The little known �Battle of Cambalalaby�

2012-01-23 00:00

IN the run-up to the 35th anniversary of the event, I feel it is important that the true story of the Battle of Cambalalaby­ be told. The survivors from that battle are dwindling, and in the interests of preserving a clear unbiased view of events, I will look at the opposing forces, their makeup, strengths and weaknesses, choice of weapons, the tensions leading up to the battle and the spark which culminated in the outbreak of war.

Cambalala, tranquil, duck-egg blue, clapboard cottage nestled at the top of Mike’s Pass in the Central Drakensberg­, haven to mountaineers, was the unlikely scene of the carnage.

The events unfolded during one extremely wet April school holiday towards the end of the seventies.

The forces consisted of the Old Folks with a various mix of backgrounds, Ginger Cairns their tall lugubrious­-looking leader a venerated mountaineer in his prime, had become rather soft through years of Jo’burg living. His Second in Command was Neish Tatham, farmer, songster and a military tactician of note. Stella Tatham, Jocelyn Cairns and SABC personality Helen McCullough formed the bulk of their formidable force.

The Cairns and Tatham youngsters and friends made up the Kids force, with an average age of 14. They formed a dense pack with little proper formation or leadership. Their strength lay in their superior numbers, agility, tirelessness and being small enough to hide.

The context in which the battle took place was the bubbling over of frustrations after nine days of rain, and the cottage was filled to capacity and bulging at the seams. Dry clothes were a thing of the past, the kitchen dripped and smelt, with fishing lines forming makeshift clothes lines, where in happier times songs, stories and red wine had flowed.

The single outside, long-drop loo was to be a major factor in the sparking of the battle. It wasn’t built to cater for 17 people. There were tensions over the loo from day one — there was always someone on it when it was needed. A timely whistle usually indicated that it was occupied or a rock was put on the path, for those who couldn’t whistle.

Stella was the one who, in a desperate dash for the loo, was made to wait an unreasonably long time. Long enough for her to find and form the perfect mud pie, so that when Murray, the unsuspecting youngster finally emerged, she was able to deliver this deadly, dirty projectile with unerring accuracy into his right ear.

The battle began and raged all day and into the next. From Murray’s first anguished, outraged cry, the forces quickly gathered and drew arms. The weapon of choice, which was absolutely abundant after weeks of rain, was mud. It was clear that there would be no shortage of arms.

The delivery method favoured by the Kids was a handful of mud thrown or smeared.

The Old Folks employed refinements like claylite sticks, which could be bent back and would propel the mud a satisfying distance, and would add a sting, into the bargain.

Likewise in tactics, it was the Old Folks’ greater experience which allowed them to plan and execute more refined manoeuvres and ambushes. This made up for their lack of agility. The Kids relied on their greater numbers and speed in attack, and retreat to score many hits on the Folks.

The cottage itself was to remain a neutral space, although it was claimed by both sides that the other had ignored this and fired shots through the window.

The final stand, when the majority of the Old Folks had retired to the neutral space, muddied hungry and looking for beer, took place in the duck pond in front and to the left of the cottage­. The entire Kids mob had the Folks leader surrounded. Ginger refused to surrender. He placed himself in the middle of the duck pond and was gallantly fighting off the hoard of marauders. He had an unending supply of the foulest smelling mud, and was making each shot count.

The pressure of superior numbers was overwhelming. The Kids were unrelenting and as they drew inexorably closer, Ginger grew more and more desperate.

In no time he was down, with five Kids sitting on top of him in the pond, smearing him with mud.

Battling to keep his head above water­, and faced with certain, filthy death, he was forced to surrender.

The cleanup involved loading up the Pumkin, double-cab volkswagen kombi, with the whole mob and driving down Mike’s Pass to wash off in the river.

The cottage was wiped down and dried out. The only relics which remained of the epic battle were a mention in the guest book and a few mud spatters too high on the walls to be washed off.

About the author

SARAH Alexander lives in Balgo-wan with her family. She is a farmer-cum-maths teacher who enjoys energy medicine, writing, sailing and flying. She has lived at various stages of her life on the Makhatini Flats and in Swaziland, Zambia and Mozambique. She is married to Ant and has two teenage children.

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