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From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
Having been in the grip of a terrible drought for two years, South Africa now suffered from equally disastrous floods. With us it is always feast or famine. The land is parched and thirst-stricken, or the heavens are loosed upon us.
I have spoken of the Drought Relief Bill, which we now had to turn into a flood assistance measure. My father once told me of how he rode through a forest, at Knysna, when he came on an old Boer lady, standing disconsolate by the road. Halting to inquire what was amiss, she replied: ‘Oh, Sir, the elephants and the grubs got into my fields last night.’ The largest of quadrupeds and the smallest of insects had combined to ravage her crops – this is typical of how extremes meet here in South Africa.
Thus it was now. From lands lately parched, with flocks and herds lying dead for want of water, reports came in, from every direction, of heavy rains and losses of human beings and livestock.
This was early in 1934. I had gone to the Cape with my family to await the approaching session of Parliament, and on reaching home one evening, after a long day’s fishing on the Bay with my two boys, there were telegrams to say that the Orange River was in spate and that the people on the islands below Upington were in grave peril.
When I was formerly Minister of Lands I had had a survey of these islands made, and I had placed the settlers there. Now they were in jeopardy, so I went to see things for myself. Our Air Force had an old Wapiti two-seater stationed at Cape Town, and I requisitioned it. The pilot was Lieutenant Viljoen, and I took off at daybreak the next day. In six hours we were approaching the Orange.
I had known this sector of the river for more than thirty years, but what I saw now was different. Instead of narrow streams and channels meandering among the islands, a mighty torrent more than three miles wide was flowing, with only the tops of the larger islands above water. The smaller ones were drowned out.
I landed at Upington and collected what information I could. Bridges were under water, the railway line had gone, and telegraph and telephone communications were broken. No one had news of the islanders. There was a delapidated motor launch that had served as a ferry, and I asked for volunteers to man it. Of the six men who offered themselves, four were local Jewish traders. Each of us took an inflated inner tube of a motor tyre as a lifebelt, and we discarded most of our clothing, for the water ran rough and turbulent.
After a dangerous passage, we made Cannon Island. The inhabitants cheered as we came up. Their homes and crops were gone, but they were in no immediate danger as the floods could not reach the higher levels. Then we visited the other islands that were not submerged. On one of these, a few square yards alone still showed above the waters. On this the two occupants had drawn a wagon; on the wagon was a kitchen table; and on the table stood two chairs upon which they sat, philosophically smoking their pipes. Neither of them could swim, and when I asked them what would happen if there was a further rise, they shrugged their shoulders and one of them said in Afrikaans: ‘Then we’ll go down with the others.’
I invited them on board, but after inspecting our craft they refused. They were wise, for shortly after leaving them we got into rapids, and our ship sank.
Fortunately we were close to a bank, and with difficulty and good luck we managed to wade ashore. It was nearly dark, we were drenched to the skin, and most of our clothes and other belongings had gone down. So, cold and hungry, we cowered together for warmth on the sand spit. The nearest mainland was an hour and a half away, and in between raged a torrent on which it seemed no boat could live.
But word must have gone forth of our plight, for towards the small hours of the morning, the headlights of motor cars began to appear, and it was obvious that they were trying to locate us. The roar of the waters prevented our shouts from reaching them, but now we had experience of the strange system of log-swimming that is practised by the Hottentots along the river. They take a six foot log. At the upper end they drive in a stout wooden peg to serve as a handle, and with this crude raft they fearlessly enter the water, no matter how strong the current. Sprawled across, one hand grasping the peg and one leg encircling the log, with their free leg and free arm they propel themselves.
As we sat shivering in the dark, we heard a shout, and a dripping figure appeared among us. It was a Hottentot sent by the District Magistrate. Hearing that we had not returned, he had collected as many log-swimmers as he could, and he ordered them into the river to search the islands.
Before dusk, I had looked across the heaving waters, and had not liked what I had seen. Submerged reefs broke the current into great waves, from ten to fifteen feet high, and to plunge into this in broad daylight requires a stout heart; but the Hottentot swimmers, precariously astride their logs, had not hesitated to make the passage in the dark.
