My new Findo Gask and Errol Rait mystery adventure will be released on Amazon this December 1st. at

As a teaser, here is the opening of the book. 

Melbourne, 1868

Years before I began taking notes on the case to which I refer here, the British Empire was in its formative stages and in the 1830s, southern Africa and the continent of Australia were raw colonies.  One colony had developed after the invasion and colonisation of the Cape following the Napoleonic wars and the other as a result of the transportation policy followed by the British government after the American colonies had been lost.

Each colony grew in its own unique way, attracting those who wished to build a better life and some who were given no choice but to take up residence in a new land.  But in many ways, there was a commonality, the land and the environment breeding a tough, independent population that came into conflict with the indigenous natives and with the British governors with many a sad story, and tales of triumph, too, as a result.

While thousands of miles apart, there is many a story that links the two colonies and, as I and my friend and colleague Errol Rait discovered in what I have entitled the Case of the Wandering Corpse, the one can impact the other in unexpected ways.

I start this story by going back to southern Africa in 1838 where two of the protagonists make their bow.

F. Gask, Major, retd.


Zululand, South Africa – February, 1838

A horseman looked out across a vast, fertile land towards the Drakensberg mountains of Natal.  At 57 years of age, he had become a relatively wealthy man and a leader of men and now he looked to bring to a conclusion his search for land on which to establish an independent Boer homeland free from British rule.  In his mind vague comparisons with Moses reaching the promised land flitted by.  He looked well-suited to the terrain, a lithe, compact figure wearing a broad-brimmed hat, dusty clothes and riding boots.

He sat easily on his horse, taking in the scene.  His hair was well-groomed with sideburns and a trimmed black beard that encircled his chin, clean shaven under his lower lip.  A neat moustache finished at the ends of his mouth, not touching the beard, and his eyes were piercing in their intensity.  This was Piet Retief, the leader of this group of Boers.

Night had fallen and the air was fresh and warm with the heat of the dying day. A mile away, two black Zulus approached a stack of logs and thatch, each carrying a torch that left invisible trails of smoke in the darkness as they moved.  They thrust their torches into the anxious pyre and it leapt to life, hungrily devouring dry twigs and leaves, crackling and sparking as the flames roared.

About 25 yards away, the King of the Zulus, Dingaan sat in all his pomp and circumstance at the head of a large ring of seated elders and warriors looking onto an open ‘parade ground’ where a body of warriors were now filing.  He had a witch doctor to his left – a shrunken, wizened, ancient man with bones in his hair – his captains at his back and his Great Wife to his right.  Around the open centre ground ranged hundreds of beehive-shaped huts, home to the Zulu at this ‘place of the elephant’, UmGungundlovu for the night’s events.  Perhaps 2,000 Zulus looked on, maybe more.  They were a savage, impressive sight.

Dingaan’s greased, black skin reflected the light of the fires that had been lit soon after night had fallen, their flames piercing the utter blackness of the night, relieved in part by the silvery moon rising in the night sky.  The crackle of logs being consumed by the devouring blaze of frenzied flames could be heard in the background as the conversation and general noise of the gathering rose and fell.

Dingaan was an imposing figure, a muscular man, although his belly was now showing the signs of excess.  He wore a leopard’s skin around his waist and beaded armlets, the traditional intricate patterns signalling his strength and power.  Over his shoulders hung a beaded cross-belt; blue, white and yellow, and around his neck a multi-ringed, beaded choker set him apart from lesser mortals.  He had a square face with an almost permanent scowl and around his forehead he wore a beaded band with a semi-precious blue jewel in the centre.  He wore his black hair short apart from a top knot that was encircled by yellow and blue feathers.

Dingaan was not a man to be trifled with, he had assumed the title of King by killing his predecessor, his half-brother, the great, feared Shaka, and as a result and because of his unpredictability and untrammelled authority over life and death, no-one ever felt totally comfortable in his presence.  He was deemed immortal, one who was neither born, nor would ever die. When asked when his reign started, his subjects would reply “hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”

Into this impressive setting, Piet Retief arrived with his men and their servants, a body about 100 strong in all.  As the Boers entered the Royal Kraal, they were instructed to lay down their arms – normal protocol when appearing before the king and a protocol that had been observed for centuries in European courts so it was not totally unexpected by Retief.

