by Des and Jill Somerset
We were married on the 1st November 1958 at Ramatlabama in Bechuanaland. From Ramatlabama, the nearest evidence of civilisation was Mafeking over the border in South Africa to which one could travel to shop once a week. Fortunately, in Ramatlabama, we had a good borehole so there was water in our taps (not something to be
taken for granted, I later found). As we only had three books, we missed having a library of books hugely. Des was still studying Tswana (the country’s language) at night and needed the only lamp we possessed at that stage, I resorted to knitting. This period of our lives we had
the tidiest of cupboards. We did not have many distractions to occupy ourselves during
the day. There was no phone, no neighbours, no books apart from the three we had brought, and a radio with not much broadcast to listen to. Little did I realise it though but Ramatlabama would be relatively cosmopolitan compared to our next posting.
Even so, I still had so much to learn - wood stoves and their temperaments, irons with
no electric cords dangling from them, remembering to order everything
necessary for the groceries - the next opportunity to correct this could be anywhere from a week (in Ramatlabama) to up to two months away (in Tshabong).
I found it a difficult time - housebound with only deep sand and game for miles around -
so no wandering about, apart from walking over to a small building where the
police radio generator room was housed. The only contact with the outside world was through morse code. There were no neighbours, no
telephone, no shop (apart from a very small trading store selling paraffin,
mealie meal, matches and candles). Our own small radio (with a large G.V. battery - the size of two bricks and rather
costly to replace) could only be used for two hours per day. When the borehole produced very little water then a trip
down the garden path was required to the bucket loo. Night visits meant carrying a .303 rifle and a torch - as there were leopards and hyenas who lived on the other side of the dune and liked to visit at night times. Later, when pregnant, frequent visits at night became a necessity. It did not help that Des was away for three weeks out of four
on poaching patrols.
It was not easy being a colonial wife. The ‘roads’ or 'rough tracks' were a better
description, especially when driving in a truck long past its sell-by date.
In later years I have been asked many times did I ride a camel. No, I did not - even though I did live at a camel station.
It was a very, very difficult world - very challenging but it was never boring! Food might
be boring though as there was no fresh fruit or vegetables. Additionally, ordering food by Morse Code could result in errors and confusion (either in sending or
receiving). For example one small tin of baked beans and one small tin of processed peas
might arrive instead of the large tins ordered. There was no way of correcting this and mystery butter beans and pumpkins could turn up most unexpectedly.
Ordering groceries by Morse Code or over the police radio had its drawbacks
when you required Feminine Articles. On one occasion I asked my husband to buy some when he, along with six delightful police drivers, had to go to Port Elizabeth to
fetch much needed new police vehicles. I asked him to buy me new bras and
gave him the label and my requirements. His police drivers had never been in
South Africa before and accompanied him everywhere. Six of them, all very
smartly dressed in heavily starched bush jackets and shorts, hats with a red
pugaree around the crown, marched into the large department store with him
and came to attention at his side in the lingerie department. The elderly lady
was highly embarrassed, found his requirements quickly and he departed with
his escort. For any future requirements I wrote to my mother, who was a wonderful
help - everything from lingerie to size eight shoes (at times I had to wear high
heels) and dresses etc for special occasions. Living in the desert and plunging
straight into government parties definitely needed a larger than expected wardrobe.
Des was sometimes away for months on end either due to work or on a
condensed language course in Mafeking (Normally A one year Wits University course
run by Professor Cole). My only company was often just a young
baby and our two dogs. I have to say that I lost hair through stress.
On one occasion I had to call Des out of Professor Coles’ class using the police radio to tell
him the septic tank had overflowed and then having to receive his instructions in how
to build or where to find another one. Then came my urgent plea of ‘where do I find rocks
and stones’ for the septic tank construction as there was only sand as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately, this request of mine was accidentally
broadcast all over the country so it took me a while to live this one down amongst the other colonial servants! At last, Des passed his course with Honours, which meant a double salary cheque and we could
go on holiday to the coast and at last spend some time together.
Insects were a constant battle; especially the big beetles that were quite
happy to munch on human flesh as well as each other! We called them Stututjane or Corn Crickets. There were also snakes to contend with. On one occasion when I was having a bath one night I saw an Adder slither under my bath. He felt quite at home with the warmth and dampness of the bathroom.
Much of the time I was pretty housebound - thick sand, isolation and game just outside the front door like lion, leopard, wild dog, not the sort of animals that you want to meet when on foot and are alone.
We stored a good supply of tea chests, wooden crates etc together with old
newspapers (newspapers were a rare but valuable commodity) for household moves to
any new station - often at short notice. The ability to protect one’s china plates, cups and
saucers was crucial (only enamel mugs and plates were available locally). These boxes were also important for moving cats - dogs were easy. We once lost two cats who escaped when the truck door was opened somewhere in the middle of the
Kalahari desert. However this wasn't as bad as our neighbours who asked the vet for ‘a pill to put their favourite pussy to sleep’ meaning for the journey. They were devastated when later told ‘don’t worry. I’ll bury him for you’ by the local vet.
