Diamonds, Discover Of In Africa

Discovery Of Diamonds In Africa

Author: Williams, Gardner F. M.A.

Discovery Of Diamonds In Africa

1867

The story of the Kimberley diamond-field is one of the romances of the

industrial world. Any chemist can tell us that the diamond is pure

crystallized carbon; but the wisest geologist cannot make even a reasonable

conjecture as to its origin or say how it came to be where it is found. By a

bold figure the diamond might be called the comet of the mineral kingdom. The

most experienced prospector cannot count upon any "indications," and the child

of an ignorant herder may pick up a gem that would found a college. The great

production of diamonds in recent years has not diminished their market value -

partly because there is an increased demand for them in some of the mechanic

arts, but more because human vanity of adornment may always be trusted to grow

by what it feeds on.

In the volume from which this chapter is taken, Mr. Williams has produced

not only the most complete and interesting account of diamonds generally and

of the great African diamond discovery and the resulting camps and mining

operations, but one of the most beautifully and profusely illustrated books of

the season.

Nearly two hundred years had passed since the memorable expedition of Van

der Stel made known to geographers the Groote River, which, a hundred years

later, was christened the Orange. Before Great Britain took the Cape, the

daring Van Reenen had penetrated to Modder Fontein, unconsciously skirting the

rim of a marvellous diamond-field. Since the beginning of the century scores

of roving hunters had chased their game over a network of devious tracks,

traversing every nook of the land between the Orange and the Vaal, and often

camping for days upon their banks. Then the trekking pioneer graziers and

farmers plodded on after the hunters, sprinkling their huts and kraals over

the face of the Orange Free State, but naturally squatting first on the arable

lands and grazing-ground nearest the water-courses. So, in the course of

years, in the passage of the Great Trek, thousands of men, women, and children

had passed across the Orange and Vaal, and up and down their winding valleys,

and hundreds, at least, had trodden the river-shore sands of the region in

which the most precious gems were lying.

On the Orange River, thirty miles above its junction with the Vaal, was

the hamlet of Hopetown, one of the most thriving of the little settlements;

and farms dotted the angle between the rivers. Along the line of the Vaal,

for some distance above its entry into the Orange, were some ill-defined

reservations occupied by a few weak native tribes - Koranas and Griquas - for

whose instruction there were mission-stations at Pniel and Hebron.</b>

After the discovery there arose, it is true, an imposing tale of an old

mission-map of the Orange River region, drawn as early as the middle of the

eighteenth century, across whose worn and soiled face was scrawled: "Here be

diamonds." Even if this report were true, there was no evidence to determine

the date of the scrawl, which might more credibly be a crude new record than a

vague old one. In any event, it does not appear that there was even a

floating rumor of the probable existence of a South African diamond-field at

the time of the actual discovery of the first identified gem.

There is nothing surprising in this oversight. When a spectator beholds

a great semicircle of artfully cut gems sparkling on the heads, necks, and

hands of fair women massed in superb array and resplendent in the brilliant

lights of an opera-house, or when one views the moving throng glittering with

jewels in grand court assemblies, it is hard for him to realize how

inconspicuous a tiny crystal may be in the richest of earth-beds. No spot in

a diamond-field has the faintest resemblance to a jeweller's show-tray. Here

is no display of gems blazing like a mogul's throne or a queen's tiara or the

studded cloak of a Russian noble. Only in the marvellous valley of Sindbad

are diamonds strewn on the ground in such profusion that they are likely to

stick in the toes of a barefooted traveller, and can be gathered by flinging

carcasses of sheep from surrounding precipices to tempt eagles to serve as

diamond-winners.

It needs no strain of faith to credit the old Persian tale of the

discontented Ali Hafed roaming far and wide from his charming home on the

banks of the Indus in search of diamonds, and, finally, beggared and starving,

casting himself into the river that flowed by his house, while the diamonds of

Golconda were lying in his own garden-sands. It is probable that the diamonds

of India were trodden under foot for thousands of years before the first

precious stone of the Deccan was stuck in an idol's eye or a raja's turban.

It is known that the Brazilian diamond-fields were washed for many years by

gold-placer diggers without any revelation of diamonds to the world, although

these precious stones were often picked up and so familiarly handled that they

were used by the black slaves in the fields as counters in card-games.

If this be true of the most famous and prolific of all diamond-fields

before the opening of the South African placers and mines, any delay in the

revelation of the field in the heart of South Africa may be easily understood.

