Since work takes up a large slice of our waking hours, it is fitting that you and I should show some measure of interest in it - besides which it helps to pass the 45-odd years that you are going to be stuck on the old treadmill, beavering away to earn your daily bread. However, I seriously doubt that a person with a fascinating career in insurance broking, undertaking, housekeeping or equally repetitive work, will feel as captivated by their vocation at the end of a useful and industrious life, as someone who, say, has run away from home at an early age to join a circus, eloped with an exotic dancer and slaved on a potato plantation in the pestilential jungle of some far-off land, before taking to the high seas to promote the trade in bootleg sardines, followed by a spell as a hanging judge in a small town in the western USA - or some equally bizarre modus operandi for earning an honest income.
I can count myself among the lucky in that my career-path has changed radically every seven years or so of my working life; partly due to serendipity, partly because I have a really short attention span, requiring new challenges to keep boredom at bay. Still, I enjoy reading descriptions of working careers in a host of categories. Civil engineering might not be to everyone's taste, but you have to admit that there is something grandiose in the idea of a fine bridge spanning a foaming torrent, a sweeping pass hugging the perilous flank of a looming crag or even the building of an unusual habitation. Ben Uys’ book, ‘My Friend Adventure’ (Timmins, 1960)describes a whole slew of such projects that the author tackled during a varied career. He built a number of bridges from Namaqualand to the Northern Transvaal, as well as irrigation works. His modest book includes a number of other interesting interludes, such as riding transport for the Germans in Namibia during the Nama War, a spell as a sawmiller, he washed gravel for diamonds and recruited labour for the mines. A good yarn, full of interesting anecdote and personalities.
The next dam builder gets to be a lot more technical. Henry Olivier’s book, ‘Damit’ (Macmillan, 1975) is not for the faint-hearted in engineering matters. The author writes well and his material is interesting, but the human factor is dwarfed by the scale of his gargantuan projects. Along with a number of pioneering schemes worldwide, he was principally involved in many of the African mega-projects, like the Owen Falls hydro-electric scheme on the White Nile, the great Kariba Dam, the entire early Orange River Scheme and Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique. If earth-shaking human activity rocks your boat – this book has it.
Roads and their builders have a romance and fascination of their own. Our country can boast a number of prominent pioneers in that department, starting with Andrew Geddes Bain, who was originally an saddler, but found this too monotonous and became a hunter and explorer, before becoming embroiled in the 6th Frontier War. A short spell of farming was cut short by an about-face of government policy which deprived him of his farm. This is the point when Bain turned to road construction, for which he showed extraordinary aptitude, and a number of iconic passes were constructed during the next twenty years under his supervision. Bain was an immensely talented man, and he achieved much in the fields of geology, palaeontology as well as writing and art. His ‘Journals of A. G. Bain ‘ edited by Margaret Lister (VRS, 1949), as well as numerous other books and articles testify to his lasting monuments in the subcontinent.
His son, Thomas, had some forty six years in the service of the government ( with only a month holiday in the entire working life !!) and the number of projects he executed brilliantly are legion. Probably the best known book about his work is by Pat Storrar – ‘Colossus of Roads’ (Murray & Roberts, 1984), but this short resumè, though an interesting read, hardly scratches the surface of the great man’s endeavour. A later book, which appeared in 2002, by my friend Graham Ross, entitled ‘The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes’ is a much expanded and well-researched volume on all the roads in the province – in the reconstruction or construction of which the author often had a hand.
From construction let us go to destruction. Though I am not a supporter of the art of shortening my fellow-man by means dexterous or mechanical, I do read the odd military work – and find it fascinating to boot. One that immediately comes to mind is Major P J Pretorius’ book ‘Jungle Man’ in which he describes his spying activities in the Rufiji delta, which led to the sinking of the German cruiser, the Königsberg during WWI. Another is Kenneth van der Spuy’s ‘Chasing the Wind’ (Books of Africa, 1966). The author got into aviation during the box-kite stages, so to speak, and during the early days of WWI graduated to chucking buckets full of darts and jam-tins full of explosives at enemy troops below him, and firing off revolvers and sawn-off shotguns at opposing aviators. In the author’s own words “ I was beginning to enjoy myself “ – and so he should. Happy days indeed before the advent of atom bombs and ICBM’s!
