The Story of Melsetter

Wendy Gibson recently attended a Senior Women�s (The Aunties�) course and described a three-day expedition during it:
�Up at 5 a.m. Tea and toast, and ready to go. We had packed our 25-lb rucksacks the previous night with food, sleeping bags, mess tins and utensils, panga, groundsheet, �and billy can, the most important item, with endless uses. Five of us set off in the early light and slowly climbed up the Hadunge to the top of Sphinx Pass. Apart from the clank of billycans tied to rucksack straps, the only sounds were from the hundreds of birds and the murmurings of the river in the gorge below. A very steep climb, in places only a narrow path clinging to the cliff face � quite frightening..
"Stopped at 9 a.m. beside a large pool, cooked and consumed an enormous amount of pbrridge and drank gallons of
very sweet tea, all finding that we needed extra sugar after using so much energy. The crows were a menace, and pinched anything left lying around uncovered. After an hour we set off for Skeleton Pass, admiring the last of the aloes in flower, most attractive peeping out of the rock-covered hillside.
"Stopped at the top of the Pass for a breather and photographs of the lovely view fight down into Mozambique. A steep climb down the other side, moss and a great variety of ferns, a clump of montbretia, and white, yellow and blue moreas in abundance. Lunch of peanuts and raisins, hard tack and the inevitable tea.
"Reached camp at Portage Cave at 4 p.m. After a swim in the icy river, made camp and prepared �dinner� before dark, an out-of-this-world hash of tinned stuffs: our appetites were enormous! A long day: we relaxed by the fire, talking over what we had seen and planning our route for the next day. Asleep early � wakened during the night by eland going down to the river to drink.

�Away after breakfast, and mid-morning reached Martin Falls, so beautiful with a big pool at the bottom; we spent time just drinking in the scenery, and then settled ourselves in the spacious Kuraseka Cave. Spent the afternoon exploring round about; the nearby Tucker Falls are not as impressive as Martin, but very lovely. Found a big area of pincushion proteas.

�On the third morning we left at dawn with mist swirling in and out of the peaks, most attractive, but an eerie feeling, and we made sure we stayed close behind one another. Hiking in the damp weather was lovely, but by the time we stopped for breakfast the sun had appeared and made it hot for walking. On the way back we saw a troop of baboons playing in a salt pan.
"After lunch we started the long haul down the Hadunge, and were green with envy when a helicopter flew over � we felt it could have offered us a lift. Arrived back at the School, all very dirty and very very tired, but with a feeling of satisfaction and of having enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. I was thankful that I had taken the trouble to get reasonably fit. One or two of the girls thought they were coming to a holiday camp, and suffered agonies from stiffness and sore feet!

�Naturally there were times when one felt like pushing �someone� over the edge of a cliff, but on the whole the students were a super bunch and we all got on very well together. (It was wonderful being called a �student� at the ripe old age of 33!) The instructors were marvellous � they had to put up with so much nonsense, it is a wonder they didn�t push the lot of us over the edge of a cliff! The food was yummy, and there was plenty of it so one couldn�t diet at all. (Urn!)

�I�ll never regret having done the course. I found it something different, something I thoroughly enjoyed as a challenge (and something I doubt if I�ll ever do again!).�

Fires have always been a hazard when they have been lit for burning fireguards or rubbish or veld for grazing or when they have started from lightning strikes, and have got away and swept through grazing areas and through the mountains, damaging veld and flora and fauna.
The village has been endangered many times but somehow no really serious damage has been done: the old gums and cypresses have presented magnificent sights as some have caught and blazed up to 150 feet; a lucky change of wind has often prevented whole plantations or houses from being burnt, as happened at The Gwasha recently when the house with its thick belt of trees all round was entirely surrounded by a blazing fire.
Generations of children have memories of the School being threatened: on one occasion all the children were evacuated to the Police Camp, and on another all were assembled in the middle of the night on the netball court while the fire blazed in the trees surrounding the school; in each instance almost superhuman efforts resulted in the fires being contained just in time.

