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A Link with the Past

I met Miss Kate Champion in 1952, while working in Alpha House, a small nursing home in Musgrave Road, Durban. When I walked into her room on my first night on duty, I was struck by her appearance. Although eighty-three and obviously frail, she was still a fine-looking woman with strong features, a mop of white hair and lively, bright eyes. Propped up by pillows, she sat reading a book that looked far too heavy for her to hold.

She glanced up over her glasses as I came in. I introduced myself, asked whether she’d like tea or Milo before settling down for the night and enquired whether she would like something to help her sleep.

“Good gracious, no,” she replied, horrified at the thought. “I sleep far too much as it is. But I’d like a cup of tea and…” She paused, eyeing me thoughtfully. “And maybe a little company. Why don’t you join me when everyone else is asleep? Night duty can be very lonely. And taxing. I know because I’m a nurse too. Or used to be when I was younger.”

“Oh!” I tried to imagine her slight figure in a white, starched uniform. “Where did you work?”

“In several places—Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Ladysmith.” She drew in her breath. “I nursed there during the siege.”

I frowned, wondering whether I’d heard correctly. “Siege?”

“The siege of Ladysmith. I’ll tell you about it if you’re interested.

The siege… I’d heard about it in the same way I’d heard about the concentration camps and the battles that had been fought during the Boer war, but it had all happened a long time ago, long before I was born, and history was not my strong point. The thought of hearing about the siege firsthand, from someone who’d actually been there, sparked my interest.

“I’d like that very much,” I said. “If you’re not too tired, maybe you can tell me when you’ve had your tea.”

It took a while to settle the rest of the patients but when I got back, carrying a tray, Miss Champion was wide awake, waiting for me. I poured two cups of tea then sat back and  listened while she reminisced.

She told her story in bits and pieces, some that night, some the next, some in the nights that followed, each episode so extraordinary I could hardly wait to hear the next. This is the gist of what she told me:

“I volunteered for the front the day war broke out. I was in Durban at the time and was told to report to the station where I and other volunteers took the overnight train to Ladysmith. We arrived the next morning to find a town filled with tents—thousands and thousands, crammed together, pitched on every spare piece of land. I learnt later that there were 13,000 troops stationed in the town so it was no wonder there were so many tents.

“The hospital had been set up in the town hall. By the time I arrived, it was full of casualties. The wounded were brought in from the battlefields in ambulance wagons, at times so many that they lined up, one behind the other, waiting for hours on end before we could attend to the men.

“The siege began about three weeks after I got there, on 2nd November 1899. We were told that the Boers had taken up position on the hills surrounding Ladysmith and that, as the rail and telephone lines had been cut, we would have to survive as best we could until the army broke through and relieved us. That news was bad enough, but things got worse because soon after that the Boers began firing shells into town. The church was hit several times and one landed on the town hall, killing some of our wounded.

“The next day General White sent a message to the Boer general asking permission to move our wounded to a place where they would be safe. General Joubert agreed, and a place some five miles from Ladysmith was declared a no-man’s land. It was called Intombi Camp. We were given twenty-four hours to set up the tents we would need to accommodate our patients and staff. After that, a train carrying white flags would be allowed in once a day to bring supplies and more patients. It returned empty because, once in Intombi Camp, no one—whether it be doctors, nurses, patients or general staff—were allowed to leave.

“Intombi Camp… I remember it quite clearly—the tents, the heat, the cold, the mud, the flies, the shells screaming overhead and the stench. We had one hundred beds to start off with. That soon increased to three hundred. Then a thousand. Then two thousand. When we ran out of beds, we placed mattresses on the ground. When we ran out of mattresses, the patients lay on blankets or groundsheets.

“Nursing in those conditions was very difficult. We had no running water and only the most basic equipment. Latrines were no more than open pits. We were short of linen, blankets and worse still, medicines.

“Each day the train brought more casualties, men with terrible wounds which, in spite of our best efforts, often turned gangrenous. Then typhoid broke out—a very bad epidemic that killed more men than Boer bullets. Doctors and nurses went down with it too. When things got really bad, the deaths totalled as many as fifty a day.