The man who reached us made light of his feat, and when we told him what we had to tell, he re-entered the stream and was swallowed into the night. He made the return journey in safety, for not long after daybreak we saw a large boat navigated by more Hottentots approaching us from above. We watched them anxiously, but as the boat was coming downstream and not across the current, it had an easier passage, and ultimately they were able to take us off.
The home journey was difficult, but after a struggle we got in, amid enthusiastic plaudits from the crowd that had collected to watch the rescue operations.
I was told that these swimming logs are passed from father to son, like family heirlooms, and I heard of a European who tried to chop one for firewood being half murdered before he was extricated.
A car owner raced me back to Upington, and I planned to drop supplies on the islands. We manufactured parachutes from sheets and tablecloths, and we attached tins of food of various kinds. Loaded with these, I made several journeys over the stricken area, and in every case I was able to drop the bombs with accuracy, and saw men and women and children rushing to retrieve them, waving their arms in greeting as we flew by.
Having provisioned them as well as I could, I went down the river the next day to see what had happened to the construction works at Vioolsdrift.
We passed Cannon Island and the other islands as before, then we flew down to Keimoes and Kakamas, where I could see immense damage. Soon after passing Kakamas, we saw a great pillar of smoke in the sky. It was spray rising from the Aughrabies Falls. We circled round. Above the Falls the flooded river was three or four miles broad, then the water entered the ravine and leaped into the canyon, five hundred feet below.
It was a stupendious sight, and I believe that my pilot and I were the first men to see the Aughrabies in flood, for normally it is impossible to get near during the rains. My record for swimming up the gorge years ago also still holds.
We continued down the river, and after a while we were over Goodhouse. I had been at this place not long before and, on that occasion, old Carl Weidner had subjected me to a lecture on his favourite topic – that South Africa was drying up.
As we passed overhead, I could see his orchards and fields under water, and only the roof of his homestead was visible. The poor fellow was standing in his shirtsleeves surveying the havoc from a rise, so I dropped him a message: ‘Terribly sorry, but you said South Africa was drying up’.
The note fell almost at his feet, and I saw him pick it up. He read it, and then shook his fist at the plane; but when I met him long after, he chuckled and agreed that the joke was on him.
From here we continued to Vioolsdrift. The engineers had received timely warning, and they succeeded in dragging most of the tractors and machinery out of harm’s way. Among the white tents on the hill, I could see the workmen gazing at the progress of the floods, and here again I left a greeting.
Beyond Vioolsdrift, we flew over the most jagged country I have seen in my life – serrated mountains that stood up like shark’s teeth – and our engine selected this moment to do frightening things. There came a series of bangs and knocks, which felt as if the machine were being torn to pieces. I was in communication with Lieutenant Viljoen by earphone, and I heard him say: ‘Beg pardon, Sir, engine trouble.’ This was only too obvious, and a moment later he said: ‘Sir, I’m afraid we’ll have to jump for it.’
The parachutes we wore in those days were bulky, cumbersome things, and I had unbuckled and thrown mine into the narrow tunnel to the rear of the cockpit. It was not easy to crawl down that restricted passage, but in a matter of seconds I went on hands and knees, and fished it out. The knocking and shaking of the engine was unabated, and I confess that the thought of leaping out onto the forbidding range below was uninviting. I had replaced my earphone askew, so the pilot’s voice was faint, but I heard him tell me not to go overboard until he held up his hand. In spite of the jolting cylinders, the propeller was still going and Lieutenant Viljoen was nosing upward. He climbed until the engine gave out, and in the comparative silence that followed, he telephoned to say that he thought we would make it. I did not know what he meant, but looking ahead I saw, far away, a glint of the Atlantic Ocean. He made skilful use of our height and he handled his machine in such a manner that, after a tense half hour, he glided her safely on to the coast.
We were lucky, for besides making a good landing, we found ourselves close to Alexander Bay, the State diamond diggings. Soon the manager of the works and his staff were on the scene, and instead of having to leap from an aeroplane on to a remote and barren desert, we found a warm welcome and comfortable quarters.