On a troop train in the Karoo, 1900

On February 4, 1900, Dr Howard Tooth, a British doctor serving at a Cape military hospital received orders to travel to Modder River. It was “at the front” and he was apprehensive. He wrote to his wife stating that he was not taking much in the line of civilian clothing because he was to be in uniform “for a rather big job”. His mission was to visit the hospitals and report on typhoid. Tooth took a “soldier servant”, Barnes, from the Warwick Regiment, and “two cases of provisions so as to be independent in the matter of grub.” He also bought food “in the middle of the veld 600 miles from civilisation.”  Two colleagues, Calverley and Wallace went to “see him off”  and,  with others on the station, stood waving and cheering as the train pulled out.  Tooth shared a “comfy” compartment with Lieutenant Walsh of the Tasmanian Artillery, who was on his way to join a regiment, a commercial traveller, “who bought horses for sale to the army”, and a Scottish telegraph man who “drank too much” but by the following morning turned out to “be a rather nice fellow.”


In his diary Dr Howard Tooth wrote: “All through the night the train climbed to higher ground. It went up 2 000ft, another 2 000 and yet more.” In the morning they looked out and saw the Karoo, “a country most desolate in appearance, with rocks, little bushes, a few goats and at long intervals a station and perhaps a house.” Here and there, he said, were beautiful red flowers like cockscombs, but generally the veld consisted of little scrubby bushes.  His Scottish companion announced he felt it was “a fine country to be away from.”  Tooth wrote: “There are a number of dry water courses and in them a few trees. It looks as though it must rain sometime, but it also looks as if it never does. The old Kimberley road runs alongside the railway line. It is little more than a track, but good for all that.  One could easily ride a bike along all the way we have come so far. The line undulates up and down, there are no cuttings, but there are bridges. All of them are patrolled by fellows armed to the teeth.  If it were not for them the bridges would have been blown up long ago.”


Howard Tooth found the weather trying. “The heat is something awful.  There is a regular hot breath that blows over the land making you feel as if you were standing at the mouth of a furnace. Storms blow up with immense thunder and lightning and very heavy rain. These are only briefly refreshing.” He said they saw mirages from the train. “The whole landscape shimmers with heat and the sunsets are angry. We keep seeing mirages. They are most beautiful. Mostly they are mountains that move about, others are a great lakes of water that just disappear.  The air is very dry. If you put you head out of the carriage window and into it, it quite chokes you.” Karoo stations greatly amused Tooth. “The train draws up solemnly at a board with a name on it. There is no platform and not a house in sight no station, nothing. Just a name  on a board, yet it is marked on the map.”


Sand and dust storms whirled about constantly and frustrated Howard Tooth. Mainly this was because his clothing and food seemed constantly full of sand. “Every now and then you see a whirlwind – a column of dust 50ft or more high. We were struck by a sandstorm – rain mixed with sand and driven at speed by a terrible wind.  The carriage was full of sand before we could even shut the windows. I nipped out to the luggage truck, just in front of our carriage, to try to pull the tarpaulin over our baggage, but I was nearly blown overboard and, in an instant, wet through, so I gave up.  My shirt is covered with great splodges of sand and rain. It was so peaceful a moment ago, but now the wind is howling round the train as if it would blow it over. What an awful thing to be caught in this when trekking across the veld.  We have shut every window and ventilator and we still are covered in sand.  He concluded: “The country is not worth fighting for.”   On February 5 they reached De Aar, “an enormous place, a great sandy plain covered with tents”.  It was extraordinarily cold.  “They say it is fearfully cold at night in the tents. The soldiers look awful ruffians. Their khaki is in rags and everything is covered with red sand.  The officers don’t look much better.”


© Rose’s Roundup, March 2013 (No 230)

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