The Story of Melsetter

Chapter 10

1918 started with exceptionally heavy rains. In January a road Overseer, held up between two unfordable rivers, got a message through to Umtali with an African policeman on patrol that he was repairing washed-away drifts so that vehicles could get through, but suspected that the roads were very bad beyond them. Around his camp six donkeys and three mules had died of exposure.

Marie, daughter of H. D. Martin (Mrs. Hack), left Melsetter for school in Bulawayo. The night before they left it rained steadily, but the morning dawned fair and, with servants carrying her scoff box and tin trunk, she went to the market square to board the coach. Nearly all the villagers were there as the weekly arrival and departure of the mail-coach was a big event, not lightly to be missed. Six passengers could be carried in two rows of three facing one another with knees almost touching, but as there were only four Marie, Connie McLeod, Mr. Lenthall and a Post & Telegraphs technician � they travelled in great style and comfort. Luggage and mailbags were secured to the back of the coach and covered by a tarpaulin. Final goodbyes were said, they took their places, the Cape coachman mounted his high seat, his assistant leapt up beside him, and with whip cracks, the clatter of hooves and a blast from the bugle, they were off.

The team was fresh and the pace brisk as the coach rounded the shoulder of Pork Pie and past Rocklands. Then came the long, heavy pull up and yet up, till the nervous preferred not to look outside to the awful depths below. Rounding sharp bends the leading mules had to keep to the extreme edge of the narrow road, and clods flung up by their hooves dropped sickeningly out of sight. On and on, then down the impossibly steep pass at Komiek Nek, round to Steynsbank and a fresh team of mules, and an opportunity of stretching legs and having tea and a bite. The new team had a long haul up and round to Rutherfurd�s Hid, and then down the valley, across the Umvumvumvu, and on to the Half Way huts where they spent the night.

The mountains, with very real hazards in those wet conditions, were behind them, and ahead was comparatively uninteresting country, with minor ups and downs though with large rivers to be forded. Next morning, due in Umtali that afternoon, they were wakened by the bugle to a sodden world.

They found the Mpudzi river in flood, but after a short delay the water appeared to have subsided, so the coachman said that with the fresh team ready there they should be able to cross. With brakes locking the back wheels and mules struggling to keep their feet on the slippery surface, the steep slope down to the ford was negotiated. Halfway across the river disaster struck. A wall of water swept through the coach, carrying downstream nearly all their belongings and the helpless mules, hastily cut free by the quick-thinking driver. One poor beast was drowned, but the others struggled to safety some distance away.

There they were: four fare-paying passengers and two Zeederberg employees, soaked to the skin and perched precariously on the rocking, teamless coach in midstream. Connie, dressed incongruously in smart coat, new hat and brown gloves, swam back, battling bravely through the waves.

Africans came from the coach stables and formed a human chain from bank to coach, back along which they all struggled to safety. A fire was made and they dried themselves as well as possible. The position was not good: nearly all their belongings had gone, they had no food, and learned that return to Melsetter was impossible as the road behind was cut by another stream, normally a trickle but now a raging torrent. They got in touch with the Newnham family who were camped close by and soon exhausted their limited food supplies. Before the adventure was over they were eating crushed mealies kept at the coach station for the mules.

The Post & Telegraphs man had saved a portable telephone from the flood and climbed a telegraph pole, attached the instrument, and got news of their plight to Melsetter. Elliot organised teams of bearers to bring food, but they returned to report failure, and finally the Martins� faithful old servant, Bye-and-Bye, managed to reach them with a box of supplies.

In order to rescue the Newnhams and the coach party the Umtali Magistrate sent out a trolley and oxen for which, owing to A.C.F. restrictions, a special permit had to be obtained, and also sent mealie-meal and flour for the Overseer. The road was washed out in many places some ten and fifteen feet and several landslides had blocked it, and all traffic was suspended.

In Umtali Marie was taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Jim English and was looked after by their motherly housekeeper Miss Lettie Kloppers. The 100-mile journey had taken a week instead of two days.

Marie had hoped that on reaching civilisation her troubles would be over, but she was involved in a train accident near Rusape where a culvert had been washed away. Eventually she reached Salisbury, was re-equipped by her sister, and reached Eveline Girls� High weeks late, and her trunk reached the school about a month later.

It was weeks before the next coach got through to Melsetter. The carriers swam the flooded rivers with mailbags on their heads, and exchanged bags halfway; letters only were carried, newspapers and parcels posted in Salisbury in January reached Melsetter in April. Transport wagons were held up, provisions became scarce, and drink ran out altogether; some residents suffered badly from thirst and did not enjoy being teetotalers, and the first coach to arrive bringing a cargo received a tremendous welcome.

During February the CC. telegraphed successive overnight high rainfalls, and said that if it continued to rain as never before even runners would not be able to get through. The roads were everywhere impassable for vehicles, and it was useless spending money trying to mend them until the weather cleared.

The official figures, from 1st November 1917 to 31st March 1918, were 94.25� in the township, which was less than in many other parts of the district. There was serious mortality among stock as young cattle and donkeys died in considerable numbers, and sheep and goats died in hundreds.

During March all official correspondence was carried out in very long telegrams, and the C.C. appealed for a road engineer to come and direct operations or tell him what to have done. Gangs worked on sections of the road to make them passable, and the Overseer, again short of food and imprisoned between unfordable spruits, dealt with severe damage.