Oh and of course we needed a tin trunk for storing our ‘better clothes’ including hat,
gloves and bags. It had to be roomy enough to store your husband’s helmet (in its
drawstring bag). These things were not usually needed on bush stations -
(high heels in sand just did not work!) - but they were of course required on the busier and larger stations so needed to be on hand.
The new border station had been open for about three months - all was going well except for one trader who, unused to signals and road signs, didn’t slow down for the boom to open. He wasn’t hurt but his car became a ‘convertible’. Otherwise it was pretty peaceful and all was going well.
One afternoon Des came home and informed me the Government Secretary would be arriving to see the new station and his wife would like to meet me for tea. I had no idea who the Govt. Secretary was, or his rank and being very shy I would find this overwhelming. (Fortunately I thought the Govt. Secretary to be a minor position or I would have been tongue-tied and very awkward).
Our stove was a new one with white enamel sides and a black shiny top; wood-burning of course. The temperature gauge puzzled me until, on a trip to Mafeking, I bought a new gauge. Not being much use at baking, I now found out why I had little success. The oven thermometer LIED - it probably was giving the temperature of the kitchen, being summer and very hot outside.
There was a small old prefab house 200m down the road, uninhabited, with a black Dover stove. I asked George, Des’ major-domo, to light the stove there. We then headed down there with a wheelbarrow load of wood, paper and matches and with a camp chair balanced on top holding baking trays of scones and biscuits with me following carrying yet more. Down the dusty stony track with two baking trays clutched in my hands, the inevitable happened! I tripped. The scones and biscuits went flying into the dirt and dust. They were no longer neatly cut, but out of shape and definitely dusty. I picked them up, dusted them off and tried to re-shape them. We made it to the little house and a hot black stove with an oven that worked.
The trip back home was more successful. I was able to avoid the stones and the rocks this time. I set out the plates with the home-made offerings and the tea tray in readiness. The wood stove was hot enough to boil the kettle so I relaxed and looked forward to my visitor - the Govt. Secretary’s wife. We were pretty isolated - Des’ only visitor was usually his O.C. who came down from Lobatse. I had met Captain Lowry’s wife, when on a courtesy visit, I had introduced myself.
The hierarchy in those days took some getting used to. But it all turned out to be the last thing that I had expected. A car arrived - there weren’t so many in use due to the sandy rocky tracks. A very smart constable jumped out and opened the back car door for a lovely friendly lady with a big smile who immediately put me at ease. We chatted away over tea. I apologised for the shape of the scones and biscuits, explained how they had lost their shape, but had been very well dusted. It was a lovely afternoon, friendly, relaxed with much laughter, and she quite understood my predicament.
A phone call came in to say her husband was on the way to fetch her using the same car and driver that had delivered her to our house - but in the back seat sat a smiling man dressed in ceremonial white uniform with plumed helmet. So much for being Govt. Secretary - it was actually the Governor of Botswana himself: Sir Peter Fawcus1. Over the years we met them at Government functions and always felt at ease, which was unusual for me.
After six months of border policing and the opening of a new border post, Des was transferred to Tshabong in May 1959. Tshabong was the administrative seat of the Kgalagadi district. It was right out in the southwest of Bechuanaland. It was a real Kalahari desert outpost
covering 60,000 square miles, complete with 60 camels, a small settlement of Makgalahaadi
people and a very large variety of game. There were two small police posts manned by six policemen at each and the main station with twelve men, a District Commissioner and my husband the sub-inspector. A flying doctor visited once a month. Of course there was no electricity but even
worse, very often there was hardly any water. Sometimes there was no water at all unless it was brought in from another borehole, but more of that later. So it was goodbye to friends and the handful of shops in relatively nearby Mafeking, and time to get packing, though having not been married for long there wasn’t the largest amount to pack.
The Government provided us with heavy household furniture for the lounge and dining room,
five single beds and a kitchen table and chairs, as the average time of posting to a station
was two years. Our household goods were packed into five tea chests that we had bought
for 3/- each from a local trader near the railway sidings called Mr Roelefse, plus one or two
tin trunks we had acquired. When moving day arrived we assembled In the front garden
with our quota of mattresses to await the arrival of an empty five ton truck, which was to be
our removal van.
By evening there was still no sign of the truck and we had to move back inside, unpacking
the necessary bits for supper and a cup of tea. The kettle had been retrieved much earlier in
the day. Des’ replacement and his wife kindly welcomed us back into the house for the
night and we repeated the performance the following morning. At 4pm the following day the
truck was finally heard off in the distance and much scurrying about and final repacking was
done. Cats and dogs were rounded up, cats to go in a box and dogs in the front of the truck with
us. The truck arrived and was piled high with wooden crates which had obviously come a great
distance already, leaving a space of just about one metre wide across the back of the truck. This was totally inadequate for us, with all our household goods, cats, dogs, and our majordomo George with his
bed and belongings too!
