that within a very few months we would be
putting on similar airs of superiority towards weary tramps arriving
under like conditions) we were glad when we had passed through the
township. We strolled up the winding valley, admiring the landscape and
wondering how we were going to set about earning a living. The scenery
was enchanting, but scenery by itself is not a satisfying diet.
On our course up the creek we passed numbers of parties at work. Owing
to the rugged nature of the Pilgrim's Valley, the pathway zigzagged a
great deal. Some acquaintances of mine were said to be working among
the terraces high up far beyond the Middle Camp and their tent was my
objective. Once we heard a cheery hail from the bed of the creek, and
saw a man waving a tin pannikin at us. This meant an invitation to tea,
which we gladly accepted. The claim was worked by a couple of
Australians; they were on a fair lead, so they told us. They gave us a
supply of tobacco, and told us to call round again as soon as we "got
stony," and they would see what they could do for us. This evidence of
sympathy gave me, at least, a feeling of confidence which I badly
We reached the Middle Camp; as we passed Tom Craddock's bar a stalwart,
bearded, and more or less inebriated digger came out with vociferous
welcome and insisted on our going in and drinking at his expense. In
the bar was a man I knew; seeing him had the effect of making me feel
more or less at home. We sat and rested for a few moments; then I got
hold of the idea that we were expected to stand return treat to our
host and his friends. In this I was, as it happened, quite mistaken.
Joe had no money whatever, so I had to pay. My capital was now reduced
to two shillings.
The man I met in the bar, whom I knew, told me that the friends I was
seeking had, a few days previously, moved down creek. We had passed
their camp without knowing it, a couple of miles back. Joe and I were
now dog-tired, so decided to go back to a warm nook we had noticed in a
kloof on the way up, and spend the night there. We reached this spot
just as night was falling, and "dossed" down. Fuel was plentiful, so we
made a lordly fire. We worked up our remaining meal into dampers and
cooked them in the ashes. We found there was enough tea left for two
brews; one of these we prepared at once. Then we filled our pipes with
some of the kind Australians' seasonable gift, and sat puffing in a
condition of mind that approached contentment.
It had been tacitly assumed that Joe and I were to be mates, although
nothing definite had been said on the subject. We conversed for a while
after supper; then silence fell upon us. I spoke several times to Joe,
but he did not answer. Just as I was wrapping myself in my blanket for
the night, Joe turned abruptly to me and said:
"Look here, I ain't your sort; you'll get a better mate. We'll shake
hands in the morning and say goodbye."
When I awoke in the grey dawn Joe had already risen, lit the fire,
packed his swag, and brewed our last pinch of tea in the billy.
We drank to each other's good fortune in silence. Then, after a
hand-press, Joe humped his swag and strode away, leaving me with
moistened eyes. I felt I had lost my only friend. I have foregathered
with much worse men than "Artful Joe."
Early that day I found my friends, some men I had known at Kimberley.
They agreed to allow me to work with them for my keep, my services then
not being worth more. I knew nothing whatever about gold-mining, and,
not having performed any manual labor for some time, my hands were
soft. Every new chum had to undergo the purgatorial experience of
having his palms blistered and re-blistered until continued contact
with the handles of pick and shovel made them horny. However, I soon
matriculated at the sluice-box, and was able to do a fair day's work.
Then, as my friends could not afford to pay wages they were, for the
time, off the "lead," I sought another employer. Work was easily found.
The uniform rate of wages for Europeans was an ounce of gold per week,
the value thereof being about 3 12s. 6d.
With my first earnings I bought some double width unbleached calico and
a palm and needle. By means of these I made myself a small tent. The
cost of the material was about seventeen shillings, and the work was
easily finished in the course of four or five evenings. I had not been
living in this tent for more than ten days when a man, who was about to
start on a prospecting trip, bought it over my head for 1pound 15s. I
must have made, and sold at a profit, quite a dozen tents during my
stay at Pilgrim's Rest. In fact I soon got to be known as "that chap
who always has a tent to sell." When a purchaser came along I would
deliver the tent at once, and move my few belongings to the dwelling of
some friend or another who happened to have room to spare.
