From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
We now made for Upington, a village on the north bank of the Orange. A prolongued drought was working havoc on both sides of the river, and I went to investigate. In order to reach Upington we ploughed over two hundred miles of barren country. We went by Rietfontein, the most desolate outpost of Southern Africa, and we went by Haksteen Pan, thirty miles long with a floor so smooth and hard that at sixty miles an hour our cars raised no dust and left no visible tracks.
The effects of the drought were terrible. The Hottentots who inhabit this area exist at the best of times on a mere fringe of life, for this is one of the toughest lands on earth. We found them living on locusts and roots, and digging for ants. I asked one of them how they were faring, and he said in Afrikaans: ‘Sir, we Hottentots can live on wind and sun, but the whites are getting hell.’
The Orange River was a row of stagnant pools. Hundreds of European farmers had moved to the river in search of water and in search of such little grazing as was left on its banks.
We crossed to the south side and hurried along via Goodhouse, Pella-Pella, and other places unmarked on maps, and by a wide sweep we struck the river again at Vioolsdrift. All along our route, dead cattle and sheep and horses met our eyes and our nostrils; it was a sad journey.
At Vioolsdrift a number of families had sought refuge. They had come from their stricken farms, for here, at any rate, was water to drink, and such of their animals as were left to them could gain sustenance of a kind by feeding on the willows and reeds.
When we came among them down a narrow gorge debouching on the river, they were nearing starvation. Wherever a tree was left, a whole family was camped for shelter and, like the Hottentots we had passed, they too were digging for ants and snaring jackals for food. They were a brave, hardy people, among whom I had lived in the days of the guerrilla war, and I knew their fine qualities.
The menfolk had, pathetically, begun to dig a canal to bring what little water there was on to flat ground, where they hoped to sow wheat and maize, but their levels were wrong, and a jutting crag had defeated their labours. Ruin was staring them in the face.
I despatched one of my cars to civilisation, and in less than a fortnight engineers arrived, and within a month three hundred men were at work building a dam across the river and constructing a canal.
Today, where I had found a hopeless, starving community, there are ten thousand acres of fields and gardens under irrigation, and scores of comfortable homesteads, and smiling families. It cost the taxpayer of the Union ninety thousand pounds, but this settlement, conjured from the desert, is a tangible thing I have achieved.
Later I received an artless address. It read:
‘Hon Sir. We the undersigned render our thanks. You promised to help us and we doubted. But the marks of your cars were still in the sand when your workmen arrived to build this dam, and now we are saved.’
There followed the signatures of many people.
I was criticised in Parliament during the next session, but I had helped a brave community whom I had learned to respect in days gone by, and I have no regrets.