We are used to horses being shod for the protection of their feet. It is such a common thing that it hardly bears thinking about. Discarded horse shoes are, for some reason, regarded by some as symbols of good luck and even protection – some go as far as to say it is good luck to find one. This Horse Memorial at Weston Agricultural College in KwaZulu-Natal, dedicated to horses, mules and other animals that perished serving men in the Anglo-Boer War, is made up of horseshoes found in the area, where an estimated 30 000 horses and mules are believed to have been buried on the farmlands.
Less commonly known is the practice of shoeing oxen. This was particularly so for oxen required to draw wagons transporting goods or people. Such ox-wagons were the dominant mode of long-distance transport in South Africa over typically rough terrain before clearly marked roads or the railways existed and so, to protect the hooves of the trek oxen, special metal shoes were forged in two sections to accommodate the split hooves.
These ox shoes are also known as cues. Each animal would require eight of these crescent-shaped iron plates, fastened with nails. As you can tell from the photograph above, they were thin and broad to fit the hooves of the oxen. As a matter of interest, while we talk of shoeing a horse, I understand the term used in the context of oxen was to cue an ox – thus the person skilled in this would be known as an ox-cuer rather than a farrier. Being hand-forged, the ox shoes were shaped by a blacksmith.
Oxen used as draft animals or worked over hard ground were shod both to protect their hooves (hard surfaces could wear down the hooves faster than they could grow) and to provide traction. Nail holes are smaller than those used for horses as the hoof wall of oxen are thinner.
Everything grows old with time. Everything wrinkles and decays. Some things take longer than others. Some age gently and beautifully. Some reach a point of inward decay. No matter what, there is beauty in ageing if one cares to look. This thick plank has reached a point of no return, yet as it crumbles it provides a home for beetles, lizards, ants and wasps.
This wagon wheel holds a wealth of stories beneath its metal rim that still holds fast even though the wood has shrunk and wrinkled over time.
The inner hub is flaking, flecks of paint remain on the outside, yet the spokes hold firm like muscles straining with every tendon.
Breaking point is reached and the sawed felloe sections no longer meet in places.
It is significant that the first governor of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, noted in his diary on the 4th August 1652 that he had sent men out to make a road “for the wagon to transport wood” for it reminds us that there were no roads at the time, nor would there be any for the next 150 years. Dr. Malcolm Mitchell points out in an article published in the January/February 2014 issue of Civil Engineering that “the ox wagons of the time merely follow[ed] the footpaths and game trails over the mountains.” The two passes I have already highlighted, Uniondale Poort and Meirings Poort, are examples of this.
Wagon transport has been integral to the early development of South Africa. Not only did the early settlers move their families as well as their goods into the untamed country by ox-wagon, but wagons were the most effective means of conducting trade for many years until the system of railways and roads was opened up. It is thus not surprising to find remnants of old wagons dotted about the country.
Several examples are still preserved in museums.
The part of wagons found most commonly are the wheels – they are symbolic of adventure, overcoming apparently insurmountable obstacles, and are visual reminders of our past history. Wagon wheels – and the stylised form of them – formed the theme of our self-catering accommodation in Calitzdorp.
De Wawielhuis (The wagon wheel house) lived up to its name, with the specially designed gates:
Wagon wheels in the garden:
There is something ‘romantic’ in the sense of having an idealised view of the past wrapped up in wagon wheels. Given that De Wawielhuis offered comfortable accommodation after a long journey – and the hospitality we received there was delightful – the name is an apt one!
This is the old wagon we found lying some distance from the ruined homestead in the Hell’s Poort valley: