Sunday, 3 April 2016

Of Diamonds, Gold, Railways... and ostrich feathers


Shall we start with the diamonds?!

Their discovery in 1871 in a remote part of southern Africa, was a game changer for the Cape Colony. An ambitious rail network was conceived, to connect the Cape ports to the Kimberley diamond fields hundreds of miles away - and thereby put the fledgling colony firmly on the world stage. But this was not a project to be undertaken lightly. There was little infrastructure along the way, a shortage of water, manpower and skills, not to mention the challenge of crossing mountain ranges and semi-deserts.

It took some twelve years of toil but finally the Cape boasted a network of over 2000 km of railway which bored into the interior from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London. Cradock, setting of The Housemaid's Daughter, was connected to the The Cape Midland section in 1881. Beyond Cradock, the line converged with the route from Cape Town at the wonderfully named De Aar, from where it headed for the glittering prize of Kimberley.
But of course, it went beyond diamonds...
Gold was discovered in the Transvaal in 1886, and the stampede to the Witwatersrand eclipsed even the diamond rush to Kimberley some 15 years earlier. The railways boomed, as did the towns along their route, including Cradock. Farming expanded, from merino wool to ostrich feathers which traveled by rail and sea to adorn the hats of the most fashionable ladies of Europe!
These days, the railway is a quieter artery through the countryside. Air travel and road haulage have largely replaced it. But you can still take a train and head to the coast, or follow those avid prospectors across the vast open spaces of the Karoo to Kimberley or Johannesburg.
Ada, the heroine of The Housemaid's Daughter, has a love-hate relationship with Cradock's railway and the city it reaches. Both conspire to tear her daughter, Dawn, away from her, but the railway brings her grandchild safely back home.

Another blast from the whistle, and the train struck out for the empty Karoo.
First to the junction at De Aar and then beyond to Johannesburg where there was gold in the ground and - God protect Dawn - all manner of trouble above it.

And later...

Among the unloaded boxes sat a small boy. He had a label round his neck, on a string. His hand clutched a cardboard suitcase. Dawn's suitcase.
"What's your name, child?"
He looked at me with eyes blue as the morning sky, and fair hair that flopped over his forehead. "Thebo," he whispered.


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