The wooden crates turned out to contain new camel saddles which had come from India and
which we were to take with us. We were to replace the ones currently in use which had all
been adapted from horse saddles. The driver cheerfully told us that the saddles were
needed in a hurry, and that the small space that had been left on the tailgate was for Des
and I to sit. And everything that we had packed; all our clothes, household goods, bedding, George, The two month supply of groceries.... they would all be picked up by the next truck said the driver confidently - it would come through in no more than
two months time! I will leave It to you to imagine how I felt about this arrangement. There was over 500 kilometres of ‘road’ which lay ahead, none of it involving any form of tarmac. We had just one metre of tailgate
to transport myself, my husband and our entire household to our new home. This was not going to
make the grade, especially bearing in mind that I was about four months pregnant with our
first daughter at the time.
My rage was quickly translated by Des into some very hot humming phone lines between
our location and HQ, and eventually permission was granted to offload the saddles which were to be
picked up by the next truck. I had guessed correctly about the time it would have taken for that second truck it finally came through two months
later! In fact it turned out in the end that after all that effort by the authorities there had been no
need for any hurry at all as the saddles were totally useless - our camels were too fat!
Des’ replacement and his wife kindly welcomed us back in again, and we finally left the
following day, boxes piled high and mattresses tied on top. Our first stop was in Mafeking to pick up two
month’s supplies. Des drove and the dogs and I had the passenger seat. The African driver
and mate, who were both members of the Bechuanaland Protectorate Police, were happily
ensconced on the mattresses on top of our possessions. The truck may have been
mechanically sound, but passenger comfort was sorely lacking. As the day wore on and we travelled further and further West, the farms were getting further apart; the neat whitewashed
buildings with gardens gave way to bare cement homes with no surround of garden or effort
at fencing at all. Vegetation comprised of tufts of uninspired looking grass which miraculously did
wonders for cattle. Then there were the thorn bushes and flat-topped thorn trees with their huge thorns, and sand,
sand and more sand, which was loose and deep. Although it was winter it was still very hot
during the day and incredibly dry. The cab of the truck became unbearably hot, and the
rubber matting on the floor had long since disappeared leaving a bare metal floor. The
screws for the battery cover plate were also long gone and it was necessary for the
passenger, in this case me, to make sure that their feet were kept firmly on the plate to hold
it In place otherwise sparks would fly. Literally. So with my feet holding a very hot metal plate
In position, a large Alsatian puppy on my lap, a Dachshund pup sprawled across my
shoulders, and a rather bad case of bad morning sickness and brucelossis, my unborn
daughter and myself were very far from being comfortable.
Finally we stopped for a very welcome tea break under a large shady thorn tree. A fire was
made and a three legged pot was unearthed from the depths of the truck. We enjoyed our
tea out of enamel mugs under the shade of a thorn tree while the dogs stretched their legs
and Investigated the interesting smells. While we were busy, Des cut lengths of branches and laid
them on the floor of the truck to act as insulation for my feet which brought
some measure of relief. The road was fairly straight. If you can call a sandy track a road, but
the further West we travelled, the heavier the sand became. This was cattle country as we
could see from the large milk cans sitting at the Intersections of the farm roads. There
was plenty of grass and a fair few cattle gates that had to be opened and closed, but we
didn’t see many cattle. The cans would contain cream to be collected for the creamery in
Mafeking - to make Tulip Butter. Des counted 38 farm gates across the road en route to Bray that had
to be opened and closed, but it did give us an opportunity to stretch our legs.
By late afternoon we were very relieved when we came to the tiny dorp called Bray which
consisted of a shop, garage, post office, a small travellers' hotel and a hospital where my
daughter would later be born. Most of the water here was very brackish so there were no lawns
or flowers to be seen. There was also a Dutch Reformed Church, and they kindly visited me
when I was in hospital after Sally was born, even bringing me flowers, though I have no Idea
where they found them. The hotel was a very welcome stop for us weary travellers. George
and our two policemen who had so far been perched on top of all the furniture hanging onto
whatever was available to them, climbed down. They were covered with dust and twigs. They were glad to stretch their legs and
accommodation was found for everybody. After a long, hot bath we went to the little dining
room, where the menu was the same for breakfast, lunch and supper. Then we all fell Into our
respective beds for a most welcome sleep, with the dogs curled up in the cab of the truck.
The menu at the hotel was the same for every meal - goat stew. That may be fine for supper,
but I couldn’t bring myself to face It for breakfast the next morning! Fortunately they had
some nice home-baked bread for me, and suitably fortified with tea and toast we left on the
final leg of our journey.
George and the two policemen climbed back on top and I got back into position in the
passenger seat with one puppy on my lap, one across my shoulders, and a foot jamming the
battery plate in place.
