A COACH RIDE THROUGH RHODESIA

by C.H.Temple

ROOT-TI-TI-TOO-TOO-O-O! sounds the the bugle, commencing with a triumphant flourish and finishing with a faint, dislocated wheeze, as the Royal Zambezia mail coach draws up in front of the post office in the frontier town of Umtali, Mashonaland. It is mail day, and the coach is off to Salisbury. A crowd gathers round it, for to see the coach off is one of the institutions of the place, and one, too, that affords a legitimate excuse for lubricating thirsty throats.  The postbags are soon placed in the “boot”. “All aboard” shouts out the driver, and, to the the accompaniment of bugle blast, cracking whip, and the parting cheers of the bystanders the mail rattles out of the town and is soon lost to view over the famous Christmas Pass.

Outside the Post Office, Umtali. The mail coach about to start for Salisbury. c 1898
Outside the Post Office, Umtali. The mail coach about to start for Salisbury.  c 1897    (all photos by C.H.Temple)

 

Coach riding through Rhodesia! This sounds very romantic maybe to the ears of those whose lot is fixed amongst the prosaic conditions of home life. “How I should like to experience it!” many a reader will exclaim. Well, personally, I don’t see very much romance in it, and I know of what I speak. I have done about one thousand five hundred miles of it, and can unhesitatingly affirm that it is not all beer and skittles.  And I am sure that my testimony will be echoed by a certain famous war artist correspondent, who, after the Matabele war, left Bulawayo en route for Mafeking on board a coach which was constructed to seat twelve passengers, but on which twenty-one were crowded. The journey of five hundred and fifty miles took nearly three weeks to accomplish, and, what with heat and dust, bad food, lack of sleep, and cramped position, the poor fellow’s heart was nearly broken, and, with tears in his eyes, he declared that the experience was as nearly like Purgatory as one could obtain this side of the grave.

The old and experienced coach traveller knows all about the difficulties of the road, of course, and makes his plans accordingly. One never knows in the Dark Continent what is going to happen. One day may be full of pleasure, comparatively speaking; the next, something akin to a catastrophe may be his fortune. Therefore he will provide himself with all sorts of little delicacies in the way of food and drink – and the hint may be useful to readers who may one day coach through South Africa.

When I mention the word coach I can imagine that there will be conjured up before the minds of my readers a vision of the comfortable vehicles running between London and Brighton, Windsor and Oxford.  I cannot blame them; I used to think the same myself at one time, but not now!  I have had the experience, and the memory of my coach trips will always be green with me I think.  There is this oasis in the dreary desert of discomfort, however: there are always plenty of cool stones by the wayside for those who suffer from wounded feelings; it is our nature’s happy provisions.

These mail coaches are huge, ramshackle looking affairs, hung on great leather straps for springs.  They are usually drawn by a span of 10 mules, mules being used in preference to horses because the latter die so quickly from the horse sickness so prevalent in the country; besides, they are altogether hardier, work as well, or better, and are less expensive to keep.

Every fifteen miles or so the spans are changed for fresh relays of mules.

This particular coach ride from Umtali to Salisbury, which I illustrate with my own photos, is now, unfortunately, a thing of the past. I say unfortunately advisedly. The completion of the Mashonaland Railway – a tributary of the great trunk Cape to Cairo line – has rendered such a coach service obsolete, and nevermore will the old road resound with the call of the post bugle.  From the point of view of utility, this is a distinct advantage, but many will regret the development as eliminating an element that was certainly unique and picturesque in the social and commercial life of up-country Africa.

Picnicking in Mashonaland taken from the Umtali coach c 1898
Picnicking in Mashonaland taken from the Umtali coach c 1897

Were I a word painter I would endeavour to portray some of the beauties of the country as seen from the coach windows.  Africa, at least the part of which I write, is not the wild waste that most people imagine it to be. The glorious panorama stretching at one’s feet when viewed from the summit of the Christmas Pass; the beauty of miles of kopje country; mountain rising above mountain, now covered to the top with timber, now castellated with huge granite rocks, heaped together in most fantastic shapes with prodigal profusion; the welcome shimmer of the rivers as they rush through the valleys and whirl round their rock impedimenta; the noble grandeur of the Devil’s Pass, through which the old road winds its tortuous length; all this, and much more, makes up a picture which must be seen to be appreciated, and challenges comparison with any drive, not only in Africa, but, I imagine, in the world.

Close by the road can be seen, every now and then, the rude huts of farmers who are trying to knock a living from the soil. The most genial hospitality is generally served out in these homes to the traveller, be he friend or stranger. These up-country settlers have many disappointments and risks, but all are cheerfully discounted – for such a life has a novelty and charm, and often danger, all its own. The accompanying photos (below) will convey some idea of the rudeness of these homes in the Dark Continent. What with white ants eating away the pole supports, and snakes, centipedes, and tarantulas in the grass roof, the inhabitants generally have a lively time of it.

 

A settlers house in course of construction in Mashonaland
A settlers house in course of construction in Mashonaland
A typical Mashonaland farmhouse. The family group and some hunting trophies. c 1898
A typical Mashonaland farmhouse. The family group and some hunting trophies. mid 1890s

An object of peculiar and pathetic interest, by the way, is a large, many-rooted tree, under which a whole family, who were murdered by the Mashona rebels in 1896, are sleeping their last long sleep.  They suffered the penalty of the daring pioneer, and are victims of the extension of Empire and civilisation.