Another work I read recently was David Tyndall-Biscoe’s ‘Sailor, Soldier’, in which he chronicles his great-uncle’s military and naval experiences on a wide front, from the bloody battles of the futile Mahdist war in the Sudan and Egypt, to the Matabele Rebellion and the Anglo-Boer War. Taken from the diaries of the long departed old warrior, the book is a must for those who revel in the movements military, of men and ships, the deployment of guns and the spilling of gallons of gore. The book does not mince matters, but it does a fine job of mutilating words.
Building empires is another fascinating job, so popular during the previous two centuries. There were those of the ilk of Rhodes and Jameson, to be sure, and even Bismarck could be jollied into partaking a little of the colonial cake by the likes of Lüderitz and Peters, but with these gentlemen it was more of an obsessive-compulsive disorder than a form of employment. No, I’m thinking more along the lines of a ‘Chirupula’ Stephenson, who set out as a callow lad to do something related to stringing a telegraph line across the lastest of Mr Rhodes’ acquisitions in Central Africa ( or so I seem to recall). He ended up buying himself a ‘local princess’ for the princely sum of ten bob, married her (as well as another lady from a different tribe – or was it two of ‘em?) acquired large tracts of land, and farmed/ranched with the assistance of his descendants and almost the entire tribe he had, so to speak acquired through marriage and become the chief thereof.. Now THAT’S ENTERPRISE for you! He immodestly describes his life’s work in ‘Chirupula’s Tale’ (Geoffrey Bles, 1937) as does K S Rukavina in ‘Jungle Pathfinder’ (Hutchinson, 1951) – in a more fuzzy, romanticized way.
A most admirable man, on the other hand, was Stewart Gore-Brown, who carved a pocket empire out of the Zambian bush on the shores of Lake Shiwa. An English gentleman to the core, with an unhappy romance overshadowing his entire life, he built his African Dream, a manor house on the heights; he experimented expensively with a number of pioneer farming ventures and later entered politics, earning the respect and admiration of colonialists and Zambians alike. Christina Lamb’s work, ‘Africa House’ (Harper Collins, 2004) does credit to the man and his works, a treat to read.
Hans Merensky, on the other hand, acquired fame for his skill at geology, and in particular his uncanny ability to sniff out Mother Earth’s riches. His missionary parents seem to have had little influence on the young man, and after a fitful start at finding his niche, he settled in on his geological path – to whit, at the coalface of a mine in Silesia – literally. This was the sort of apprenticeship students faced in those days and this was followed by technical studies. After completing his degree, he returned to Africa, and was soon fossicking round the Western Transvaal Bushveld. This was to culminate in the discovery of the immense lode of platinum, later dubbed the Merensky Reef, which stretched for dozens of miles. Just a few years later he played a pivotal role in realizing the discovery of the Namaqualand diamond finds. He was the man who figured out the relationship between the fossil oyster beds and the presence of diamonds – something that other prospectors like Cornell, Carstens and Reuning had not connected.
Merensky’s empire, though founded on mineral riches, was something quite different though. It lay on the slopes of the misty mountains of the Woodbush Range, in the kingdom of Modjadji, the Rain Queen, and it was called Westfalia. This acquisition was followed by a whole string of other estates in Germany and elsewhere in the Union and Namibia. Each farm was dedicated to one or other activity, but Westfalia became a sort of personal experiment; firstly with teaching sustainable agriculture to the African inhabitants, and later with a number of crops which he thought might be suited to the subtropical climate and high seasonal rainfall. The lack of sufficient permanent water led to an investigation of how to conserve this precious resource – and he constructed a huge dam, which even today (in its enlarged form ) is of great importance in the region. He planted tens of thousands of trees, to combat soil erosion on the steep slopes, as well as to enrich the topsoil with life-giving humus. A whole book could be written on the man’s life and work – and so it was, by Olga Lehmann in her work ‘Look Beyond the Wind’ (Timmins, 1955). As a youngster I often roamed around parts of his estate and the sawmill that was harvesting the timber he planted, though the doctor had finished his life’s work some years back. It was only many years later that I read his story and it was certainly one of the books that fuelled my desire to become a field geologist, and later possibly a farmer. The former was not to be, except perhaps as a hobby, but I was fortunate later in life, like Karen Blixen, to also be able to say: “ I had a farm in Africa…”
Scientific endeavour and discoveries are fascinating subjects, especially to the layman. While Africa has not produced, to my knowledge, any of the great physicists or chemists, we have our fair share of prominent geologists like Merensky above, and earlier Bain, Atherstone, Mauch, du Toit and Martin, to name but a few. Much of their pioneering work is ably described in Carl Anhaeusser’s book ‘A Century of Geological Endeavour in Southern Africa’ (Geol. Soc of SA, 1997) There were also numerous innovators in the development of the mining industry, an extremely technical field, which probably is not for the general reader. So far I have not come across a book to explain basic mining techniques and the development of some of the deepest mining capability on this planet, and what little I have learnt, has been from the odd older books like C B Jeppe’s ‘Gold Mining on the Witwatersrand’ (Tvl Chamber of Mines, 1946) through which I paged, scanning the numerous diagrams and so picking up a few grains of knowledge without being blasted by the hailstorm of technical terms that I didn’t understand. My days on the diamond drilling rigs of the sixties and seventies, and the long conversations with geologists and miners, have filled in a number of blanks spaces, but much remains a mystery.
