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Read an excerpt from David Bristow’s The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep: 20 Tales about Curious Characters from Southern Africa

The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep offers spellbinding stories of some amazing, little-known characters from South Africa, past and very past.

Let us introduce you to some of the characters you’ll meet inside. Starting with Krotoa, the Khoi maiden who is found working in the Van Riebeeck household as both servant and interpreter.

In time she becomes the concubine of Danish surgeon Pieter Van Meerhoff and later his wife.

Then there is Mevrou Maria Mouton who preferred to socialise with the slaves than her husband on their farm in the Swartland. It was with these slaves that she conspired to murder him.

What became of them is … best those gory details are glossed over for now.

And the giant Trekboer Coenraad de Buys – rebel, renegade, a man with a price on his head who married many women (none of them white) and fathered a small nation.

The explorer Lichtenstein called him a modern-day Hercules.

Then there are the men of learning and insight, such as Raymond Dart and Adrian Boshier, who opened up the world of myth and ancient artefacts so we now better understand the ancients and the world they created for us to inherit.

Or James Kitching who broke open rocks in the Karoo to reveal creatures that inhabited this region long before even Africa was born. And so, without further ado, we give you our selection of stories about remarkable characters from the veld.

These stories will excite, entertain and enthral you! You will finish reading them wishing you had more!

George Mossop – Running the Gauntlet

A life lived to the fullest on the open veld

The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 is remembered almost entirely for two battles. The most famous one was at Isandhlwana where a Zulu impi inflicted a humiliating blow on a rear detachment of Lord Chelmsford’s grand imperial army. The second was a follow-up engagement later that day and all that night at Rork’s Drift store and field hospital where a rag-tag assortment of reinforcements, storemen, medics and the wounded put up a most heroic defence.

Whether before a battle, or an international rugby game at Ellis Park, the opening lyrics of the Juluka classic “Impi”, cool the blood and raise the hair on one’s arms.

Impi! Wo’ nans impi iyeza.

Obani benanthinta amabubesi?

War! O here comes war.

Who here can touch the lions?

However, the war that followed was no mere two-day event, lasting some six months with many other battles and skirmishes. At least as bloody and humiliating for the British forces as Isandhlwana was the battle of Hlobane Mountain. George Mossop, a sixteen-year-old British subject of South African birth, was among those who fought there. His recounting of the action, as well as the events in his life that led up to it, is one of South Africa’s best least-known sagas.

George Joseph Mossop was born near Durban or what was then Port Natal, in the Colony of Natal in the early 1860s. He spent his youth running barefoot in the veld around Umvoti where he was supposed to be attending the village school.

“Wanderlust was in my blood,” he wrote in his memoirs in 1930, using all the scraps he’d written throughout his extraordinarily adventurous life to bolster his memory. In 1875, at the age of fourteen, he left home and set off for the Transvaal where, he understood, the real wilds of Africa could still be found.

“I became a product of the veld and the wide spaces to which I still cling, for I have never lived in a town or near one.”

In 1937, the year before he died, when he wrote a preface to his notes he admitted he had never been to the cinema or seen a circus, although he had once seen an aeroplane sailing the sky like an eagle, “though no bird ever kicked up such a fiendish row”.

His first year of freedom was spent with a party of Boers shooting game for their skins and to make biltong.

The Eastern Transvaal Highveld, now Mpumalanga, was the last refuge of the huge herds of game that once covered the entire grassland biome in tens and hundreds of thousands. Before the arrival of white hunters the Highveld would have hosted a wildlife spectacle far exceeding the now more famous Serengeti Plains.

The region was also covered in wetlands where waterfowl gathered in vast flocks, and great numbers of other birds nested in the extensive reed beds. However, one by one the reed beds were burned to convert the land for grazing. The birds moved off, never to return, and neither did most of the wetlands.

When his hunting party reached the main body of the game migration near present-day Ermelo, the Boers made camp without any hint of haste – they had done this many times before. The Good Lord would provide. Oxen were unyoked, horses knee-haltered, tents pitched, fires made, then coffee and rusks were handed round. The game was on.

Mossop said of the migration: “The scene which met my eyes the next morning is beyond my power to describe. Game, game everywhere, as far as the eye could see – all on the move, grazing.”

