During the anxious weeks while the envoys of Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies were hammering out the terms of a treaty which would bring the American War of independence to an end, at the small village of Oudtshorn in the Karoo a Mrs Johannes Tregard was safely delivered of a son. The date was 10 August 1783 and the little boy was soon afterwards christened Louis Johannes Tregard. The father was the grandson of a Swedish employee of the Dutch East India Company. His famous son Louis was later to write his name as Tregardt, but we should note here in passing that there has always been a great deal of confusion about the spelling of the family name: for Louis' descendants have used all sorts of variants like Trigardt, Triegaardt, and most commonly of all, Trichart; this latter form has been employed for the several towns and villages named in honour of the Great Trek's pathfinder.
We know very little about the upbringing of young Louis Tregardt, but the diary he was to keep during his years of greatest endeavour, show him to have been a reasonably well educated man with wide and cultivated interests. When he was old enough Louis Tregardt set up as a farmer, first at Boschberg and then later at Somerset East. In 1834 he moved across the Fish river and rented land near the Kei from the Xhosa chief Hintsa. Here in Xhosa country he found himself the acknowledged leader of an exiled Boer community which numbered thirty families.
Afrikaner mythology has typed Tregardt as one of the farmers who like so many of his countrymen were driven out of Cape Colony by despair at the hesitant British frontier policy. But there exists a good deal of evidence to suggest instead that Tregardt was a ne'er-do-well who quit the colony because he ran into trouble with the British authorities: he is said to have been a receiver of stolen cattle and tohave shown overt hostility to the regime. The British even accused Tregardt of having incited the Xhosa to begin the frontier war of 1834-5; certainly during its course Colonel Harry Smith offered a reward of 500 cattle for the apprehension of this `villain of a Boer'.
Whatever may have been the truth of these allegations, there is no doubt that when he heard that the authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest Tregardt slipped away from his farm in Hintsa's country ahead of the British troops and crossed the Orange river. Feeling more secure now, the exile passed 1835 grazing his cattle in the triangle of land formed by the confluence of the Orange and Caledon rivers. He received support and assistance during this time from his friend Hendrik Potgieter of Tarka, and there too he found himself the neighbour of another party of dissident Boers under the leadership of Johannes Van Rensburg. For some time now Van Rensburg had been living at Zevenfontein where the Paris Evangelical Society was later to set up its mission station of Beersheba.
Early in 1836, at the instance of his patron Potgieter, Tregardt uprooted his family once more and stepped into history. He trekked into the far north.
There are a number of unusual aspects about the expedition upon which Tregardt now embarked. To begin with his party formed a task force undertaking a sort of dress rehearsal for the massive emigration known as the Great Trek. It was, though these people formed the tentacles of the greater movement. Then again we must realise that Tregardt was setting out on a journey into a void, into a noman's-land filled with unpredictable dangers: at first sight this might not seem particularly remarkable—after all the annals of discovery are filled with expeditions into totally unknown country; but in Tregardt's case his party was not composed of professional explorers seeking riches or prestige, it was made up of men, women and children who had no intention whatsoever of returning to their homes. For when they discovered suitable ground these people wanted to settle down for good. It was as though they were a group of astronauts without the means to return to earth who intended to make a new life for themselves in new surroundings. These earthly spacemen had encased themselves in a little capsule of veld lore and Western civilisation, whose essential trappings they carried, so that when at last they came to rest they could survive on foreign soil and send down strong roots for nourishment.
We must understand too that Tregardt's trek had also something of the nature of a reconnaissance for he carried instructions from Potgieter to report back all the information he could accumulate about the country he traversed. Finally, once arrived at the Zoutpansberg, Tregardt was to wait for the main body of the Tarka emigrant farmers to join him, but at the same time attempt by sending out patrols to survey wagon trails to one of the Portuguese ports—Lourenço Marques on Delagoa Bay or Inhambane or even Sofala—which it was hoped might eventually serve the emigrants as a free harbour.
It was understood that the journey would become more hazardous as it proceeded. The Boers in the Eastern Province had a fairly clear picture of Transorangia, but they knew very little indeed about the country across the Vaal except that it was dominated by the Matabele war machine. And Tregardt knew nothing at all of Lourenço Marques or the other coastal settlements save that they lay somewhere to the east or north-east of the Zoutpansberg, and that they were all used as ports of call by Portuguese slave traders.
Tregardt's expedition was composed of seven Boer farmers, together with their wives and thirty-four children; in addition it included an aged schoolmaster named Daniel Peffer who was to teach the children during the journey. The Boers also brought along several Bushmen slaves, some of whose names we know—Keyser, Wintervogel and the woman Rachel—as well as a handful of Bantu servants who in the end turned out to be far less faithful than the Bushmen and deserted when a convenient opportunity presented itself.
For mutual security Johannes Van Rensburg with a second party of farmers travelled in company with Louis Tregardt's expedition. Van Rensburg's ultimate destination like Tregardt's was Delagoa Bay, but his reasons for trying to get there were different. Van Rensburg was a foot-loose elephant hunter: he wanted to break into new territory and then sell his ivory in Lourenço Marques where it would fetch a good price. He was accompanied by several hunting companions together with their families, since they could scarcely be left unprotected in Transorangia.