I lived very sparingly indeed; two shillings per diem paid for my food
and tobacco. I hoarded every penny like a miser. I longed to prospect,
to explore; but before attempting this it was necessary to have a few
pounds in hand. On Sundays it was my habit to walk to the top of the
"Divide," the backbone of the mountain range. On one side of it lay
Pilgrim's Rest, on the other "Mac Mac," another mining camp so called
on account of most of the diggers there in the first instance having
been Scotsmen. From this lofty coign I could occasionally get far and
faint glimpses of the mysterious "Low Country," which was just visible
(in clear weather) over the intervening precipice-edged plateau which
lay beyond the Mac Mac and Waterfall Creeks.
Sixty miles away to the north-east, but clearly visible in the rarefied
mountain air, towered the mighty gates through which the Olifant River
roared down to meet the Letaba. On their left the great ranges rolled
away to the infinite north-west. What direction first to explore in?
That was a difficult question to decide, seeing that the field for
adventure was equally enticing in every direction.
Beyond the deep valley in which Mac Mac nestled arose gradually a
great, shelving tract. In rough outline it resembled a plateau, but the
explorer found it to be much broken up and intersected by ravines, some
of which were impassable for miles of their length. This plateau was
very extensive; in fact, it stretched indefinitely to the north-east,
the only break in that direction being the distant gates of the
Oliphant. But on the south-east it ended in an enormous precipice,
occasionally several thousand feet in sheer height.
The view from the edge of this precipice was marvelous. From the lower
margin of the mighty wall the broken hills, covered with virgin forest,
fell away with lessening steepness to the plains. These, also, were
covered with trees; here, however, the woodland had a different
character, for there was little or no undergrowth. The plains stretched
away, to an immense distance. It was in this tract, far below the gazer
on the cliff-edge, that romance dwelt in the tents of enchantment. Over
it roamed the buffalo, the koodoo, and the giraffe. In the dark hour
just before dawn the dew-laden boughs shrouding it trembled to the
thunder-tones of the lion as he roared over his kill. Above all, its
thickets of mystery had hardly been trodden by the foot of civilized
Even on the plateau itself large game was occasionally to be found.
Some lion, more enterprising than his fellows, would lead his mate and
her brood up one of the dizzy clefts in the precipice to prey on the
cattle which, in seasons of drought, the Lydenburg farmers occasionally
sent here for the sake of the rich pasturage.
One morning, when brewing a billy of tea in a small rocky basin, I
heard the sound of trampling. Looking round I saw nine elands
descending the side of the depression and making straight for me. They
came to within about eighty yards and then stood. The leader was an
immense bull by far the largest I have ever seen. All looked as sleek
and fat as stall-fed cattle. My only weapon was an old Colt revolver.
How I cursed my bad luck in not having a rifle. After gazing at me for
a few seconds the elands galloped on, changing their course slightly to
the right. They passed within less than fifty yards of my fire.
Extended rambles - View from the mountain top - An unknown land - The deadly
fever - Gray's fate - Lack of nursing - Temperature rises after death
Pilgrim's Rest in early days - The prison - The stocks - No color line - John
Cameron in trouble - The creek "lead" - Plenty of gold - Wild peaches
Massacres of natives in old days - Kameel - His expressions - Life on the
creek - Major Macdonald - The parson - Boulders - Bad accidents - A quaint
signboard - "Reefing Charlie".
