NO PATHWAY HERE
by John H Marsh
|I RECEIVED instructions, while the Gamtoos was
loading, to join her as the expedition's Press
representative. Ken Sara, the "African Mirror" newsreel
cameraman, was to be my companion. We were the
only two non-essential personnel permitted to
go. We were reminded that the venture was still
officially secret, and we were not to disclose to others
that we were taking part. We were warned to bring
the warmest underclothing we could find, and the
S.A.N.F. stores issued us with all the seafaring kit we
wished to draw.|
We joined the store-ship just as she was finishing loading on the afternoon of Monday, January 12. To reach the ship we had to pass through a barricade guarded by police, who were preventing unauthorised persons from going too near. There was great activity on the quayside and on the decks of the little ship. The last of the cargo was being hurriedly stowed, and the soldiers and about a score of Coloured men were slinging personal kit and stores aboard. Loading had been going on with only a few short breaks since the previous Thursday. The ship had first taken aboard about 100 tons of extra bunker coal. This was stacked in bags in her lower holds, and with the 160 tons in her bunker spaces it should give her an endurance of about 25 days. Since their arrival from the Transvaal the sappers had been assisting the stevedores in stowing the cargo. This had to be done with more than the usual care and planning. It was intended that as soon as she could do so, the Gamtoos should put ashore her construction party. Following close behind must go their food supplies and temporary shelter. After these should go the less essential items. The ship had
|therefore to be loaded in the reverse order, with the
less essential packages at the bottom and the temporary
shelters and foodstuffs on the top. The last cargo to
be brought on board comprised two double-ended
rowing-boats and a decked motor-boat - all strongly-built
craft designed for working the guano islands off
the Cape coast. They were stowed on top of our
As we backed away from our berth late in the afternoon, there were only a few folk on the quayside to wave us farewell. Most of them were officials. A few were Coloured men who had been trying desperately up to the last minute to persuade an official to take them on board. While this had been going on, to the accompaniment of much noisy argument and vociferous encouragement from a crowd of their compatriots who were already on board, I had noticed several jump from the quay on to our bulwarks and make their way purposefully to the fo'c'sle. I gave no special thought to this, but recalled it after dark when we were lying at anchor in the roadstead getting shipshape before proceeding to sea. I was with my cabin mate, Louie Fourie, the Guano Islands' Inspector, when a message was brought to him from the galley. The cook was complaining of "verneukery" among the Coloured boatmen and labourers. He had been told to prepare supper for 13, but already they had drawn 18 meals. Soon afterwards the officers who were issuing blankets, specially warm clothing, oilskins and seaboots to all hands complained that there were not enough to go round, despite the care that had been taken to ensure that every man was adequately provided for. Fourie ordered a roll-call, and, sure enough, it produced five men who could not give a satisfactory account of their presence on board. They were voluble in their protestations that they thought they had been chosen to come. Fourie recognised them as old hands who had voyaged in the Gamtoos to the guano islands previously, and as it was rather late to put them
|ashore now, and their help would probably be valuable
when discharging began at the islands, he decided to
sign the stowaways on. When, therefore, the little
coaster rounded the breakwater shortly before midnight
and headed southward on her venturesome voyage,
she was crowded with no fewer than 95 men. They
comprised her crew, the Coloured boatmen and
labourers, the Army personnel and seven civilian
passengers. The latter comprised Mr. T. L. Kruger, the
Superintendent of the Government Guano Islands,
who was to examine the economic possibilities of the
new territories on behalf of the Department of
Agriculture; Fourie, Dike and two of his carpenters,
Sara and myself. Sharing the officers' accommodation
amidships were Lieutenant W. L. C. Bond, S.A.E.C.,
who was in charge of the troops, and Lieutenant J. C.
Woeke, S.A.M.C., charged with the duty, amongst
others, of taking a bacteria count of the water supply
of the island.|
The thin blue line that was the southernmost tip of Africa had hardly faded astern when we ran into our first gale. We were crossing the shallow Agulhas Bank, where cold currents from the Antarctic meet warmer ones from the Indian Ocean. The wind was from the west. The combination caused a considerable disturbance of the sea's surface. Waves that were high, short and steep swept down upon our quarter and every now and then slapped solidly against our side. Our well-decks were almost constantly under water, and life-lines had to be rigged to enable the men to get about on deck. When we left the Bank behind and passed into deep water the seas became more regular but also higher. They seemed to tower about 40 feet from trough to crest. They surged under our tiny ship, playfully thrusting her stern skyward, then lowering it gently again into the valley while they repeated the performance with the other end of the vessel. Thus, see-saw fashion, we surged along at seven knots, while we rolled with the regularity
|of a pendulum through an arc of 60 to 70 degrees.
Loose furniture and gear that was not securely stowed
slithered from side to side with each roll. Crockery
suffered heavily. The tablecloths in the officers'
saloon were kept wet in order to give plates and dishes
a firmer grip, but even so the table was several times
swept almost clean. I have vivid memories of finding
myself more than once crouched over the table with
my chair capsized behind me and a plateful of soup
balanced precariously in one hand while the other
clutched the table edge, and I hoped desperately that
my feet would retain their grip on a deck that
was sloping at an angle of 30 degrees or more. Five
seconds later everything would be in exact reverse.
