Local History of Komatipoort

As with all of the Southern African Sub-Continent, the original inhabitants of the region around Komatipoort were the diminutive and golden skinned Bushmen. Arguably the oldest human culture on Earth, their hunter-gatherer lifestyle pre-dated agriculture and any sense of boundaries or land-ownership. They were ill equipped to deal with incursions of black and then white men into their realm. Still for several thousand years these people held sway in the wilderness around where Komatipoort and the Kruger Park would one day be. Their legacy is in the paintings they have left, usually under rock ledges, that date sometimes from hundred or thousands of years ago. In the Kruger Park the Bushman Walking Trails are the best way to see and marvel at a fraction of this artistic treasure. Personally, however, I think it needs saying that for every bushman painting that grabs you viscerally with its vivid depiction of a hunting scene, there will be another which has you wondering what it’s supposed to be and filled with the hope that the ‘artist’ didn’t give up his hunter-gathering day job.

Recorded history of the Lowveld commences in the early nineteenth century. A number of different Bantu tribes or clans occupied the area from St Lucia Bay to the Limpopo river who were related by language and culture and referred to indiscriminately as baThonga by their Zulu overlords. The relatively peaceful conditions that applied at this time were to be shattered by the emergence of Shaka as king of the Zulus. Melding his Zulu army into a vast, disciplined fighting machine, Shaka’s approach to war and conquest was in sharp contrast to the rather half-hearted approach to conflict which had hitherto prevailed. The Mfecane or scattering that resulted from Shaka’s warring on his neighbours changed the map of southern Africa. Breakaway groupings seeking to escape Shaka’s violence spread out across the region, often preying on local people or pursuing a scorched-earth policy to frustrate their pursuers. Tribes that were born from this process include: the AmaNdebele under Mzilikazi who settled eventually in what is now Zimbabwe; the Gaza people under Shoshangane in Mozambique; the Ngwane people under Chief Sobhuza withdrew into the mountain fastnesses north of Zululand – eventually becoming known as Swazi after another chief, Umswazi. Another derivation of people caused by the Mfecane were the baShangaan, essentially conquered peoples conscripted into Zulu fighting forces and later a discrete tribal grouping.

During the middle of the nineteenth century Afrikaans voortrekkers began to arrive in the region seeking freedom from the imposition of British rule in the Cape. This trickle of settlers eventually lead to the formation of the Transvaal Republic. In time the Transvaal and the Orange State united to form the South African Republic. This was tacitly recognised by the British who were expanding their own interests in South Africa through Natal. However, in 1877 the British found it expedient to annex the South African Republic to ‘settle’ its disputed borders with the Zulu Kingdom. This ‘helpful’ intervention by the Brit’s was as popular as a wolf in a kindergarten with the Afrikaans people, however, the Zulu military machine was still seen as a real threat to their security. The British decided to neutralise the Zulu threat in 1879, when having given completely impossible ultimatums to the Zulu King Cetswayo, requiring the disbandment of his army and complete social system, they sent in the army. The defeat of that army at Isandlwana and heroic stand at Rorke’s Drift are the stuff of legend. The inevitable consequence was, however, the eventual crushing of the Zulu Kingdom. Thus freed of the Zulu threat the South African Republic re-proclaimed its independence leading to the First Boer War in 1881. Again there was a somewhat embarrassing reversal of British arms at Majuba Hill and the British grudgingly accepted that the Republic wasn’t such a bad idea after all. For all Britain’s undoubted enthusiasm for conquering other peoples at this time (for their own good don’t you know) we really weren’t very good at it…

Were it not for the efforts of the Transvaal Land Commissioner Abel Erasmus, the ground currently occupied by Komatipoort would be in the Kingdom of Swaziland. Erasmus served on a committee in the 1880s to neutrally determine the borders between Portuguese East Africa and Swaziland. Somewhat surprisingly, around the same time, he hatched a deal with an unnamed Swazi chieftain which pushed the Swazi border back an average of 80km to the south of the Crocodile River; ceding the land to the Transvaal Republic. The cost of this deal was 12 cases of gin – a substance of which the Swazi royal family at the time were famously fond. We can only hope at least that a couple of cases of tonic were also part of the bargain.

The town of Komatipoort came into being in 1887. The name of the town is derived from the Swazi named ‘Komati’ river, meaning literally ‘river of cows’ (or with a uniquely African multiplicity of meaning – ‘hippos’) and the Afrikaans term ‘poort’ meaning valley. There had been little previous temptation for Europeans to settle there as the Lowveld was famously hot, malarial and ridden with wild beasts prone to varying their diets in alarming ways. Simple greed was, however, all that was needed to overcome whatever reservations such trifles may have caused. The discovery of gold in the Selati region served as impetus to a plan to build a branch line from the main Johannesburg to Lourenço Marques line to service the goldfields. Komatipoort was where the mainline would sprout that branch.