Throughout the day the road got even rougher and more corrugated and the farms more
scattered. As we got closer to Werda - (the farm near the track leading across the Molopo
River and up the dune where Des had a small police station and two small houses could be
seen) was called Upillo. We didn’t know then that this would later become our home for six
months when the borehole at Tshabong dried out, though at least it was only thirty miles
from the hospital!
After another very welcome stop for tea under a shady tree (small fire, three-legged pot,
enamel mugs) Des, myself and the dogs changed places with the police drivers which meant
that we were now up top on the outside, hanging onto the ropes tying the mattresses down with
one hand and a dog each with the other. We bounced along the track in relative comfort,
ducking the overhanging trees, but needless to say we weren’t always successful in missing the long strong thorns, and we pondered our seating arrangements. On the one hand we
now had considerably better padding and I suppose you could say the view was better, you
could see even more sand and thorn trees, but on the other hand we were rather scratched
and torn! There was also, of course, the added ‘bonus’ that every tree we went under
showered us with spiders and other Insects, and we were now on the lookout for snakes and
leopards on every branch.
There was very little habitation to be seen now as we carried on West, but at last we saw in
the distance the ‘road’ swinging to the right, and a farm on the left. This was the last gate
to be opened and then closed behind us, and we now faced 40 miles of desert with no farms or
human habitation before we finally reached the small settlement of Tshabong and our new
The sand was becoming heavier and heavier and the colours on the undulating dunes kept
changing from yellow ochre to a dark shade of orange. There were sparse clumps of grass
and thorn trees, ranging in size from fairly small to very large, giving us welcome shade in
the middle of the day. Instead of the odd one or two springbok that we had previously
sighted, here we came across large herds, running and prancing, a most beautiful sight;
grace In action. In the distance we also sighted a herd of grey wildebeest, exciting to see,
but lacking the grace and beauty of the springbok; the occasional hartebeest, gemsbok and
even hyenas and cheetahs. The top of the truck made for a wonderful viewing platform,
when we weren’t dodging the wicked two inch thorns and possible beasties in the trees.
Eventually we reached a large, flat salt pan and a long white, flat-roofed building could be
seen on the far side of the pan. There was also a small white painted building nearby and
two clumps of trees without leaves, through which could be seen the roofs of houses.
Tshabong at last!
Finally, the truck pulled up at the smaller of the two buildings which was surrounded by
dormant, leafless, Syringa trees. There was a warm welcoming shout from Charlie, the
police officer that Des was going to be relieving. The District Commissioner’s wife,
immaculately dressed, had laid out a welcoming tea for us. I have never felt so dirty and
disreputable In my life. Sweaty and covered in dust, bloodstained and torn from the thorns
and in desperate need of about two bottles of shampoo and gallons of water, to say nothing
of clean clothes! I now knew what it felt like to be “something the cat dragged in’’. During tea we
discovered that the District Commissioner was away some miles to the North, and wasn’t
expected back for several days. Charlie, who occupied the house, said he would be very
pleased if I would do his packing for him - an offer I politely declined.
I learned that there was a whole springbok in the freezer, the next week’s meat supply. And
in the kitchen was a gleaming new gas stove, which had seldom been used as it was too
expensive to run - it seemed a strange thing to have been brought at great expense from
Mafeking 300 miles away when camel thorn wood was freely available on site and was
wonderful to cook with. But in the corner was an old black three legged wood stove, the
fourth leg being a block of concrete, and this stove worked very well despite the fact that the
grate had long since disintegrated and as the oven got so hot it was best to bake with the
door open. All this over the first cup of tea !
All I longed to do was soak in a bath and go to bed, so as soon as I was politely able to I
retreated to the bathroom, armed with a Reader’s Digest, soap, towel and a face cloth. I left
Des to point out the difficulties arising from there only being one bedroom in the house,
Especially with us moving in and Charlie still being in residence with not a packing case in sight!
The hot water system was very efficient, providing one had water and wood. The latter was
in good supply, the former wasn’t, and the system consisted of a fire being made under a 44 gallon drum of water and piped to the house. I used that whole 44 gallon drum of hot water
over the next two hours. Eventually I emerged clean, more rested and with the dreaded
nausea in abeyance. In the meantime, Des had piled Charlie’s bed and possessions onto
the enclosed stoep, Charlie having disappeared. Des then moved our bed and cases into the
room. Fortunately for Des, Charlie’s maid cooked supper that night as I hadn’t even considered unpacking the pots and pans and we couldn’t really start to move in until Charlie
had vacated. It was marvellous to sink into bed that night - it was soft, it was still, and there
was no noise. The dogs were so tired that they just settled down close by and slept with the cats!