For it was not only necessary to have eyes bright and keen enough to mark one

of the few tiny precious crystals that were lying on the face of vast

stretches of pebbles, bowlders, and sand, but the observer must prize such a

crystal enough to stoop to pick it up if it lay plainly before his eyes.

Nobody that entered the Vaal River region conceived it to be a possible

diamond-field or thought of searching for any precious stones. Probably, too,

there was not a person in the Orange Free State, and few in the Cape Colony,

able to distinguish a rough diamond if he found one by chance, or likely to

prize such a crystal. For the discovery of diamonds under such conditions it

was practically necessary that prospectors should enter it who would search

the gravel-beds often and eagerly for the prettiest pebbles. Were such

collectors at work in the field?

One of the trekking Boers, Daniel Jacobs, had made his home on the banks

of the Orange River near the little settlement of Hopetown. He was one of the

sprinkling of little farmers who were content with a bare and precarious

living on the uncertain pasture-lands of the veld. Here his children grew up

about him with little more care than the goats that browsed on the kopjes.

His boys and girls had never seen a doll or a toy of any kind; but the

instinct of childhood will find playthings on the face of the most barren

karroo, and the Jacobs children were luckily close to the edge of a river that

was strewn with uncommonly beautiful pebbles, mixed with coarser gravel.

Here were garnets with their rich carmine flush, the fainter rose of the

carnelian, the bronze of jasper, the thick cream of chalcedony, heaps of

agates of motley hues, and many shining rock-crystals. From this

party-colored bed the children picked whatever caught their eye and fancy, and

filled their pockets with their chosen pebbles. So a poor farmer's child

found scattered on a river-bank playthings that a little prince might covet,

and the boy might have skimmed the face of the river with one little white

stone that was worth more than his father's farm. Fortunately for the future

of South Africa, he did not play ducks and drakes with this particular stone,

which he found one day in the early spring of 1867, but carried it home in his

pocket and dropped it with a handful of other pebbles on the floor.

A heap of these party-colored stones was so common a sight in the yard or

on the floor of a farmhouse on the banks of the Orange and the Vaal that none

of the plodding Boers gave it a second glance. But when the children tossed

the stones about, the little white pebble sparkling in the sunlight caught the

eye of the farmer's wife. She did not care enough for it to pick it up, but

spoke of it as a curious stone to a neighbor, Schalk van Niekerk. Van Niekerk

asked to see it, but it was not in the heap. One of the children had rolled

it away in the yard. After some little search it was found in the dust, for

nobody on the farm would stoop for such a trifle.

When Van Niekerk wiped off the dust, the little stone glittered so

prettily that he offered to buy it. The good vrouw laughed at the idea of

selling a pebble. "You can keep the stone if you want it," she said. So Van

Niekerk put it into his pocket and carried it home. He had only a vague

notion that it might have some value, and put it in the hands of a travelling

trader, John O'Reilly, who undertook to find out what kind of stone the little

crystal was and whether it could be sold. He showed the stone to several Jews

in Hopetown, and in Colesberg, a settlement farther up the Orange River

Valley. No one of these would give a penny for it. "It is a pretty stone

enough," they said, "probably a topaz, but nobody would pay anything for it."

Perhaps O'Reilly would have thrown the pebble away if it had not come

under the eye of the acting Civil Commissioner at Colesberg, Lorenzo Boyes.

Mr. Boyes found on trial that the stone would scratch glass. "I believe it to

be a diamond," he observed gravely. O'Reilly was greatly cheered up. "You

are the only man I have seen," he said, "who says it is worth anything.

Whatever it is worth you shall have a share in it." "Nonsense," broke in Dr.

Kirsh, a private apothecary of the town, who was present; "I'll bet Boyes a

new hat it is only a topaz." "I'll take the bet," replied Mr. Boyes, and at

this suggestion the stone was sent for determination to the foremost

mineralogist of the Colony, Dr. W. Guybon Atherstone, residing at Grahamstown.

It was so lightly valued that it was put into an unsealed envelope and carried

to Grahamstown in the regular post-cart.

When the post-boy handed the letter to Dr. Atherstone the little river

stone fell out and rolled away. The doctor picked it up and read the letter

of transmission. Then he examined the pebble expertly and wrote to Mr. Boyes:

"I congratulate you on the stone you have sent me. It is a veritable diamond,

weighs twenty-one and a quarter carats, and is worth five hundred pounds. It

has spoiled all the jewellers' files in Grahamstown, and where that came from

there must be lots more. May I send it to Mr. Southey, Colonial Secretary?"

