The rise and fall of ox-wagons

Transport riders evolved to serve the needs of the developing hinterland towns and vanished with the coming of the rail. These men brought wagon loads of supplies from the coast to inland destinations, using traditional ox wagons, which carried about 1 800 kg. These soon became was too small and in 1860 a new transport wagon came into production. Far bigger than the traditional wagon, it had side rails and a half tent. The braking system was also completely changed. No longer did the driver have to rely on a brake shoe to slow down or stop the wagon. Brake blocks were fitted to the rear wheels and operated by means of a screw. These new wagons, drawn by teams of 16 to 20 oxen, could carry loads of up to 4 500kg. “Normally they travelled in only two shifts a day – from 02h00 to an hour after sunrise and in the evening from 16h00 to 22h00,” writes Jose Burman in Towards the far Horizon – The Story of the Ox-wagon in South Africa. “The drivers chased cattle well into the veld, away from the road to graze. This ensured their good condition. Living quarters were in the half-tent at the rear where simple furniture, clothes, food, and cooking utensils were stored. The discovery of gold and diamonds gave the impetus for railway development, but it was slow and about 18 500 wagons traveled the roads to Kimberley before the railway reached there in 1885. Then, a new route – the eastern route into the Transvaal – attracted drivers, but the rinderpest struck and by 1897, ruthlessly destroyed the transport rider’s world. Over 500 000 oxen died, effectively ending the era of ox-drawn wagons. Transport riders switched to mules, but the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) broke out and finally finished the independent transport riders as both wagons and mules were conscripted by the army.


© Rose’s Roundup, vol. 2, no. 72, September 2009


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