“The dead were sewn up in blankets and buried in the cemetery on a nearby hill. We could see the white crosses quite clearly from our tents. As time went by, the grave diggers had a hard time keeping up with the need. When they could no longer cope, they gave up digging individual graves and dug a long trench instead. There the dead were placed side by side and covered with earth.

“We were terribly short staffed. For weeks on end, no one took time off. Doctors and nurses worked round the clock, snatched what sleep we could then got up and carried on working. When the fever was at its height, a nurse sometimes had as many as sixty patients under her care.

“News came once a day with the train. Sometimes the news was good and we had high hopes that relief was on its way. Then bad news came—our troops had suffered heavy losses at Colenso and Spionkop. As time went by, we began to think we’d be there besieged forever.

“Everyone had the same rations dished out each day—a little mieliemeal, two slices of bread, a few tealeaves, a spoonful of sugar and half a pound of meat. The rations were later cut to half and then a quarter. When food began to run out, the cavalry horses were killed and we were reduced to eating horsemeat. A soup made from this meat was fed to the patients.

“A few days after New Year, we woke to the sound of gunfire and rushed out of our tents to see a fierce battle taking place on Wagon Hill, about two miles away. This made everyone very nervous for it seemed the Boers had attacked and were trying to take the town. The battle raged on for about eight hours, until the Boers retreated. The next day, when the supply train arrived, it was full of men with the most dreadful wounds. We knew that many of them had little chance of surviving.

“Towards the end of February we heard the sound of heavy battles taking place to the south. Then, one morning, we woke to an eerie silence. Later that day a group of horsemen came riding into Intombi Camp to tell us that the Boers had fled and that the relief column was on its way. After four long months the siege was over.”

I lost touch with Miss Champion when I left Alpha House, but I never forgot her or her amazing story. Years later, when visiting the battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal, I stood for a long time on the site of Intombi Camp and stared out at the white crosses that marked the cemetery. In my mind’s eye I could see the tent town that had housed the field hospital and the staff who’d worked there. I could almost hear the whistle of the supply train and the shriek of shells as they flew overhead. And, for just a moment, I fancied I saw the white-uniformed figure of Nurse Kate Champion making her way towards the big marquee where her patients lay.

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Happy Valley Farm

            A farm! After years of working and saving, hoping and dreaming, Andrew and I were about to leave the city and head into the country to our very own farm. After signing the document that made Happy Valley Farm in the district of Thornville, KwaZulu-Natal ours, Kids -Happy Valley Farmwe walked home on a cloud, hardly able to believe our good luck. No more rat race, no more smog, no more traffic jams. Instead, we could look forward to fresh air, home-grown veggies, eggs from free-range hens and milk, butter and cream from the dairy herd we planned to buy.

The fact that we were city folk with no experience of farming, didn’t worry us in the least. Our shelves were packed with manuals on every aspect of agriculture, from ploughing, planting and animal husbandry to poultry, tomatoes, strawberries and beekeeping. And a whole lot more besides. With so much knowledge at our fingertips, what could possibly go wrong? On that bright, sunny day in 1973, we were confident we could cope with whatever might lie ahead.

Although showing signs of age, the rambling old farmhouse had everything we could wish for—an enormous kitchen, lounge with fireplace, an outdoor entertainment area and ample space for our large family. From the verandah, one could look out over the whole farm. Water sparkled on a dam way down in the valley. The hill beyond stretched to the horizon. A plantation of pine trees marked one boundary. Tall blue-gums, growing close to the house, offered protection against the weather. Some distance away, in a grassy paddock, was the barn, dairy and a scattering of stables and sheds.

In the days leading up to the big move, we wrote lists. I kept four—what to take, what to leave behind, what to do and what to buy. The latter contained items such as seeds, fertilizer, fruit trees, tractor and a pump for the irrigation system Andrew planned to install. The item on top of my, ‘What to do’ list was, ‘party’. Achieving our lifelong dream was an occasion to celebrate, and that was what we aimed to do just as soon as we were settled.

Our friends were delighted to receive an invitation to a housewarming party at HappyValley farm. “Come for the weekend,” we told them. “Bring the children. The kids can sleep in the barn. There’s a mountain of hay in there, and they’ll be warm enough wrapped up in a blanket or sleeping bag.”