This report was a revelation that transformed the despised karrooland as

the grimy Cinderella was transfigured by the wand of her fairy godmother. The

determination was so positive and the expertness of the examiner so well

conceded that Sir Philip Wodehouse, the Governor at the Cape, bought the rough

diamond at once, at the value fixed by Dr. Atherstone and confirmed by the

judgment of M. Henriette, the French consul in Cape Town. The stone was sent

immediately to the Paris Exhibition, where it was viewed with much interest,

but its discovery, at first, did not cause any great sensation. The occasional

finding of a diamond in a bed of pebbles had been reported before from various

parts of the globe, and there was no assurance in this discovery of any

considerable diamond-deposits.

Meanwhile Mr. Boyes hastened to Hopetown and to Van Niekerk's farm, to

search along the river-shore where the first diamond was found. He prodded

the phlegmatic farmers and their black servants and raked over many bushels of

pebbles for two weeks, but no second diamond repaid his labor. Still, the

news of the finding of the first stone made the farmers near the river look

more sharply at every heap of pebbles in the hope of finding one of the

precious blink klippe ("bright stones"), as the Boers named the diamond, and

many bits of shining rock-crystal were carefully pocketed in the persuasion

that the glittering stones were diamonds. But it was ten months from the time

of the discovery at Hopetown before a second diamond was found, and this was

in a spot more than thirty miles away, on the bank below the junction of the

Vaal and the Orange rivers. Mr. Boyes again hastened to the place from which

the diamond had been taken, but he again failed to find companion stones,

though he reached the conclusion that the diamond had been washed downstream

by the overflowing Vaal.

From the Orange River the search passed up the Vaal, where the beds of

pebbles were still more common and beautiful. The eyes of the native blacks

were much quicker and keener in such a quest than those of the Boer, who

scarcely troubled himself to stoop for the faint chance of a diamond. But no

steady or systematic search was undertaken by anybody, and it was not until

the next year, 1868, that a few more diamonds were picked up on the banks of

the Vaal by some sharp-sighted Koranas. The advance of discovery was so slow

and disappointing that there seemed only a faint prospect of the realization

of the cheering prediction of Dr. Atherstone, which was scouted by critics who

were wholly incompetent to pass upon it. Even the possibility of the

existence of diamond-deposits near the junction of the Orange and Vaal rivers

was denied by a pretentious examiner who came from England to report on the

Hopetown field. It was gravely asserted that any diamonds in that field must

have been carried in the gizzards of ostriches from some far-distant region,

and any promotion of search in the field was pronounced a bubble scheme.

To this absurd and taunting report Dr. Atherstone replied with marked

force and dignity, presenting the facts indicating the existence of

diamond-bearing deposits, and adding: "Sufficient has been already discovered

to justify a thorough and extensive geological research into this most

interesting country, and I think for the interest of science and the benefit

of the Colony a scientific examination of the country will be undertaken. So

far from the geological character of the country making it impossible, I

maintain that it renders it probable that very extensive and rich

diamond-deposits will be discovered on proper investigation. This, I trust,

the home Government will authorize, as our colonial exchequer is too poor to

admit of it."

There was no official response to this well-warranted suggestion, for it

had hardly been penned when the news of a great discovery aroused such

excitement, followed by such a rush to the field, that no government

exploration was needed. In March, 1869, a superb white diamond, weighing 83.5

carats, was picked up by a Griqua shepherd-boy on the farm Zendfonstein, near

the Orange River. Schalk van Niekerk bought this stone for a monstrous price

in the eyes of the poor shepherd - 500 sheep, 10 oxen, and a horse - but the

lucky purchaser sold it easily for 11,200 pounds to Lilienfeld Brothers, of

Hopetown, and it was subsequently purchased by Earl Dudley for 25,000 pounds.

This extraordinary gem, which soon became famous as "the Star of South

Africa," drew all eyes to a field that could yield such products, and the

existence and position of diamond-beds were soon further assured and defined

by the finding of many smaller stones in the alluvial gravel on the banks of

the Vaal.

Alluvial deposits form the surface on both sides of this river,

stretching inland for several miles. In some places the turns of the stream

are frequent and abrupt, and there are many dry water-courses, which were

probably old river-channels. The flooding and winding of the river partly

account for the wide spreading of the deposits, but there had been a great

abrasion of the surface of the land, for the water-worn gravel sometimes

covers even the tops of the ridges and kopjes along the course of the river.

