Autumn or winter was a good time to arrive in the Cape. A nor-wester may have eased the ship into Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Harbour, giving the pregnant Sarah Edelman and her sons, Harris, five, and Joseph, not yet two, a gentle introduction to the local climate and their first view of the town and its mountain backdrop. The weather wouldn’t have been far off a Liverpudlian summer, another pleasant discovery after six years in England. Of course, if they’d arrived a few months earlier, they’d have steamed into the teeth of the ‘Cape Doctor’, the south-east wind that decks Table Mountain’s with its summer ‘tablecloth’ and is capable of knocking the unsteady off their feet. I grew up with this wind, for me the single defining element of a Cape summer. It both cleansed and irritated, but mostly it did the latter. The south-easter rattled windows, laughing at bits of tissue paper wedged between panes and leadlights; it banged shutters, hooted down chimney stacks, terrorised pets and penetrated ear plugs. I hated it.
The family’s travels weren’t over yet. There was still a trip to Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo where, hopefully, Harris Edelman had set up house and was making enough of a living to support his wife and growing family.
Air travel was something of a distant future, another 22 years until the Wright brothers would make the first powered flight at Kittyhawk on December 17, 1903, and several more decades before the introduction of air passenger services in South Africa. Transport infrastructure was rudimentary; until the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1871, the length of rail from Cape Town did not extend past the shadow cast by the nearby Jonkershoek mountains. From 1872, major investment in rail brought the Cape Colony’s main ports – Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London – closer to the diamond fields, but none of these lines went anywhere near Oudtshoorn. For someone wanting a rail experience from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn in 1881, this was possible to a point. That point was the tiny outpost of Prince Albert Road, 350 kilometres north-east of Cape Town in the Great Karoo, from where the rest of the journey had to be made by road.
Between Prince Albert Road and Oudtshoorn is one of the finest examples of an exposed fold mountain chain in the world, the Swartberg mountains, which also forms the border between the Great and Little Karoos. A hundred years later I would cross this pass by car. When we reached the summit, the engine started to overheat, making for an obligatory stop. We waited for the engine to cool, taking in the arid beauty of the Great Karoo we’d left behind and the neat farmlands – and civilisation – of the Little Karoo in front of us. We breathed some of the cleanest air on earth in a silence barely punctuated by an occasional breeze. For all its pristine qualities, however, this was no place in which to get stuck.
A pass over the mountains would only be completed in 1888, leaving the traveller in 1881 with no option but to circumvent the Swartberg, a distance that would be halved with the opening up of the pass. For 340 kilometres, our rail fan would have had to skirt the northern base of the Swartberg, finding passage through a series of ‘poorts’ – the word ‘poort’ means ‘narrow pass through mountains’ – on roads that were often subject to flooding and rockfalls.
If one didn’t want to switch travel mode, it was possible to make the journey entirely by road from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn. Horse and cart, or coach, were the modus operandi of the day, requiring frequent stops for a change of horses and refreshments, maybe even an overnight stay or two. There were mountain passes to cross and roads that were unsealed. In parts, these roads were little more than dirt tracks; winter rain could turn them into bogs.
I like to think that Harris Edelman spared his pregnant wife and children the rigours of an overland trek. That he would have arranged for them to stay on board the steamship that had borne them to Cape Town and would be continuing up the east coast to despatch passengers and mail. If this gave Sarah and her sons little time to acquaint themselves with Cape Town, that would keep for another time.
Between 1857 and 1977, ships of the Union and Castle Lines transported mail and passengers between Britain and various ports in South Africa, including Mossel Bay, the closest port to Oudtshoorn. For information on the ‘mail run’, I’ve turned to CJ Harris’ and Brian Ingpen’s absorbing account, Mailships of the Union Castle Line. I found this and several other literary ‘pink diamonds’ in Cape Town’s Long Street, a road lined by Victorian buildings and populated by bars, restaurants and coffee shops. One of the most joyful things about delving into ancestors’ pasts is the amount of ‘contextual evidence’ one discovers along the way, much of it out of print and available from second-hand bookshops only. The search for such material creates the impetus for travel which, in turn, generates its own journeys of renewal, discovery and pure enjoyment.
In 1881, the ships of the Union and Castle Lines were no more than a couple of thousand tons and some of them still retained sail as an additional form of propulsion to steam. A typical example was the ‘African’, built in 1873; she was a 96 metre long steamer with foresails, capable of 12 knots and able to accommodate 100 passengers in first class, 50 in second and 50 in third. The ‘Dunrobin Castle’, built in 1876, was 104 metres long, capable of 10 knots and could accommodate 100 first class passengers, 50 in second class and ‘100 emigrants’. The need to classify emigrants separately and their class of accommodation, is not explained.