It is unfortunate that very few of the Voortrekkers kept journals, but an exception was Louis Tregardt the leader of the Voorste Menseor the Great Trek's `people in front', and his day-book enables us to obtain a very clear idea of his European companions. Of them the most interesting by far is Karel, Tregardt's eldest son, partly because he too in later life was to gain great fame as an explorer. But during the long journey to the Zoutpansberg and Delagoa Bay, Karel (or Carolus as his father preferred to call him) was so undeveloped that he strikes us as an erratic and conceited young man whose poor powers of observation, incidentally, several times landed the entire company in trouble. Admittedly Carolus even then possessed some skill as a blacksmith and handyman, but the picture we carry away of him and his wife is that of a sulky couple who were a burden to the older man. Carolus was later to describe the relationship between his father and himself as that of counsellor and executive, but in fact Louis Tregardt's day-book shows that they were very often at cross purposes and on the brink of an irrevocable quarrel.
Petrus Frederick Tregardt, the younger son (usually referred to by his father as Pieta) is a much more likeable person, and it is easy to understand why he was so obviously his father's favourite. Pieta was only seventeen when he began the trek, but he remains always bright, reliable and observant during its course. The sub-leader of the expedition was a man named Jan Pretorius and he was even more troublesome than Carolus. His attitude, as Doctor Punt has explained, was perhaps due to his motive for emigrating: it was different from Tregardt's; because the British authorities had stopped ammunition being traded across the Orange, Pretorius wanted to buy gunpowder from the Portuguese in Lourenço Marques, and he thought that joining Tregardt's caravan was the safest way of getting there. Pretorius was a rather mean-spirited man who repeatedly disputed Tregardt's decisions during their journey; all through it he remained a thoroughly bad influence on his companions; as we shall see he induced several of them to desert the main body at a critical moment.
When considering the other members of the expedition we must remember that in southern Africa at this time a man's position was very much judged by the number of cattle he owned, and on this basis four of the men among Tregardt's party were poor and belonged to the squatter or bywoner class. They were respectively named Hendrik Botha, Gert Scheepers, Hans Strydom and Isaac Albach. All had originally been members of the Van Rensburg group. Scheepers fawned on Pretorius and became a thorough sycophant; it was his fate to be the first among the adults on the expedition to die. His widow afterwards won everyone's respect for the way she controlled her brood of nine unruly children. Albach was of Alsatian origin and claimed to have seen service during the Napoleonic Wars; he caused a good deal of concern to Tregardt by his constant bickering with Hendrik Botha and his (Albach's) coloured wife.
Finally there was Daniel Peffer, and he was just about the most unlikely person one would have expected to find wandering about untamed Africa at this time. Peffer was a dear old man of eightyseven who acted as teacher or meester to the children, so he was probably better educated than his companions; Peffer was also the proud owner of a map showing the Mozambique coastline with a great blank space for its hinterland but on this he had jotted notes gleaned from hunters who had travelled across the Orange. Peffer endured all the hardships of the trek to Delagoa Bay, but he died there with most of the other members of Tregardt's party.
The number of animals which the Voorste Mense. took north is staggering: with them they drove 925 head of cattle, 50 horses and more than 6,000 sheep and goats. The majority of this stock belonged to Louis Tregardt, but Jan Pretorius owned 250 cattle and 500 small stock, while each of the bywoners possessed a few beasts. The very size of these herds and flocks limited the distance that Tregardt's caravan could move each day. The animals cut such a wide swath of grass through the veld and so pulverised the ground beside every water-hole that their spoor could still be followed several years later. At the end of each day's journey several hours were devoted to rounding up the livestock. Tregardt was always concerned when he lost an ox but he accepted decreases in the sheep with more equanimity, if only because several were slaughtered each day for food.
The sheer vulnerability of the trek must be constantly borne in mind. For defence against possible attack by Africans, Tregardt could only count on nine men capable of handling guns, although in a grave emergency several of the boys in the party could be relied upon to assist in the fighting while the women would act as loaders. Perhaps it is as well that the Voorste Mensewere never severely tested by hostile natives since surprisingly enough none of them seems to have been a very good shot; certainly they turned out to be most unsuccessful hunters. In his diary Tregardt repeatedly records their failures in bringing down game, and one day he admits `that a rhinoceros was only killed after twelve or thirteen shots although one ought to have been enough'. Game meat accordingly was scarce; the trekkers became tired of the ever-lasting mutton and they were always glad to come across an African kraal where they were able to barter trinkets for grain, beer and honey.
The trekkers' safety depended less on their guns than on the character of their leader, and never once during the next perilous three years did Louis Tregardt fail them. He was a very determined and a very patient man, and he needed both of these qualities to keep the peace in what was essentially a cantankerous community. In the pages of his diary he often blows little gusts of scorn at his squabbling companions. One day he writes of admonishing Carolus who had been punching his younger brother: `I asked,' Tregardt writes, `if he alone had permission to strike others and do as he wished; and if he desired to lord it over the children who were in my care, he must wait until I was dead; and I would never permit him to ill-treat any of them without reason. I asked him to tell me what Pieta had done, and if I thought he was in the wrong I would give him a thrashing myself; but I would not allow him to vent his rage upon Pieta like a barbarian.'