This gravel was a medley of worn and rolled chips of basalt, sandstone,

quartz, and trap, intermingled with agates, garnets, peridot, and jasper, and

other richly colored pebbles, lying in and on a bedding of sand and clay.

Below this alluvial soil was in some places a calcareous tufa, but usually a

rock of melaphyse or a clayey shale varying in color. Scattered thickly

through the gravel and the clay along the banks were heavy bowlders of basalt

and trap which were greatly vexing in afterdays to the diamond-diggers.

For a stretch of a hundred miles above the mission-station at Pniel the

river flows through a series of rocky ridges, rolling back from either bank to

a tract of grassy, undulating plains. Fancy can scarcely picture rock-heaps

more contorted and misshapen. Only prodigious subterranean forces could have

so rent the earth's crust and protruded jagged dikes of metamorphic,

conglomerate, and amygdaloid rocks, irregularly traversed by veins of quartz,

and heavily sprinkled with big bare bowlders of basalt and trap. Here the old

lacustrine sedimentary formation of the South African high veld north of the

Zwarte Bergen and Witte Bergen ranges has plainly been riven by volcanic

upheaval. The shale and sandstone of the upper and lower karroo beds have

been washed away down to an igneous rock lying between the shale and the

sandstone. Along this stretch of the river the first considerable deposit of

diamonds in South Africa was uncovered.

For more than a year since the discovery of the first diamond there had

been some desultory scratching of the gravel along the Vaal by farmers and

natives in looking for blink klippe, and a few little diamonds had been found

by the Hottentots, as before noted. But the first systematic digging and

sifting of the ground were begun by a party of prospectors from Natal at the

mission-station of Hebron. This was the forerunner of the second great trek

to the Vaal from the Cape - a myriad of adventurers that spread down the

stream like a locust swarm, amazing the natives, worrying the missionaries,

and agitating the pioneer republics on the north and the east.

The first organized party of prospectors at Hebron on the Vaal was formed

at Maritzburg in Natal, at the instance of Major Francis, an officer in the

English Army Service, then stationed at that town. Captain Rolleston was the

recognized leader, and after a long plodding march over the Drakensberg and

across the veld, the little company reached the valley of the Vaal in

November, 1869. Up to the time of its arrival there had been no systematic

washing of the gravel edging the river. Two experienced gold-diggers from

Australia, Glenie and King, and a trader, Parker, had been attracted to the

field, like the Natalians, by the reported discoveries, and were prospecting

on the line of the river when Captain Rolleston's party reached Hebron. Their

prospecting was merely looking over the surface gravel for a possible gem, but

the wandering Koranas were more sharp-sighted and lucky in picking up the

elusive little crystals that occasionally dotted the great stretches of

alluvial soil.

It was determined by Captain Rolleston to explore the ground as

thoroughly as practicable from the river's edge for a number of yards up the

bank, and the washing began on a tract near the mission-station. The

Australian prospectors joined the party, and their experience in placer-mining

was of service in conducting the search for diamonds. The workers shovelled

the gravel into cradles, like those used commonly in Australian and American

placer-washing, picked out the coarser stones by hand, washed away the sand

and lighter pebbles, and saved the heavier mineral deposit, hoping to find

some grains of gold as well as diamonds above the screens of their cradles.

But the returns for their hard labor for many days were greatly disappointing.

They washed out many crystals and brilliant pebbles, but never a diamond nor

an atom of gold-dust. Then they passed down the river more than twenty miles

to another camp at Klip-drift, opposite the mission-station at Pniel. Here,

too, they washed the ground for days without finding even the tiniest gem, and

were almost on the point of abandoning their disheartening drudgery when,

finally, on January 7, 1870, the first reward of systematic work in the field

came in the appearance of a small diamond in one of the cradles.

This little fillip of encouragement determined their continuance of the

work, and a party from the British Kaffraria joined them in washing the gravel

in places that seemed most promising along the line of the river. It was

agreed that the first discovery of rich diamond-bearing ground should be

shared alike by both parties, but there was nothing to share for some weeks.