We woke to a beautiful breaking dawn, birdcalls, and a chewing noise very close by. The
dogs, still only puppies, had found a pair of Charlie’s shoes which had been left behind in
Des’s hasty evacuation of the room. Small chewed pieces of leather added to the chaos of
tea chests and suitcases piled high in the corners. Gradually we became aware of more
distant sounds, voices and the clatter of buckets being filled at the communal taps, the
sounds of cattle and goats, and a strange roaring noise which was coming closer. By this
time Des had gone to shave and I was convinced that this roar could only be lions and
debated with myself whether it was best to dive back under the blankets or hide in the empty
Before I could make my decision Des came running through to the bedroom to call me to
come and look at a camel training session. The young camels were being led at the side of
an older camel, which was ridden by a member of the Bechuanaland Protectorate Police and the
roaring noise was the protesting of a young camel.
I later learned that lions were regular visitors to the area, and that there was a leopard
whose path took it between our house and the outside loo at night. This was a steep learning
curve for me, and I also found hyena paw prints out there.
Soon, Des had to go to Mafeking to take a Tswana exam and the truck needed repairing also. So we
were off to civilisation - a few shops, a hairdresser, tarred roads, and people! The trip was a
long one, all day in our battered vehicle, and even longer In summer when the sand was so
hot and loose that the truck frequently got bogged down and had to be dug out. This was
one trip when we had to leave our much loved dogs behind in George’s care.
Whilst Des was busy with his exam, visiting HQ and his OC and seeing to the repairs that
were essential for the truck, I was having a wonderful time - off to the shops armed with a
long shopping list of much needed groceries, not forgetting tins and tins of dehydrated
vegetables. I visited the hardware store for all the bits and pieces that are always needed. I was drooling at the window of the electrical store full of lamps that simply turn on with the flick of
a switch and the gleaming white enamel stove that with just the turn of a knob gives you
wonderful instant, regulated electrical heat! I went to the clothing shop where I bought Des his first
winter dressing gown, surprisingly useful for cold desert nights for a house with an outhouse. I had to go to the
gun shop for extra ammunition as well as visiting the pharmac and lastly the haberdashers for wool, dress
material and patterns. Finally the highlight of the day was a tea party given by a friend. Having
spent so much time alone and certainly starved of the company of other young women, this
was going to be a memory to savour.
The necessary repairs to the truck were completed, necessary being the operative word -
nothing not vital to the running of it was taken into account, and this included any
consideration for comfort. Purchases were loaded, water and petrol drums were refilled. We left before
first light to try and beat the worst of the day’s heat on the journey home. My mind was full of
everything I had seen and done, and savouring my precious purchases. Just thinking about baking
bread, eating fresh vegetables and even cooking a pound of sausages made me salivate... as long as they would still be edible at
As the day dawned the roads became sandier, farms sparser. As the day progressed we left
the farms behind and were truly in the wild with sightings of various species of game, sand,
the odd clump of grass, thorn trees and yet more sand. The road shimmered and we sweated in the
heat and the truck laboured on. Our water container, a canvas bag hung on the front bumper,
kept cool but very dusty.
We were expecting two senior officers for supper that night - visitors were usually a rarity
and now we were having a surfeit of people! I knew that I had left a leg of Springbok in the
freezer, which shouldn’t take long to defrost in the heat, and we had the rest of the
ingredients that we needed for supper with us in the truck so I had plenty of time to work out
the menu for the evening. We arrived home at 4pm in good time to make all the necessary preparations. While the policemen and prisoners (The prisoners at the time were local poachers that were occupying “Kings George” hotel
with blankets and two meals a day) offloaded the truck, I went to the
deep freeze to take out the Springbok. But horror of horrors - There was no springbok!
A very worried George informed us that the District Commissioner, our only neighbour, had
run short of meat and had “borrowed” it. So Des quickly organised the best police hunter that
we had and sent him out with orders to bring a springbok home quickly. “Quickly” turned out
to be three hours later, and with the stove roaring away in readiness and our guests due to
arrive very shortly, at last we heard the sound of the truck returning In the distance.
necessities of skinning, cleaning and jointing were accomplished in record time and a leg
went into the oven just after our guests had arrived. Our only visitors for months and we
nearly couldn’t give them supper! The evening went off well and if anybody realised that the
meat was a little underdone, they were far too polite to say...
Tshabong To Tsane - June 1959
Des was due to do a routine inspection of the police post at Tsane, 160 miles north of Tshabong (another camel post consisting of twenty camels), a small village with one borehole. Though only 160 miles away, it took two days’ travel in bottom gear on a very rough track. Roads were non-existent.
The day before we left was spent in baking bread and cakes and packing up our large wooden scoff box with enough food, including, of course a 5lb tin of Klim (powdered milk). No meat - that you had to shoot yourself.
We intended being away for five or six days, four of which would be spent travelling, more like bouncing along, but we still packed enough food for ten days, just in case!
Our truck was old, long past its prime and decidedly temperamental, choosing as a rule the most isolated spot. There was only game around and lots of it, ranging from a variety of buck to lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs. I forgot to mention a .303 rifle and a shotgun which you never travelled without, which I had to learn to use efficiently - not enthusiastically, but necessary.