As the days lengthened out I began to extend the scope of my weekly
rambles. Instead of starting on Sunday I would do so on Saturday
afternoon, as soon as work in the claim had ceased. Four hours stiff
walking would take me over the Divide, and almost across the plateau
beyond the Mac Mac River. At some suitable spot I would camp for the
night. Next morning's dawn would find me on my way to the edge of the
beetling cliff. However, sunrise was rarely a striking spectacle from
there, for the reason that usually and more especially in the morning
the Low Country was shrouded in haze. It was later, when the sun had
climbed high and the haze had somewhat dissipated, that the prospect
grew most enthralling. But haze, although its density varied
considerably from time to time, was rarely absent from the regions
This almost continuous barrier to very distant vision used to annoy me
considerably, for my eyes strove greedily to gather up details of the
most remote tracts within their range. Once, on an unusually clear day,
I caught sight of the Lebomba about eighty miles away. The very name of
this then mysterious region used to thrill me with romance. How I
longed to explore its heights which, after all, turned out not to be
so very high and to plunge into its seaward hollows. How I girded at
the vapor that almost continually shrouded it. But I am now inclined
to believe that the glamour which made the prospect seen from the
cliff-edge so rich, was largely due to the diaphanous impediment to
complete vision. This, by hiding or allowing only a bare hint of the
details, gave full play to the imagination.
It must be borne in mind that in the early seventies the vast stretch
of country below the mountain range was practically an unknown land. No
map of it existed; its geography was but vaguely rumored of. We knew
that great rivers the Crocodile and the Komati, the Olifant, the
Letaba, and the lordly Limpopo, in whose depths Leviathan and Behemoth
wallowed flowed through its enchanted pastures, and that wild game of
infinite variety and plentiful beyond the desire of the keenest hunter
nightly slaked their thirst at these mysterious streams.
And yet for more than half of the year that dream-like and translucent
haze which spread like a pearl tinted veil over the romance-filled
woodland tract, was a veritable shadow of death. In the earlier days
men bent on sport, on prospecting or on adventure, pure and simple,
climbed light-heartedly down the steep mountain stairs at all times and
seasons little reckoning that it would have saved them much needless
misery if they had, instead, leaped headlong from the towering cliffs.
For from November to May, fever stalked abroad over the plains and
among the foothills, seeking human prey, and hardly any who ventured
during these months into the dominion of the fever king escaped his
blighting grip. The few who managed to save their lives were doomed to
months or even years of misery.
This could only be learnt by bitter experience.
In the autumn of 1873, five and thirty men descended to the Low
Country; of these I think twenty seven died. During the following year
we took warning, and none, with the exception of the Alexandre party,
attempted exploration before June. Consequently there were not, so far
as I remember, any fatalities; from June to October the Low Country was
healthy enough. But the memory of other people's experience fades
quickly; in 1875 some of us again undertook the trip too early. Six
started, one of these happened to be my "mate," who did not go down as
far as the others, and so escaped. The others were Thomas Shires, Meek,
Schwiegardt, McKinnon, and myself. I started on the 5th of April, at
least two months too early, the others about the same time. Of the
five, the three first mentioned died where they took the infection.
McKinnon and I managed to get back; we reached Mac Mac on the same day,
as it happened, traveling by different paths. Poor McKinnon, who was of
robust, powerful physique, died about a month afterwards. I, whose
build was extremely light, had a comparatively mild attack, but I felt
its effect for years. Of the men who recovered, the great majority were
of the lean kind. It was, in fact, proverbial that the less flesh one
had on one's bones, the better were the chances of recovery.
One extremely sad case was that of a man named Gray, whom I knew well.
He went down with fever at the poisonous Mattol Marsh, about thirty
miles from Delagoa Bay, in 1873. His mate went on to Lourenco Marques
to get supplies and hire bearers, leaving the sick man alone in a small
tent, with a limited supply of food and water. The mate got drunk and
remained so whilst the money he had with him lasted, a period of about
ten days. Then first he bethought him of Gray. Assistance was sent, but
it arrived too late; Gray was dead of thirst and starvation. I found
his grave the following year. Some pitiful Christian had made a rough
cross by tying two boughs together, and had stuck it into the sand at
the head. What made Gray's case sadder, if possible, was the
circumstance that letters were even then awaiting him at Lourenco
Marques with the news that he had inherited a fortune.
There can be no doubt that the heavy mortality among those who returned
to camp ill with fever was due to the fact that no medical man was
available that is, in the early days and that we knew nothing whatever
of the principles of nursing. One instance I recall illustrates this
very forcibly. A man had been ill with fever for upwards of two months.