Then some native Koranas were induced to point out to the Natalians a

gravel-coated hummock or kopje near the Klip-drift camp, where they had picked

up small diamonds. When the prospectors began the washing of the gravel on

this kopje, it was soon apparent that a diamond-bed of extraordinary richness

had been reached at last. Good faith was kept with the company from King

William's Town, and the combined parties worked to the top of their strength

in shovelling and washing the rich bed. The lucky men kept their mouths

closed, as a rule, and did not intend to make known their good fortune; but

such a discovery could not long be concealed from visiting traders and roaming

prospectors, and before three months had passed some prying eye saw half a

tumblerful of the white sparkling crystals in their camp, and the news spread

fast that the miners had washed out from two hundred to three hundred stones

ranging in size from the smallest gems to diamonds of thirty carats or more.

Then a motley throng of fortune-hunters began to pour into the valley of

the Vaal. The first comers were those living nearest to the new diamond-field

- farmers and tradesmen from the cattle-ranges and little towns of the Orange

Free State. Some of these were Boers, drawn to the fields as to a novel and

curious spectacle, but disdaining the drudgery of shovelling and washing from

morning till night for the chance of a tiny bright stone. They stared for a

while at the laboring diamond-seekers, and then turned their backs on the

field contemptuously, and rode home sneering at the mania that was dragging

its victims hundreds of miles, over sun-cracked and dusty karroos, to hunt for

white pebbles in a river-bed. Still there were many poor farmers who caught

the infectious diamond-fever at sight of the open field and a few sparkling

stones, and they camped at Klip-drift or went on farther up or down the river,

to join, as well as they knew how, in the search for diamonds.

Following this influx from the Free State came swarming in men of every

class and condition from the southern English Colony and from the ships lying

in the coast ports. The larger number were of English descent, but many were

Dutch, and hardly a nation in Europe was unrepresented. Black grandsons of

Guinea-coast slaves and natives of every dusky shade streaked the show of

white faces. Butchers, bakers, sailors, tailors, lawyers, blacksmiths,

masons, doctors, farmers, carpenters, clerks, gamblers, sextons, laborers,

loafers - men of every pursuit and profession, jumbled together in queerer

association than the comrades in the march to Finchley - fell into line in a

straggling procession to the diamond-fields. Army officers begged furloughs

to join the motley troops, schoolboys ran away from school, and women even of

good families could not be held back from joining their husbands and brothers

in the long and weari-some journey to the banks of the Vaal.

There was the oddest medley of dress and equipment: shirts of woollen -

blue, brown, gray, and red - and of linen and cotton - white, colored,

checked, and striped; trim jackets, cord riding-breeches, and laced leggings

and "hand-me-downs" from the cheapest ready-made-clothing shops; the yellow

oilskins and rubber boots of the sailor; the coarse brown corduroy and canvas

suits, and long-legged stiff leather boots of the miner; the ragged, greasy

hats, tattered trousers or loin-cloths of the native tribesmen; jaunty cloth

caps, broad-brimmed felt, battered straw, garish handkerchiefs twisted close

to the roots of stiff black crowns, or tufts of bright feathers stuck in a

wiry mat of curls; such a higgledy-piggledy as could only be massed in a rush

from African coast towns and native kraals to a field of unknown requirements,

in a land whose climate swung daily between a scorch and a chill, where men in

the same hour were smothered in dust and drenched in a torrent.

It is doubtful whether a single one of this fever-stricken company ever

had seen a diamond-field or had had the slightest experience in rough-diamond

winning, but no chilling doubt of themselves or their luck restrained them

from rushing to their fancied Golconda. Their ideal field was much nearer a

mirror of the valley of Sindbad than the actual African river-bank, and it was

certain that many would be as bitterly disappointed by the rugged stretch of

gravel at Klip-drift as the gay Portuguese cavaliers were at the sight of the

Manica gold-placers.

Everything in the form of a carriage, from a chaise to a buckwagon, was

pressed into service, but the best available transport was the big trekking

ox-wagon of the Boer pioneer. This was a heavily framed, low-hung wagon,

about twenty feet long and five and a half feet broad. In this conveyance

more than a dozen men often packed themselves and their camping outfit and

food. An exceptionally well-equipped party carried bacon, potatoes, onions,

tea, coffee, sugar, condensed milk, flour, biscuits, dried pease, rice,

raisins, pickles, and Cape brandy. The total weight of load allowed,

including the living freight, was limited to seven thousand pounds.