The plan for this branch line, destined to run to Lydenburg, was hatched between Baron Eugene Oppenheim and his brother Robert and corrupt officials of the Transvaal government. The term ‘con men’ would be a flattering one for Eugene and Robert: paid for by the mile their railway included more than 40 miles of unnecessary loops and was therefore as crooked as they were. The Selati goldfields singularly failed to reach their assumed potential so, for the most part, the line was a very expensive, white elephant. The great bridge across the Crocodile River can be seen to the right of the Crocodile Bridge as one enters the Kruger Park today.

The author Sir Percy Fitzpatrick opined that the line was ‘conceived in iniquity, delivered in shame, died in disgrace’. Rather more famous than his views on branch line concessions was Fitzpatrick’s evergreen book ‘Jock of the Bushveld’. First published in 1907 this South African classic purports to being the autobiography of Fitzpatrick’s days as a transport rider, primarily focused on his relationship with the eponymous wonder-dog ‘Jock’. Despite being dedicated (a little nauseatingly) to ‘the likkle people’ the book has been in print ever since and has spawned an entire industry. There are Jock golf tournaments, Jock tee-shirts and endless plaques in the Kruger Park and its environs charting where Percy and Jock first met and the like. The tale has even spawned two films: a South African version close enough to the original text and ending sadly when Jock is accidentally shot whilst protecting chickens, and; an American version where Jock lives long and happily having puppies with the bitch of his dreams. I blame Walt Disney. Rather surprisingly, given Jock’s enduring fame, H. Zeederberg, in his book Veld Express points out that no other transport driver of the time could remember Fitzpatrick as having a dog named Jock amongst the numerous (rather ordinary) dogs he had over the years. Still, he was probably right about that railway line!

One unplanned utilisation of the Selati line was by Steinaecker’s Horse during the second Anglo-Boer war 1899 – 1902. Francis Christian Ludwig von Steinaecker may well be the brightest hued individual in an area that has seen more than is fair share of colourful characters. A pint-sized Bavarian who had served in the Prussian army he was hook-nosed, bushy eye-browed and affected an eccentric uniform of his own design. Taking the British cause in the war he raised a company of irregular horseman, basing himself in luckless Komatipoort for the duration. Something of a self-publicist he once demonstrated his marksmanship by discharging his pistol twice into the ceiling of a Komatipoort tavern to ostensibly demonstrate that he had placed both shots through a single hole! Less credulous observers pointed out that the second shot had been a blank. During the war the Selati line was operated by Steinaecker’s men, the engine being initially operated by Trooper Tom Boyd – who unfortunately ‘died of drink’ in Komatipoort in 1902.

Amongst Steinaecker’s troopers was one James Weighton Reilly, trooper 1021, born 1880. For any of our guests moving on to Reilly’s Rock Hilltop Lodge in Mlilwane in Swaziland, it is worth noting that Trooper Reilly is the father of Ted Reilly the current owner of Reilly’s Rock and a legend in Swazi wildlife conservation. James moved to Mlilwane in 1906, his nickname ‘Mickey’ (he was Irish after all) was rendered as Macobane by the local Swazis. Mlilwane means ‘little fire’ and references the frequent lightning strikes to the hills there. Macobane mined tin and employed 800 people. Reilly’s Rock was the house he had built and is a fabulous place to stay. It was also the first place in Swaziland to enjoy electrification – again thanks to James.

Whilst Steinaecker’s Horse occupied the area, Komatipoort and its environs did not seem a particularly promising centre for a budding conservation effort. Living off the land the troopers slaughtered buck by the thousands with the large carnivores habitually shot as vermin. The battle was not entirely one-sided as 12 of Steinaecker’s men were reputedly killed by lion or crocodile during the course of the war. Steinaecker had once even commanded his troop to shoot the local pod of hippos, largely it seems because the local commander of regular British forces had dictated they be unharmed. Thankfully his men seemed disinclined to obey the order. This was then an unpromising environment for the arrival in 1902 of surely the greatest hero of South African conservation, James Stevenson-Hamilton. Fortunately perhaps, on Stevenson-Hamilton’s advent in Komatipoort, Steinaecker was in London for the coronation of Edward VII which he attempted to take part in without invitation. As this act of lèse-majesté lead to the relief of Steinaecker’s command, he and Stevenson-Hamilton were never to meet. Thus ended an unorthodox military career: the unorthodox life was to end in 1914 when he drank strychnine rather than be evicted from the farm where he worked as handyman for one of his ex-troopers.

