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The half-moon laager of six wagons at the Oxwagon Lodge, overlooking a spacious garden and large, covered dining area. Picture: LUCILLE DAVIE
The half-moon laager of six wagons at the Oxwagon Lodge, overlooking a spacious garden and large, covered dining area. Picture: LUCILLE DAVIE

I went trekking in December . . . in a 1840 oxwagon, originally belonging to Felix Lategan, but now outspanned with five others in a half-laager at the Oxwagon Lodge in the Magaliesberg.

The lodge is on a mountaintop on the eastern edge of the Hartbeespoort Dam, offering breakfast, freshly baked bread on site, a braai meal on request, and a small museum that includes two restored transport wagons. It is a popular wedding venue, and the manager, Mark Turner, is completing a honeymoon suite on site.

The wagons were beautifully restored by retired entomologist Erik Holm, who likes nothing better than an oxwagon in pieces. He tells me he has restored 300 wagons and knows when each wagon was made, who decorated it and who the original owner was.

I had a good night’s sleep. A double bed fitted cosily into the wagon, with an adjoining thatched bathroom and sitting room. The bigger wagons have a double bed and two single beds. British explorer and naturalist William Burchell, while on his 7,000km trek around the Cape, found it so comfortable that he turned down the offer to sleep in a house.

I went back a few weeks later to chat to Holm. He has published the definitive book on oxwagons, Die Ossewa en Sy Spore, (available only in Afrikaans), packed with photographs, illustrations, paintings and everything you could possibly want to know about oxwagons and their history.

Ensconced on the crest above the lodge and overlooking the Hartbeespoort Dam, he has several workshops and the scattered bodies of oxwagons in his yard, as well as two restored wagons, about to be delivered to their owners. We trek up the hill to witness his three workers expertly placing a burning hot iron rim around the wooden felloes, or wheel rim. It is removed from the fire with long metal tongs, placed on the wheel, then hammered into place, its heat burning the wood. The flames are doused with water, forming a cloud of steam as the men continue hammering the rim tightly around the wheel. The metal shrinks with the cold water, firmly cementing it to the wheel.

Holm got into the business of restoration when he received a gift of an old wagon in 1986. He restored it and discovered that people wanted to sleep in it for a bit of nostalgia. And so the journey began. Today he gets requests from across the country. He and his family do everything – from creating the hub on a lathe and moulding the metal bits, to restoring the canvas covering and decorating each wagon. “It involves a lot of handwork,” says Holm.

It’s an impressive display of craftsmanship, developed over centuries. It all began with Jan van Riebeeck and his men, in combination with something the Khoekhoen living at the Cape had when he landed in 1652 — oxen. Van Riebeeck, of course, was commissioned to establish a replenishment station in Cape Town for ships sailing to the Far East. But to build the fort, jetty and homes, he needed wood, which was available in the forest above Kirstenbosch. At first he used a carpenter’s cart, pulled by horses, but later used oxen.

He records in his diary in June 1653: “We are getting from the forest every day two or three beams drawn by oxen on a two-wheeled carpenter’s cart, made here, and going along beautifully and easily.”

But it was slow going with the oxen – his supply from the Khoi was erratic and depleted due to theft, but another factor confounded him: the Khoi trained the oxen to listen to commands, and after they were bartered, would call or whistle to them, and they would trot back to their original owners.

“Not only did the ox represent wealth and position to the Khoekhoen, but a very close relationship developed between them, for they had a language of special sounds when dealing with the ox and achieved tremendous control,” writes Jose Burman in Towards the Far Horizon, the Story of the Ox-wagon in South Africa.

Van Riebeeck realised that the only answer was to train them himself.

“It takes weeks to train an ox,” explains Holm. These Nguni oxen know their names and listen to commands. “Names included Generaal, Rooiberg and Pistool. All commands were in Afrikaans.” And, remarkably, when his Zimbabwean workers returned home after learning this, they found that locals were still using Afrikaans commands today. The Nguni oxen are disease and tick resistant, and can eat hard grass, but are not suitable for the pot. And, importantly, the humps on their shoulders are perfect for holding the yoke.

Van Riebeeck’s first exploratory wagons often fell apart – they were based on the flimsy European wagons. It wasn’t long before he granted land to the first burghers. My forebears were among those first burghers — Gerrit Jansz van Vuren was granted land in today’s Franschhoek in 1687, a wine farm he called Bellingchamp (today’s Bellingham). He married a Huguenot, Suzanne Jacobs.

In time these first farmers acquired large herds of cattle and sheep, and competed with the Khoi for grazing around the settlement. This meant they had to travel further and so the Trekboers, or nomadic farmers, were born.

A more sturdy wagon was required, for the tough conditions at the Cape – mountain passes, kloofs and rocky rivers. The one-tonne kakebeenwa (jawbone wagon) was created, in production until 1870, to be replaced by the bokwa (transport wagon), which could carry loads of up to seven tonnes, and negotiate over rocks and dongas. They were produced up until 1940.

These trekboers were a hardy bunch, moving around in search of grazing, their wagons their homes. Johannes Meintjies in President Paul Kruger says of Kruger that “his strength was such that he could lift a loaded wagon”. He goes on to describe the women “as much warriors as were their husbands”.

They were pretty much self-sufficient too. For items like sugar or salt they relied on itinerant smouse. Itinerant skoolmeesters provided schooling to their children.

The boer oxwagon became an efficient machine. Its smaller front wheels allowed it to make a 40º turn. It could be dismantled in five minutes by knocking out seven pegs, and carried over passes by men or oxen. About 11 woods were used, says Holm, the softer yellowwood used for hubs and floors, while the harder stinkwood was used for the kakebeenwa frame.

And, of course, the oxwagons allowed the rapid exploitation of the diamond and gold fields, before the railway reached Kimberley. They were used during the SA War of 1899-1902, being superior to the wagons the British brought with them, which simply fell apart in the rough terrain.

“The wagons are an SA legacy. I’m tremendously proud of this pioneering spirit that runs thick through SA,” says Holm.

In Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa, Burchell describes in detail his wagon and its contents, which included 80 items, including 50 books. Like the Trekboers and later the Voortrekkers, it was his home for four years, at times accommodating two visitors for a chat and a meal.

He appreciated the sturdiness of the vehicle: “I now could clearly perceive that a good and strong-built vehicle is one of the most important of the preparations for such an expedition.”

Perhaps Burchell best sums up life for the Trekboers and Voortrekkers: “But to me, every spot on which my waggon stood, was home: there was my resting-place, there was my abode.”

It was certainly my comfortable home for two nights.

Travel notes:

The Oxwagon Lodge rates:

Mondays to Thursdays — R650 per person or R1,300 for two; Fridays to Sundays — R1,700 for two, which includes a champagne breakfast, with moerkoffie with condensed milk.

A braai on request includes pap, stampmielies, oxtail potjiekos, bobotie, roosterkoek, and plaasbrood.

The six oxwagons sleep 26 people, with an additional 11 bunk beds in a converted double-decker bus on site.

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