East London, the nearest port, was more than four hundred miles from the

diamond-field, and Cape Town nearly seven hundred. Durber, Port Alfred, and

Port Elizabeth were almost equally distant, as the crow flies, approximately

four hundred fifty miles; but the length of the journey to the Vaal could not

be measured by any bare comparison of air-line distances. The roads, at best,

were rough trampled tracks, changing after a rainfall to beds of mire. Their

tortuous courses rambled from settlement to settlement, or from one farmhouse

to another, over the veld, and often were wholly lost in the shifting sands of

the karroo. It was a tedious and difficult journey by land even from one

seacoast town to another, and fifty miles from the coast the traveller was

fortunate if his way was marked by even a cattle-path.

When the rain fell in torrents, with the lurid flashes and nerve-shaking

crash of South African thunder-storms, the diamond-seekers huddled under the

stifling cover of their wagons, while fierce gusts shook and strained every

strip of canvas, and water-drops spurted through every crevice. In fair

weather some were glad to spread their blankets on the ground near the wagon,

and stretch their limbs, cramped by their packing like sardines in a box. On

the plains they had no fuel for cooking except what they could gather of dry

bullock's dung. Sometimes no headway could be made against the blinding

dust-storms, that made even the tough African cattle turn tail to the blasts,

and clogged the eyes and ears and every pore of exposed skin with irritating

grit and powder. Sometimes the rain fell so fast that the river-beds were

filled in a few hours with muddy torrents, which blocked any passage by

fording for days and even weeks at a time, and kept the impatient

diamond-seekers fuming in vain on their banks. Payton's party was forty-six

days in its passage from Port Elizabeth to the diamond-fields without meeting

with any serious delays, and journeys lasting two months were not uncommon.

Still, in spite of all obstacles, privations, and discomforts, the long

journey to the fields was not wholly monotonous and unpleasant. As there was

no beaten way, the prospectors chose their own path, riding by day and camping

at night as their fancy led them. In ascending to the table-land of the

interior from Natal, there were shifting and stirring visions of

mountain-peaks, terraces, gorges, and valleys.

Throughout the Orange Free State, but especially in the neighborhood of

the valleys of the Orange and Vaal, volcanic-rock elevations are common,

sometimes massed in irregular rows and often rising in the most jagged and

fantastic shapes. "When we see them at the surface," wrote the geologist

Wyley in 1856, "they look like walls running across the country, or more

frequently from a narrow, stony ridge like a wall that has been thrown down.

The rock of which they are composed, green-stone or basalt, is known by the

local name of iron-stone, from its great hardness and toughness and from its

great weight. The origin of these dikes is well known. They have been

produced by volcanic agency, which, acting from below upon horizontal beds of

stratified rock, has cracked and fissured them at right angles to their planes

of stratification, and these vertical cracks have been filled up with the

melted rock or lava from below. The perpendicular fissures through which it

has found its way upward are seldom seen, nor should we expect to see much of

them, for along the line of these the rocks have been most broken up and

shattered and the denudation has been greatest."

Even in traversing the karroos there were curious and awesome sights to

attract and impress the mind of a traveller beholding for the first time these

desert wastes so widely spread over the face of South Africa. They differ

little in appearance except in size. The Great or Central Karroo, which lies

beneath the foothills of the Zwarte Bergen range, has a sweep to the north of

more than three hundred miles in a rolling plateau ranging in elevation from

two to three thousand feet. Day after day, as the diamond-seekers from Cape

Town plodded on with their creaking wagons, the same purpled brown face was

outspread before them of the stunted flowering shrub which has given its name

to the desert, spotted with patches of sun-cracked clay or hot red sand. To

some of the Scotchmen this scrub had the cheery face of the heather of their

own Highlands, and homesick Englishmen would ramble far through the furze to

pick the bright yellow flowers of plants that recalled the gorse of their

island homes. These common bushes, rarely a foot in height, and the thick,

stunted camel-thorn were almost the only vegetable coating of the desert.

Straggling over this plain ran the quaint ranges of flat-topped hummocks

and pointed spitz-kopjes, streaked with ragged ravines torn by the floods, but

utterly parched for most of the year. Shy meerkats (Cynictis penicillata),

weasel-like creatures with furry coats, peered cautiously from their burrows

at the strange procession of fortune-hunters, and from myriads of the mammoth

ant-hills that dot the face of the desert innumerable legions of ants swarmed

on the sand along the track of the wagons. Sometimes at nightfall the queer

aard-vark lurked upon the ant-heap and licked up the crawling insects by

thousands. Far over the heads of the travellers soared the predatory eagles

and swooping hawks, harrying the pigeons and dwarf doves that clustered at

daybreak to drink at the edge of every stagnant pool.