On another occasion Tregardt tells us that when Pretorius was being more than usually prickly, he chastened him by saying `I see you are fond of fighting. You should fight Carolus because he likes to fight. I am fifty-five years old and have never yet had a fight.' Another entry simply sighs, `I sometimes remarked to my children on the murmuring of the Children of Israel and told them we would do better to thank God for his protecting hand.'
Tregardt directed his trek almost due north from his starting point near the Orange. The veld ahead was marked by the spoors of hunting parties and no doubt his wagons followed those which seemed most suitable at the time. Sometimes Tregardt travelled in company with Johannes Van Rensburg's caravan, but when pasture became insufficient to feed the herds and flocks of both treks they would separate for a while.
We do not know quite so much about Van Rensburg's company as we do of Tregardt's partly because no one among them kept a journal but also because later that year the entire party was wiped out in somewhat mysterious circumstances near the Limpopo river.
Johannes Van Rensburg himself came from Stellenbosch and in 1835 he was fifty-six years old. Like Tregardt's, his trek was made up of nine families and numbered altogether forty-nine whites; but there were less wealthy people and their entire property amounted to no more than 450 head of cattle, 3,000 small stock and 30 horses. In consequence Van Rensburg was able to move faster than Tregardt, and when the occasion to separate arose, it was invariably he who drew ahead.
It must have been a wonderful thing to have seen Tregardt's oxwagons go by; to an observer on one of the mountain tops which flanked the march it would have looked as though a brown caterpillar was crawling over the slight undulations of the veld, surrounded by a swarm of ants, and with one tiny animalicule ranging on ahead as though leading all these creatures in an assault on the next horizon. One would have had the feeling that the caravan was moving across a landscape which was much too large for it, pitting itself against a dangerous immensity, and if the observer had been a classical scholar no doubt the thought must have crossed his mind that presently it would be swallowed up in the vastness of the veld just as, according to Herodotus, the Sinai desert once engulfed a Persian host.
Only rarely did the trekkers come upon signs of human life other than the ruins of old kraals and bones bleaching in the sun, but occasionally they would stop at a group of tumbledown huts whose apprehensive inhabitants stood in silent staring little groups, inquisitive and then fascinated by these apparitions who for all they knew could have come from another world. The march may have been slow but it was never tedious; there was always plenty of work to be done. The attention of everyone was riveted on seeing that the animals were kept together or watching out for possible danger from hostile tribesmen. Between five and ten miles was the limit of a normal day's travel, but hardly any day was normal: when a calf or lamb was born the trekkers would pause to give thanks for the increase and allow time for the little animal to gain the use of its legs; they would halt again from time to time while a road was laboriously hacked through a difficult stream bed; wagons broke down frequently and there would be more delays while repairs were effected: the animals too often fell sick and had to be tended. Yet with all these difficulties it must have been an exhilarating experience to traverse the virgin veld, this land designed as though to suit their heart's dearest wish for it was filled with lush sweet grass which swayed in the breeze as far as the eye could see, like an unending field of tawny-green corn.
To begin with the Voorste Mense moved across country which was not entirely strange to them thanks to reports from Boer hunting parties. It is known that they passed close to the mountain of Thaba Nchu or Blesberg which later was to become an accepted rendezvous for subsequent bodies of emigrants. (See map) But beyond the Vaal everything was obscurity and rumour: the only certainty was that this country was known to be regularly patrolled by the Matabele, and as they approached the Vaal (which was crossed at Robert's Drift in January 1836) the two caravans drew close together for mutual protection and veered away towards the east. So far Tregardt's journey had been fantastically easy, so easy in fact that it carries with it a vague impression of unreality; now when they were approaching a real hazard, fortune continued to favour them and allowed them to slip through a gap left by the rival impis of Mzilikazi and Dingaan, which had both withdrawn to their bases after a bloody clash on the Suikerboschrand only a short time before. Then the wagons went down the fertile valley of the Olifants river, with piquets of mounted men still keeping watch on the left flank for signs of the Matabele. (It is said that when they came to a river flowing northwards they named it the Nyl, believing they had reached the headwaters of the Egyptian Nile.) They found their way through a low mountain range by a pass which they called Sekwati's Poort after the name of the Bapedi chief living to the east. Here during the April of 1836 differences arose between the two trek leaders. Van Rensburg's men had been firing off a good deal of ammunition and he was anxious to replenish his store quickly at Lourenço Marques: Tregardt counselled him to stop wasting bullets but rather to repair his wagons for the last stage of their journey to the Zoutpansberg mountains, now only seventy miles away. It seems that Van Rensburg took exception to this advice, told Tregardt he was perfectly capable of looking after himself and resumed his march alone. The two parties never saw each other again. Because of this unpleasantness between the two men the place where they said good-bye has since become known as the Strydpoort—the Pass of the Quarrel—and the name was subsequently applied to the whole of the mountain range it penetrated. But perhaps more has been read into the trek leaders' difference of opinion at Strydpoort than is justified: plenty of other reasons existed now for separating: there was less need to travel in convoy since the patrol area of the Matabele had been passed; the pasture stretching away to the north was poor because of drought and would hardly sustain the stock of both parties; and finally we must remember that the two men's objectives differed; whereas Tregardt intended to stay at the Zoutpansberg and examine its possibilities until Potgieter caught up with him, Van Rensburg's immediate goal was Lourenço Marques. At all events Van Rensburg's people drew ahead across the sunpunished plain, and now in front of them they could see the great mass of the Zoutpansberg range, fully eighty miles long and placed across their path like an invincible barrier. As he came up the mountains, Van Rensburg turned towards the east and camped for a few weeks at the present farm of Gewonden near where Elim Hospital stands some twenty miles east of the present town of Louis Trichart. From here he sent out patrols to seek a way to Delagoa Bay. In June his trekkie [band of travellers] rolled off again before Tregardt caught up with him, taking a pedlar's path towards Lourenço Marques, where it was hoped that his immense hoard of ivory could be bartered for powder, lead and food. Van Rensburg's cattle by now were sickening and dying, probably from heart-water. Tregardt was to find their carcasses a little later lying beside the wagon spoor.
