Thursday, 14 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Stormberg.

The Stormberg station used to be a railway junction but the tracks that headed off west toward Steynsburg have been lifted and as far as I can tell the only active track heads north-south. Trains still stop there but only because there is a passing loop. A couple of times I have encountered locomotives purring patiently while waiting for the signal to switch to green. On this morning there were no trains to be seen.

The blockhouse adjacent to the railway line serves as a visual reference when coming off the mountain. There is no path. Once at the foot of the mountain you simply walk or ride across the flat-as-an-ironing-board stretch of veld toward the blockhouse. Both methods require a degree of diligence owing to the manifold burrows that litter the ground. I ride and as a result have staked claim to a few of them over the years.

As you approach the blockhouse you have 2 choices. Simply hop the fence and get onto the road and pedal off. Or, take a moment to appreciate the history of the place. The blockhouse is a remnant of the Second Boer War. Yes, there were two Boer Wars. The first one, sparked by inflated wagon tax lasted 3 months and 3 days from 20 December 1880 - 23 March 1881 and fizzled out after the British lost their appetite for a protracted engagement and, quite frankly, couldn't be bothered.

Then gold happened and the English bothered. The upshot of their new found bother was the Second Boer War which began in 1899. The wily Boers frustrated the English and had them resorting to all manner of tactics. One of their tactics was to built a chain of blockhouses - in excess of 8000 of them! The structures at Stormberg (there is a second and identical blockhouse a few hundred metres away) are remnants of the Robert's style - named after Lord Roberts. They are two storey stone constructions with machine gun platforms in one of the upper corners. You gain entrance through the ground floor. The upper floor was accessed via a ladder but there is no longer any evidence of these ladders. Rifle loop holes are built into the walls of both levels. Apparently these took about 3 months to build and were rather pricey at around £800. The cost of the Robert's blockhouse meant a little over 400 of them were built before they switched to corrugated iron structures which cost only £16 and took only 6 hours to erect.

A 20 minute ride along the race route brings you to site of the Battle of Stormberg at Vegkoppies. In December 1899 Boers from the Orange Free State overran the rail junction at Stormberg. This was a real nuisance for the English who were intent of securing rail access on their advance through the Cape Midlands toward Bloemfontein. A hastily assembled crew of greenhorns set off to relieve the junction. As it turned out it was a bad plan poorly executed. Nearly 700 Englishman were taken prisoner not to mention very lopsided casualty figures - 26 vs 8 in favour of the Boers. A short walk across the veld brings you to a memorial erected at the battle site. A short scramble and you are where the Boers took up position when faced by the advancing English troops.

In the quietness of the country side it is hard to imagine a raging battle that included over 4000 men, hundreds of horses and 15 artillery guns. The names chiselled into the stone memorial a stark reminder of the cost of war.

At Stormberg and Vegkoppies, pause, take time to look around. Then you will realise that you are neck deep in the history that formed this land we call home.

No comments: