Call of Duty

Words by Nicki von der Heyde. pictures by Peter Jarvis. Words by Nicki von der Heyde. pictures by Peter Jarvis.

The procession of seventeen Land Cruisers, many of them towing trailers or caravans, resembled an army transport convoy as the vehicles converged on the flat land beneath the looming heights of Spioenkop Mountain. However, these transport wagons were powered by modern Land Cruiser engines and not a span of 16 oxen, as they had been during the second Anglo Boer War (1899-1902). The officers gathered to discuss tactics: they would, in the space of the next four days, be involved in six ferocious battles and needed to be well prepared.

As the shadows lengthened, state-ofthe- art rooftop tents suddenly sprouted under the thorn trees and preparations were made for the evening braai. Soon the site was patched with well-organised campsites with their fires burning, and plans for the morrow were under way. We were to ascend the summit from the far side of the river, north of the mountain, where, in January 1900, the Boers scrambled up the steep slopes prior to the Battle of Spioenkop.

Spioenkop Dam now covers much of what was then the British line of advance. Their crossing point, Trichardt’s Drift, now lies beneath deep water. But in one’s imagination, it’s not too difficult to shrink the dam, into a tortuously winding river flowing eastward from the Drakensberg Mountains that dominate the skyline to the west.

The planning was interrupted by a loud, deep-throated growl of thunder. Within minutes the sky had turned purple. Great silver streaks of jagged lightning flashed in front of the berg, and then came the rain. This was no ordinary rain; accompanied by a ferocious gale, each drop was a penetrating, horizontal spear. We huddled in our tents, swinging on straining tent poles to keep the canvas earth-bound. A stinging blow to the knuckles announced the arrival of the hail, which threatened to tear through the tough fabric above.

I hung grimly to the poles as water gathered relentlessly around my ankles, and thought with envy of those in rooftop structures. Their mattresses would be dry tonight. Lightning lit the scene to show hail drifts, white and silver on the flattened grass.

When the fury of the storm had at last abated, we gathered to assess the damage. A family tent had splintered its fibreglass poles and morphed from a tent into a paddling pool. Under cover of the storm, its inhabitants had deserted the camp in their vehicle, in search of more congenial accommodation. When they returned the following morning, rather shame-faced, a court-martial was held and only the fact that they were brand-new recruits saved them from corporal punishment. The rest of us had got off more lightly with no more than some sodden bedclothes and soaked mattresses.

The next morning brought a bright pink round sun emerging cautiously at around six, promising a hot, bright day ahead – great for drying clothes and equipment. The convoy was soon ready to roll, and 17 vehicles rumbled north, crossed the river below the dam wall and continued under the shadow of the Twin Peaks, before turning left onto a farm track that led us to the base of Spioenkop Mountain. Today a road to the summit makes one forget how difficult it must have been for the Boer commandos to scramble to the summit on the day of the battle.

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