The Chute

After alluvial gold became exhausted in the Pilgrim’s Rest and Sabie regions, new gold fields were discovered first at Kaapschehoop, then at Moodies and then eventually at Barberton in 1884.

Barberton Market Square

Barberton, was beginning to boom, as more reefs were discovered, and more fuel was added to the stories of wealth to be picked up under every rock and prospectors came from all corners of the globe.

Valleys and Mountains on the way to Barberton

There were three routes to Barberton. The one road left the Delagoa Bay/Lydenburg route near Pretoriuskop and proceeded through the Crocodile River, over Mara and Gould’s Salvation Valley to Barberton. The second route was linked to the Durban/Lydenburg route via Ladysmith, New Castle, Ingogo, Laing’s Nek, Volksrust over the Vaal River, Ermelo, Klipstapel (Breyton), Lake Chrissie, Badplaas, Jambila, through “The Chute”, to Barberton. Later the route was from Ngodwana via Kaapschehoop to Barberton. Two stage coach services were introduced to transport passengers to Barberton. They were the Gibson brothers’ Red Star Line and the other run by Geo. Heys and Co.

Progress was slow; the proverbial “pace of the ox”. Roads were bad, or in some places non-existent, while flooded rivers slowed up the journey in no small measure.

Ox Wagon River Crossing

Take for instance the account of crossing the Vaal River, between Volksrust and Lake Chrissie. First all the oxen were swum across the flooded river; while this was done, the wagons were unloaded and the bedboards fashioned into flat-bottomed ponts. The trek chains were then hooked logether, the end being coupled to the wagon, which was then pulled through under water, being brought to the surface on the opposite side of the river like a whale beaching. The women and children were then ferried across on the ponts as well as the goods that could not stand a wetting. The heavy gear was left on the wagon as this acted as ballast and stopped it from being carried away by the current. All this, of course, took a lot of time, but was great fun for any youngster who happened to be along, although most frustrating for the head of the family who was in a hurry to start digging up his fortune.

Although very picturesque, the journey from the highveld moving down the escarpment was one of the nightmares on the trek into the de Kaap Valley. A drop of about 650m had to be negotiated from the top of the escarpment to the floor of the valley below.

Before the actual drop was encountered there was a steep hill to be climbed. This was known as the Red Hill, south-west of Jambila, and it had a reputation as bad as its surface. It was a truly frightening experience. The hill was of red clay studded with boulders. The continual passage of wagons had made a cutting in one place of three metres deep; which of course, became a roaring torrent during heavy rain-storms which resulted in serious erosion adding to the depth of the cutting as well as exposing more boulders.

Heavy Trek

It was a common thing to have to pull a wagon up this steep incline with the mud up to the axles. Some of the heavily laden wagons, needed as many as 44 oxen inspanned to keep them moving. Imagine 44 oxen swaying all over the track, with sticky red mud covering everything; the heavy strangled breathing, and then the shouts of the drivers as they goaded the struggling but willing animals to even greater efforts. If an ox slipped and fell it was cut loose from the yoke and would be trampled underfoot by the other oxen and crushed to death by the heavily laden wagon, as there was no possibility of halting the wagon which could result in momentum being lost. Before the next wagon was pulled up, the track would be cleared of smashed wagons and injured or dead oxen, and the next saga would begin.

Once over the Red Hill, there was another steep hill to be descended. This was done by means of chaining the wheels with trek chains, while the sides of the wagon were lashed with thongs. Every spare hand then had to hold on to these thongs in order to keep the wagon from capsizing, and so the whole contraption rocketed down the hill to safety.

A few hours trek away was the Glenthorpe Chute. The Chute was about 5 kilometres long and the “Dreaded Chute” was the length of a wagon and a span of oxen. It had a very steep gradient and wagons sometimes careered downhill out of control. At the lower portion was “The Slide”, which was not as steep as it was dangerous. At the bottom of The Slide, on the opposite side of Gin Creek was Jenkinson’s Hotel, where the transport riders re-filled their gin bottles, (hence the name), before proceeding on their way to Barberton.

Outspan

Sometimes there were up to twenty wagons waiting to negotiate these awful obstacles, whilst at the bottom, meat from slaughtered oxen would be sold at 6d a pound. There were always plenty of dead oxen and mules strewn across the valley below. Vultures soared in the heavens, waiting for their morsel while keeping a watchful eye on the traffic below. Some of the rocks on the adjacent hills were white with the droppings of these birds that waxed fat on their pickings of misery. Today, vultures are indeed a rare sight in the Barberton area.

It used to take at least an hour of trekking to get away from the quite appaling stench of rotting carcasses that pervaded the air around the Chute and Slide environment.

The element of luck also played an enormous role – as a damaged wagon could result in a lengthy delay. One party from the Isle of Man decided to disassemble their wagon which they lowered into the valley by means of Block and Tackle. Their belongings were loaded on to oxen to carry down.

Some transporters used to salt the oxen’s necks with brine to try to avoid chafing. Others used to remove the wagon wheels with axles. Tree trunks or logs were used instead, allowing the transporters to use the wagon as a kind of huge sledge. There were also a number of babies born on trek too.

Material gleaned from
Golden Memories of Barberton by W.D.Curror
Lost Trails in the Mkonjwa Mountains by B. de Sousa
Other Sources
Picture of the Chute from
Photo History of Barberton 1884 – 1984, Page 57.  The book was compiled by Staff of the Barberton Museum and Hans Bornman.

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