The case was a bad one, but at length the patient appeared to rally.
One night he sat up in bed and announced that he had completely
recovered and was extremely hungry. On being asked what he would like
to eat he begged for bread and sardines. These were immediately
provided, the bread being coarse and brown. He ate with avidity, and
every one present felt the greatest satisfaction. Within a few hours he
One weird circumstance connected with these fatalities was this; in
some instances the temperature of the bodies would rise after death and
continue to rise for several hours. This, I have been told, was due to
the fever ferment in the blood and tissues developing unchecked, and
its products setting up strong chemical action. It was hard, in these
instances, to believe that death had actually taken place, so attempts
at resuscitation used to be resorted to. I was afterwards told by a
medical man from Barberton that a similar phenomenon was noticed there
in fever cases the temperature sometimes rising after death to 110
Pilgrim's Rest, during the first few years after gold had been
discovered there, was an interesting and delightful place. Those whose
experience of mining camps is limited to ones in which the syndicate or
the company holds sway, can form no idea of the life of a community
where the individual digger is dominant. I am prepared to maintain that
life was healthier, saner, and on the whole more generally satisfactory
at Pilgrim's Rest in the early seventies than it is in any South
African community today. There was, of course, the inevitable
percentage of loafers, idlers, and scoundrels, but these were kept in
their proper place. Public opinion was a very effective force; in
matters affecting the general welfare of the community, opinion quickly
translated itself into action when the occasion demanded it. Thus the
blackguards knew perfectly well that if official justice occasionally
halted, its unofficial equivalent was apt to be short, sharp, and
decisive in its operation. The prison was a bell-tent containing two
sets of stocks. Under ordinary circumstances a prisoner was
accommodated by having both his legs secured. However, occasionally,
when an unusually large number of culprits were run in, they had to be
content with only one wooden anklet apiece. No color line was drawn,
except, to a certain extent, in the matter of the application of the
"cat." Natives and colored men were flogged for whatever offence they
happened to be found guilty of. Europeans were fined, with the
alternative of imprisonment, except in the case of a serious offence
such as tent-robbing, for instance. For such a crime, an almost
unpardonable one in a scattered r mining camp, where tents had very
often to be left unprotected the white man got his five and twenty as a
matter of course. I only knew of one case of tent-robbing by a native.
This was in the early days. The culprit was shot on the spot and thrown
down a disused shaft. No questions on the subject were asked.
I will illustrate what I mean by saying that no color line was drawn. I
once had a mate, John Cameron, a Highlander from Skye. John usually
became inebriated on Saturday night, but would turn up very early on
Sunday morning. One such morning he did not appear. While I was at
breakfast a passing digger told me that my mate was in gaol for
assaulting a policeman.
I started off to see what could be done. The gaol was about four miles
from where I lived. I arrived there in due course. There was no one to
prevent my entering, for the prisoners were secured so well in the
heavy, iron-bound stocks that escape was an impossibility. I found poor
John secured by one foot and lying on the ground between two similarly
secured Kaffirs. He was in a horrid condition, as, being a powerful
man, it had been found necessary to stun him with a club before his
arrest could be effected.
It was a fortunate circumstance that I knew Major Macdonald, the Gold
Commissioner, fairly well, and that he was owing to a successful game
of poker the previous night in an unusually good temper. He penciled an
order for John's release. After some difficulty I found the gaoler and
got him although with a bad grace, for John had acted in a really
outrageous manner to obey the order.
All nationalities were represented among the diggers, but English South
Africans predominated. Soon, however, an increasing population of
Australian, New Zealand, and Californian miners poured in. The "field"
was a rich one. The "lead," which zigzagged perplexingly down between
the valley terraces, carried plenty of gold. It was, of course, uneven,
some parts of it being much richer than others but I do not think that
there was any portion of the lead which it did not pay to work. But the
lead and the bed of the creek in which the water actually ran zigzagged
quite independently of each other. That is to say, at the time when the
gold was carried down and distributed by water along the bottom of the
valley countless ages ago, the stream then flowing although it followed
the same general direction took in detail a course quite different from
the one it followed when the busy gold seekers defaced its banks in the
days I write of.
