Sunday 3 March 2013

Melsetter and the story of the Moodie Pioneers

By J.F. Logan

The wagon-topped memorial to the Moodies, in the village of Melsetter.

AN unusual wagon-topped memorial stands on the village green at Melsetter in the Eastern Highlands of Rhodesia, that is always the object of interest to tourists. It bears the names of the Melsetter pioneers, but only once in five years are they officially remembered at a local service, the last time on January 3, 1973, the 80th anniversary of the pioneer Moodie Trek to this loveliest of remote borderlands, where even today the stranger does not go unremarked.

Like a good boxer, Melsetter rides to the punch of progress, a coy village in a hollow of the mountains from which a Rip Van Winkle could descend and instantly recognise the main features of the pioneering settlement he helped to create. True, there is a road on to the industrial sites, but no factory smoke has ever polluted the clear mountain air. The idea of industry in this loveliest of Rhodesian backwaters died still- born, but the bush-infested tendril of the visionary road is still there, reminding us that people more recent than the pioneers once had plans.

Also in existence is a town plan showing a multiplicity of named streets and avenues, the basis of a thriving township. But Melsetter has a way of cutting people and ideas down to size.

In 1953 an hotel was built and the villagers had to drag the cars of opening-day guests through the hub-deep mud of the district's pioneer approach roads, but, inevitably, the tarmac tentacles of progress stretched out and latched firmly on to this pioneering outpost. Sixty years ago the record time to Umtali from Melsetter was three days on a fast horse, or three weeks by covered wagon. Today the tourist can cover the distance in a leisurely two hours on a superb highway.

So the old Africa fades, but for those who hanker after pioneering romance, linked with matchless mountain scenery, the choice must be Melsetter; where strident forms of progress are regarded as chimerical in a district only now awakening to the consciousness of a profitable future. And yet there is no lovelier part of Rhodesia than this mountainous land where the Moodies are revered as the leaders of the trek which pioneered the wilderness of Gazaland.

The name lives in the hearts of the people, for the tourist will find little concrete evidence of the Moodies' major role in the early history of Rhodesia. A few errant place names, pioneer memorials here and at Penhalonga, a grave near Chipinga—all of them places of pilgrimage, but not enough to honour one of the greatest of our pioneers.

The Moodie Trek has all the epic quality of the more-publicised efforts to open up the American West: dangerous wild animals, hostile tribesmen, eight months and 1 600 km on the trail through the wildest of virgin territory — driven on by the old voortrekker [pioneer] dream of the ultimate in promised lands.

To many it was a land of death from blackwater fever, including the trek leaders, Groot Tom Moodie and his relative George Benjamin Dunbar Moodie. Some of the pioneers lived to a ripe old age, but all the Moodies were gone from the district by the turn of the century.

Groot Tom gave Melsetter its name in dim memory of the ancestral home he had never seen, in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland. Product of a union between voortrekker South Africa and an aristocratic Scottish family which traces its ancestry back to the ancient Earls of Orkney and through them to the royal houses of Norway and Scotland, Groot Tom was a gentle giant whose herculean labours on behalf of the trek were symptomatic of a great family tradition.

His cousin, George Benjamin Dunbar Moodie, was a volatile young man with valid claims to a greater fame than that accorded by Rhodesian history. He was married while on the trek and he and his wife became the first couple ever to spend their honeymoon at the Zimbabwe Ruins.

Prior to the Trek he was one of the first Europeans to ride over the Eastern Districts of Rhodesia in company with Dr. Leander Starr Jameson on the famous visit to the despotic paramount Chief Gungunhana, which resulted in the Gazaland Concession. In this enterprise, George Benjamin, grandson of a former Colonial Secretary of Natal, and by family tradition aide de camp to Lord Chelmsford at the decisive battle of Ulundi against the Zulus, was definitely in his true element. But like Groot Tom he also held the seeds of death, as did so many others.

From a number of high points in the Melsetter district it is possible on a clear day to see the glitter of the Birchenough Bridge over the Sabi River some 95 km away. There begins the Moodie saga as it affects the Gazaland of the trekkers' dreams.

