Before leaving Tenahead, some discussions were held with one or two locals as to the most appropriate route to Cathedral Peak in the Drakensberg. When we said that we wanted to travel the more picturesque routes and that time wasn’t really all that important, one of the farmers, the corners of his mouth twitching in a rather unsettling manner, suggested going from Tenahead, through the back roads towards Matatiele and then turning north west at Howick and into the ‘berg’ itself (see the purple route below).
‘Well, in for a penny, in for a pint of spilt milk’, I thought and next morning we set off in the general direction of Cathedral Peak. After descending the pass, the first hour’s travelling was enticingly smooth. The road had recently been graded and we were notching up speeds of 80kph plus. However, very soon thereafter the road deteriorated into a frustrating series of ruts, dongas, corrugations and wash-aways.
I shan’t tell you that the 4×4 was necessary as there were a few locals making their excruciatingly slow way in rattletrap sedans. What I shall tell you is that there were several places where it was necessary to negotiate the obstacles in first gear, reducing speed to about 15kph. We weren’t complaining though because the scenery was truly spectacular.
From the wide open plains, the road (although ‘track’ would be the more appropriate term here) wound its way through small canyons and gorges, crossing streams; and sometimes the stream and track would merge for a few metres and we’d be bumping along on the rocky river bed before climbing back out onto the track. Looking down on us were massive igneous rocks teetering precariously on top of one another to form the sides of the ravines.
Here and there the visible roots of Acacia thorn trees were tenaciously clinging to clefts and cracks in the rocks in an attempt to survive. In the valleys, the Black Wattle and Fort Jackson trees were casting cool greenish shadows over the tinkling streams. Barely noticing us as we meandered past, were the ubiquitous goats belonging to the African (mostly Sotho, but some Xhosa people also) locals. How the farmers know whose goats belong to whom, remains a mystery as many of them bore no identifying marks at all.
Every now and then we would emerge from one of these ravines and bounce along a more open section where rural, subsistence farmers could be seen sitting in the doorways of their huts or walking along well worn pathways going about their lives. Photographs would not have done justice to the area because the time of day and cloud cover prevented capturing anything of note. However, this region is crying out for an artist’s easel or a camera. God willing, we hope to return to the area and bring back some acceptable images.
Matatiele, its roads and buildings echo the story of every South African town and city since 1994. All public areas lacked attention and the roads were in a deplorable condition. Despite colossal amounts of money poured into electrifying the informal settlements and providing solar heating for the low-cost houses, the entire town seemed carpeted in litter and filth, reflecting the uncaring attitude of the ignorant population. As if to rub salt into the wound, the semi-comatose, sick Matatiele of today hides a most fascinating and invigorating past
The word Matatiele is believed to be derived from the Sotho phrase “Madi-i-Yila” (meaning: The ducks have flown), referring to the water fowl that used to inhabit the vleis and wetlands in the area in vast numbers. The town originated with the arrival, in 1864, of Adam Kok and his Griquas, and this area came to be known as Griqualand East.
Almost parallel to the rough excesses of the American Wild West (which adopted the ‘cowboy’ culture from the northern Mexican vaqueros), the South African pioneers (of all colours, you’ll be shocked to learn) stamped their presence in a similarly picturesque manner.
Adam Kok, presumably to achieve his own ends and those of his followers, established a magistrate in the form of Peter O’Reilly; a man lacking in sobriety, morals and personal hygiene habits. O’Reilly meted out a stilted form justice from a mud hut that served as the courthouse. It was known among the locals that if you’d been nicking cattle from nearby farms and wanted to drive them through the area, a bottle or two of whiskey was all that was needed for O’Reilly to turn a blind and bloodshot eye on the proceedings.
So isolated was he that when the missionary William Dower had occasion to approach the magisterial seat, O’Reilly sent a messenger saying, ‘Hold hard. Send me some soap and in an hour I’ll be presentable enough to see you.’
Several lively tales exist of those who made Matatiele their home during this time. The Masonic and Royal Hotels played host to innumerable card games, brawls and gambling pursuits. One such tale involved the owner of the Royal Hotel, one Alec Payne (known to friends and foe alike as “The Royal Payne” – I’m not sure about that of course, I just made it up).
It seems a commercial traveller came to town and, while staying at the Royal Hotel, joined Payne and others in a card game. The traveller cleaned out Payne and the other local gamblers in the marathon match. By 05h00am everyone retired for some much needed sleep, with the agreement that the game would resume at 11h00 to afford the losers a change to regain some of their losses. However, the wily traveller, sneaked out after leaving enough for his stay and fled for Natal.
Payne, upon waking and hearing of the man’s hasty departure, saddled up his fastest horse and, with saddlebags containing money and cards, set off in hot pursuit. He returned the next day in triumph, having won back all his money and the traveller’s trousers.
All good things must come to an end and the arrival of more women and policemen were catalysts to the town’s reform in the 20th century. On January the 1st1904, Matatiele became a municipality and the arrival of the railway in April 1924 ended the town’s isolation.
In 1992, Matatiele was described as, ‘a prosperous agricultural centre, the railhead of the line from Pietermaritzburg and a great place for trade with the Sotho people. Horses are bred here and the town is a centre for the dairy industry in the fertile Mabele Valley.’ How heartbreakingly quickly the regression has been.