Selati Line – Part II


Selati Line – Part 2

On To the Sabi Bridge

Steam Locomotive 3638 Named Skukuza in the Kruger Park 2013


They All Cried, “Corruption!”

To recap:… In 1893, the Selati Railway was to be the new line to the Selati Gold Fields, situated around the Selati River near Gravelot, where a mine is still mining gold today, all-be-it not much. In 1865 a teacher, – come geologist and explorer – Karl Mauch from Germany, suggested there was gold in ‘them-there-hills’ near the Selati River. See the map below at the 8725 foot Mauch Peak, named after this man. It might be of interest that Karl Mauch recorded the Great Zimbabwe ruins on 3rd September 1871. Later in 1871 a party consisting of Edward Button, James Sutherland, George Parsons and Thomas MacLachlan, followed Mauch’s trail and the found gold he had reported on. The mountains where the gold was struck, they named the Murchison Range – named apparently after the great geologist Sir Roderick Murchison – and reported it to the Transvaal Government, as the law then required. A government official was sent out and confirmed it was a workable gold region. What ensued was a gold rush to a very inhospitable area and considering the gold was sparse, only a small town was established.

And of course, the Oppenheim banker brothers from France, some how got wind of this find and believing this claim to be rich, applied to Paul Kruger’s Volksraad, for the right to build a private railway line from Komatipoort to the new Selati Gold Fields. Now, things really get complicated. How the xenophobic Volksraad was persuaded to grant this right to a foreign private investor was no secret back in the day.

All the newspapers in South Africa, as well as papers in England, Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the interested world, carried the stories of the Oppenheim, Volksraad corruption. It was bribery all the way from the lesser members of the Raad to Paul Kruger himself, President at the time.

1885 Regional Map of the Lowveld Area


No History Makes for an Uncertain Future

A small digression is necessary here. Swaziland, an independent country, is to the south of our Selati rail region. For generations the Swazi’s had claimed this Selati Railway Line region, as their land and to this end, fought against the other tribes in the region every year, thereby creating a buffer zone to keep themselves safe and independent. Every year, these wars took place from the Swaziland northern border, sometimes reaching out as far as the Limpopo River, farther to the north and if needed even beyond into what became Rhodesia – today Zimbabwe. These war exercises usually took place every winter, when the trees were bare and the grass was short. Large scale hunting also formed part of this exercise, because disease was absent and the meat was good for the hunters and the army.

From the early to middle part of the 1800’s, Swaziland faced some major threats to its safety, not only from the north but also from the south of the country as well. To protect Swaziland’s southern border from any Zulu Mfecane – ethnic cleansing, as was done by Shaka – and the ensuing war years, which included many warring tribes on the northern boundary, the Swazi’s had become weary of wars. Then Swazi king Mswati II, made a plan for his northern boundaries protection, by ceded the rights over the land between the Crocodile and the Limpopo River to the ‘Lydenburg Boer Republic’ in the 1850’s. To the Swazi king, this was a trade-off, or peace treaty, for the protection he received, from a people he believed to be a non-warring tribe of whites. This move ended up paying off handsomely for the Swazi people and secured their borders in the north. Because of this pact, the Swazi’s could concentrate on the threat from the Zulus in the south – its king at the time being Mpande, half brother of Dingaan, the assassin and half brother of Shaka. Mpande had an expansionist policy and to avoid fighting a war on two fronts the Swazi king was already facing other threats from the Tsonga/Shangaan people from the Gaza region in the south-east.

A little while later during the early 1880’s, – after Mpande’s death in 1871 – it became necessary to finally establish the northern border between Swaziland and the Transvaal Republic where the intended Eastern rail line to Delagoa Bay was to go. The Transvaal Republic wanted no disputes of land ownership with Swaziland. At this time the region between the northern Swaziland border up to the Crocodile River had been governed or claimed by the Swazi’s after the native wars.

Before the rail line could be mapped and built the border had to be defined. The persons chosen by the Republic for the negotiations with the then Swazi King Mbandzini, were Able Erasmus and George Hutcheson a trader, both were well known by the Swazi King. Able Erasmus – native name Madubula ‘he who shoots’ – was a very capable explorer, hunter, cattle breeder, and negotiator who spoke the Swati language fluently. Later after the Anglo-Boer War, Erasmus became the native commissioner at Lydenburg under the British Union of South Africa. The negotiations that took place at the Lomati River resulted in the King relinquishing Swaziland’s claim to this territory in favour of the Republic and so the line could be built and the Swaziland/Transvaal border was established as it is today.