We left early the next morning. The back of the truck was full (fortunately it had a strong wire canopy over it) with a 44-gallon drum of dieseline and another 44-gallon drum of water (which one never travelled without), tent, camp beds, blanket rolls, scoff box, to say nothing of two African troopers with their bedding, food etc, and George, major domo to Des, clutching on to our two dogs, his bedding and pots and pans.
Des drove and I had the dubious honour of the passenger seat to myself. There was nothing wrong with the seat in itself - it was sprung, covered and in one piece, but not held down to the base. Every bump we hit, the seat and I flew up in the air, and there were many bumps. Sometimes I managed to manoeuvre the seat with me on top, back onto the base. Regrettably I was not fortunate every time. Sadly the tools were kept in the base - hammer, jack, spanners and puncture outfit - not the comfiest thing to bounce on. I forgot to mention that I was 6 months pregnant and Des had packed sharp scissors and string - in case.
The road was originally an ox wagon trail twisting and turning round bushes and trees. The straightest stretch was no more than 30 yards, except when crossing the one pan where we would have a glorious stretch of 200 yards or more. Despite the hazard of the tools it was rather nice to be bounced in one direction, up and down, instead of up and down and side to side. Poor baby! Somehow she survived. If I didn’t go with Des, it was lonely as he was away three days out of four, and this country with all its game was so interesting. His area covered 60 000 square miles of Crown land, as there were no boreholes or water anywhere and inhabited only by game and Masaswa.
The countryside varied from grassy parkland with tufts of grass and the umbrella-shaped trees (which the camels loved, thorns and all), loose sand and scrubby-looking bushes to sand dunes. Springbok with their twisty horns, white bellies with a dark stripe separating the pale brown of their upper bodies. Brown and grey wildebeest whose hooves churned the ground when in full gallop, the small herds of gemsbok with long straight horns - eland and gemsbok classified as royal game and small duiker and steenbok who loved to shelter under small trees. Royal game were only allowed to be hunted for celebrations on the Queen’s birthday. As there were no shops for hundreds of miles we had to hunt both for us and the camp. As neither of us enjoyed hunting, this was a chore and often the troopers were given this task.
Of course, there were the predators - lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and wild dogs - that would willingly eat us. This made it difficult and somewhat risky leaving the truck when it became necessary to ‘spend a penny’.
Lunch time, sitting in the shade of a tree, making sure no leopard was resting in the branches also watching out for lion who loved to eat them, and us too, I might add. We watched out for snakes, especially mambas. George, Des’ major domo and Troopers Bimbo and Malloi gathered a few sticks to light a fire under the three-legged pot with water for tea and refilled the canvas water bottles which hung on the side mirrors of the truck. Cool, but tasted yuck, but when you are thirsty...
Later that afternoon we made camp for the night. George and our two police troopers helped Des erect our tent, then collected thorn tree branches to encircle the tent (hoping to lion-proof it), and wood for a fire, not only to cook and boil water, but for protection for the three men sleeping outside. The theory is that lions are scared of fire! Our two dogs slept in the back of the truck. The pan we camped next to was Mokalamobedi.
Camp beds erected and the canvas bath placed in position, water buckets heated on the fire, the men retreated after filling the bath and left us to try to rid ourselves of the dust, Des and I taking turns whilst the other sat on a stool holding a .303 rifle in case of a lion or similar predator hoping for supper. We were cleaner, but oh the discomfort of sitting cross-legged, especially being pregnant.
What a relief to wriggle into a makeshift sleeping bag, after making sure the thorn trees enclosing the tent were in place and the men stretched out by the fire. Being pregnant, there were several forays out to ‘spend a penny’, but being a city girl and scared to go out on my own, my poor husband had to be woken to accompany me. But by 4 am, very tired after the twisty bumpy track, he said he was sure I would be safe. On my return I heard a strange noise. Des was convinced it was gemsbok bulls, but in the morning, on going outside, there were lion paw prints all around our tent! Des has often been teased about that.
After breakfast, camp packed up and with the canvas water bottles full, we set off, bouncing along the track. No tent to put up tonight, but sleeping in a rondavel in a fenced-off area. No lions in the camp, and even a bucket loo!
We arrived at dusk and unpacked the truck. George set up our camp beds and table. He, too, was very tired and failed to erect my bed and table locking mechanisms in place. After supper, really tired and bruised, we turned in, not noticing that there were other visitors in the next hut and no vehicles in sight. In the middle of the night, with our dogs sleeping on a blanket in our hut, they were very car-sick.
The police camp had two rondavels and a very small oblong brick building, as well as a corrugated iron shanty for a bucket loo. All we really wanted to notice was where we were sleeping and how far away the loo was. The hut was clean and well-swept, but regrettably we hadn’t noticed it was very old and concave and the step was several inches higher. We were too tired to notice this and it was dark, with only a candle to light us.
