Monday, 22 April 2013

How "Wild West" coaches opened up Rhodesia


Above: A stage-coach en route from Tuli—a contemporary engraving which captures the atmosphere of travel in the early days of Rhodesia

Above: C. H. Zeederberg, pioneer stage coach and mail contractor.

TODAY it is a commonplace experience to cover the 322 km from Beitbridge to Bulawayo, between lunch and sundown. Indeed, such is the reliability and speed of the modern motor-car that beyond the danger of falling to sleep, the competent driver has few problems.

But of course it was not always so. Some years before the first internal combustion engine spluttered into existence, the route to the North was carved across the veld by the rumbling wheels of C. H. Zeederberg's American stage-coaches, in the best tradition of the Wild West.

The first firm of "Zeederberg and Co., Coach Proprietors" was launched by four Zeederberg brothers in Pretoria, and was at first a purely South African concern. The first route was from Pretoria to the Northern Transvaal, in 1890. It was the occupation of Mashonaland, his subsequent friendship with Cecil Rhodes, and the tremendous demand for transport north of the Limpopo, which gave Christian Hendrik (Doel) Zeederberg reason to set up in Rhodesia.

The rainy season of 1890 was extremely heavy. The pioneers were scattered in search of gold and were unprepared for self-sufficiency. For some months any northward movement beyond Fort Tuli was practically impossible. Wagons were stuck hopelessly in the black vleis or on the banks of the flooded rivers, where, in the absence of adequate shelter, food and medicines, many hopeful young adventurers died of exposure and malaria.

For a few weeks after the occupation of Mashonaland, letters were carried by mounted despatch riders,but this became impossible due to swollen rivers, and Mashonaland was cut off from the outer world from the end of December, 1890, to the middle of February, 1891.

Among the improvements made when transport began moving again was a contract awarded to Zeederberg and Co. for the maintenance of communication between Tuli and Salisbury (547 km). This contract cost the British South Africa Co. £4 500 per annum. However, the Postmaster-General of the Cape Colony, who organised the scheme, was at pains to point out that the service dealt not only with postal traffic, "but was also the main line of communication for all purposes, the wagons being used for the conveyance of passengers and other articles besides mail matter".

In order to incorporate Mashonaland business into their existing schedule, Zeederberg extended the coach service Pretoria/Pietersburg as far as Tuli in April, 1891, via a pontoon built by C. H. Zeederberg over the Limpopo, and thence via Fort Victoria and Fort Charter to Salisbury. According to the yearbook "Guide to Southern Africa" for 1893, the fare Tuli to Salisbury was £15 and the journey took 14 days.

Above: Even with the advent of the railway to the main centres of Salisbury and Bulawayo, coaches still performed an essential service to local areas. Here the Mazoe mail coach waits at Salisbury Post Office in 1912.

When Bulawayo came into the picture in 1894, the scene changed rapidly. Travelling on trains from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London, the traveller arrived at Mafeking (the end of the railway line) in time to take his place on the 9 a.m. Monday coach to Bulawayo. The week-long journey was scheduled thus:

Boulderpits—Monday midnight
Gaberones—Tuesday 5 a.m.
Palapye—Friday noon (1 hr halt)
Tati hotel—Sunday 6 a.m. (½ hr halt)
Mangwe Pass— Sunday midnight
Bulawayo—Monday 9 p.m.

What a service! The following description appeared in 1894:

"In fine weather, when the roads are in good condition, a coach journey may be very enjoyable, but in bad weather capsizes are unpleasantly frequent and occasionally a coach with its freight and passengers will stick in the mud for many hours. Teams are changed every ten or fifteen miles, and some idea may be inferred of the number of horses and mules kept at the different stations from the fact that frequently four or five coaches will require fresh teams at one place during the day. The rate of travelling, including stoppages, is not much more than six m.p.h. Fares are high, ranging from 9d. to 1/- per mile. The allowance of luggage per passenger ranges from 25 to 40 lb., and every additional pound weight is charged 6d. to l/6d. extra according to the distance travelled, whilst, if the mail should happen to be heavy, luggage is frequently shut out". 

Above: Travel during the rainy season had more than the usual hazards, as sudden thunderstorms turned small streams into rushing torrents. Here an early artist depicts an anxious moment when crossing the Notswani River, a scene which could be repeated a dozen times in the course of a day's journey.

A direct route from the hotel at Fort Tuli to Bulawayo was made in 1894, reducing the distance Pretoria/Bulawayo by 852 km. The northern half of the old road beyond Gwanda, still exists, but fell into declinefollowing the development of mining communities at Essexvale and Filabusi.

Swaying, jolting and straining over the network of primitive tracks which linked Rhodesia's early settlements, Zeederberg's coaches laboured and plunged like ships at sea. A broken wheel, mute symbol of this era, was recently retrieved from the bush by the police at Tuli. Nearly all of those "super seasoned" spokes were still in place.

In 1896 most trek oxen had fallen victim to the severe rinderpest epidemic that swept across Southern Africa. During the Matabele Rebellion, which began in March of that year, Zeederberg coaches were the sole means of transportation between Bulawayo and the outlying settlements, and even went as far as Pietersburg, via Gwanda, for supplies.