The chair would be doing its best to sweep my legs
from under me, and the soup, it seemed, would be in
grave danger of spilling upon the upturned face of my
opposite number at the other end of the table.|
So for a week we sailed on into the "Roaring Forties." Sea-sickness claimed most of us early on. Only six of the 33 soldiers successfully resisted it, and there were few of even the regular seafarers who did not confess to feeling a little unhappy because of it. During this time Bond received representations from several of his men to be allowed to remain behind on the islands. They were so anxious to volunteer for this service that they asked Bond, if he could not himself arrange it, to intercede on their behalf to higher authorities. As the Gamtoos had been ordered to maintain strict wireless silence, nothing could be done about it just then. Before the islands were sighted, the weather had moderated, everybody was cheerful again, and there were no more applicants for exile.
To even the most experienced seafarers aboard the Gamtoos the weather they had encountered during that voyage to the islands was equal to the worst they had known. The master, Captain Wally Finlayson (the same Lieutenant-Commander Finlayson who had
|played a leading part in the rescue and salvage work
on the Dunedin Star on "Skeleton Coast" five years
previously), was fairly familiar with the wild weather
of these latitudes through having sailed them as an
officer in the White Star's windjammer Mersey. He
noted down this voyage of the little coaster as one of the
roughest he had yet made. For the troops there was
only one name for this ocean road and they bestowed it
unanimously. To them it will always be known as
Sunday, January 18, was our best day yet. With a calm sea, only a light breeze, and a warm sun to temper the nip in the air, everybody seemed to have been enticed on deck and to be in the best of spirits. The Captain suggested that some of the men might enjoy a brief service of worship and wondered whether there was anybody on board who would care to conduct one. Having a real experience of the redeeming love of Christ, I volunteered. A surprisingly large number attended the informal service which was held on deck.
By now we were in radio contact with the Natal which had made a rendezvous to meet us some distance to the north-west of the islands late that day. During the afternoon, however, she reported that she was fog-bound on the "Old Kent Road," and dare not risk the passage out between the islands. We therefore slowed down and the next morning were up early for our first view of Marion and Prince Edward. All there was to see was fog. Finlayson estimated that we were about six miles from Prince Edward. We hove-to awaiting events, and a little later the fog cleared somewhat and we saw the Natal two or three miles away, approaching us. As she was closing us the fog wrapped itself round both vessels again and we lost each other. We spent the rest of the day steaming slowly alternately towards and away from our destination, each ship's direction-finder keeping her informed of the bearings of the other, but not the distance between them. Navigationally the frigate was at this time little
|better equipped than the coaster, for her radar was not
For both captains it was a worrying time. They had to be constantly on the look-out against collision with each other or with the islands. They knew that the waters they were in were treacherous and badly charted. Their echo-sounders were of little help because the water was too deep for sounding. They could not trust their standard compasses either because the Wakefield in 1910 had reported having found five degrees more easterly error than normal when in the vicinity of Prince Edward, this disappearing when she left the area; the Transvaal had also reported abnormal variation of her compass when near Prince Edward, though the same phenomenon was not noticed when she was near Marion. Iron-ore deposits are the most frequent cause of abnormal compass variation, but whether these existed on Prince Edward was not at the moment exercising the mind of either captain.
Late in the day the frigate radioed that she now had our position and was coming alongside to try to take over her mail.
Dusk was falling when the frigate loomed up out of the mist astern and edged in alongside us until we were steaming abreast at six knots, half a ship's length apart. She made three attempts to fire a line across to us by means of the standard naval cartridge gun. She turned and came in for another attempt, this time on our starboard side. Our ship happened to be equipped with one of the latest Schermuly rocket-firing guns which can throw a line several hundred yards. We asked if we could try our luck and our first line fell right across the frigate, to the cheers of the crews of both ships. Within ten minutes the two water-proofed bags of mail had been safely hauled across to the frigate, though two or three times during the tricky operation there were cries of dismay when waves
|higher than their fellows leaped up and smothered the
Her mail received, the Natal sheered off and both vessels headed north-west away from the islands for the night.
We came to Marion the next day. The weather was clear and as the Natal led us down the channel between the islands we were able to appraise them carefully through glasses. The peaks of Marion were wreathed in clouds and their slopes for about 1,000 feet from the summits were mantled in snow. We were surprised at the rich green of the vegetation. In many respects Marion reminded one at first glance of Madeira, though its slopes were less steep and the sea around it, though clear, was not such a deep blue. Prince Edward, having no height like Marion, was without snow and had little charm of appearance.
We came to anchor in Transvaal Cove in 19 fathoms and about a quarter of a mile from the shore opposite the point where we could see the South African flag flying at the top of its tall mast. Our glasses picked out about a dozen men standing on the cliff tops and the rocks of the landing beach below, all staring seaward and apparently watching the arrival of the ships with absorbed interest.
Copyright John H Marsh (1948)