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A true South African heroic story

This is a very sad story depicting the hard life of the Pioneer Farmers trying to make a living in South Africa:

In the winter of 1843 the De Beer family arrived on the farm, Welkom, owned by Mr Adrian de Beer, where he kindly allowed them to stop over. They were a very poor family, stragglers of the Great Trek who had left the Eastern Cape on their way to Natal looking for a new life. They hoped to rest their oxen and carry out repairs and maintenance to their wagon before moving on to the Eastern Transvaal.

They camped out and slept in a shed near the Yellowwood Forest at Bamboes Berg (now known as Nelson’s Kop). Rachel’s father, George Stephanus de Beer, had just completed some urgent maintenance to his ox-wagons. His oxen were now well rested and in a day or two they would be ready for the arduous trip down the notorious De Beer’s Pass, which would bring them to Northern Natal at the foot of the mighty Drakensberg.

On a particular gloomy afternoon, when their few cattle and sheep were being corralled, they noticed that a young calf was missing. The calf, known as Frikkie, was the children’s pet for it was not uncommon for Trekker children to have stock animals as pets. They could not afford to lose this calf – livestock was a very valuable asset.

A search party, comprising mainly of servants, was arranged and set off to look for the animal. Rachel, the De Beer’s twelve-year-old daughter and her six year old brother Boetie, were allowed to join in the search. Because of the hilly terrain, the two children soon became detached from the main group and wandered off to search on their own. It was becoming a bitterly cold afternoon and was getting dark quickly; the wind having picked up considerably. Instinctively Rachel knew that they had to keep moving or freeze to death. Boetie, by now, had become afraid and started crying. Rachel turned to him to hug and comfort him, then told him that they were hopelessly lost and that she had no idea where they were.

It had also started to snow and the visibility had deteriorated. The young boy began to cry uncontrollably as they entered an area where the dry winter grass was so long he could not see over it. The situation was becoming desperate; they could no longer see the mountain to use as a reference. Wandering around aimlessly, they stumbled across an ant heap.

There are two theories as to what happened next. The first and generally accepted one is that young Rachel found a stone, chipped at it and managed to hollow out the ant heap giving the young boy access to it. The second one is that they came across an ant heap that had recently been excavated by an aardwolf (ant bear). This is more logical for a number of reasons. If any of you have ever come across an ant heap, you will know that it is bone hard and very difficult to destroy. Even if she had found a stone and with her frozen little hands had managed to hold it as tool, it would have taken several hours to hollow out. It would probably also have been full of termites and their bites would have made it impossible for her young brother to endure a whole night without huge discomfort.

Worrying that her brother may freeze to death, Rachel removed her large cloth hat and wrapped it around his head. Next she took off her clothes, a three quarter length corduroy jacket with long sleeves and a long dress with buttons all down the front that reached and covered her shoes. Rachel helped her young brother into the clothes then told him to climb into the hollowed out ant heap. However, the space was very small and she struggled to get him into it. Eventually she got him into a fetal position on his haunches and to fold his arms tightly in front of him. She lay across the opening facing him, effectively shielding him with her body from the wind and bitter cold.

She tried to comfort him by telling him Bible stories. Gradually he started to calm down and eventually stopped crying. One can only imagine what the pair of them went through that night, enduring the absolute terror of being alone in the pitch darkness with no help in sight. Later that evening the raging snow storm subsided and a half moon and start emerged from behind the dissipating clouds to lighten up the sky. It was still bitterly cold with the temperature a few degrees below freezing. In the early hours of the morning the jackals and hyenas began their howling. By this time Rachel had probably already succumbed to the elements and young Boetie, traumatized by the inky blackness inside the ant heap and his loneliness, did not know what these wild animals were.

With the first amber light of day the De Beers found their children. Rachel was covered in snow, lying like a small heap of firewood left out in a storm. Her frozen dead body lay across the opening; her brother inside – terrified and cold, but still alive. Because of the tragedy, Rachel de Beer became one of the best known and loved child heroines in South African folklore history. It is claimed that the family settled at the foot of the Drakensberg Mountains where their descendants still farm to this day.

Excerpt from Drakensberg Passes written by Gillis Van Schalkwyk

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