Farmers in isolated homesteads have had their lands damaged and their houses threatened, with particular anxiety when roofs were thatched. The danger of potential damage became very much greater when much of Melsetter was planted to trees.

The district usually has up to 12� of rain in the six months of~the dry season, but the 1962 winter was the driest on record and many parts had no rain at all for months.

September 1962 ushered in some months of tension as Melsetter faced a new form of threat by fire and the words arson and firebugs were added to the daily vocabulary, as a handful of fire-raisers defied the organised and armed forces of the law and threatened Rhodesia�s timber industry.

A few unexpected fires started, including two on Nzuzu and Boskatrand, and on 20th September fires started simultaneously on Westward Ho!, Settler and Silverstream, and during the next two weeks there were reports of fires on most days. The Police Reserve was mobilised, units of the R.L.I. and S.A.S. were stationed in the district, helicopter patrols took place daily, and paratroops were dropped at strategic points.

The forest estates extended over about 40 square miles with only the two main roads and rough country roads twisting through the mountainous country, with hundreds of miles of forest tracks carved out by bulldozer or blasted by dynamite as access roads for Land Rovers and logging trucks. The forests of planted timber, the tough close bush and scrub, and the rise and fall of the terrain, made an ideal hiding place even from patrolling aircraft and perfect country for guerilla warfare, especially arson.

After the long dry months the slightest spark in the tinder-dry bracken and bush under the trees could set off a blaze which was almost unstoppable. Most of the trees were under five years old and had not yet been pruned: the lower branches growing close together near the ground made natural fuel for the licking flames, and once a fire had started it was difficult for the firefighters to stop it.

The B.S.A. Company was able to confine its fires to about 200 acres because of its centralised warning system and a force of radio-controlled Land Rovers, a Cessna plane, 24-hour lookouts from fire towers, 17 European and about 1 500 African employees, and water-trucks, stirrup pumps, beaters and other equipment. At the first flicker of smoke a radio report was relayed from the plane to headquarters, and Land Rovers and water-trucks set out for the spot laden with firefighters. On one occasion when a firebug lit three fires within ten minutes, he was actually seen lighting the third, but could not be caught as it was at night and four miles from headquarters.

The situation was complicated by the fact that most Europeans were in the Police Reserve or special Police forces. After their 12-hour shift on police duty on road blocks and patrols the Companies� employees snatched a couple of hours� sleep before going back to duty on their estates during their 12 hours off police duty, and private farmers and their wives had to travel home and do their farming and housekeeping in their off time. African Police Reservists also did their share of duties.

The Companies were geared to deal with the emergency and were usually able to contain fires on their estates, but farmers also suffered losses. Albany�s main loss, estimated at about �2 000, was caused by neighbours� burning back in an effort to make everything safe when Sunnyside, an unoccupied farm, was set alight. The fire got away, swept through dry grass on Wanganella, through acres of mature wattle on Albany, and on up to Heathfield, where damage estimated at �10 000 was done. Driving through the devastated areas was a sad business during the first week in October.

Things quietened down a bit, but on 14th October fires were lit on Albany and Nyabamba, seen at 3 a.m. on a beautiful still moonlit night, and quickly put out. Police and tracker dogs came in the morning to follow up any spoor.
The firebugs used many ingenious devices to set off fires when they themselves were nowhere in the vicinity. Other sporadic fires occurred later in 1962, and then again in September 1964 and 1965, but the efforts were not as concentrated as they had been originally. Some of the instigators were caught and served varying sentences.

The incitement to acts of subversion was undoubtedly caused by external pressures, and only a few local Africans were influenced by them. Farm and forest labourers carried on with their normal work, and turned out when called upon to fight the fires. No European found any feeling of personal animosity, and when travelling was necessary one was greeted in normal friendly fashion by Africans along the road, but it was deeply regretted that anything should mar the excellent relations between the Melsetter peoples who have always got on well together. Once terrorism and intimidation of their own people by undesirable African elements ceased, relations continued in their normal harmonious fashion.