The dogs - Tembo, an Alsatian and Brock, a dachshund, usually good travellers, had found two days of bouncing and swerving round trees and rocks and game, just too much. Half asleep, I could only think of using the bucket of water to try and sluice the mess out of the door. Now I really had a mess on my hands and didn’t know what to do. Not having any implements at hand, candle light didn’t help much. Des, by this time had woken up and tried to help but to no avail, so we dropped onto my bed. The legs, not being locked into place, collapsed into the table with our enamel mugs and plates and cutlery and a 5lb tin of Klim. It also gave way and everything now landed in watery mess of dog sick. This gave way to hysterical laughter. Apart from the mess we now had no powdered milk, so it was black tea and dry cornflakes for the next few days.
There was nothing we could do until morning. We erected my bed again and tried to settle down, only to be woken by screams. The prison warder, returning from a party had stumbled through red hot coals of the fire lit behind our rondavel. Not much sleep for us that night!
Next morning our neighbour came over with a concerned look on her face, wondering what had occurred to cause so much hysterical laughter. She and her husband, a homeopathic doctor, and their two girls had flown in a light plane and landed on the pan in front of us. They were looking for ‘Farini’s Lost City’ as described in his book ‘Through the Kalahari Desert - 1886’ by G.A. Farini. Many people had tried to find these remains, but so far had been unable to find any trace. Sand dunes move constantly.
We left George and the prisoners that ‘occupied’ King George Hotel to clean up the mess in our room. The dogs had recovered their good spirits by now.
Sadly our neighbours left and we waved the little plane goodbye and Des left to inspect the camels and the police station. Our life was so isolated that it was good to have folks to talk to. So I wandered around closely followed by Brock and Tembo in the fenced off camp. Nearby I found a small oblong hut and peeking inside, of all things I found a narrow Victorian style bath. A bath I could lie down in! Tshabong the borehole was only giving a trickle of water. If the bath tap was left on all day we collected enough to use for cooking and a stand-up wash and of course clothes, especially Des’ uniform which had to be immaculate.
George and the available prisoners heated buckets of water on the fire, filled the bath to what I considered the correct temperature, and withdrew with an armful of clean clothes. There was no peg or stool to place them on, but the floor looked clean and well swept. And now for a bath, maybe narrow and not long enough to stretch out in. The grubby clothes were in another pile with a towel placed on top.
I hadn’t noticed a window above the bath. It really didn’t matter, except that the village tap was just under the window. When I heard much chattering and looked up to see faces peering in, I leapt up to grab my towel to use as a curtain. Totally forgetting the small legs of the bath were not well spread - the bath only rested on them - balance didn’t come into it. One was supposed to sit carefully in it, not leap up to grab a towel at the side. Fortunately the wall was strong and could take my weight but the clothes got rather wet.
I settled down in privacy until the water felt chilly. Standing up carefully, I pulled the little plug out, hoping that the villagers had finished filling their buckets Sadly I hadn’t checked the plumbing and now my clothes were really wet. Wet but clean, would have to do.
Des’ inspection went well. A corporal was in charge and making a good job of it. There were eight police stationed there, a radio operator (Morse code!), constables and troopers, camels, prison warder, their quarters, camel saddles (still old converted horse saddles). The only complaint was from the prison warder; the prisoners wanted three meals a day. When questioned they admitted that they ate only every third day when they were free. Food was very scarce, even for us who were able to order every two months from Mafeking. Keeping an eye on the budget meant that tinned food really didn’t make the list very often. Their problem was solved. The same amount of daily rations but divided into three, which proved to be satisfactory.
That night with beds and table erected correctly and dogs contented, we all slept well.
Early the next morning packing up the truck proceeded well, and we left for home, a two-day journey of soft sand, occasional rocks and twists and turns.
We camped again at Makalamobedi pan and as we all sat around the fire and Troopers Bimbo and Malloi recounted a previous trip. They had camped in the same place and whilst asleep in their blankets, Bimbo woke up and saw a hyena (who fancied dinner) standing over Malloi. But Bimbo, who had his rifle next to him, lifted it and shot the hyena. Despite all this, we still slept well.
Once home I spent two days in bed. My back was raw and I could not bear clothing touching it.
It was wonderful to see and hear all the game, the countryside, sand and more sand. A crazy trip, being pregnant, but the loneliness was immense. Three weeks out of four Des was away. No people to talk to, no shops, scarcity of water, no electricity, no fresh vegetables or fruit and a battery radio whose expensive battery had to last three months. But I had the tidiest cupboards. As Des was totally without communication, driving a vehicle that constantly broke down, I worried a great deal about him.
Hence my crazy trip, pregnant and all, to accompany him.
Early September 1959
In addition to the “Flying Doctor” paying us a visit once a month - there was a small medical centre manned by a trained nurse - and checked up on by the Govt. Staff, for which I was very thankful since I was pregnant.