From the bridge, by Three-Span-Berg to Chipinga and Melsetter, and on via Moodies Nek to Cashel and the farm of Tom's Hope on the Mozambique border, is a journey through an unsurpassed scenic wonderland. Nowadays convenient hotels at Birchenough, Chipinga, Melsetter and Cashel break the trip into a leisurely meander, unlike the pioneer trail-blazers who took 55 days for the final 55 Km from Moodies Drift over the wide sand- barred Sabi River to the last outspan at Waterfall Farm near Chip- inga. Fifty-five kilometres of agonised doubts and fears over the Three-Span Berg Mountains, so called because it took three spans of oxen to haul the wagons over the mountain slopes.

Today the same distance can be covered in as many minutes and the Berg is just another idyllic mountain pass on the haunting road to Melsetter. The pioneer route followed the Tanganda River by Buffels Drift and New Year's Gift where someone shot a buffalo and discovered the dreaded presence of tsetse fly. This more than anything else forced them on to the end of the road at Waterfall, where the modern road to Melsetter turns off to the left 8 km from Chipinga.

It was also the end of the road for Groot Tom, who died within a year. With his passing the fortunes of the Moodies dwindled. George Benjamin took over the laying-out of the promised land but he also was defeated by death. He lived at Kenilworth, beyond Chipinga, while he surveyed farms and laid out the boundaries of the proposed Melsetter, a town that was never to bear the honoured name.

Chipinga is really Melsetter, but before the first walls were raised the later-comers of the Martin and Steyn treks colonised North Melsetter and demanded a more central position. They won the day and Melsetter was established on its present site overlooking the Chimanimani Mountains, and one can sympathise with the Moodie faction's resultant bitterness. The Moodies lost every- thing, including their lives, only to have their selected town named Chipinga, after the local chief.

Groot Tom is buried at Waterfall Farm close by the roadside and as you leave the hallowed spot look across the cattle-studded pastures towards the modern farmhouse. The facade is built like a trek wagon, wheels and all, ready to spurt the dust. New wild lands for old, it seems to say, in fitting private tribute from those who came after to the first of the few.

It is only 76 years since the Moodie wagons topped the last rise, but looking back over the turbulent time one seems to be spanning a gulf of centuries. Could the Moodie trekkers have imagined the present highway curling like a spool of exposed film from Chipinga towards Melsetter which can now offer the tourist a first-class hotel, a country club, golf, tennis, bowls and a caravan site with utstanding views ?

The finest mountain national park in Rhodesia beckons from the hotel windows. Excellent trout fishing exists, and a multiplicity of gravel roads lead into adventurous places.

One of these roads leads on to Cashel, offering a panoramic view of the entire length of the magnificent Chimanimani Mountains. It runs through the wild heart of a sparsely populated wilderness where the sons of the pioneers still cling to their lonely acres—via Moodies Nek and on to the fascinating 8 km road spur which leads to the farm of Tom's Hope—to remote high places where the Portuguese East African plains stretch to the horizon in a hazy pattern of blue and gold.

And yet, over all this beauty a sense of injustice prevails. There is something in the air of old unhappy far-off things buried in the timelessness of Africa. Ernst du Plessis, able lieutenant of the Moodie Trek is quoted as saying of the present Melsetter, "The township was established with deceit, and, if I might prophesy, will never flourish."

The tourist reading the peic Moodie story might well wonder at the monumental tactlessness of transferring the honoured name, as well as the substance of the township, to another place. There are only two Melsetters in the world and both are hardly whirlpools of economic activity. Whereas Chipinga, despite its cow town-minus-the-hitchrails atmosphere, is the undoubted economic hub of agricultural Gazaland.

There is a moral somewhere.

Perhaps it lies in the Latin tag, sic transit gloria mundi. ["Worldly things are fleeting."]

The grave stone of Groot Tom Moodie's grave at Waterfall Farm, close by the roadside. 

The farm, near Chipinga, was the last outspan of the Moodie pioneer trail-blazers.
Note the wagon motif.

A striking picture of the modern farmhouse on Waterfall Farm. 

The facade is built like a trek wagon — wheels and all.

One of the best composed pictures ever taken of the rugged Chimanimani Mountains from Melsetter.
Below the granite peaks the country side smiles with plantations, dairy farms and brilliant green pastures

The main plaque on the Moodie memorial gives the names of the 1892 trekkers. 

The inscription (in Afrikaans) reads: 

"To the Memory of the Voortrekkers of Gazaland by Their Thankful Descendants". 

(Gazaland is still the name of the district.)

Source: Rhodesia Calls January - February 1975 made available by Denise Taylor. Thanks Denise.

