British Empire Article

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 a library 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, not having many distractions to occupy oneself during the day. No phone, no neighbours, no books apart from the three we had brought, and a radio with little 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 in the grocery line - the next opportunity to correct this could be a week (Ramatlabama) or even two months (Tshabong) away.

I found it a difficult time - housebound, and 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 only. There were no neighbours, no telephone, no shop (apart from a very small trading store selling paraffin, mealie meal, matches and candles). Des was away for three weeks out of four on poaching patrols and 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 the leopard and hyena who lived on the other side of the dune visited at night times. Later, when pregnant, frequent visits at night became a necessity. 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.

It was not easy being a colonial wife. The ‘roads’, rough tracks were a better description, especially when driving in a truck long past it’s sell-by date. In later years I have been asked many times did I ride a camel. No, I did not.

It was a very, very difficult world - very challenging but never boring! Food might be boring though as there was no fresh fruit or veg. Ordering food by Morse Code could result in confusion (either in sending or receiving) for example one small tin of baked beans and one small tin of processed peas instead of very large tins by accident. There was no way of correcting this and mystery butter beans and pumpkin could turn up most unexpectedly.

When Des was away for three months whilst stationed in Werda, or on a condensed language course in Mafeking (Normally A one year Wits University course run by Professor Cole) working from 6am to 10pm. My only company was often just a young baby and our two dogs. I have to say that I often lost hair through stress.

Then when 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 can see. Unfortunately, this request of mine was accidentally broadcast all over the country so it took me a while to live this one down! 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.

And that was only one of the many mishaps that always seemed to happen when he was away. There were all the insects; especially a big beetle that was quite happy to munch on human flesh and 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.

Ordering groceries by Morse Code or even police radio had its drawbacks when you required Feminine Articles so 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 - 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.

We stored a good supply of tea chests, wooden crates etc together with old newspapers (newspapers were a rare commodity) for household moves to any new station - often at short notice. The ability to pack one’s china plates, cups and saucers (only enamel mugs and plates were available locally). It was also important how to move cats - dogs were easy. We once lost two cats who escaped from their box 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.

Medical help could be a big problem - we were very blessed if a Mission Hospital was nearby, but it was very difficult when we had to rely on a routine visit by a flying doctor just once a month and the nearest hospital was many hours away (especially when pregnant or with a new baby).

Farewell Ramathlabama, Hello Tshabong 1959
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 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 to be picked up by the next truck. Which, I had guessed correctly, 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 - the first stop was in Mafeking for 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 not. 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 home.

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 cupboard.

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 journey’s end.

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.

The 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...

Later, and when very pregnant, I also accompanied Des to the police post which was further North requiring two days travel away over a very rough track and with just a small rondavel to stay in, albeit with a camp bed. (Looking back I think he was a very brave man - no wonder he suffered an ulcer at the time I flew off to hospital).

Des was away further South prosecuting a poaching case in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park when our daughter was born in September 1959, and only heard of her arrival when she was two days old. As soon as the 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!”

After a disastrous trip home from Bray and endless punctures, we arrived home to find the borehole was now empty and we had no water - all this with a two week old baby. Probably due to all the stress and a long, difficult birth, she had what they call ‘the three month cries’. 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.

Regrettably my sense of humour disappeared at times for example when I had to reach a plane two miles away across heavy sand whilst nine months pregnant. Thankfully a very unexpected visit from a truck was much appreciated at this point. The other ‘near miss’ as I call it was when the truck bringing me and our two week old daughter home broke down. Thankfully Des got the engine going. We were expected at all times to act with dignity, as representatives of Her Majesty The Queen.

Colonial Map
1955 Map of SE Bechuanaland
Colony Profile
Bechuanaland Colony Profile


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