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Africa, though it was now thirteen years since he had left England; while he had become attached to the country, and rather resented any suggestion of its not being in every way most desirable, as the following letter shows :
I hope, my dear mother, you will in future entertain a better opinion of the Cape : believe me, it is by no means what you would suppose it. With regard to my wife, I have every reason to be satisfied with my choice. She was a member of the same family I resided with for the last eight years, and, consequently, we understood each other's tempers and dispositions perfectly. Although she never resided out of Cape Town, she is perfectly happy and contented with our country life; indeed, I may truly say (and in being able to do so I humbly thank God) we are both perfectly happy; and depend upon it, dear mother, happiness is not confined to any particular part of the world, but the Almighty has so ordered it that it is just as easily found in the wilds of Africa (as you are pleased to term this colony) as it is in England. • The best society is of virtuous thoughts; no evils can deprive a man of this city; no prison of this society; no pillage of these riches; no bondage of this liberty.' I much wish you could obtain a good account of the Cape; perhaps you may be able to get the loan of some recent work, as there are several. If you were so fortunate as we are at the Cape in having a Public Library of 30,000 volumes to resort to, you would experience no difficulty in this respect.
In order to obtain some idea of the isolation of the life to which he was now committing himself, we may describe the physical features of the country, and the difficulties which presented themselves in the way of communication. We shall thus further be enabled to obtain some knowledge of the barriers to trade and development, in the removal of which Mr. Molteno spent a considerable part of his life. The surface of the Cape Colony rises in a succession of precipitous terraces to an elevation of 3,000 or 4,000 feet. Each terrace is bounded towards the south by an elevated wall of bare and rocky mountains, pierced at infrequent intervals by poorts,' or passages which permit the drainage of the higher plateaux to pass on to the terrace below.
These poorts are driven through hard sandstone rock and present features of great grandeur. Their general character is epitomised in the name of that passage which permits the lion of the Karoo, the great Gamka river (so named by the Hottentots, no doubt by reason of its tawny colour as well as its impetuosity) to pass through the Schwartzberg range on its way to the sea; it is named “Hell Poort.' Whether formed by the rushing tide of some great pent-up lake first over-topping and then cutting through its southern barrier, or by some other convulsion of nature, is uncertain ; but the evidences of some vast force are plainly visible. A narrow gorge, flanked by towering masses of naked rock which rise to a height of several thousand feet, creating a recess into which the sun rarely penetrates; the whole width of the gorge occupied by the rough bed of the mighty torrent, which from time to time passes through, hurling along masses of rocks and trees.
It may be well imagined that a passage for vehicles through gorges of this character was well-nigh impossible ; indeed, this was generally the case, and a way had to be found over the mountain itself. At a subsequent period good roads have been engineered through some of these gorges, while others have been pierced by railways; but at the time of which we write there were no roads. The ox-waggon could penetrate some of them by dint of almost superhuman efforts and care, the passage down the declivities being eased by means of ropes attached to the wheels.
As we look to the north and north-east from Cape Town our horizon is bounded by the southern wall of the first terrace, a range of mountains of exceedingly bold and impressive aspect, snow-capped for four months in the year. This is traversed by New Kloof, where a river pierces the rocky barrier somewhat in the manner above described; and, passing through this, we find ourselves surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains more elevated still, attaining an VOL. I.
altitude of 7,000 feet, and far more difficult to penetrate or traverse. The obstacle is overcome by an artificial passage through Mitchell's Pass, or by the Hex River route, which is now taken by the railway. This barrier being passed, we immediately perceive that we are in a different world, and the vegetation is entirely distinct from that of the southern coast-belt. We are at an elevation of from 2,500 to 3,000 feet ; the scanty scrub serves not to cover, but to diversify, the surface, which shows itself red and absolutely naked, except where it is freely cropped with stones. This is the great Karoo (or dry place, a Hottentot word). This character remains constant until the next great barrier, the Nieuwfeld mountains, is reached, on the back of which lies the most extensive plateau of the Cape Colony.