The fire-towers are manned day and night during the dry season. Recently a fire-watcher on duty spotted a plume of smoke from a lightning strike in a plantation. He lifted his telephone and found it had been put out of action by the lightning. He thereupon ran, quite contrary to instructions, to the scene of the fire, put it out before it could get a good hold, and then ran down to the office to report!

Everyone was very pleased as tarred sections of the new road were opened to traffic and the section between the Nyahode and Biiwiri rivers over Skyline was particularly appreciated as it did away with the need for travelling over the cuttings, but in February 1963 near-disaster struck. December and January were fairly wet and from the 25th January there was steady rain every single day until the end of February, and falls of up to 36� were recorded on farms during the 28 days of February.
The rain became particularly heavy, with falls of up to 4� on the already soaked ground, about the 19th February and then the Skyline road gave real trouble. The damage was very impressive as in many places the enormous fills over the valleys gave way and caused subsidence of the road, and the fills were washed out completely underneath the outside edge of the tar leaving half the road with a thin skin of tar and nothing underneath it. Light traffic only, travelling slowly all the time, was allowed to use the road, and the Roads Department moved in. The road bristled with DEADLY HAZARD notices, and it took eighteen months to get the road in proper order again.

Serious damage was done at the same time to local roads. In one night on the Nyahode road a dam burst and stones and boulders were washed on to the road, and a bridge and a culvert were completely washed away. With the main local roads out of action farmers had to travel by devious routes, and old abandoned tracks were brought back into service for slow progress.

Hazards have included trees falling down during heavy rain and blocking roads. This has sometimes led to travellers having to turn round in the wet dark night and travelling anything up to an extra 40 miles in order to get home, or else borrowing beds in neighbours� houses � on at least one occasion without the sleeping hosts� knowledge!

In the village, Mr. and Mrs. Theunissen of Beverley Park opened their small departmental store, and various African stores have also operated from the same time.

In March 1964 the W.I. was hostess to the N.F.W.I.R. Executive Council of 53 members, when one member from each W.I. in the country and others in official positions came to Melsetter by luxury coach from Salisbury and in private cars from other directions. Most of the visitors were accommodated at the Hotel, and many got up early the next morning to watch the sun rise above the mountains and to have a glorious morning walk with the scent of pine and cypress in the air and the sparkle of dew on the grass, before strolling up to the W.I. Hall for the serious business of the day.
Melsetter members provided lunch in the Memorial Hall, and many old friendships were renewed. In the evening the W.I. entertained its official guests and many Melsetter residents with sundowners and supper at the Country Club, Derek Barbanell, Warden of the Outward Bound Mountain School, showed beautiful colour slides of the School and the Chimanimani Mountains, and then Melsetter was entertained with songs by its illustrious guests, who nearly brought the roof down with a spirited grand finale chorus.

The following day the Council business was completed by lunchtime and everybody piled into the luxury bus, the Charter school bus and two cars and set off for a tour of the district. One car was equipped with a compass and as it set out a passenger asked: �Do we travel north, south, east or west?� and was puzzled by the driver�s reply: �Yes�, but a few minutes later after the compass needle had swung due north, east and south with a little bit of west, she said thoughtfully: �I see what you mean.�

Among the visitors was Dorothy Qualle, who recorded that �1 felt rather Rip van Winkel when I recalled the road to Tilbury twelve years ago: nine gates to open and close and three spruits to cross in eleven miles; now the rivers are bridged and the gates replaced by excellent grids. Stubbings, the Estate Manager, led the convoy to the top of a hill to the Haroni View � quite magnificent. Then on past the old homestead which Cecil Rhodes visited and through more plantations to Springfield, where Mrs. Nethersole gave us yet another magnificent tea � what superb cooks all Melsetter women are! �and a glorious view of the mountains. Then through lovely country, passing through patches of indigenous forest and glimpsing tree ferns in the kloofs, to Rathmore, where Mr. and Mrs. Plunket welcomed us warmly and stayed us with flagons at a very enjoyable party.