It seemed to the inexperienced lad that the game appeared not to be moving but that the Earth itself was carrying the vast herd of animals along with it. As he watched he realised that within the great herd were smaller groups of specific species: a herd of some five hundred black wildebeest moved towards the wagons, stopped, wheeled as one with their heads facing the shooting camp, then up went their white tails and off they moved. Then another, several thousand strong.

Next came a group of about two hundred quaggas, which were called “the zebra of the bush veld”. Mossop describes them as being taller, of lighter colour and shaggier than their more common brothers. They charged towards the wagons and came to a stop about sixty metres distant, their hooves ploughing into the ground.

Their innate inquisitiveness made them easy to shoot and the writer reckoned this was likely the last of their kind to be seen anywhere.

There were also hundreds of thousands each of blesbok and springbok. Mossop was awed, rendered speechless by the scene, but the Boers calmly went about the business of readying for the slaughter as if it were just another day’s work, stretching riems between the wagons and poles on which hides and meat would be hung.

What must the country have looked like, Mossop pondered, before the shooting had begun decades earlier? Black wildebeest moved past them at a canter, hour after hour, making speech all but impossible.

The men shot and shot and shot until they could shoot no more. At one point he asked the leader of the group, “old man Visagie”, if he did not think it wrong to slaughter all the game to the verge of extinction.

“Can you tell me, Mister Heathen,” came the stern reply, “what good this game is doing, running wild over the veld? You dare to say that the Lord did not know what he was doing when He placed them here. It is a sin to listen to such words. Never use them again in my presence.”

A year later, in 1879, the Zulu War flared up so the sixteen-year-old George rode back to Natal to sign up for duty with the Frontier Light Horse (FLH), a rag-tag group of self-equipped colonials that was modeled on the Boer commando system.

Mossop’s Bushman companion of the previous year, Gerswent, pleaded with him not to leave. The wrinkled old man said the British had no hope of beating the mighty Zulus. He had seen the British, he said, stripping naked early in the morning in winter and washing in a river. They even put their heads under the water!

The young adventurer’s journey to join up with Colonel Wood’s column took him on a tortuous route back across the Highveld and down to the Lowveld.

He got caught in a storm on the Berg escarpment near Utrecht and he and his Basuto pony, Warrior, had to brave a night of wind and driving rain “camping” – hiding behind a rock until dawn came and the storm let up.

“Although my pony was only a few feet from me, I could not see him, so thick was the darkness, but I knew that he was standing there with his tail to the blast.”

Moans and groans seemed to grip the mountainside, rushing sounds becoming ever louder until they seemed to be upon the miserable young man. When a reedbuck appeared out of the squall and let out a shrill whistle, the man crawled up close to his pony for comfort. In his day people did not prepare padkos but took whatever they had to hand. Then it was usually just a strip of biltong. Mossop finished his while sheltering behind that rock in the storm.

On 6 January 1879 he crossed the Ncome River (site of the earlier pivotal battle of Blood River between the Boers and Zulu army in the time of King Dingane) and caught up with the British army just inside Zululand: endless wagons, teams of oxen, whips cracking, drivers yelling, horsemen galloping to and fro, general bedlam.

The procedure for joining went something like this:

Officer to lad:

“That your horse?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That your saddle and bridle?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you shoot?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where did you learn?”

“In the Transvaal, sir, with the Boers, shooting game.”

“How old are you?”

“Seventeen, sir.” (What was one year’s difference?)

“See him equipped, sergeant, and put him in a good tent.”

One seasoned soldier tried with some persistence to warn him to turn around and head back to from wherever he had come. The officer in charge of the Frontier Light Horse was Major Redvers Buller, later the general who led the British army at the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War when it got its imperial nose bloodied by General Louis Botha’s Boers on the Natal Front.

About the author

David Bristow grew up on the Highveld, north of Johannesburg.

Dreams of becoming an architect took a sharp turn on 16 June 1976 when “the other side” of Johannesburg seemed to suddenly go up in smoke. He resigned that day and went to study journalism at Rhodes University.

Just a few years into working as a journalist back in Johannesburg he did another 180 and resigned, this time to research and write his first book, Mountains of Southern Africa. It was an unexpected commercial success. Once again bags were packed, this time to read for a master’s degree in environmental sciences in Cape Town.

Some 20 coffee-table style books later (in between which there was a longish stint as editor of Getaway travel magazine), he decided to do what he really always wanted to: write paperback narratives about southern Africa. His first in the series of Stories from the Veld was Running Wild: The Story of Zulu, an African Stallion. This is the second.

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