By 16th April private conveyances had come through and the coach service started again soon afterwards, but it was months before more than urgent temporary repairs could be done to the road.

The road through Chipinga to Mount Silinda was a Government responsibility, but it got little attention and was mostly in a shocking condition. In 1918 a gang repaired some of the damage done at the beginning of the year, and the Nyahode drift was descnbed as not being able to stand a rainstorm as it had been built with very light material and had no batters whatever.

Baboons were very troublesome, and hunts were arranged under the control of the N.C., who supplied natives to help when necessary. Lee-Enfield ammo was issued free, with unexpended rounds being returned to the N.C.; ammunition for other rifles and for shotguns expended during a hunt was paid for on application to the C.C.
A quantity of wool, several hundred bags of wheat, and a little dairy produce were sent to market, but Melsetter was at the time affected by the general depression after the War.

As there was a spell with no further deaths from A.C.F., farmers, merchants and other residents urgently requested that the quarantine restrictions be lifted to allow ox transport between Melsetter and Umtali. Donkey transport was unobtainable, no mealies or grain for native food could be bought locally, the farmers were asking prohibitive prices for wheat, and necessaries for the European population were becoming scarce. Later in the year restnctions were partly removed, and an Imperial Cold Storage buyer bought some 2000 head of stock.

In spite of drawbacks, advances took place in the village and day-to-day life carried on. Lethbridge retired from the Police and took over the house in which Meikles� Managers had lived (today�s Hotel cottage), and opened the first fully licensed hotel, a great boon to travellers. Later several bedrooms were added, and a large stable was erected capable of accommodating a dozen horses.

The C.C. reported that a healthy sign was the erection of a large and commodious store: the stone building which still stands sturdily today, built at the instigation of John Meikle. Meikle Brothers had had a General Dealer�s certificate since 1911, the first issued by the Melsetter Licensing Board. The building of the store, supervised by a contractor, involved many residents: the stones were laid by Daantjie Steyn, Stoffel and Schalk Kloppers, Tom Williams and Barnie Marais, and the stones were lifted to the top of the wall by a small crane. Karl Neeser did the carpentering with timber most of which Andnes Kok cut in the Nyamarirwe valley in the Greenmount forest: after felling a tree, he sawed it into 18� lengths and rolled each length onto the sawpit alongside, and with the help of two boys got the pieces cut through, taking about three weeks to cut one tree.

C. L. Mulling managed Meikles� Store assisted by George Gifford, who also acted as Court Interpreter upon occasion. After Mulling came Fred Taylor, later of Taylor & Nisbet and of Manchester Park, which he left to the nation: today�s Vumba National Park. Carey Bland was the next manager.

There were small stores on many farms, and the other store in the village was owned by F. E. Ctonwright. At that time Mr. and Mrs. Cronwright lived at Jersey farm and his Melsetter store was managed by H. D. �Leggy� Martin, no relation of the pioneer Martins, who was assisted by Mike Kok and Abraham Olwage. The African side of
Cronwright�s business was run for many years by Frans Majeji who farms today at Biriwiri T.T.L.

Store managers got �15 a month, with goods at trade prices. Farm managers got �10 to �15 with house, free use of land required, a percentage of increase and in some cases free riding horses. Farm labourers got 15/- a month, cookboys 20/- to 30/-, houseboys and gardenboys 15/- to 20/-, all with food and quarters.

Government officeboys and storekeepers drew 35/- a month and provided their own rations. In 1920 the C.C. applied successfully for an increase of 5/- a month for employees with a certain length of service, as all were married with families, and a paraffin tin of meal cost 5/-, which was altogether beyond their means. The cost of a prisoner had risen to about �45, with discipline over �28 and maintenance �16.

There was no butchery but game, especially bushbuck, was plentiful. Chickens were 9d each from the natives. Farmers sold sheep for 30/- each, which were killed and dressed by house servants; a meat saw and chopper were normal kitchen equipment. Word was sent round when a farmer occasionally killed a young ox, and the villagers went out to the farm and got a big piece of meat which they then cut up as best they could; beef was such a treat that nobody minded how far they went to get it.

Madge Elliot was glad to be taken on in the Office when Arthur Bill joined the forces, as life was very dull for the young; social occasions were rare but enjoyed by all when they did occur.

Mrs. Bertie Remmer was the character of the district, much loved and very good to the young; all had a healthy respect for her too, and from the CC. down everyone did what they were told very quickly when she talked. She objected strongly to the imposition of wagon licences, and was highly incensed when her wagon was impounded for not having a licence. However, when life got particularly dull a young policeman would say: �Ma, what about a party?�
Mrs. Remmer always said: �Oh, you boys  , but never said no, and to the parties in her house the young all made their way on foot, carrying hurricane lamps unless there was a moon, from the School, the Residency, the Police Camp and from below the hotel. Music for dancing was provided by concertina and mouthorgans and by Mrs. Remmer�s piano, played by young policemen or by Mrs. Stanley who had been a music mistress or by the school teachers or one of the others, as most could play a little. When Mrs. Remmer said: �That�s enough now. Time to go home�, off they all went.

Her piano was borrowed for occasional dances organised by the War Fund Committee, when it was carried to the Courthouse and back by the prisoners. Everyone went to all the Olwage weddings and danced all night in a tiny little room with the dust rising; their harmonium was used for hymns on Sunday and dance music on other occasions.