BOOK REVIEW: When the ox wagon was king of the road
One tollgate recorded 4,500 ox wagons a year travelling from the Cape to the interior
Until as recently as the early years of the 20th century Cape ox wagons travelled about in SA. The wagons could offer a top speed of only two miles an hour, but this slow pace had its compensations, writes Lawrence Green in his book When the Journey’s Over. The following report is from that work.
The leisurely pace of travel gave a person “time to think, and to observe”, and it could be said that “in the cloudless winter, a long wagon journey in the interior of SA was the finest life in the world”, Green writes.
He describes the market square in the towns and villages of southern Africa as wagon harbours. Transport riders “were in some ways like seamen delivering cargoes, refreshing themselves and their spans and setting out again into a wilderness like a brown ocean”.
Villages mushroomed along the wagon routes, each with a long main street, wide enough for a wagon to make a U-turn. Each town had its market square and a huge outspan area. Wagon trains travelled long distances, even as far afield as Windhoek in then South West Africa (now Namibia).
Green records the interesting assortment of food a transport rider carried in his voorkis (storage trunk), which also served as a seat for the driver. Another trunk provided storage for items such as tea, coffee, canisters of sugar, and rice. Tinned food included sardines, sausages, peas, French beans, Worcestershire sauce and oatmeal.
A delicacy for a transport rider to whom Green spoke was an askoek — a “cake of coarse flour, water and a pinch of salt laid on glowing embers”. But the man’s favourite was “the head of a zebra cooked all night in the camp fire, skin and all”.
Game was plentiful and Green was told that often springboks had to be driven away from water holes to allow the oxen to drink.
It was a healthy life and the transport rider was seldom ill. The medicine the rider took with him included the popular remedies at the time. Also, his “coloured wagon crews gathered herbs and other veld medicines”, Green writes. Prickly pears and wild garlic were used to treat sores, and wild figs were used for earache. “Dung mixed in vinegar was the cure for measles.”
Green was told that there must have been a hundred firms of wagon builders in the Cape at the peak of the wagon-building industry. A “heavy, full-tented wagon” known as Voortrekker could carry a load of 4,000 pounds. Green describes this as “a grand outfit with strong axles”.
It was the custom then to employ skilful painters to decorate a wagon with coloured patterns and the name of the purchaser and his farm.
Phillips of Paarl was a famous wagon maker at the time. When SA invaded South West Africa in 1914 the SA forces used Phillips wagons. The author reports that wagons bearing the Phillips trademark were seen on the Western front in France in World War 1. Many of the wagons were used or built for military service. Green mentions that Oswald Pirow (SA minister of defence before World War 2) ordered some for the SA Defence Force.
Later on agents of Italian leader Benito Mussolini visited the Phillips factory in Paarl to order wagons for Mussolini’s campaign in Abyssinia. The Phillips factory made huge wheels for Howitzer guns for SA’s Union Defence Force in World War 2.
Green believes “the wagon industry was closer to the hearts of South Africans than the railways or the car”. For, he points out, the story of the Cape ox wagon can be traced back to the days of Jan van Riebeeck. It was the wagon, too, that “made the first tracks to Saldanha Bay and the North”.
In its heyday the ox wagon was very visible. Green reports that the Hottentots Holland Kloof tollgate counted 4,500 wagons a year.