One coach, with nine passengers, was attacked in a running fight between Shangani and Bulawayo. The mules were eventually run to a standstill and were killed. The driver and passengers ran to the top of a nearby kopje and prepared to defend themselves. With night coming on their situation was bad, but they were saved by the timely arrival of a patrol under Col. Napier on its way to Gwelo. The coach, however, had been burned to ashes.

Zeederbergs continued to expand in spite of the arrival of the railway at Bulawayo in 1897. In fact, the northward advance of the railway was made possible by the animal transport industry, which thus initiated its own decline.

During the Boer War, Zeederberg & Co's. mail transport contracts were suspended and its resources put at the disposal of the British Government. A specially formed regiment with all its equipment was transported from the railhead at Marandellas to Bulawayo in 20 days, en route to assist at the relief of Mafeking.

Following the death of Doel Zeederberg in 1907, the company was acquired by speculative interests towhom tradition meant little. This, and the rapid rise of cheaper rail traffic, caused its downfall in the 1920s. Nevertheless, the writer was delighted to discover that "Zeederberg's Garage", of Essexvale, is owned and rim by none other than Mr. A. Zeederberg, the son of Doel.

The strange adventures of Zeederberg's coaches continued after the dissolution of the firm. In 1924 acoach had been sent to England for display at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. After the event was over, the coach was forgotten, but was rediscovered by a curious visitor from Cape Town, in a dock side warehouse in Hull, shortly before World War II.

This coach is now permanently exhibited in the museum on the second floor of the City of Johannesburg's Public Library. 

Above: A perfectly preserved coach used by the Zeederberg company is on display at the National Museum, Bulawayo. These coaches were built by the Abbot- Downing Company of Concord, U.S.A. The  heavy Concord Mail Coach cost approximately U.S. $1 100. An American authority described the coach as resembling "the English coach of the 18th century ... The ample body, almost egg-shaped, was a fine piece of joinery. It rested on lengthwise thorough braces, each of several leather strips. These helped to absorb shocks which would otherwise affect the horse team. Concord coaches weighed 2 500 lb. Each wheel spoke was hand hewn from clear, super-seasoned ash, Each was fitted into the hub with a nicety that would have done honour to the finest cabinet-maker's  art."

Above: This map shows the two principal routes from the south which carried pioneers to Rhodesia. The route from Pretoria, via Pietersburg, Tuli, Fort Victoria and Fort Charter to Salisbury was the first  opened.


Source: Rhodesia Calls, Magazine of May-June 1973 which was made available to ORAFs by Denise Taylor (my daughter.) Thanks Denise.

Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at

(Please visit our previous posts and archives)


Stretch Merrington (RhAF) Writes:-

 It was great to read the info about the coaches and their intro into the early days of Rhodesia. I did research on this subject for my book “African Night Witch” and would like to pass on a few snippets of further info.

 Lion, elephant, horse sickness, highway men and a total lack of formal roads were major obstacles to the coaches. The flow of the coach traffic through Messina to Fort Salisbury was made possible by more than 40 relay stations with replacement mules (or horses) and water.

 Good ‘salted’ horses cost up to 10 times the price of a good mule. The extreme shortage of horses was due to horse-sickness and this led to Zeederburg experimenting with Zebras. Sadly (but not for the Zebra’s) this only offered mediocre success. The Zebras seemed to go into a total decline in captivity and could barely manage the big Abbot Downing coaches.

 The animal teams in Rhodesia consisted of about 400 Oxen, almost 300 horses and more than 600 mules.

End of comment from Stretch.

Nick Baalbergen (Intaf) Writes:-

Good article and some particularly good photos on the Zeederberg Coach operation in our fledgling country.
As you know, the Zeederberg network extended into Manicaland, with a Zeederberg station building and stables located just behind the Umtali Club complex, at what would be No 81 Third Street, Umtali.
The Zeederberg Coach Company bought a number of old wood & iron buildings from the British Army in colonial India, which had become 'surplus to requirements'. They were shipped out to South Africa and from there to the newly occupied territory of Rhodesia. The buildings were identical and were moved to a number of Coach Station sites, where they were reassembled and used as Coach Offices.

Your article featured a well known photo of the departure of Mail Coach from Salisbury to Mazoe. Photo 3 attached is of the Mail Coach outside the Mazoe Hotel, with the Coach Office in the background. The Mazoe building was identical to the building in Umtali, which was used as a house well into the 1960's, after the Zeederberg Coach Service was discontinued.

Photo 4 of a coach crossing a drift also relates to your article in a way - a passage in the article mentions the difficulties of crossing streams.

Zeederberg Coach Office Bulawayo.
 (National Archives Salisbury No 15838)

Departure from Bulawayo of the Zeederberg Coach - circa 1896.
(National Archives Salisbury No 1957)
Zeederberg Coach outside the Mazoe Hotel. Zeederberg Coach Office in the background.  Circa 1905.
(National Archives Salisbury No 2008)
Zeederberg Coach crossing a drift.
 (National Archives Salisbury No 1927)
End of comment from Nick

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At 6 June 2018 at 12:57 , Blogger Naveed shaikh said...

Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here.
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