“A Climb to Remember.”
The lights from the Holiday Inn filtered into the bus, illuminating their faces with mixed expressions-placid, apprehensive, excited. Quiet words were spoken- a little banter, the chatter of a few children, last minute instructions, humorous and otherwise, from friends through the windows.
The motor started and we were on our way, a little behind schedule. Knowing what was to come some dozed or tried to. This would be the last chance to relax for many hard-slogging hours that lay ahead.
All too soon the bus was bouncing down a veld track, its lights sweeping the anthill-studded grass right up to the trees which surround the British Mount Prospect cemetery.
Once off the bus Colonel Duxbury briefed us. He gave us a last opportunity to return to the bus, because from here there would be no going back. We would have to climb right over Majuba and down the other side before we would see our transport again. We waited briefly, but no one budged. Each person was committed, men, women and a few youngsters, varying in age from 9 years to well over 60, 41 in all.
We numbered off twice, so that everyone would recall his number, for in the dark only our voices would indicate whether we were still in position in the column. The bus turned and started back. We picked up our packs and with Dr Briscoe and Colonel Duxbury in the van set off on our historic climb. Majuba summit was 9 km away,
The damp grass muffled our footsteps. Occasional flashes of lightning showed, for a fleeting second, the outline of Majuba and the long steep climb ahead. The pathway glowed from the phosphorescence of numerous glow-worms marking our passage through the night. The faint reflection from the low cloud made visibility possible. Soon a gate. The word passed around, – “Close the gate!”. “Confirm gate closed”.
We stopped and started again. “Confirmation, gate closed”.
Next a barbed wire fence, then another. Soon a main road and its traffic, even at that hour (23h00). Here we started ever upwards. We were heading straight up Nkwelo, by the same circuitous route General Colley had taken 100 years to the hour.
We stopped for a brief rest. The distant lights of Newcastle, aided by cloud cover, gave the night an eerie light, a benefit lost to Colley. On again and upwards. Pack straps were straining on shoulders. Few words now. The night strangely quiet, except for the distant sound of traffic and the upward tramp of many feet.
Two men with packs of 58lb (26.3kg) each, simulating the British soldiers’ load, were doing well.
At one brief rest a welcome bottle of Old Brown sherry appeared from Ken Gillings’ pack. The march was definitely getting better. At one point a soft rain fell briefly; but despite the thunder and lightning, thankfully the storm kept away.
After an age of ascent, we reached the remains of a redoubt set up that night 100 years ago by a detachment dropped off by Colley to protect his rear. From here we swung north. The going was level, easy and fast. A whistler took up the strains of Colonel Bogey; soon others joined in. Some breathless Souza, and numerous others barely recognizable, finally gave way to heavy breathing as we now tangled with the slow and very difficult struggle through the forest.
We left the pathway and started the ascent of Majuba proper. The darkness was absolute, the pathway – littered with fallen branches, stumps and all – constantly bore upwards. Our rests became more frequent
Occasionally we would reach a clearing and progress would speed up. After one such rest somebody realized he had dropped his spectacles. The column halted, torches appeared, and a systematic search commenced. Under the circumstances this was an almost impossible task, in view of the long grass, inexact location and darkness. But in less than 5 minutes they were found. A cheer went up and we were off again.
Soon the summit of Sailors’ Knoll loomed in the darkness, the grassy slopes growing ever rockier; gullies, brambles, and sheer exhaustion breaking up the column. Often two steps up resulted in one slip backwards.
The hours slid by. The rifle I carried weighed a ton then. No longer gently carried, it became a dependable walking stick. The last few hundred yards disappeared upwards. Our party scattered up the mountain. Then the mist closed in. It was damp and cold, but there was not much wind. At this juncture the need for a hot cup of coffee became paramount.
It was past 04h00, so with my young son helping I got my faithful petrol stove boiling up a cheering brew. We gathered a couple of other stalwarts out of the mist, and in no time, we had a billy of hot reviving coffee to cheer us on. Those last few hundred yards were no problem now and we reached the summit as the mist lifted away to reveal the first light of a new day.
Exhausted bodies lay scattered about. Some had been on top for nearly an hour, huddling anywhere for shelter, but the time to rest was not then and we had to get started for the northern base area.
Down in the shelter of the bowl, where the cemetery now stands, we grouped briefly while Colonel Duxbury recounted the events of 100 years earlier. While a bottle of wine was passed around we took a roll call. Six people were missing. A quick search accounted for some. A second roll call revealed 2 still unaccounted for. Ken Gillings recalled seeing two bodies earlier below the southern lip of Majuba, so with tireless energy he bounded off. Sure enough, he found them fast asleep. Pictures were taken and the rapid descent commenced.
But the drama had not finished yet. As I was bringing up the tail a young soldier, looking decidedly seedy, asked me for help. Slowly we made our way down and he was handed over to Dr Felix Machanik at the bus. Somehow, in the rush of the previous day, he had neglected to eat, and this had caught up with him. Fortunately, a rest and a hearty breakfast had him A1 in no time.
The bus trip back was unusually quiet, as 41 tired but contented bodies slumbered all the way back to Newcastle. With great satisfaction they rested in the knowledge that their centenary feat would not be repeated in their lifetime.
- This article by Midge Carter was published in the Military History Journal of the South African Military History Society, June 1981. It “deals with the actual re-construction of General Colley’s climb up Majuba by members of the SAMHS on the night of 26th February 1981. The climb formed part of the trip which took place between 26th February and 1st March to the battlefields of Majuba and other Newcastle battlefields.”
- In our book, We Wander the Battlefield,s Midge tells us of a ghostly encounter on the mountain.