The geologists and the mining engineers can be said to be the success stories of mineral riches – the prospectors were more often than not the losers in the game – but their quests are so much more romantic. The epitome of the glorious failure, to my thinking, must be Fred Cornell, whose evergreen work ‘The Glamour of Prospecting’ (T Fisher Unwin, 1920 plus many reprints) relates cheerfully all the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ that are slung at the diligent seeker of treasure. There is thirst, fatigue, heat, hunger, cold – and hope, in every chapter and it seems as if the hapless fellow was jinxed as he missed striking it rich at every turn, before being killed in a motor accident in London, when he seemed to have success in his pocket. One of those ‘must read’ books.
Jack Carstens was also dogged by ill fortune, but more cruelly so, since he actually found some of the first traces of the enormous wealth that was to be extracted from underneath Namaqualand – he just didn’t profit from it to any appreciable degree. Others employed him to do their rough work for him, as he ably describes in his book “Fortune Through My Fingers’ (Timmins, 1962), since he lacked the capital to develop his finds.
A totally different prospector was John Williamson. He was a brilliant Canadian geologist, who had a dream, as well as the faith, tenacity and capacity for hard labour under an equatorial sun, which kept him going for year after year, prospecting the incandescent Tanganyikan bush until he actually found his El Dorado. The Mwadui diamond mine was to make a major contribution to the impoverished African nation, and made its discoverer hugely wealthy. His story is told factually in H Heidgen’s book, ‘The Diamond Seeker’ (Blackie, 1959) – or if one prefers to have the story spiced up with a little fiction, one can read John Gawaine’s effort of the same (unimaginative) title, complete with femme fatale and imaginary dialogue (Macmillan, 1976).
The medical field too, holds much of interest. Whether it is a morbid curiosity in all that ails the human body; the freak accidents and disasters that can befall this frail construct, or the human face of distress and succour – there is a never-ending source of information and fascination. Even the relatively placid life of a country doctor, as described by Con Weinberg in his work ‘Fragments of a Desert Land’ (Timmins, 1975) during his stint between the World Wars in the Gibeon and Maltahöhe regions of Namibia, is much material of incident and drama. Another charming cameo work is the book ‘Salt River Doctor” by B A Mackenzie (Faircape, 1981) this time dealing with the afflicted of the Mother City.
The development of neurosurgery comes under the spotlight in David Gamsu’s book entitled ‘Adventures of a South African Brain Surgeon’(Hugh Keartland, 1967)– which seems a rather inept title for such a cerebral tome. However, that aside, the author does succeed in giving the layman a comprehensible insight into a profession, the description of which could be spiced up to be completely indigestible to the ordinary mortal. Much of the work described is forensic, and thus for the criminological fans even more interesting.
In a minor medical key, the calling of the nurse during the early days on the Diamond Fields is painted in the little book ‘The Lure of the Stone’ by W M & V Buss (Timmins, 1976).Sister Henrietta Stockdale had the fortitude to care for the ill and the injured on the dusty, dirt-ridden, overcrowded slum that was the Diamond Fields, where living conditions during the first few years must have been truly horrid. Similar experiences are to be found in Rose Blennerhassett and Lucy Sleeman’s ‘Adventures in Mashonaland’ (Macmillan & Co, 1893 or Books of Rhodesia, 1969). These two intrepid ladies pioneered the first bush hospital at Penhalonga and did valuable service in providing the first medical service of any kind in the territory.