Even in the earliest years of the Dutch advance into South Africa, when

wild beasts browsed in troops on every grassy plain and valley, and the

poorest marksman could kill game almost a will, the karroo was shunned by

almost every living creature except in the fickle season of rainfall. The

lion skirted the desert-edge warily, unwilling to venture far from a certain

water-brook or pool. There was nothing on the bare karroo to tempt the

rhinoceros from his bed in green-leaved thickets, and only the wild-roaming

antelopes (trekbok) rambled for pasturage far over the sparsely coated and

parched desert waste. If this was true in the days when the tip of Africa was

swarming with animal life, it is not surprising that the diamond-seekers in

1869 and 1870 rarely saw any living mark for their rifles when they journeyed

over the desert. Rock-rabbits, akin to the scriptural coney, scampering to

their holes, were often the largest game in sight for days at a time, and it

was counted remarkable luck when any hunter put a bullet through a little

brown antelope, a grysbok or springbok. The springboks still haunted the

Great Karroo, for they were particularly fond of its stunted bush-growth, and

in the rainy season many droves of these antelopes could be seen browsing

warily or flying in panic from the spring of the cheetah, the African hunting

leopard; but most of the bigger game, blesbok, hartebeest, koodoo, and

wildebeest, that used to feed greedily on the same pasture, had been killed or

driven away by the keen hunting of the years that followed the taking of the

Cape by the English.

Sometimes the clear sky of the horizon was blurred by the advancing of

monstrous swarms of locusts, the "black snow-storms" of the natives, sweeping

over the face of the land like the scourge of devouring flames, chased by

myriads of locust-birds, and coating the ground for miles around at nightfall

with a crawling, heaving coverlet. Then might be heard the hoarse trump of

the cranes winging their way over the desert and dropping on the field strewn

with locusts to gorge on their insect prey. Or the travellers saw the

slate-white secretary bird, stalking about with his self-satisfied strut and

scraping up mouthfuls with his eagle-like bill.

More marvellous than the locust clouds were the amazing mirages that

deceived even the keen-eyed ostriches with their counterfeit lakes and

wood-fringed streams, so temptingly near, but so provokingly receding, like

the fruits hanging over Tantalus. Sometimes hilltops were reared high above

the horizon, distorted to mountainous size and melting suddenly in thin air or

a flying blur. Now a solitary horseman was seen to swoop over the desert in

the form of a mammoth bird, or a troop of antelopes were changed to charging

cavalry. No trick of illusion and transformation was beyond the conjuring

power of the flickering atmosphere charged with the radiating heat of the

desert.

When the prospectors crossed the karroo and entered the stretches of

pasture-land which the Dutch called veld, the scenes of their marches were

much more lively and cheery. Little farmhouses dotted the plains and valleys,

rude cottages of clay-plastered stones or rough timbers, but hospitable with

fires blazing on open hearths, big iron pots hanging from cranes and simmering

with stews; and broad-faced, beaming vrouws and clusters of chunky boys and

girls greeted the arrival of an ox-wagon from the coast as a welcome splash in

the stagnant stream of their daily life.

At some of the halting-places on the banks of streams, or where plentiful

water was stored in natural pans or artificial ponds, the extraordinary

fertility of the irrigated soil of South Africa was plainly to be seen in

luxuriant gardens, with brilliant flower-beds and heavy-laden fruit trees and

vines. Here figs, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, and grapes ripened side by

side, and hung more tempting than apples of Eden in the sight of the

thirsting, sunburnt, dust-choked men who had plodded so far over the parched

karroos. They stretched their cramped legs and aching backs in the grateful

shade of spreading branches, and watched with half-shut eyes the white flocks

nibbling on the pasture land, and the black and red cattle scattered as far as

the eye could see over the veld. Tame ostriches stalked fearlessly about

them, often clustering like hens at the door of the farm-house to pick up a

mess of grain or meal, apparently heedless of any approach, but always alert

and likely to resent familiarity from a stranger with a kick as sharp and

staggering as any dealt by a mule's hind leg.

The interior of the homes in these oases was not so inviting, for the

rooms, at best, were small and bare to the eye of a townsman. But some were

comparatively neatly kept, with smoothly cemented floors, cupboards of

quaintly figured china and earthenware, hangings and rugs of leopard, fox,

jackal, and antelope skins, and brackets of curving horns loaded with

hunting-arms and garnished with ostrich-feathers. For the guests there was

probably the offer of a freshly killed antelope or sheep; but the farmer's

family was often content with "biltong," the dried meat that hung in strips or

was piled in stacks under his curing-shed.