This time he flew in two weeks early to coincide with our baby. (150 miles on very rough roads and a truck that continually broke down) with only my husband to help - need I say more!
Dr van der Heever was based in a small village - Bray, about 100 metres from the Bechuanaland border with South Africa. He also flew to Ponfret, an asbestos mine, and other isolated “dorps”, as well as being the hospital doctor.
Tshabong was on a sand dune with a salt pan in front. So we had forty camels in lion-proof pens near the top of the dune, together with borehole and the landing ground in front on the pan where he landed his small plane about two miles from our house.
Just before the Doctor was due to leave, with me as his passenger, Des unhappily told me the truck would not start. (WW2 was only fourteen years earlier hence the broken-down truck) and I had the choice of walking the two miles or riding a camel - perhaps I’d better say - sense of human failure - Plan C? Camels lie down for you to mount, then rise on their back legs first, tipping the rider forward, then rise on front legs and swing you backwards. I was pregnant and wearing a dress in respect of the Queen.
Des was away further South prosecuting a poaching case in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park when our daughter was born in September of that year. He only heard of her arrival when she was two days old. As soon as his case was over he left to drive home the approximately 200 miles over rough tracks, arriving at Tshabong early the next morning - the policemen heard his truck and were running across the pan shouting “Morena you have a daughter!”
Despite a long difficult birth, our bumpy trips to visit his other stations and one to Mafeking. (When the truck complained loudly it needed urgent repairs). Ventures out at night to visit bucket loo armed with a torch and .303 rifle, (my letters to my Mother mentioned leopard and hyena prints frequently found) being able to run round corners the day the gemsbok bull objected to my use of sjambok when he chased my beloved dog.
Despite all the problems, Sally was fine, just suffered from “the three-month cries” as they called it. I might add that I spent a lot of that day sitting under a tree, baby at my side, making a fire and boiling water for tea.
After Sally and I had rested two weeks, Des came to fetch us. It was early summer and hot, Sally in a vest and nappy lying on a pillow in my arms, Des driving and his policeman in the back of the truck. We followed the road between S.A. and Bechuanaland, along the Molopo river - isolated cattle farms - milk cans full of cream waiting to be collected by the butter factory (Tulip butter) in Mafeking.
The truck broke down frequently, between overheating and punctures, leaving it to Des and his policeman while I sat under a tree, Sally on a pillow beside me while I lit a fire under a three-legged pot boiling water for tea. After five or six of these unexpected stops and much tea-making (and learning a new language from my husband) and realising there was no more glue or patches to fix the tyres, we bounced along another five miles before arriving at the next farm. Des and the farmer had met before. Des had arrested him a month earlier for poaching - Sally, bless her, started crying. That relieved the tension and the farmer knew we were in trouble, and came to offer help. Tyre repaired and spare glue and patches, vehicle cooled down (occupants too) and we set off - another five miles before we turned into the gate into Bechuanaland - forty miles to Tshebong.
It was a hot day but at last the truck started. I had asked Des what vehicle would meet us, knowing we had only one - “in what?” his reply was, “not in what, on what”! With that six camels appeared over the dune with three men riding and leading three spares. I’ll refrain from my comments!
On arriving home the borehole was dry and the rainwater tank empty. We drank water from the fridge and wiped Sally down with baby oil. Too tired to go any further that day. I know Des will solve problems in the morning, but I wish I could have a bath, and poor baby having to make do with a wipe down with baby oil.
Next morning Des sent his truck (which was working after a night’s rest) loaded with three 44-gallon drums and instructed his police driver to drive to a tiny settlement (of about six huts) with a borehole to collect water. The water came from an open tank, green and slimy, which I had to drain through a cloth, boil in buckets on a wood stove (middle of summer - 40 0 C) before it could be used. According to letters to my Mother, this village had dysentery and diphtheria.
Several days later we received a radio message. Mr Koekemoer, his wife and children would be arriving in a caboose, together with a large truck containing the machinery needed to drill a much deeper borehole, and a cow to provide fresh milk!! (I’m so sorry I was out of film.) An arrangement was made; they gave us fresh milk in exchange for Klim (powdered milk).
Des was ordered to go out on patrol (the baby was a month old) which meant taking the one and only (highly unreliable) truck providing us with water and meat. I was not well. This was really too much, so I asked Des to take the baby and me to his parents in Johannesburg. Despite the drilling going well, they still needed to drill much deeper and with the truck so unreliable...
Des was granted leave to take the baby and me to Johannesburg where we stayed until he was moved to his other police station almost immediately on his return. It had a borehole with water but it wasn’t long before I had to learn how to build a septic tank. Stone with sand all around provided another headache, when he was away for three months on a language course by Prof. Cole from Witwatersrand University.
Rio Tinto found large deposits of iron ore at Werda many years later - and I couldn’t find even smallish stones and rocks for the septic tank!