From Cape Town, the vessel bearing Sarah and her sons would have steamed out of the Victoria and Albert Basin, giving the five year-old Harris his last view of the settlement and its mountain backdrop for a while. The ship’s path of travel would have taken it around the western Cape Peninsula and south to Cape Point, tracking south-east past a number of tiny coastal settlements to Danger Point and thence south to Cape Agulhas. If they had passed this area on a clear night, they may have seen the beam from the Cape Agulhas lighthouse, the most southerly on the African continent, winking at them.
This stretch of coast has been unsparing of vessel and life, its winter storms and mammoth rogue waves having claimed more than 100 ships and the lives of thousands, often emigrants. The RMS Teuton, a mail steamer of the Union Company bound for Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth), struck an object and sank near Cape Agulhas on the night of 30 August 1881. According to an eyewitness, the ship
‘went down like a streak of lightning…I would have not believed it possible that a vessel could go down so quickly…I am almost certain that the boat with the women and children in it was fastened by rope to the vessel or did not clear the vortex.’
This eyewitness, a Mr Kromm, could not swim and survived by jumping from the poop deck as the ship was going down. After being dragged below the surface of the water by the suction of the sinking ship, he managed to grab hold of a piece of wreckage and was later hauled on board one of the life boats. Of the more than 200 persons on board, only 34 survived.
The port town of Mossel Bay – or the Bay of Mussels, named for the abundance of marine molluscs in its intertidal zone – became a key link in shipping primary produce from the interior to major markets in South Africa and the rest of the world. By the 1880’s the full force of the ostrich feather boom catapulted Oudtshoorn onto the world stage and elevated the role of Mossel Bay to new heights. The gross value of the feather trade had increased from around £87,000 in 1870 to more than £1 million in 1882 and, by the late nineteenth century, Mossel Bay had become a major port for exporting ostrich feathers, handling more than 800,000 kilograms of feathers every year. 1881 was a good time to be arriving in this part of the world.
If the value of the feather trade was powering ahead, land transport remained basic. Derrick Lewis writes of his ancestors’ journey from Mossel Bay to Oudtshoorn in 1885: ‘Lena and her (eight) children travelled from Mossel Bay by horse and cart over the Robertson (sic) Pass to Oudtshoorn.’ He doesn’t say how long the trip took or whether the family needed more than one horse and cart to get them and their possessions across the mountains, but even today the Robinson Pass ranks higher for ‘tourist experience’ than it does against standards of ‘safety’ and ‘expeditious travel’.
The pass was opened in 1869. Its base is about 40 kilometres north of Mossel Bay and the angle of ascent is steeper on this side, with the road climbing steadily through sweeping curves marked by memorials to people who have lost their lives in accidents along the way. The pass is often shrouded in mist and the upper reaches can be wet. Twenty-first century travellers who filmed the experience suggest that ‘if you are fortunate (my emphasis) enough to drive the pass after or even during rain, you will see a lot of water tumbling out of the mountain about 500 meters before the summit.’ Lewis doesn’t describe the weather on his ancestors’ 1885 trip so they may have struck the pass at a dry time. Even if they did, the road was unsealed and, on a horse-drawn cart, every bump and jolt would have been felt. Once over the summit, the road descends at an easier gradient through a series of S-bends before levelling off into the farmland district of the Little Karoo. From what I can establish, the views are spectacular, but I’ll have to experience that first-hand for myself one day.
How much did Harris Edelman tell his wife about the South African odyssey she was about to undertake? Nothing, I suspect. The trip was something to be accepted and dealt with, like living in a house without sanitation or being made a widow at the age of 21. Sometimes I think we know – or want to know – too much about what lies ahead. The information revolution has given us a powerful tool, but at the same time, it has taken away our innocence, made us more cautious and less spontaneous, and robbed us of the ability to live in and enjoy the present; at times, it even misleads us. Travel is a good example; we spend hours talking to industry experts and others who have ‘been there’, planning itineraries, mining websites, browsing forums, watching You Tube clips and flicking through Trip Advisor reviews. We want to know exactly what the accommodation, the beach, the restaurant, the food, the excursions – the experience – will be like.
The toddler, Joseph, would have taken few memories of the journey through a life that would end a few years later. The five-year-old Harris would have been more impressionable; this would have been one of the few sea voyages, perhaps the only one, he made during his life and the experience is likely to have marked him, as events of magnitude, either on a public or personal level, do. My father would recall how he remembered the outbreak of the Great War, which occurred when he was two. At a similar age, my parents left me with an aunt while they travelled abroad for three months; after they returned, I would check on them nightly to make sure they were still alive.
And then there was Oudtshoorn. About as far removed from Liverpool as one could get.