When a settler was fortunate in getting a tract of land with a pan or a

water-spring, he almost invariably gave the name to his farm, as Dutoitispan,

Dorstfontein, Jagersfontein, Bultfontein - names of inconsiderable little

patches on the face of South Africa, which were destined to become memorable

by approaching revelations.

Attracted by the good pasturage and water and the sight of flowers,

fruits, and birds, even the eager diamond-seekers were not loath to linger for

a day at one of these oases and rest themselves and their cattle before

pushing on to the Vaal. As they drew near to their goal the face of the

country began to change. After passing the Modder River, the grassy plains

stretched out wider and longer and more gently undulating, and the mirage was

more greatly magnifying and illusive. Herds of wild game, chiefly springbok,

blesbok, hartebeest, wildebeest, and koodoo, were now frequently seen, and the

ears of the travellers were tickled with the cheery "karack-karack" of flying

korhaan and the pipes of red-legged plover.

There were great numbers, too, of the paauw (or Cape bustard) near the

Modder River, and red-winged partridges and Guinea fowl that gave a welcome

variety to the meals of the travellers.

Over the rolling ground the prospectors pressed rapidly to the

diamond-fields and soon reached the river-border where the plains ran into the

barrier of ridges of volcanic rocks. Jolting heavily over these rough heaps

and sinking deeply in the red sand-wash of the valleys, the heavy ox-wagons

were slowly tugged to the top of the last ridge above Pniel, opposite the

opened diamond-beds of Klip-drift, where the anticipated Golconda was full in

sight. Here the Vaal River winds with a gently flowing stream, two hundred

yards or more in width, through a steeply shelving oblong basin something over

a mile and a half in length and a mile across. A thin line of willows and

cotton-woods marked the edge of the stream on both banks. On the descending

slope toward the river stood the clustering tents and wagons of the pilgrims

waiting to cross the stream.

In the dry season the Vaal was easily fordable by ox-wagons at a point in

this basin, and the ford, which the Boers call "drift," gave the name to the

shore and camp opposite Pniel - "Klip-drift" ("Rockyford").

How stirring were the sights and sounds from the ridge at Pniel to every

newcomer while the swarming diamond-seekers were crossing the river and

spreading out over the northern bank - the confused clustering at the ford -

the rambling of stragglers along the shore - the gravel cracking and grinding

under the hoofs of the horses and ponies racing along the bank and rearing,

plunging, and bucking at the check of the bits and prick of the spurs - the

outspanning and inspanning of hundreds of oxen - the swaying and creaking

wagons - the writhing, darting lash of the cracking whips of the drivers - the

sulking, balking oxen, driven into long, straining lines that dragged the

ponderous canvas arched "prairie-schooners" through the turbid water and over

the quaking sands - the whistling, shouting, yelling, snoring, neighing,

braying, squeaking, grinding, splashing babel - the scrambling up the steep

Klip-drift bank - the scattering of the newcomers - the perching of the

white-topped wagons and the camp-tents like monstrous gulls on every tenable

lodging-place on bank, gully, and hillside - the scurrying about for wood and

water - the crackling, smoking, flaming heaps of the camp-fires - the steaming

pots and kettles swinging on cranes - the great placer-face, pockmarked with

holes and heaps of reddish sand, clay, and gravel - the long stretches of the

miners' rockers and troughs at the water's edge - and chief of all in

interest, the busy workmen, sinking pits and throwing out shovelfuls of earth,

filling buckets and hauling them up with ropes, loading and shaking the

rockers, driving carts full of heavy gravel to the water-troughs, returning

for new loads, scraping and sorting the fine, heavy pebbles on tables or flat

rocks or boards spread on the ground!

No labored, crawling recital can compass and picture in print any

approach to the instant impress on the eye and ear of the moving drama on the

banks of the Vaal. Observer after observer groped vainly for graphic

comparison. "Klip-drift is a swarm of bees whose hive is upset," said one; "a

banklined with ant-hills," wrote another, prosily; "a wild-rabbit warren

scurried by a fox," ventured a third; "an insane-asylum turned loose on a

beach," sneered a fourth. It was a mushroom growth of a seething

placer-mining camp in the heart of the pasture-lands of South Africa. To old

Australian and American miners it had a patent likeness to familiar camps and

diggings, but its local coloring was glaringly vivid and unique.


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