�The following day, farewells to our very kind hostesses, with more gratitude than could be properly expressed. Melsetter W.I., with only 27 members, had given every thought to our comfort and not overlooked a single detail, and made this one of the happiest Council meetings any of us have ever attended.�

In June 1964 there were reports of stones across the main road which stopped cars driven by Africans, who moved the stones and proceeded without further interference. The first European to arrive at such a roadblock was murdered.

On 4th July P. J. A. Oberholtzer, aged 45, father of six children, was driving home to Silverstream from Umtali with his wife and three-year old daughter. Past the Biriiri Mission in the darkening evening they started up the winding road towards the Biriwiri bridge. 74 miles from Umtali their lights lit up a line of stones and rocks across the tar, and Mr. Oberholtzer started to get out to remove some so that his car could proceed. He was immediately attacked with a shower of stones, some dark figures gathered round him, and he was stabbed in the chest. He shut the car door and drove over the stones, and the car overturned at the edge of the road. The attackers smashed the windscreen and threw petrol and lighted matches into the cab of the truck, but, before their efforts to set the car on fire could succeed, another car came, up behind, and the attackers vanished into the night.

Mr. Oberholtrer had died at the wheel of his car, and Lawrence Marshall and Mrs. Martindale took Mrs. Oberholtzer and the child to the Biriwiri Road Camp, from where messages were sent for Police and doctor.

After a search, James Hlamini and Victor Mlamo were arrested, found guilty of murder, and in due course hanged. Matthew Tresha was later apprehended, convicted of helping in the attempt, and sentenced to 20 years� imprisonment. A fourth member of the gang escaped from Rhodesia. One of the gang was a local man, the others were Rhodesian-born but had lived for some years in Zambia.

In 1965 the W.I. held its 21st birthday party at the Club, to which all Melsetter residents were invited and everybody enjoyed a hilarious and entertaining evening.

The Melsetter Amateur Dramatic Society has produced some excellent plays, and many entertaining sketches have been put on at the Club on social occasions, and there have been Gay Nineties evenings, a Palace of Variety with Bunny Girls, happy New Year�s Eve dances, Police Balls, Scottish dancing, and many other enjoyable dances and concerts. A small Art Club has some talented members.

A Pony Club to encourage young riders was started by Teddie Winwood and Jack Howard, which is a Branch of the Pony Club which has headquarters in Warwickshire, and successful school-holiday camps have been attended by young riders from Melsetter, Cashel and Chipinga at Tilbury, The Corner, Springvale, the Country Club, Silverstream and in Chipinga.

In 1967 the 92 miles of full width tarred road to Umtali was completed. Magnificent though the drive over the Scenic road is, no Melsetter resident regrets that it is no longer the main road.

Deaths of prominent residents saddened the community. In 1966 there died John Kruger, and Rookwood was taken over by his son Bettix; Ted Allott, by then frail and no longer taking an active part; and Giellie Bredenkamp, a very kind person, always ready to help, who was known affectionately as the Mayor of Melsetter � his widow Nellie moved to Umtali, and their son Mike took over the butchery and farming interests and moved to Dairy Plot with Estelle. In 1968 John Olivey died � Mickey carried on Sawerombi helped by their sons Tony and Charles; and that year Fred Delaney also died. In 1969 Edward Green died, and Mutzarara is now run by his son George with his wife Margy.

Celebrations of 80th birthdays were held in 1969: Olive Allott, gay and sprightly and active as ever; and Joey Delaney, who was one of the most active dancers at her party in the W.I. Hall which lasted till the early hours of the morning.