But at the time of course Van Rensburg's movements were unknown to Tregardt who lingered at Strydpoort for several weeks. It was nearly the end of May before he trekked northwards again. Now in his turn he watched the mountain mass of the Zoutpansberg growing larger in front of him every day, towering over the tilted plain, the grass on its slopes burnt by the winter drought so that if the range had the outline of grossly magnified Sussex downs, its verdure standing up against the sky was the colour of burnt sienna rather than that of English green.
In June Tregardt passed close to Van Rensburg's recently vacated camp, and, turning away to the left, during the remainder of the month trekked along the southern flank of the Zoutpansberg until he called a halt at the salt pan lying near the western end of the mountain range. For here Tregardt encountered `the fly that stung the cattle to death', and he now learned from the local natives and from the Buys folk he had met that the veld both north and east of the mountains was badly infested with tsetse fly. Gradually a clearer picture was beginning to form in his mind of the problems which beset his task of finding a way to the coast: it appeared that a route to Inhambane would traverse fly country for three-quarters of its way, the route to Lourenço Marques on the other hand would not only be shorter but exposed to fly for only a third of its course, and there seemed every chance that a way could be found round the northern edge of the Drakensberg. Even as he was pondering over this new geographical comprehension, Hendrik Potgieter rode into Tregardt's camp with eleven companions. By this time the first wave of the Great Trek was already rippling forward; Potgieter's caravan of 200 people had crossed the Orange river four months earlier in the February of 1836. Leaving them camped on the Sand river near modern Winburg Potgieter himself had hurried ahead to discover what had become of his Voorste Mense.
We can imagine the conversation which followed at the Zoutpansberg camp. The overriding concern was the finding of a place for permanent settlement close to an outlet on the coast, but the situation was complicated now by a growing anxiety over the fate of Van Rensburg. It was finally decided that while Tregardt remained below the mountain to guard his camp, Potgieter and five of his companions would investigate the African pedlars' paths leading to the north which were said to go all the way to Inhambane and Sofala, and along which he might pick up some news of Van Rensburg.
Potgieter was back at Tregardt's camp on 24 July, having ridden far into present-day Rhodesia. He had seen no sign of Van Rensburg, but at least he had proved that the trade route he had ridden along was for all practical purposes closed to ox-wagons by tsetse fly. It remained to reconnoitre the tracks leading from the Zoutpansberg which Van Rensburg had taken to the east and which led eventually, according to local Africans, to Inhambane.
By now rumours of the massacre of the Van Rensburg party were filtering through to Louis Tregardt, and so while Potgieter rested his horses, he followed Van Rensburg's spoor with five mounted companions. At the end of a long journey he learned that the whole party had perished. This loss of forty-nine persons to a generation which has known the horrors of two world wars may not seem very significant, but in the context of the time the fact that nearly half the Voorste Mense had been wiped out in a single blow was of the utmost consequence and ominous for the future.
A good deal of mystery has grown up around the end of Van Rensburg's trekkie, but thanks to the research of A. H. Tromp and Dr W. H. J. Punt we can now obtain a much clearer picture of what took place. It seems that Van Rensburg started off from the Zoutpansberg intending to reach Delagoa Bay. He trekked through the difficult Spelonken country (so called because of its numerous caves) and then down the Klein Letaba river. At this point he realised that it would be easier to make for Inhambane rather than Lourenço Marques and he struck off nearly due east through the present Kruger game reserve, crossed the Lebombo range and so reached the Limpopo river in Mozambique. It was here in the last week of June 1836 that he came to a ford over the great river close to where the Djindi stream runs into it; and it was here too that he fell in with the bloot kaffirs (naked warriors) of Soshangane. At this place all the party was murdered during a single night of horror.
Probably their journey in any case was now doomed to end in tragedy, and the bloot kaffirs merely gave it the coup de grace, For Van Rensburg's cattle were already going down with another mysterious disease—nagana, which is contracted from the bite of the tsetse fly—and towards the end the wagons had to be drawn by relays of the surviving beasts.