Extracted and recompiled by Eddy Norris for use on "Our Rhodesian Heritage" blog.

Thanks to the author, the photographer, the publishers for the use of their material.
Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at

(Please visit our previous posts and archives)

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At 5 March 2013 at 10:50 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Rob Picton (Intaf) Writes:-

Thanks for today's Melsetter post Eddy - great early morning nostalgia!

At 5 March 2013 at 13:34 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Kevin Schlachter (Witbank, RSA) Writes:-

Franscois has been kind enough to keep me in the loop with our Manica history

My Grand Father, John Schlachter, arrived with the Pioneer Corp, holding the rank of assistant conductor with the units transport section .

I am told that he is buried in Umtali and that the Schlachter family, have had a close relationship with the Steyns, Ekhards and Crugers .

My father, Eddie Schlachter started his working career on the Railways in Umtali and was involved with Raylton Sports club and Inyazura during the Salty Du Rand /Ryk Van Schoor era.

Although my schooling was in Redcliff and at Gifford Tech ,Bulawayo , I spent most of my National service (intake147) , at Carmel College/Addams Barracks .

My father in-law was Col Robin Brown of the Rhodesian Artillery, whose unit also had a close relationship with the town of Umtali .

Thank you for the fond memories and for us being be able to show our friends, of the life and times of our Rhodesia .

At 5 March 2013 at 13:37 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Andrew Sternslow (Umtali) Writes:-

Thanks for your blog and all that is shown on it.

Memories……so many for such a short space of time.

I went to Chancellor Junior School…1963/4
and Umtali Boys High….1965/9.

Would really like to touch bases with any of my old class mates of the period who may subscribe to your blog.

Yours sincerely

At 5 March 2013 at 21:54 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Edelweiss Krige (nee Smith – Freestone) Writes:-

Just to let you know that my grandfather was with the Moodie trek and married one of the Moodie girls. I believe that he originated from Scotland and when the Prince of Wales came out to Rhodesia in the early 20s specially asked to see him. He was given a farm in Salisbury which can be seen from the airport. Thanks for all the info.

At 6 March 2013 at 09:20 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Nick Baalbergen (Intaf) Writes:-

An area with an interesting early history. Like the Umtali/Penhalonga areas, the Gazaland area was claimed by the Portuguese as part of their colonial territory, over which they claimed a sphere of influence. With the settlement of Mashonaland by the BSA Company, this eastern area became a source of contention. Both the BSA Company and the Portuguese colonial authorities laid claim to the entire eastern area on behalf of their respective countries.

Rhodes recruited potential settlers from within the predominantly Afrikaans community of the Orange Free State, led by Thomas Moodie, who although of Scottish ancestry, had intergrated into the farming community. This set the tone for subsequent treks to the area which would be known as 'Gazaland'.

I was based at Chipinga (later corrected to 'Chipinge') in the late 1970's. Sadly the prevailing security situation did not lend itself to carefree exploration of this beautiful area, although I knew it pretty well from earlier in the 1970's.

The area was important for coffee growing. My father sourced raw coffee beans from the area which he processed into roast coffee products. The Cashel Valley was of course synonymous with vegetable cultivation and a range of canned vegetable products. A group of local farmers formed the independent Gazaland cheese factory, which produced the best cheddar cheese I had tasted. Sadly it was amagamated into the Dairy Marketing Board, resulting in the loss of its unique range of cheeses.

When the first road linking Fort Victoria to Umtali was being planned, much of the route surveyed for the proposed road, followed Thomas Moodie's original route. Prior to the construction of Birchenough Bridge over the Sabi River, the crossing point was 'Moodie's Drift', the original crossing used by Thomas Moodie.

At 9 March 2013 at 21:12 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3 December 2018 at 03:18 , Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for a well written memorial to the Moodie Trek and Manicaland. I was with the Ministry of Agriculture in Umtali from the mid 70's to the mid 80's. This is a history that has many poignant memories of my travels to Melsetter, Chipinga, etc. Thank you for recording this history. Tom Schaaf

At 4 August 2021 at 22:39 , Blogger Monty Uys said...

I wonder if Dirk Cornelius Uys & Wife Judith Magdalena Uys (nee Meyer) were part of the Moodie pioneers or part of those who came later ? What I do know their Son Pieter Johannes Uys was born 1891 at Paradise Farm Orange Free State Vrede & next child Anna (Annie) Christina Elizabeth Uys was born in Melsetter in 1899.


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