Travelling through the Karoo: The diamond rush of 1871

The description by Boyes, travelling through the Karoo to the diamond fields in 1871:


The “coach”, a huge wagon, was drawn by eight horses, had three wooden benches under an awning. It could seat nine passengers and two more could “perched” at the back with the guard.  There was little room for luggage, so passengers sat with it cutting into their knees “Nor was this the only torment. Loose canvas pockets for carrying food swung from the roof and at every jolt passengers had to duck to avoid being bashed on the head. Yet the bags were essential because food along the route was virtually unprocurable. The days of hospitable Boers had long gone – these farmers would have been ruined trying to feed the mob moving northwards.” Travellers were thus forced to bring their own provisions – sardines, potted meat, bread, brandy, etc. The road, said Boyle, was dreadful and the scenery so dreary that he became bored and depressed. “How the Cape gained a reputation for beauty I cannot comprehend. What a frightful wilderness.” But, he had spoken too soon – he had not seen the Karoo. “After Bains Kloof the real wilderness of the Karoo began. For miles ahead lay monotonous veld shimmered, flat and forbidding under a pitiless sun,” he wrote. “There seems no end to the grey, stony, desolate plains. Nothing breaks the dead level till in a dim haze it fades against low dusty hills. No shadow falls, but the gloom of a passing cloud. Even the stones that clothe the ground are small and shadeless. A dusky knot of prickles here and there, a sprig of heath, a tuft of chamomile or sage, a thin grey arm of vegetation …the sole thing real in all this landscape is that abomination stretched before you.” It took the coach a week to cross the Great Karoo.


Sitting stiff-backed on wooden benches, unable to move their legs or rest their heads, plagued by heat, dust and flies, the 11-day journey to the diggings was hellish. “Men tried to rest, to sleep, at every stop, but it was essential to walk. My ankles began to swell and become painful,” said Boyle. “One passenger was in a terrible state. His limbs doubled in size and became discoloured. Another went totally lame and yet others were too far gone to remedy. At one stop I walked for three hours to ease the discomfort.”  Occasionally they passed men slogging along on foot who begged for water. They also found men senseless with thirst in the veld and bodies were continually discovered along the route. (Cited in Brian Roberts, Kimberley: Turbulent City, New Africa Books, 1976, p. 54).


© Rose’s Roundup, April 2011 (No 207)

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