Soshangane was a fighting man who had fled some years before from Zululand and with a numerous following was making his way by bloody stages to his final dwelling place in the highlands of Rhodesia. He coveted the iron work in Van Rensburg's wagon and when they were strung along the banks of the Djindi river at night he loosed an impi on them led by the induna Malitel with instructions to destroy the white people. It is said that the Boers fought off the attack all through the night but at dawn when their already scanty ammunition was running out the bloot kaffirs added to their troubles by driving a herd of cattle into the makeshift laager and killed its defenders in the confusion which followed. Tradition insists that two white children were spared and brought up in Sagana's kraal and there died some years later from malaria. It seems that Tregardt believed the story of their survival and long afterwards in 1867 it received apparent authentication when two white adults and their children were brought in to the magistrate at Lydenburg. They were almost naked and spoke no European language. Many people at the time assumed that the two adults were the survivors of the Van Rensburg massacre, but it is almost certain now that they were in fact African albinos.
While searching along Van Rensburg's spoor during the last days of July 1836 Tregardt very nearly stumbled on to the place of the massacre and on to his own death too. He came to Sagana's kraal and was disturbed by hearing a weeping child whom he believed to be one of the Van Rensburgs; there may well have been some justification for his suspicions since the wailing of an African baby is very different from that of a white child. Nor were Tregardt's fears lessened by the hostility with which Sagana welcomed him. The chief brusquely informed him that Van Rensburg's wagons had passed through the village some weeks before and had not been heard of since. Tregardt guessed that Sagana was not telling the whole truth, and he realised that if he persisted in following the ox-wagon tracks, the chief would preserve his secret by murdering him and his five companions. But Tregardt got out of what was an ugly situation with some subtlety: in effect he said to Sagana `I have your word for it that my friend passed this way. I cannot catch him up now on my tired horses. But I will go back to the Zoutpansberg and bring my women, wagons and all my cattle and leave them in your care at this kraal while I go off to seek my companions.' Sagana was delighted at the prospect of more loot and he happily agreed to Tregardt's proposal. One can imagine Louis Tregardt's relief as, with a pleasantry about looking forward to their coming meeting, he bade Sagana good-bye and headed back towards the Zoutspansberg.
As soon as Tregardt returned from his unsatisfactory quest for Van Rensburg, Potgieter rode south again to his own camp at Sand river: His intention was to bring his people back to the Zoutpansberg without delay. But as we shall see almost at once he found himself in such peril that all thought but that of his own people's survival was driven from his mind, and Tregardt's situation not unnaturally became for him of secondary consideration. And so for over a year Tregardt remained in the shadow of the mountains waiting in vain for Potgieter's return. And hardly had Potgieter gone than his strength was drastically reduced when the old-standing trouble with Jan Pretorius came to a head and that stormy petrel trekked off to the east with his own family and those of Albach, Botha and Scheepers. It was a curious incident in its way: ostensibly Pretorius explained what amounted to desertion by declaring himself dissatisfied with Tregardt's failure to produce positive proof of Van Rensburg's death. But since he took his women and children along with him it is far more likely that Pretorius now believed he was within striking distance of Delagoa Bay, and that nothing was to be gained by hanging about any longer in the Zoutpansberg district.
If so it turned out to be a disastrous decision. Pretorius ran into grave trouble. In the low veld the members of his party went down one after the other with malaria and Scheepers died; later Pretorius was immobilised when his trek-oxen were fly-struck. Despairing messages brought assistance from the ever-forbearing Tregardt and after six months' absence the party returned sulkily to Tregardt's camp rather like a bunch of naughty children.
And all this time Tregardt remained waiting for news from Potgieter. He repeatedly changed the site of his camp in the hope of avoiding malaria and the mysterious disease, nagana, which was now beginning to affect his own cattle. As early as 21 August 1836 he moved away from the salt pan and until the following May established himself at various sites close to the modern town of Louis Trichardt. In the new year he settled down at one such place which he called De Doorns—the thorns—and it was here that he was rejoined by Jan Pretorius. Wattle and daub living huts were set up at De Doorns, together with a trading store, a smithy, a rough schoolroom for Peffer's twenty-one pupils, and a work-shop, while an irrigation furrow fed a garden of mealies and sweet potatoes. All these combined to give the place the appearance of a permanent settlement. His stay at De Doorns is important to the historian for another reason: from now on Tregardt began to make the regular entries in his journal which enable us to obtain an extremely vivid picture of the second part of his prodigious saga.
The interminable waiting had been a trying time, yet for the first few weeks of 1837 we can still detect a note of firmness and hope in Tregardt's diary entries. But as February passes into March the mood begins to change. There is still no sign of Potgieter and, what strikes Tregardt as of even more concern, his people at De Doorns are going down far too frequently now with malaria. On 11 March 1837 we learn that Anna Scheepers has died of fever; she is followed to the rough graveyard beside the settlement by Alida Strydom and then by two of Louis Tregardt's younger children. Life for the trekkers was further complicated by their becoming involved in a tribal war which had flared up in the Zoutpansberg district. They were running short of food, clothing and gunpowder, and their cattle continued to go down with nagana. All these tribulations combined to make Tregardt long to get his people away from the Zoutpansberg and from now on his chief concern lies in preserving their lives and leading them to safety. But where to go? Alarming rumours of Potgieter's encounters with the Matabele had seeped up to De Doorns and ruled out journeying towards the Vaal; the massacre of the Van Rensburgs excluded trekking through the Spelonken; only a route to Lourenço Marques which would avoid Sagana's country remained practical. Three times Tregardt wrote to `The Honourable gentlemen and friends at Delagoa Bay' asking for assistance: in his letters he offered to exchange slaughter oxen, ivory, wool and skins for merchandise and arms. The second letter was carried by Gabriel Buys, one of old Coenraad's coloured sons, and in this one at least it is clear that Mrs Tregardt had a hand in its composition for besides a request for `3 lbs of tea, 5 lbs of coffee, and 5 lbs of sugar' there is a rather pathetic entreaty for `linen, cotton thread, needles, some thimbles, and sewing rings'.
