HOW "WILD WEST" COACHES OPENED UP RHODESIA
TODAY it is a commonplace experience to cover the 322 km from Beitbridge to Bulawayo,
between lunch and sundown. Indeed, such is the reliability
and speed of the modem motor-car that beyond the danger of
falling to sleep, the competent driver has few problems.
of course it was not always so. Some years before the first
internal combustion engine spluttered into existence, the route
to the North was carved across the veld by the rumbling wheels
of C. H. Zeederberg's American stage-coaches, in the best tradition
of the Wild West.
The first firm of "Zeederberg & Co.,
Coach Proprietors" was launched by four Zeederberg
brothers in Pretoria, and was at first a purely South African
concern. The first route was from Pretoria to the Northern
Transvaal, in 1890. It was the occupation of Mashonaland, his
subsequent friendship with Cecil Rhodes, and the tremendous
demand for transport north of the Limpopo, which gave Christian
Hendrik (Doel) Zeederberg reason to set up in Rhodesia.
rainy season of 1890 was extremely heavy. The pioneers were
scattered in search of gold and were unprepared for self-sufficiency.
For some months any northward movement beyond Fort Tuli was
practically impossible. Wagons were stuck hopelessly in the
black vleis or on the banks of the flooded rivers, where, in
the absence of adequate shelter, food and medicines, many hopeful
young adventurers died of exposure and malaria.
For a few weeks
after the occupation of Mashonaland, letters were carried by
mounted despatch riders, but this became impossible due to
swollen rivers, and Mashonaland was cut off from the outer
world from the end of December, 1890, to the middle of February,
Among the improvements made when transport
began moving again was a contract awarded to Zeederberg & Co. for the
maintenance of communication between Tuli and Salisbury (547
km). This contract cost the British South Africa Co. £4500
per annum. However, the Postmaster-General of the Cape Colony,
who organised the scheme, was at pains to point out that the
service dealt not only with postal traffic, "but was also
the main line of communication for all purposes, the wagons
being used for the conveyance of passengers and other articles
besides mail matter".
In order to incorporate Mashonaland
business into their existing schedule, Zeederberg extended
the coach service Pretoria / Pietersburg as far as Tuli in
April, 1891, via a pontoon built by C. H. Zeederberg over the
Limpopo, and thence via Fort Victoria and Fort Charter to Salisbury.
According to the yearbook "Guide to Southern Africa" for
1893, the fare Tuli to Salisbury was £15 and the journey
took 14 days.
When Bulawayo came into the picture in 1894,
the scene changed rapidly. Traveling on trains from Cape Town,
Port Elizabeth and East London, the traveler arrived at Mafeking
(the end of the railway line) in time to take his place on
the 9 a.m. Monday coach to Bulawayo. The week-long journey
was scheduled thus: Boulderpits-Monday midnight Gaberones-Tuesday
5 a.m. Palapye-Friday noon (I hr halt) Tati hotel-Sunday 6
a.m. (1 hr halt) Mangwe Pass- Sunday midnight Bulawayo-Monday
9 p.m. What a service! The following description appeared in
"In fine weather, when the roads are
in good condition, a coach journey may be very enjoyable,
but in bad weather capsizes are unpleasantly frequent and
occasionally a coach with its freight and passengers will
stick in the mud for many hours. Teams are changed every
ten or fifteen miles, and some idea may be inferred of the
number of horses and mules kept at the different stations
from the fact that frequently four or five coaches will require
fresh teams at one place during the day. The rate of traveling,
including stoppages, is not much more than six mph Fares
are high, ranging from 9d. to 1/- per mile. The allowance
of luggage per passenger ranges from 25 to 40 lb., and every
additional pound weight is charged 6d. to 1/6d. extra according
to the distance traveled, whilst, if the mail should happen
to be heavy, luggage is frequently shut out".
A direct route from the hotel at Fort Tuli
to Bulawayo was made in 1894, reducing the distance Pretoria
Bulawayo by 852 km. The northern half of the old road beyond
Gwanda, still exists, but fell into decline following the development
of mining communities at Essexvale and Filabusi.
and straining over the network of primitive tracks which linked
Rhodesia's early settlements, Zeederberg's coaches labored
and plunged like ships at sea. A broken wheel, mute symbol
of this era, was recently retrieved from the bush by the police
at Tuli. Nearly all of those "super-seasoned" spokes
were still in place.
In 1896 most trek oxen had fallen victim
to the severe rinderpest epidemic that swept across Southern
Africa. During the Matabele Rebellion, which began in March
of that year, Zeederberg coaches were the sole means of transportation
between Bulawayo and the outlying settlements, and even went
as far as Pietersburg, via Gwanda, for supplies.
with nine passengers, was attacked in a running fight between
Shangani and Bulawayo. The mules were eventually run to a standstill
and were killed. The driver and passengers ran to the top of
a nearby kopje and prepared to defend themselves. With night
coming on their situation was bad, but they were saved by the
timely arrival of a patrol under Co!. Napier on its way to
Gwelo. The coach, however, had been burned to ashes.
continued to expand in spite of the arrival of the railway
at Bulawayo in 1897. In fact, the northward advance of the
railway was made possible by the animal transport industry,
which thus initiated its own decline.
During the Boer War,
Zeederberg & Co's. mail transport contracts
were suspended and its resources put at the disposal of the
British Government. A specially formed regiment with all its
equipment was transported from the railhead at Marandellas
to Bulawayo in 20 days, en route to assist at the relief of
Following the death of Doe! Zeederberg in 1907,
the company was acquired by speculative interests to whom tradition
meant little. This, and the rapid rise of cheaper rail traffic,
caused its downfall in the 1920. Nevertheless, the writer was
delighted to discover that "Zeederberg's Garage",
of Essexvale, is owned and run by none other than Mr. A. Zeederberg,
the son of Doel.
The strange adventures of Zeederberg's coaches
continued after the dissolution of the firm. In 1924 a coach
had been sent to England for display at the British Empire
Exhibition at Wembley. After the event was over, the coach
was forgotten, but was rediscovered by a curious visitor from
Cape Town, in a dockside warehouse in Hull, shortly before
World War II.
This coach is now permanently exhibited in
the museum on the second floor of the City of Johannesburg's
Public Library. . described. .
From RHODESIA CALLS - May-June, 1973 issue
Send us an email with your memories to firstname.lastname@example.org
The arrow points to the Rhodes Inyanga Hotel, of which Rhodes' Cottage formed the nucleus.