And so most of the immediate region we are dealing with became controlled and owned by the government of the white settlers. This, except for other isolated tribes who mostly formed a part of the Kruger Park when it was later proclaimed and paid rent for services – i.e. grazing – by the Kruger Park. The tribes of the south in the Crocodile region were generally divided as follows.

The first modern native people of this area were the San people, otherwise known as the Bushman, evidenced by their cave paintings in the region. The next occupants who took over from the San were the Sotho and Tsonga speaking tribes, such as the BakaNgomane, some of whom were driven off or absorbed by the Swazi’s, who’s war policy was to subdue and absorb. An interesting point is, Swaziland’s native name is KaNgwane, and the Swazi people are known as the BakaNgwane, which refers to the people of Ngwane.

In 1896, Shangaan refugees from Mozambique joined the Ngomane tribe of the Crocodile River region. Part of this area and Gazaland (Mozambique) was also occupied by the Tsonga Chief, Soshangaan and the Shangaan people, as they were later named. Then under Soshangaan’s son, Chief Mzila, the Shangaans moved to the Acornhoek area in Gazankulu.

Early Map of the Selati Line region and Kruger Park Surrounds


Upside Down and Inside Out Economy

For more clarity and a better understanding of this time period, some further history is needed for a very fast tracking economy.

  • The first Anglo-Boer War had just been fought ten years before, between 16 December 1880 and 23 March 1881. By 1899, the most money and personnel associated with the Witwatersrand Gold Fields was British, there were also large contingents of Irish, Canadian, Australian and American investors. America had just experienced the worst winter in living memory, killing cattle and livestock, wiping out many a farmer and it was these who now ventured out seeking gold.
  • At this time, Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa maked an annual profit of 2.1 Million Pounds, becoming the largest return ever recorded by a limited company listed in London. This yielded a 125% dividend in 1895. The white population of Johannesburg was 50,000. Apart from the few mentioned above, most came from the Cape and Britain, with only 6,000 being Transvaal burghers.
  • Further, the Sabi Game Reserve between the Crocodile and Sabi Rivers – the lower southern Kruger Park – was about to be proclaimed by President Paul Kruger’s Government, which was duly done in 1898. The reserve covered an area of 4,002 sq miles (10,364 square kilometres). Then in May 1903, the Shingwedzi Game Reserve to the north was added, forming the upper northern part of the Kruger National Park and with additions and subtractions is now an area of some 19,485 sq km (7,523 sq miles).

    Selati Line at the Sabi Reserve 1898 – now the Kruger Park


    Subterfuge Was Not a Submarine

    As you can see, there were a substantial number of local residents available for labour to build a railway line, yet few were used. In an account given by Warden Stevenson Hamilton – chief warden of the Sabi Game Reserve – in a book by him, where he refers to numerous experienced railway construction workers, both white and black who died during construction of the railway. So where did they come from? My version you will read further on in this story.

    The cost of the Selati Line amounted to £9,600 a mile instead of the standard cost of £7,200 a mile, which was the accepted norm for that time. This among other things made the Selati Line the most expensive railway line in the world at the time. More about that later.

    The Selati Railway Company contractors under the Oppenheim brothers went ahead and laid the 80 km {50 miles) of track from Komatipoort to a camp known as ‘Sabi Bridge’, on the banks of the Sabi River, at a point where the Skukuza camp now stands in the Kruger National Park. The next step was to build a bridge across the Sabi River. This bridge was to conform to the newly completed bridge across the Crocodile River, built only months before – damaged in the 2000 floods of this region – and built by Westwood & Winby in early 1893.

    See you for the next adventure: Selati Line – War Spies, Corruption and Death


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Meet Our Authors: The Wildmoz team, Cari and Moz, have a lifelong passion for the Bushveld and share adventures and stories about Africa's good things. Wildmoz is Africa - the cradle of life! Travel writing about wildlife, African folklore, wildlife art, Kruger Park and wildlife safari info! Taste life as it is in Africa.
 Posted by on November 30, 2014