Unfortunately the Portuguese at Lourenço Marques could not read Tregardt's letters, but Buys was able to describe the trekkers' predicament and the Governor responded to it by sending two armed Lascars back to the Zoutpansberg with instructions to guide the Boers to Lourenço Marques. Their names were Antonie and Lourins, and the authority they carried made Tregardt lose whatever colour prejudice he may have had, for he always refers to them with great respect as `the Portuguese soldiers'. But he declined to take the route down the Great Letaba river which they recommended as avoiding the Drakensberg since it meant traversing fly country and would pass uncomfortably close to Sagana's bloot kaffirs.
Buys and the `Portuguese soldiers' arrived at De Doorns on 7 August 1837 and the decision to leave was quickly made. The wagons were loaded for the last time, stock was rounded up, extra trek-oxen were bought (or seized according to some accounts) and on 23 August Tregardt's people turned their faces away from the Zoutpansberg where they had spent the last year; they simply abandoned the forlorn group of shanties, graves and huts, to stand there for a little time longer, left like a line of surf where the first wavelet of Christian civilisation had spent itself.
To begin with, the party trekked south for about a hundred miles. Then it turned east and headed straight for the legendary Dragon mountains. Tregardt was quite unaware that at this very time, far away to the south, the main mass of the Voortrekkers who had followed his spoor beyond the Orange river, were approaching another portion of the long and formidable Drakensberg range.
Although Tregardt had already accomplished some notable exploits of authentic exploration, it is only now that his trek becomes one of the great journeys in history. As his expedition approaches the mighty Drakensberg whose mountain peaks stand dizzily suspended in the sky it becomes an epic of endurance and pioneering effort, and fortunately from now on his prodigious efforts are faithfully recorded in the day-book. Ostensibly the journal was written to amuse Mrs Tregardt, but it is much more than a pot-pourri of trifling incidents: beside being a most important and accurate source of information about the virgin country through which the company passed and the different tribes it encountered, it is a monument to human resolution. Modern travellers who pass the same way will have no difficulty in recognising the geographical features which impressed Tregardt in the Drakensberg, and indeed, although there were of course far more game animals to be seen at the time and a wide tarmac road now threads its way through the mountains, the scene of his endeavours otherwise still remains marvellously unchanged. Tregardt's diary is quite unlike those of the Victorian explorers; there is for instance none of their acclamation at being the first white man to have seen a previously undiscovered place. In it too, over and over again, one notices odd gaps in the writer's total awareness; he has no eye for the wonderfully beautiful scenery which he is the first European to look upon and one can find no single instance of the descriptive writing which twenty years later was to give such euphony to Livingstone's journals. The entries suggest that Tregardt's main source of literature has been the Old Testament; for the most part its tone is sombre, yet his pen waxes positively eloquent when discussing practical problems such as water supplies and the value of different pastures for his stock. Occasionally a note of weariness creeps into the day-book, as though some entries have been made dutifully and with some sacrifice at the end of an arduous day, and somehow the effect is enhanced by their being written with the poor substitutes which the pioneers of South Africa had to use for pens and ink. Sometimes blanks occur, presumably because Tregardt had gone down with fever. It is singular too to find that this man expresses far more feeling when writing about his cattle (which are counted regularly every few days) than he does when referring to his human companions. Another curiosity is the careful records made about weather conditions which would allow a modern meteorologist to write a monograph on the climate of the eastern Transvaal prevailing in 1837. Other pages remind us of the Boer deftness for providing quaintly apt names for a11 the rivers and other features they came to.
In stilted, almost biblical terms, Tregardt writes of encounters with hostile tribesmen, lions and crocodiles, and with the harassment of the expedition by tsetse flies and malaria. Almost at the very beginning of the march, like an omen suggestive of the hazards ahead, personal tragedy strikes at the Tregardts: their youngest child dies of malaria and is hastily buried in a shallow grave on the open veld, because as the trek leader sadly notes `we have no home'. From now on disease among the expedition's members and its animals is a constantly recurring theme in his account, but nothing ever seems to daunt or frighten this extraordinary man: he is concerned only with getting his people through to Delagoa Bay, and he allows no difficulty to stand in his way of accomplishing this.
