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Waterval Onder – A small piece of history

Part 1

View of Waterval Onder looking east

In 2014, Waterval Onder is a tiny hamlet on the fringe of the N4 toll route, at the foot of the Elandsberg and the gateway to the Lowveld. These days, nothing much happens in Waterval Onder – and that’s pretty much just the way the handful of local residents like it. But, it wasn’t always that way.

There was a time, over 100 years ago now, when sleepy little Waterval Onder was very different - much busier, much noisier and very much more important. So important, in fact, that it was the last seat of the government of the South African Republic (ZAR) and the last South African home of President Paul Kruger. However, to get to that point, one has to go further back in time some 13 years to understand how some of these interesting historical events came about. Back in 1887, a very important company for South Africans was established – the Nederlandsche Zuid Afrikaansche Spoorweg Maatschappy (NZASM). This company constructed the railway line from Delagoa Bay (modern day Maputo) to Pretoria, a distance of over 294 miles (473 km.) in just six years – overcoming difficult terrain, disease and wild animals in the process. President Kruger himself put the last bolt in place during the opening ceremony in November 1894 at Wilgerivier – little knowing how important the railway would become to him personally just another six short years ahead in the future. This vital rail link between Pretoria and the Indian Ocean would play a pivotal role in the coming years as the country grew and developed - with towns sprouting like weeds along the route.

Station platform - Waterval Onder

Railway station - Waterval Onder

Work crew on completion of the NZAM tunnel from Waterval Boven to waterval Onder

First hotel in waterval Onder

Waterval Onder station became an important staging point at the end of the Lowveld section of the line before a relatively short but steep and serpentine section breached the Elandsberg via the NZASM tunnel that flanks the Elands River falls, before emerging out into the Highveld at Waterval Boven. Waterval Onder, which at that time, was also still a staging point on the old coach road to the Lowveld and on to the goldfields in such places as Barberton and Pilgrim’s Rest. It was a place where dusty and road-weary travellers could rest up before continuing and, as such, grew to incorporate many houses, stores, a hotel and, in later years, a military garrison and a hospital. During the 2nd Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), Waterval Onder flourished and the vital importance of the rail link to the sea and the outside world for the beleaguered and now virtually land-locked South African Republic became apparent.

Part 2

Rack rail Waterval Onder

Wayside Inn Waterval Onder

Menu from the old Wayside Inn at waterval Onder

 


As the course of the war slowly turned against the Boer forces, the Republican government, still headed by Kruger, realised that there was little choice but to leave Pretoria and stay one step ahead of the advancing British armies. President Kruger’s train subsequently left Pretoria on 29 May 1900 and the seat of the ZAR government moved to Machadodorp. The train was not to remain long in Machadodorp however, for the then 74 year old Oom Paul found the Highveld cold too taxing. The train was moved further down the line and into the sheltered Elands Valley and the Waterval Onder station where it was to remain for the months of July and August 1900. It was here that President Kruger said, “I spent the happiest two months that I have known since my departure from Pretoria.”

Map of Waterval Onder rail system

As the President met almost daily with his advisors and military staff, he moved from his waiting train carriage into a small house which formed an annexe to the adjacent hotel.

President Kruger sitting on the stoep at The Krugerhof, which was his last headquarters at waterval Onder. Behind him stands a uniformed presidential guard. The last meetings of the ZAR government were held here as Lord Roberts'armies pushed them eastwards along the railway.

President Paul Kruger and Government officials at The Krugerhof

The stoep of at The Krugerhof during President Kruger's time

This house – The Krugerhof – still stands today and is now a museum. Here he calmly saw to affairs of state as the pursuing British forces pressed ever closer. Finally as the sounds of the battle at nearby Dalmanutha were plainly audible during the course of 27 & 28 August, the decision was taken to move the President’s train to Nelspruit and out of reach of the British. Oom Paul did not tarry and moved quickly on to Delagoa Bay where he boarded the Dutch warship “Gelderland” which would take him into exile. He would never again see the land of his birth. President Kruger died in Switzerland two years after the end of the war in July 1904. His body was repatriated and he was laid to rest next to his beloved wife Gezina in Pretoria in December of the same year.

President Kruger's train at Machadodorp.

President Kruger's private railway carriage - you can see him sitting in the coach through the window.


Waterval Onder had played its cameo role in South African history. It was subsequently occupied by British forces for the remainder of the war and served, among other things and as mentioned earlier in this story, as a hospital for troops recovering from wounds and injuries incurred in battle.

A stone carving found on a farm in Waterval Onder, the nose has been damaged when someone rolled it down the hill. Could this be a depiction of Sir Henry Redvers-Buller - seen on the right. The date on the back reads "MCM" - roman numerals for 1900.

Sir Henry Redvers-Buller

A fascinating footnote to this latter part of Waterval Onder’s Boer war history came to light in 2013 with the discovery of a carved stone head unearthed on the property of local resident, Mr. Les Oosthuizen. The unfinished face has been carved into the side of a substantial granite boulder – it is presumed by the hands of a skilled stonemason, possibly recuperating and who began the work to pass the time - and has the letters “MCM” clearly chiseled into the rear of the stone. These letters are generally accepted as depicting roman numerals for the year 1900, the year in which it is thought the carving was done. Despite the great deal of time, effort and research that has gone into attempting to identify the face on the boulder, no certain information has, to date, come to light. The most popular theory is that it depicts the face of General Sir Henry Redvers-Buller (look at the moustache), a popular and well-known British commander whose likeness was well known to Brit & Boer alike and who was known to have visited Waterval Onder shortly after Kruger had, once again, escaped the British net. Unfortunately, the true identities of both artist and subject will probably remain hidden in the folds of history.

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