Much more gold was found than is generally supposed. I remember four
very quiet, reticent men who worked out three and a half rather shallow
claims just in front of what was known as the Middle Camp. They never
spoke of what they were finding and it would have been a most serious
breach of local etiquette to make any inquiry upon such a subject but
upon leaving they authorized the manager of the bank to make public the
fact that they had divided, on dissolution of the partnership, gold to
the value of 35,000. Many others also did well, but none to the same
extent as the partnership referred to. Some very large nuggets were
found. I personally handled one which weighed 10 lb. It was unearthed
by the late John Barrington, afterwards of Knysna.
The wild peaches which grew so plentifully in the vicinity of the Blyde
River Valley were a godsend to indigent "Pilgrims." How the trees
originated is a mystery. But there they were, on the "flats" of
Pilgrim's Creek, along the Blyde River terraces and in many of the
surrounding Valleys, groves of trees bearing luscious peaches of the
yellow clingstone variety. Although the trees were ungrafted, unpruned,
and, in fact, had not been interfered with by meddling man since the
germination of the stones that gave them auspicious birth, the size and
flavor of the fruit were ail that could be desired.
One gold-bearing creek was called "Peach Tree," on account of the
number of trees there growing. Near the upper end of the worked portion
of Pilgrim's Creek was a dense orchard that bore splendidly. But, alas!
they grew over "pay dirt," and in consequence were ruthlessly uprooted.
I am positive that the occurrence of these trees was quite
adventitious; they did not appear to have been planted with any regard
to order, nor as a rule were they found in localities suitable for
I have often speculated as to the origin of these peach-trees. Did some
thoughtful old voortrekker carry peach stones in his pocket, and, as
Admiral Rodney was wont to do with acorns, plant them here and there
for the benefit of posterity? Or did some small boy voortrekker,
munching, from the pocket of his blesbuck-skin jacket, dried fruit sent
up by some kind tante from the far south, carelessly throw aside a
stone which had been accidentally included, and was that the ancestor
of those trees which used to afford us so many delightful feasts?
About half a century before the days I write of, the then thickly
populated region surrounding these goldfields was turned into a
shambles and a solitude by, the horde of the terrible Ma 'Ntatisi,
chieftainess of the Bathlokua. This tribe was driven from its territory
at and around the sources of the Vaal River by the Amahlubi, at the
beginning of the upheaval caused by Tshaka, the Zulu king. On many a
level mountain terrace can still be seen the circular stone walls
indicating where populous villages once stood. Many clans, some large
and some small, had inhabited the fertile valleys of the Drakensberg
between what is now Wakkerstroom and the Olifant River. They lived in
comparative peace with one another. Occasional tribal fights took
place, but the victors never attempted to ruin the vanquished or to
take their territory.
Ma 'Ntatisi's horde literally obliterated these communities. Probably
the number of people who escaped the slaughter did not amount to five
per cent of the whole.
Old "Kameel" was one of the survivors. He was a native who, with his
family and a few goats, lived at a kraal on a ledge to the right of the
creek, about half a mile above the Lower Camp.
Kameel showed me the cave, overlooking the Blyde River Valley, in which
he and his mother had hidden themselves while spear and firebrand were
erasing his tribe from the face of the surrounding country. This cave
could only be entered by climbing up the trunk of a white ironwood-tree
and stepping on to a ledge from one of its branches. Other fugitives,
Kameel told me, sought the hiding-place during the night, but his
mother, fearing that their tracks would be followed, escaped with her
children to another refuge during the darkness. It was fortunate that
they did this, for the spoilers found the tracks leading to the cavern
and massacred every soul it contained. Probably today it still conceals
the gruesome pile of bones principally of women and children which I
saw in it in 1874.
Kameel was a character in his way. He had spent his life a law unto