The route Tregardt took to the Bay has been the subject of considerable debate. To begin we know that he moved south down the tracks his wagon wheels had made the year before, no doubt in order to mislead the Zoutpansberg natives about his ultimate destination. This part of the trek led the party southwards a little to the east of the present national road, past modern Pietersburg and then to a second pass through the Strydpoort range close to Zebediela's kraal. Afterwards the trekkers followed the Gumpies river to the Olifants whose valley took them towards the most complex mountain mass in southern Africa. The going was already incredibly difficult: as they approached the wild mountain grandeur of the Drakensberg the wagons had to ford the Olifants river no less than thirteen times in finding a practical route along one or the other of its banks. All around them now the Berg rose up in a series of immense precipices and scarps strewn with boulders; it was a wilderness of gorges and canyons, of forested slopes seamed with deep ravines. Nothing could be imagined more hopeless of accomplishment than the finding of a way over these mountains with primitive ox-wagons and immense herds of stock. Even now an expedition equipped with Land-Rovers would balk at facing such obstacles. Yet somehow or other Tregardt got his wagons through, and in a queer sort of way the mountains north of Ohrigstad seem endowed like a memorial to him. For standing today on those tumbled heights the mind's eye persistently discerns the figure of the pathfinder peering ahead, and then pointing to some ravine climbing into the mountains' heart and urging his oxen towards it; then the vision fades and one turns away with a feeling of dull awe at the temper of this man.
As they climbed the trekkers hacked out a rough track to traverse the steep slopes. They used their own straining muscles to supplement the endeavours of the oxen, yoked relays of teams together to surmount particularly steep gradients, yet sometimes they would make only a few hundred feet during a whole day of desperate exertion. One might have supposed that in the face of their ordeal the European members of the trek would have clung together but this was far from being the case. Constant animosities disturbed them: there was continual quarrelling about the best routes to take'. Only Tregardt's willpower drove them on. But finally on 30 November 1837, more than three months after leaving De Doorns, his wagons stood at last on the grassy summit of the Drakensberg. It was altogether a legendary moment, and the Sikororo tribesmen, who because of the trekker's white skins believed them to be men risen from the grave, still speak of the feat with wonder. Even now they call the spring at which Louis Tregardt quenched his thirst at the top Lebese's well, the nearest they can get to pronouncing his first name.
The trekkers' problems were by no means over: the 3,000-feet descent of the Berg's escarpment was hardly less difficult than the ascent, even worse in some ways since there was more chance now of disastrously damaging the wagons. Back wheels were taken off and replaced by tree trunks to act as brakes; then the wagons were tobogganned rather than driven down the slopes with the men hanging on to stout riems to steady them, And while all these strenuous exertions were being made it is clear from Tregardt's day-book that his already strained relations with Jan Pretorius were becoming impossible. Months of close contact had made all the old dissensions and irritations fester, while Pretorius, hating the whole idea of coming over this near-impossible mountain route, was at his most truculent. He was for ever trying to show how clever he was by taking his own route up and down the mountains and he was always getting stuck for his pains. Tregardt, who could hardly abandon him, was in consequence often delayed by having to detach his own oxen to get Pretorius out of his difficulties. This was the most maddening time of all, but one day when the task of dropping down the mountains seemed impossible the trekkie was blessed by a stroke of good fortune: the womenfolk decided to make a reconnaissance of their own and it disclosed a relatively easy place of descent. The worst was over two days before Christmas 1837. `It was for us,' rejoices Tregardt in his diary that evening, `the gladdest day in all our adversity.' Blazing a trail afterwards through the foothills of the Berg presented its own difficulties, but these ended on 22 February 1838 when the trekkers reached the site of modern Acornhoek. Abruptly they passed then into an entirely different landscape; trees and scrub took over from grasslands, but from now on the going would be easier: before them lay the low veld, level to the coast except for the insignificant barrier of the Lebombo mountains. The trekkers continued to be still very much on their own, however, in the low veld which today is roamed by the wild animals of the Kruger National Park. They passed an occasional African kraal, but for days on end they were in country where even a modern archaeologist would have to search very assiduously for signs of men ever having lived there, or of having created something which could be described as temporary let alone semi-permanent—a few hut circles perhaps or a grove of euphorbias marking the burial place of a chieftain long since dead, but for mile after mile with never a sign of cultivation. Here lay a land of oppressive stillness and indifference, a sea of spaced indigenous trees and flowering shrubs with an occasional rocky koppie rising island-like above them. Yet the mountains behind them now, as though sad to see the trekkers go, gave them the gift of some magical moments in the evening when the brazen ball of the sun flattened itself along their crenellated summit and turned the scarp of the Berg into a symphony of purest lavender, indigo and violet. Slowly these evening visions faded behind and the mountains were reduced to pale insubstantiality by distance and the heat as the wagons approached the sluggish streams and swamps and the torrential rains of the coast.
The fifty-two survivors of the Tregardt trek knew but one hour of glorious triumph when the last lap was accomplished and their weary oxen plodded up to the square stone fort at Lourenço Marques, to be welcomed with generous hospitality by the Governor. The impossible of accomplishment had been truly accomplished. Yet almost at once the party was overwhelmed by lethargy. It seemed as though a reaction had set in. For two whole years its members had been out of touch with the world as they struggled over tremendous landscapes and endured incredible hardships, but now having achieved what they had set out to do the inspiration and impetus which had kept them alive seemed to disappear. The heart had gone out of them; their hoarded resistance to an alien environment was evaporated. And for two years now they had been heartened by the prospect of seeing a European settlement again, a port which might become an outlet to freedom for their people. But Lourenço Marques was no port of freedom: it was a pestilential anchorage for slave ships, standing in a swamp stinking of putrescence and swarming with mosquitoes. One after another the trekkers went down with malaria and perished.