About midway between Umtali and Salisbury is the famous wayside hotel, called Marandella’s, which was used as a rendezvous and laager by the white settlers in this part of Mashonaland during the recent rebellion.  But its fame springs not alone from this, for it has the reputation of being the best store on the road. It is not so magnificent as the Cecil, nor so select as the Savoy, but every traveller who has stayed there will remember with gratitude the good food, clean beds, and moderate charges of this out-of-the-world caravanserai.

By way of contrast. Once, when travelling from Bulawayo to Salisbury, the coach arrived at a wayside hotel. I had a bottle of beer, some stale bread and cheese, a dirty broken-down bed for two hours, and a cup of coffee.  Mine host modestly charged me for this privilege 21s 6d – twenty-one shillings and six pence.*  This will illustrate my meaning, and the comparison is significant of much.

A transport rider outspanned for breakfast on the Umtali- Salisbury road c 1898
A transport rider outspanned for breakfast on the Umtali – Salisbury road c 1897

Bowling along in the coach, a familiar sight is the transport rider with his wagon. For the man who is not a slave to time, who is not afraid of solitude, and who likes the free open life of the veldt, I can conceive of no better method of travelling than this.  And for the hunter there is generally pretty good big game shooting a few miles off the road, with the added luxury of a settled camp round the wagon every night.  The two photos shown are very characteristic. The first is that of a transport rider, out-spanned for breakfast; the second is a very happy one and shows how the oxen stand for inspanning.  Every beast in a span has some name, generally Dutch,  describing a particular feature of it.  Thus, “Witfoot”, i.e. white foot; or “Satan”, i.e. all black.  They will come when called by name, stand in their proper place in the team, and patiently wait for the yoke reim to be placed over their horns and tied to the yoke.

Oxen ready for inspanning
Oxen ready for inspanning

At one time in Mashonaland, just after the rinderpest plague, transport riding was a very profitable profession.  Prices for transport ranged from £6 to £10 per one hundred pounds; and as the journey from Umtali to Salisbury could be done in three or four weeks, and as a wagon carries about eight thousand pounds, the profitable nature of the business can easily be figured.

Near Marandella’s Store the following amusing incident occurred. The road runs through a very difficult bit of country. Towering kopjes are heaped together in magnificent profusion, making a very weird scene, but exceedingly beautiful. Swarming these hills are troops of huge baboons, who sit on the rocks and chatter volubly at the passer-by.

Mr. C.J. Rhodes was travelling in the coach, accompanied by that well-known engineer, Sir Charles Metcalf.  Mr Symington, the coach proprietor, was driving them himself.  Two huge baboons were fighting, and Rhodes stopped the coach to watch them. After watching them intently for a few minutes, he turned to Symington with the query, “I say, Symington, what are the brutes fighting about?”  The latter reflected a moment, then comically replied, “I think that one of them thinks he is Paul Kruger and the other thinks he is Cecil Rhodes, and they are fighting about the supremacy of …” But he did not finish his sentence, for Rhodes burst out laughing and said, “That will do Symington; drive on, drive on, please!”

The genial coach driver, who told me the story himself, laughed heartily at the reminiscence, and added:

“You see, I am related to the old President, and I know a little bit about things.”

Coaching in the Dark Continent is all very well in its way, but most people as a rule do not like too much of it.  One trip is generally enough to the newcomer, the novelty of being overturned is perhaps not unacceptable, but it may happen too many times.  To be awakened out of a fitful slumber only to realise that one is somehow upside down with a lot of luggage on top of one; to climb out into inky darkness, with a pitiless storm raging, and to stand in mud up to the knees trying to right an upset coach; or to work for hours under a blazing sun digging the coach out from an iron clay bed, in which it has stuck – well, there is almost too much “experience” in this sort of thing; and I have known it all. The novelty of such coaching soon wears off, and one is glad to run into Salisbury, to draw up near the official building associated with the name and work of the celebrated “Dr. Jim,” and to know that the trying ride is over.

Post Office at Bulawayo. The mail coach has just arrived. c 1897
Post Office at Bulawayo. The mail coach has just arrived. c 1897

 

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Notes:

The above account was first published in 1899.

This map from 1900 illustrates a journey, probably more than one, recounted above which took place before 1899.  I have used red dots to highlight the old coach road, described as Selous Road after the famous hunter.  It was superseded by the railway in 1899. Like Umtali, Marandellas was moved to its present site to be next to the new railway.  Click on the map for a closer look.

Umtali-Marandellas 1 : 1 000 000 map from 1900 to show old coach road.
Umtali-Marandellas 1 : 1 000 000 map from 1900 to show old coach road.

* 21 shillings and 6 pence is just over £1 or about 5 US dollars in 1897.  Based on simple price inflation that means the cost of the meal and a bed was about £140 at 2020 prices.

HARD WORK made Rhodesia. The above account shows that the future modern country of Rhodesia was indeed built on the serious hard work and, in many cases suffering, of the pioneers. But like their founder, Cecil Rhodes, these early Rhodesians had vision.