Stevenson-Hamilton’s mission was to establish the Sabi Game Reserve which had been proclaimed just before the commencement of hostilities. As early as 1884 President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic had indicated a concern that large wild animals were on the verge of being hunted out of the Lowveld. It was to take decades and the work of numerous others before those concerns were addressed. Tasked with this great enterprise as his life’s work, Stevenson-Hamilton put together his team. Included here was Harry Wolhuter, the first and undoubtedly the most famous Game Ranger in Kruger Park history. Another ex-Steinaecker’s Horseman, Wolhuter was in 1904, shortly after nightfall, riding his horse on what is today the S35 in the Kruger Park. He was attacked by two male lions and dragged by one of them 100 metres into the bush. Fighting shock and unconsciousness, Wolhuter managed to stab the lion to death and then climb a tree before the second lion left feasting on his horse to come after him. Wolhuter expressed gratitude to his dog Bull who was seemingly instrumental in both keeping the second lion distracted and attracting the attention of assistant rangers who carried the stricken man to Komatipoort. Harry’s gratitude did not, however, tempt him to write a book about his dog: thus sparing us Bull of the Bushveld, Bull Golf Tournaments and tee-shirts and thankfully any chance of an American film where Bull achieves good Karma and self-actualisation.

Early conservation was robust by modern standards. In order to protect the remaining herbivores Stevenson-Hamilton and his rangers set about shooting the remaining carnivores. It should be remembered that, at this stage, there was not intention that the conservancy should ever become a tourist attraction and dangerous animals were seen as little more than a liability. The next twenty or so years of Stevenson-Hamilton’s life were devoted to accomplishing the security of this wild place. During 1903 10,000 square miles were added to the original reserve. Clearing native peoples from the newly proclaimed conservation areas lead to Stevenson-Hamilton being named Skukuza by the Africans – meaning he who sweeps clean. The patent success of the conservation effort lead to the continuing renewal of loan rights over farm lands. However, with the coming of the Great War 1914-18, manpower resources for the reserve were denuded and poaching became epidemic. These setbacks called into question the whole sustainability of the project and grants of grazing rights to farmers and prospecting rights to farmers began to be made. Call for the reintroduction of indiscriminate hunting, particularly of lions, also began to be made.

In the end the first eco-tourists saved the day. South African Railways began special tours through the region, halting the trains so that passengers could enjoy the spectacle of the wildlife. This lead to an upsurge of interest across South Africa and the passing of the National Parks Act in 1926. Roads began to be built in 1927 and in 1928 the Kruger National Park was first opened to the public. In that first year some 200 cars availed themselves of the new road access. Stevenson-Hamilton was frankly amazed at this level of popularity. Overnight visitors in those early days were allocated the living accommodation of the rangers – who consequently camped. Surely a far cry from the sophisticated infrastructure that supports the 1 million plus visitors that the Kruger Park now receives each year.

During the period of Stevenson-Hamilton’s endeavours the area around Komatipoort became farming land as cheap land grants were given to whites. Sugar, bananas and citrus became paying crops in the largely tropical environment. If you wish to bore your friends with a unique fact gleaned whilst on holiday, you can do little better than that Komatipoort is the only place in South Africa where two crops of bananas can be achieved in one year… Small as it was, Komatipoort retained its status as an important town in the region during the first seventy years of the twentieth century. In 1935 the American writer and explorer Mary Akeley cites passing through the tiny village of Nelspruit on her way to Komatipoort from Johannesburg.

The 1970s and 1980s were a less fruitful time for the town. The rapid exit of the Portuguese from Mozambique in 1974 lead to socialist and soviet-backed, RENAMO government in that country under Samora Machal. This new regime was not at all friendly to Apartheid South Africa. South Africa (and the CIA) set about supporting RENAMO’s opposition – FRELIMO. The resultant civil war was brutal and long, leading to a country sown with landmines, thousands of crippled civilians and economic meltdown. Almost overnight, Komatipoort went from being an important border crossing between friendly states to being the road to nowhere and on an unofficial frontline. The shadow of madness that hung over the town during this period is further exemplified by the fact that South African Security Forces were fond of the Komati and Crocodile rivers as places to dump the bodies of ‘terrorism suspects’ after interrogation.

Along with the rest of the nation, the advent of the New South Africa in 1994 has provided a much needed rebirth for Komatipoort. As tourism had burgeoned Stevenson-Hamilton’s park has achieved levels of popularity that the great man could not have dreamed of. Komatipoort again sits as a gateway between South Africa and its friendly, also democratic, neighbour Mozambique. As trade between these nations grows, so too will the fortunes of Komatipoort. The next chapter in this history could be the most exciting yet.

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