The veterinary field, of course, spawned South Africa’s first Nobel laureate, Sir Arnold Theiler. From Thelma Gutsche’s work, ‘There Was a Man’ (Timmins 1979), I managed with great difficulty to extract a faint picture this extraordinarily gifted man’s vocation and the development of veterinary science in the subcontinent and further afield. Somehow the actual ‘beef and bones’ of the science never appeared out of the flood of soup, and after spooning laboriously through almost five hundred pages of the author’s offering, I was still left in want.
Possibly more in the James Herriot vein, but vastly more entertaining, was ‘From the Horse’s Mouth’ by W J van Rensburg (van Schaik, 1983) in which the author relates in lively and interesting prose, his country veterinarian experiences, as well as a stint at Onderstepoort, like Theiler. Needless to say he did not get the Nobel Prize – but then he managed to avoid Gutsche as well!
Obviously there are still a large number of glamorous occupations that should come under consideration. The transport-riders, as epitomised in Percy Fitzpatrick’s ‘Jock of the Bushveld’, have left a legacy redolent of camp fires and creaking oxwagons, perilous paths and the crack of whips and the shouts and whistles of the drovers. The heroes have their shoulders to the wheel, and the villains zoom through the leafy glades to inject the deadly trypanosome into the straining beasts, or assume the shadowy forms of the great cats lying in ambush along the rutted ways. Ah, what pictures one can see: from Poultney and Bee’s ‘Kalahari Campfires’ (Knox, 1941), to Stanley Portal Hyatt’s books ‘Biffel the Story of a Trek-Ox’, ‘Off the Main Track’ and ‘The Old Transport Road’ dealing with treks in Rhodesia, to works like Cecil Cowley’s ‘Schwikkard of Natal and the Old Transvaal’ (Struik, 1974) and C T Stoneham’s ‘Africa All Over’ describing his working life in post-WWI Tanganyika. There are a number of excellent books available in Afrikaans on the subject of transport-riding; C F Gronum’s work ‘Transportry, Runderpes en Poskoetse’ (Pro Rege, 1975) is a good example.
What would Africa be without its animals? Although the spread of man endangers all other living species on the planet, at least humankind seems to realize there is a problem, and attempts are being made to preserve remnants of former glories for future generations. Enter the conservationist, the game ranger, the anti-poaching patrol, and those kind and loving souls who succour orphaned rhinos, lions and other beleaguered beasties, raise them with the aid of large bottles of Klim plus supplements, and then find that they have to spend the rest of their days looking after them. Surely this heartbreaking work has more glamour and romance attached to it than any other career in the subcontinent; almost any little girl would want to be a veterinarian at some stage in their lives; most boys would want to be game rangers, but of the legion of books that have been written by people in this vocation, many testify to the hard life, dangers and disappointments that come with intensely exciting action, interesting challenges and occasionally a sense of a worthwhile job well done, and with visible, lasting results. A man of legendary status in South Africa is, of course, Harry Wolhuter, who wrote of his experiences as ranger in the early days of the Kruger Park, in ‘Memories of a Game Ranger’. His claim to fame lay not in conservation, but rather in killing the lion that attacked him, with his hunting knife – but he could claim extreme provocation as the said kitty was chewing his shoulder at the time.
A book that made a lasting impression on me just after we came to South Africa, was Mervyn Cowie’s ‘Fly Vulture’ (Harrap, 1961), which chronicled the fight to establish game reserves in Kenya. I must admit to being completely won over by the film version, in which the Hollywood Bunch had the baddie get his come-uppance at the horn of an angry rhino which consigned his truck into a donga. I seem to recall that I erupted into loud cheers and clapping at the sight. Since then I have read more sobering versions of the fight against poaching, which is often paid for by organized crime, such as Richard Leakey’s ‘Wildlife Wars’ (Macmillan, 2001), or D W Potgieter’s ‘Contraband’ (Quellerie, 1995).
There is a long list of authors and locations to choose from: like Nick Steele’s Natal books ‘Gameranger on Horseback’ and ‘Bushlife of a Game Warden’, to George Adamson’s ‘Bwana Game’ in Kenya, Cronje Wilmot’s ‘Okavango Adventure’, Daphne Sheldrick’s ‘Orphans of Tsavo’ and ‘The Tsavo Story’, Hannes Kloppers’ two volumes, ‘Veldwagter’ and ‘Gee My ‘n Man’, dealing with the Kruger and the Kalahari Parks respectively. I have read dozens of these offerings, and found something to keep me at it in each one. The writing may not be exceptional, the subject matter is rarely unique, but each account of the work done by these dedicated people involves the reader to a degree seldom felt with books dealing with other occupations – and so, read on.