The Lost Valley and the Lost White Tribe

Sonja Brown

© Copyright 2023 by Sonja Brown

Photo courtesy of the author
My father, Andrew, was on a visit to his home in the 1960s.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Something inside me yearned for a lost place, an emerald green valley, lush and secluded, secretive, peaceful, and unreachable. Such a valley is a place in the Northern Drakensberg, and it is called The Lost Valley. That is where I traveled earlier this year.

Have you heard of The White Tribe? They lived in extremely primitive circumstances in the mountains of Kwazulu Natal in South Africa up until the mid-1950s. Their history stretches back 150 years. This is an old story that has survived a few generations in our South African family.

 The story goes that after Piet Retief and a large party of followers passed over the mountain pass now known as The Retief Pass, five families decided to stay. They refused to be ruled by the British who had annexed Natal in 1843, and chose to make the valley in the mountains their home instead.

Dwellings were built with straw and cow dung, a fragrant application to waterproof their rondavels. It also insulated the huts from the hot South African sun. Roofs were thatched with the abundant perennial grass that grows in the area, and water was carried from the Tugela River.

For light, candles were made of tallow and beeswax. They kept several goats, sheep, a donkey, and chickens for food and later planted fruit trees.

Daily chores were essential for survival.
Photo courtesy of the author.
The wattle and daub house that was first built.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Children were taught the rudimentary of reading and writing by those who could, but further education was deemed unnecessary.

Afraid of being butchered by the British and Zulus, they kept to themselves and eventually learned to speak Zulu. Shared hardships forged firm friendships between white and black families. Adverse conditions and harsh circumstances ensured that ebony and ivory lived together in friendship and harmony for many years.

My father grew up in this green, fertile land. He, his illiterate mother, and six sisters lived in one of those wattle and daub rondavels without running water. He was born on a kitchen table, and so were the six sisters who came after him. By the time the seventh baby was born, my grandfather had disappeared to Italy to join the Second WW.

The families of what became known as The White Tribe lived undisturbed until they were re-discovered by a Rand Daily Mail journalist in the 1950s. By then segregation of races was sanctioned by law and Daniel F. Malan gave it a name, Apartheid. The Population Registration Act of 1950 made it compulsory for races to be classified as Bantu, Coloured, or White, and the Group Areas Act of 1950 made it illegal for members of different races to live or do business in the same area.

That white people lived in the mountains with the indigenous people was unpalatable to the British colonists. That the childrenís home language was Zulu must have been especially jarring to their constitution.

After threats of legal action, parents were compelled to find a way to send their children to school. It was a daunting prospect and an undertaking that was not easily accomplished.

My father, as the eldest, and a boy, was chosen to go to school first. Mrs. van Heer owned a boarding-house in the nearest town of Geluksburg, Lucky Mountain, that lay at the foot of the mountains. It was decided that he would live with her during the week. As The Lost Valley was inaccessible by car, he would travel by donkey on Sunday evenings and back over the mountains again on Fridays.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Andrew as a young boy in the outfit his father eventually bought him.  Photo courtesy of the author.

First, he had to learn Afrikaans, one of the two compulsory school languages of the white establishment at the time. For weeks on end, he was made to stand on the kitchen table to point at objects saying, Tafel, stoel, vuur, huis, etc.

He arrived at the Afrikaans school without a uniform, older than his peers, and speaking broken Afrikaans. He was quickly labelled as a Poor White and bullied relentlessly.

His teacher must have seen this as an opportunity to let her Calvinistic upbringing shine and so collected money to buy him a school uniform. One bright morning he was called to stand in front of the school assembly. The uniform, with brand-new shoes, was presented to him, the Poor White. He waited until the last school bell rang, and stuffed it under a rock next to the side of the road where the lei water, irrigation water, later carried it away.

He went to school barefoot on the back of a donkey, wearing his worn-out clothes and worn-out hat, even though he later received a special outfit from his father. In defiance of the bullies, he was happy to be known as the barefoot poor white boy from The Lost Valley. He was a proud boy.

My father never lost his love for the Zulu language and people. He later became a diplomat and took his family to Washington DC where we hobnobbed with politicians and famous people, but thatís a fascinating story for another time.

One of the only reminders of The White Tribe who lived in harmony with a proud Zulu tribe in The Lost Valley is a suspension bridge. It is the only way to get there unless you own a quad bike, a horse, a donkey, or the like. It serves as a reminder and perhaps an invitation to understanding, tolerance, and harmony, and it is still in working order.

You can visit this remarkable place In KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. It lies at the bottom of Retiefís Pass close to a statue of Die Kaalvoet Vrou, The Barefoot Woman. She is the woman who met with the leader, Retief, who led the group of immigrants who settled in Pietermaritzburg. She told him in no uncertain terms that they and their families would rather die than live in the then-hated British government-run Province of Port Natal.

The last living member of The White Tribe died only a few years ago.



Sonja Brown (nee Campbell-Gillies) lives and works in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. She is a private writer, and artist and works from home.

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