At the foot of these mountains, indeed, entangled partly among their spurs, lies Nelspoort, the farm which had been purchased by Mr. Molteno. It is situated on the Salt River, a torrent which runs for a short period during thundershowers, and loses itself in a marshy level, the Salt River Vlei, fifteen or twenty miles away.
The hills present curiously contradictory features : some are absolutely perfect cones, while their next-door neighbours, separated by a narrow saddle, will be absolutely flat-topped.
The whole country is covered with low-lying scrub, comprised chiefly of Mesembryanthemums and species of Compositæ, which are of an uniform dull brown until the thunder shower gives its infrequent moisture, when they suddenly bloom with the most gorgeous colours, and all nature lives again so rapidly that it would appear to be touched with a wizard's wand. There are no large trees, but along the river banks, where the deeper soil and occasional flooding satisfy its conditions, the mimosa flourishes, armed and protected by very formidable thorns from six inches to a foot long. Originally it formed impenetrable thickets; and some of these remain, harbouring the noble Koodoo.
This country swarmed with game both large and small, and this notwithstanding its apparently scanty vegetation, the secret cause being that this vegetation, scanty though it is, is all edible and highly nutritive. Here were found every kind of antelope, from the huge eland to the small klipspringer, an antelope which frequents the rocky heights, and whose hoofs present a curious adaptation to this condition. To this day large herds of graceful springbucks may be seen grazing on the plains in open day; the wild ostrich is still to be found in considerable numbers frequenting the district.
This part of South Africa harboured a greater variety and a greater number of the largest animals in the world than any other continent. The abundance of food thus available led to a corresponding variety of carnivorous animals and birds of prey, the former being led by the king of beasts—the lion himself, while next to him came the fierce leopard locally called a tiger, owing to its cunning, its vindictiveness and strength; below these came numerous leopards in a descending scale of size, with wild dogs, wild cats of every kind, wolves, hyenas, and jackals. The lion was just emigrating from this district when Mr. Molteno arrived. His shepherds appeared before him in a scared condition, and reported having seen one in the long reeds of the Salt River Vlei soon after he had settled in this part. It may be easily imagined what formidable difficulties the presence of these wild animals presented to the stock farmer.
The atmosphere is remarkable for its freedom from cloud and mist. It would be difficult to find a single day in the whole year when the sun does not show himself at some time or other. The rain is scanty, between eight and ten inches per annum being looked upon as a sufficient supply; it falls entirely during the summer months, chiefly in connection with thunderstorms, which occur frequently in the hot season, and are stupendous and awe-inspiring phenomena throughout the tablelands of South Africa. The day on which they occur invariably breaks clear and cloudless, and so remains until between ten and eleven suddenly a snow-white speck becomes visible, literally the size of a man's hand. As we look at it we see it swelling and growing; other small bodies appear; they become united, and now we see the mass has begun to move slowly, generally against the gentle breeze which accompanies the phenomenon. The sun is soon obscured by an inky mass of darkness; and, if we are to have a good downfall, the cannonade of thunder has begun by one o'clock. The wind now rises, and blows fiercely from all quarters in succession, the rain falls in torrents, flash and peal follow in rapid succession, the electric fluid passing to earth in the well-known zig-zag, and again rending the black sky, and exposing as it were the molten white-hot interior along a crack which takes the form of a chain, and hence is known as chain lightning.'
At another time the shower is not for you, the gigantic mountains of cauliflower-shaped clouds clear cut against the blue sky move slowly past you on the right or left, and a dense, black, rugged shadow passes from them to earth faintly illumined by the constant flashes of lightning. As night comes on, the flashes pass through the gigantic mass, causing it to glow right up from the earth to its highest series of white domes touching the sky. At other times no rain falls, but huge hailstones six inches in circumference, destroying game and sheep and ostriches. Recently, no less than seventy out of a herd of 100 ostriches were killed by one of these storms. No summer passes in South Africa without its quota of men killed by lightning; and at times a whole span of sixteen or eighteen oxen may be seen lying dead, the fluid having apparently passed along the chain to which the yokes are attached, and so killing each couple in succession. During the wars in South Africa, on several occasions waggons conveying powder were struck in this