Within a week of his arrival poor old Daniel Peffer sickened and died. In quick succession nineteen of the trekkers followed him to the lonely little graveyard standing outside the settlement. It is as though an Elizabethan tragedy is concluding and just before the final curtain descends many of the characters have to be disposed of in a cursory sort of fashion to round off the story.
Mrs Tregardt died on 1 May 1838.
Louis Tregardt's diary entry on this day still has the power to touch us. He writes that early in the morning he visited his wife's room in the fort and learned that she was very weak. The day-book goes on `I went to her at once and wished her good morning. She spoke so softly that I could not understand her words.' I asked: `Doesn't my good wife know me?' She answered: `As if I would not know you'—but so faintly that I could barely understand what she said.
`Then I saw that my foreboding was all too true—that I would never see her well again. From that moment such sorrow took possession of me that I did not know what to do or say. The children wept with me and this made me all the more grief-stricken. I bade farewell to her in this life, but thought to see her again in the home of the Heavenly Father, and I did not reproach Him, but prayed to Him to come to my aid: The will of the Lord must be done. All our trouble and care was in vain.
`About eleven o'clock, Almighty God took her away. I place my firm trust in him, and I know that my dear love has entered into salvation. Nevertheless I am not comforted. Sorrow so overpowered me, that I hardly knew what I did. The Governor and his wife did their best to console me, but for me there is no solace on this earth.
`I told Carolus to make a coffin before her death, when I saw that there was little hope for her. That night it was ready. Jan Pretorius had asked the servants to help him. My dearest and precious pledge was taken from me for ever.'
Louis Tregardt made only one more entry in his diary: on 10 August 1838 he wrote `I had a quiet birthday and must think things over.' Ten weeks later he too was dead of malaria.
Nearly a year afterwards twenty-five of the Voorste Mensewho preceded the Great Trek were evacuated by ship from Lourenço Marques to Port Natal. We read that they were very pale, their eyes dark and sunken, and the children's bellies so swollen they could not stoop. Carolus did not sail with them. Before his father died he had charged him with the task of finding a more suitable home for his people since the hinterland of Delagoa Bay was clearly a death trap. In the third week of June 1838 the younger Tregardt accordingly embarked on a journey which in its own way was just as remarkable as the one accomplished under his father's direction. He sailed on a Portuguese coaster first to Inhambane and from there penetrated 350 miles inland. From his next port of call, Sofala, he entered the healthy uplands of Rhodesia and decided that they might well be the most suitable country for the Voortrekkers to settle. But the wanderlust was still upon him. Carolus now ascended the Zambesi as far as the Caborobasa rapids (and possibly the Victoria Falls) before deciding the land here was unhealthy. But even now his journey was not completed: Carolus next sailed northwards to investigate the possibilities of Abyssinia and reached Harar before deciding against its suitability. On his way south again by boat, Tregardt did not omit to visit Madagascar which he described as the `Crown of the World'. When, towards the end of July 1839, the younger Tregardt came back at last to Lourenço Marques his surviving companions had already been evacuated to Natal. He then made an epic journey on foot to rejoin them; on the way he passed the site of the Van Rensburg massacre and buried the bones of his countrymen there. Whatever may have been his short-coming during the long trek from the Zoutpansberg to Delagoa Bay it must be granted that Carolus had splendidly discharged his father's last instructions. Carolus Tregardt settled down at last in the Transvaal which he clearly considered to be superior to everything he had seen during his travels, and there died at an advanced age in 1901. He is honoured today for his demonstration to the emigrant Boers that they could find no better place to settle than the high veld of South Africa.
These journeys of exploration of Carolus Tregardt have never received the attention which is their due. And in the same sort of way his father's trek from the Orange river to Lourenço Marques was for many years looked on as nothing so much as a tragic failure; he was regarded as the leader of an unfortunate expedition which lost itself in the blue. But succeeding generations of South Africans have realised that this is quite a wrong interpretation of the Tregardt saga: they have appreciated that the central fact which gives structure to the whole adventure is that Louis Tregardt conquered all the obstacles which stood in his way during his journey by ox-wagon across more than 1,000 miles of untamed Africa, and that he pushed the boundary of Afrikanerdom right up the Limpopo and nearly to Delagoa Bay. And as the years fall away the story of the Tregardt trek has glowed more and more under the gentle haze of romance; it has cast a potent and ever-increasing spell over Afrikaner imagination. For however often the tale of the trek has been told, its climax at the crossing of the Berg remains an incredible thing, a miracle of a sort accomplished by human will-power rather than muscle.
And today when the Afrikaners ponder upon the tense unconquerable spirit of their trekker forbears, it is of Louis Tregardt that they most often think. In kindly retrospect and with loving detail they recreate his sturdy figure standing on the summit of the Drakensberg, surveying the country over which he has passed, and then turning to look at the way which will take now to the sea.
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