This news was greeted by our own children with wild excitement. A sleep-out in a barn! That was something they’d surely be able to boast about to their city friends. They ticked off the days on a calendar, hardly able to wait for the big day—or rather night—to arrive.

A wintery wind gusted through the trees as our guests drove through the gate, but it was warm inside the house and, once the festivities began, the weather was soon forgotten. The wind picked up as time went by. I heard it rattling the roof and whistling through the trees, but took little notice until, round about midnight, I happened to glance out a window and saw a dull glow on the horizon. I stepped outside, sniffed and breathed in a whiff of smoke. As I watched, the glow brightened. A shower of sparks lit the sky. And then… and then flames flowed over the crest of the hill and came rolling towards us.

“Fire!” I yelled. “Fire. The whole farm is on fire.”

My yells brought everyone running. For a few seconds, our guests stood speechless, eyes wide with shock. Then Andrew shouted, “The barn! Get the kids out of the barn. Hurry! For God’s sake, run.”

The thought of what might happen if the fire reached the barn before us sent everyone racing, breathless with haste, hearts hammering in chests. It took a while to rouse the children, longer to get them up and longer still to get them out of the barn and up to the house.  By the time they were settled on mattresses on the floor, the fire had reached the dam. We watched in horror as it swept across the wetland and began a remorseless climb towards our house.

It struck us then that nothing in our manuals had prepared us for this situation. We’d read about runaway fires, felt sympathy for the victims, but never, in our worst nightmare, imagined anything so awful happening to us. Given a week or two, we may have had the staff and equipment to fight a fire. That was high on our list of things to do. But we didn’t have two weeks. Or even a day. The fire was here, now, and growing closer by the minute. We sprinkled water on the lawn and stood by, ready to beat the flames with branches cut from nearby trees. That was as much as we could do. I hoped it would be enough to save the house and those inside.

The fire licked the edge of the pine plantation, caught hold and, with a loud crackle, sent a flame shooting high into the sky. Sparks showered down. Wind scattered them and, suddenly, the plantation was a raging inferno. Smoke billowed as, with terrifying speed, flames leapt from tree to tree. Each flared briefly, brighter than any Christmas tree, only to collapse and send up yet another shower of sparks.

The air was thick with smoke and, as the fire drew closer, we faced the fact that soon—very soon—we might have to pack children, dogs, cats and as many valuables as we could gather into our cars and flee for our lives.

And then, taking us by surprise, a truck came roaring down the road. It was followed by another and another. And yet another. As they came to a halt, men spilled out—dozens of men carrying water-filled knapsacks, wet sacks, tree branches and all the equipment needed to fight a fire.

One of the men walked up to Andrew and held out his hand. “The name’s Edwin Lucht. I live on the farm next door.” He waved to the others. “We’re all neighbours. We saw the fire and came to give a hand.” He paused to squint up at the flames. “She’s a bad one. It sure looks like you could do with a spot of help.”

“Thank you,” Andrew began. “Thank you so much. We’ve just moved in and—” but Edwin brushed his words aside.

“We’re neighbours. We help each other when we can. That’s how things work in this part of the world. Now, how about we quit talking and get on with the job?” Without waiting for a reply he turned and, calling instructions, set his team to work.

Andrew and several of our guests joined them. The rest of us sat watching as, little by little, the fire was halted and, section by section, snuffed out. Hours passed. I lost track of time, but it was close to dawn before the last embers died and the men came trudging back, bone weary and covered in ash. I handed out mugs of coffee. It disappeared down parched throats. Then, with a goodbye wave, our neighbours climbed back into their trucks and set off the way they had come.

When the sun rose, we looked out at a strange, new landscape. The tawny veldt of yesterday was gone. In its place was a vast area of blackened earth. The pine trees were no more than a layer of ash. Smoke rose from the skeletal remains of blue-gums but, thankfully, there was not a flame to be seen.

We counted our blessings. The grass would soon grow green again. Our house was intact. No one had been injured. No animals had died in the fire. The barn and dairy sheds had been spared. Best of all, we’d met the neighbours. Not quite in the way we’d envisioned, but we knew, beyond doubt, that we’d made good friends—friends we could count on for help when the need arose. And, suddenly, in spite of the devastation surrounding us, the future looked bright.

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