COLLECTIBLE BOOKS: Boyhood among ox wagons, ruins and ancient gold workings
SA poet and satirist Roy Campbell reminisces about the extended holidays he spent with relatives in former Rhodesia in the early 20th century
It is reported that Campbell was viewed by TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Edith Sitwell as one of the best poets of the period between the two world wars. He was recognised as SA’s most eminent poet, and wrote masterpieces such as Wayzgoose, Adamastor, The Georgiad and The Flaming Terrapin, which brought him instant acclaim.
Yet he describes his autobiography, Broken Record, as an account of “an entirely useless and selfish career”, and says he considers his only use as an artist was to have added “a few solar colours to contemporary verse”.
During the Spanish civil war he supported Francisco Franco’s nationalists, and this support was said to be the reason for his being blacklisted from modern poetry anthologies.
With poet William Plomer he launched the literary magazine Voorslag.
Campbell says in his book that his memory and imagination worked as one, and that in recalling them they became more elegant, for he was not one who would wish to bore anyone with facts.
A good section of the book is devoted to his boyhood in the early 20th century, when he attended Durban Boys High School and enjoyed extended holidays in then Rhodesia with his cousins. The journey there took 3½ days by train and four days by ox wagon. When the train reached the Kalahari after Mafeking, the monotony gave way to excitement, he says, as it was the beginning of “the other Africa ... and best of all the Low Veld”.
There was great excitement in the changing of trains, especially at Johannesburg. That was “the only town where I got the feel of a great European city and that gloomy, foreboding spirit that hangs over Glasgow, Liverpool, Marseilles and Barcelona”.
Campbell and his cousins left the train at Insiza, a rural area in Matabeleland, and travelled by ox wagon towards the peak of Belingwe, a mountain 120 miles away.
The journey was through what Campbell describes as “those mysterious lines of ancient gold-workings, forts and ruins”. They would stop at the Dhlo-dhlo ruins, where they would look for arrowheads, battle axes and implements.
Included in their findings was a tarnished leaden ball such as was used in the medieval culverins (cannons). It was buried among spearheads and green beads. Campbell believed the ball could be linked to the expedition of explorer Francisco Barreto in the 16th century in search of the legendary Christian ruler Prester John’s gold mines. Barreto never reached the mines, but died in what today is Mozambique.
Hunting added to the excitement of the journey. Campbell, his siblings and cousins daily went out on mules to hunt for food. They returned at night to sleep in the wagon they were travelling in.
The bushveld provided food in abundance, which Campbell says would satisfy even the gourmet. Birds, especially doves, were plentiful, and he regarded the giant bustard or paauw as the most edible. In addition there were different sorts of partridges, francolins, smaller bustards, snipes, quails and wild duck.
At times Campbell and his companions would follow the honey bird, which would lead them to some honey in a hollow trunk or a cleft in a rock. But they were always careful to leave generous share for the bird. It was believed that if one cheated a honey bird, the next honey bird would lead the cheat to a mamba or rhinoceros.
When the Campbells reached Belingwe, they would go into the bush for a week or two of hunting, not as the tourists go on safari, but as real hunters sleeping under the stars.
At any sign of their footprints, the local inhabitants would “smell meat” and turn up at their campsite, bringing gourds of sour milk and beer. Campbell and his party would lie down in the shade of a golden mimosa tree and listen as the local people sang beside the huge fires over which they smoked the meat.
On their journey the Campbells passed Fingerkop, three large formations of rock resembling human fingers. The centre column had a 10m boulder that looked like a thimble. The rocks stood amid an assortment of boulders, some the size of double-storey houses.
Even more unusual was Balloon Kopje, the rock being as symmetrical as an egg.
According to Campbell it was from these rocks that it was said an oracle, Umlimo, spoke out of a chasm, on one occasion telling the Matabele people to allow the British population “to depart in peace from Bulawayo”, thus saving the population from annihilation.
Campbell says his uncle, AA Campbell, wrote a book on Umlimo based largely on information provided by an ancient Zulu who had fled with Mzilikazi from Shaka when they seceded from the Zulu nation.
The book is available online at jellyfishtree.com.