The Lowveld had been uninhabited before white people came, I was often told, and indeed the agrarian peoples who preceded the colonists had mainly used the area for winter grazing, so as to avoid the tsetse flies that preyed on cattle and people alike. It was in fact the trypanosome parasites which inhabited the flies, and which they passed on, that caused the dreaded sleeping-sickness.
One weekend we set off to climb Legogote, the high koppie depicted in our school crest (and faintly reminiscent of Lion’s Head looming over Clifton), to visit the Bushman paintings found there. The climb was a long tedious slog, but the paintings, which included small black figures with large erections, left a lasting impression. The endurance of the paintings seemed to imply permanent habitation. But there were no Bushmen, or people looking like what we imagined Bushmen to look like, in the area, and the orphaned paintings seemed to emerge from a primeval and magical prehistory shared or perhaps created by Rider Haggard and other colonial romanticists. How, I wondered, had these people survived the tsetse flies?
I now surmise that they left their mark during seasonal visits, their nomadic habits enabling them to survive the flies long enough to make the paintings. The Afrikaans farmers of the Boer Republic who pre-dated the British arrival had followed the indigenous pattern; they appropriated the area for winter grazing, but did not settle. As in other areas of the country, they hunted, and by the end of the 1800s, wildlife was in a sorry state. It was further decimated between 1896 and 1898 by rinderpest, a cattle disease introduced along with cattle from Asia. By the end of the rinderpest epidemic, ninety five per cent of the cattle were dead, along with buffaloes and related species. As the cattle, buffaloes and big antelope died, so did the tsetse flies and the trypanosomes they carried, and the area was unintentionally made ready for settlement.
The first British settlers, who began to occupy farms in the Lowveld during the 1920s, secured themselves against any remaining tsetse flies by fencing off the land and killing all the animals large enough to be easily shot, so that the flies had nowhere to breed. Infected cattle were also destroyed.
After the war, the anopheles mosquitoes were taken out by systematically spraying everything, including every dwelling in the entire Lowveld, with DDT so that by the time that we arrived, it was regarded as a malaria-free area. We took no special precautions against it, even though the disease itself had a fearsome reputation. Once, aged perhaps ten, I had a fever of which I still remember the heat, the oppressive hallucinations, and the fear that I was going to die. Len Carlson, the doctor at the Swedish Mission Hospital outside White River, was called in. He examined me, then said over me to Lesley, ‘I’m worried about the anopheles bug,’ a sentence which pierced through my fever and redoubled my terror of imminent death, for the words of adults were my medium and an interest in tropical parasites was a necessary part of living in that area. The words ‘I don’t want to die’ took on the quality of a fevered mantra, and echoed through my hallucinations until they abated a day or two later, never to return.