Despite some of his men protesting, Retief ordered them to comply as he didn’t want to jeopardise the agreement that they had worked so hard to obtain.  He was welcomed by Dingaan and given a place of honour with his men to the right of the King’s party.

As he squatted down with his men around him, he took in the scene.  He thought that Dingaan looked the part; a ‘noble’ savage, all-powerful in his kraal. Strangely he reminded him of a black version of a prize fighter with his muscled body and pugnacious face.  Even though Dingaan had welcomed them warmly, this was a strange place to the Boers and the massing of Zulu warriors meant that he could not suppress a feeling in his bones of impending trouble.

As he waited for the celebrations to begin, Retief reflected on what had brought him to this point. About two years earlier he had led thousands of Boer trekkers from the British-controlled Cape colony, across the untraveled Dragon Mountain, the Drakensburg to the north-east of the colony, seeking new land where they could be free.  He had explained himself in a letter that he had written to the British governor in Grahamstown:

“We despair of saving the colony from those evils which threaten it by the turbulent and dishonest conduct of native vagrants who are allowed to infest the country in every part; nor do we see any prospect of peace or happiness for our children in a country thus distracted by internal commotions.

“We complain of the continual system of plunder which we have for years endured from the Kaffirs and other coloured classes, and particularly by the last invasion of the colony, which has desolated the frontier districts and ruined most of the inhabitants.

“We complain of the unjustifiable odium which has been cast upon us by interested and dishonest persons under the name of religion, whose testimony is believed in England, to the exclusion of all evidence in our favour, and we can foresee as a result of this prejudice nothing but the total ruin of the country.

“We are now leaving the fruitful land of our birth, in which we have suffered enormous losses and continual vexations, and are about to enter a strange and dangerous territory; but we go with a firm reliance on an all-seeing, just, and merciful God, whom we shall always fear and humbly endeavour to obey.”

In his party were men, women and children (including Paul Kruger, a boy of 10 years of age who was destined for great things later in life), Jan Pienaar, a 15 year old orphan and 25 years’ old, Willem Nel, of whom we shall hear later, were also part of this emigrant group.  After many skirmishes with the natives, they reached Port Natal where they were welcomed by about 60 British settlers who had established themselves on the edge of Zululand as a self-governing enclave. They had been welcomed on the whole because they added to the quasi-military capability needed to defend the settlers from native predations.

The Boers realised that if they were to settle peaceably in this fertile land they would need to come to terms with their neighbours, the war-like native Zulus, whose chief was Dingaan, so Retief had negotiated an agreement to settle on land between the Tugela River in the north and the Umzimvubu river in the south on condition that Retief and his men retrieve 700 head of cattle stolen from Dingaan by a rival, Sikyonela, the Tlokwa chief.  The raid had been a success, so much so that they had also seized additional horses, guns and cattle from Sikyonela beyond what had been stolen from Dingaan.

Dingaan had welcomed the returning raiding party with open arms and after several meetings to scope out terms in detail, he had agreed that the Boers could settle on territory from the Tugela to the Umzimvubu, from the Dragon Mountain to the sea, a large territory in the south of Zululand.  In retrospect it was hardly a fair exchange but men can fool themselves if they want something desperately enough…..

In the course of these discussions, Dingaan found out that Retief had also recovered more than the stolen cattle and he had demanded that this be handed over too – which Retief had refused to do, arguing the this was not what had been agreed.

After a heated exchange and much debate, Dingaan had apparently accepted the situation and, after the agreement had been hammered out, in a show of goodwill, he invited Retief and his men to this farewell celebration.

Which brought Retief back to the present.

Seated around the open ground to the side of the Royal party, Retief and his Boers waited for the next step in the evening’s celebrations.  About 100 warriors formed up in the middle of the open ground.  They were an impressive body of men.  Black, muscled torsos gleaming as the light of the fires shone on them.  They were barefooted and wore loin skins.  Their bodies were embellished with head-rings, ceremonial belts, ankle rattles and they carried lozenge-shaped, black and white cowhide-covered shields, iwisa (a wooden club with a large, heavy knob at one end) or iklwa, the short stabbing spear introduced to the Zulus by Shaka (so called because of the sound it made as it both entered the body and as it was pulled out after the killing blow).

Behind them the izigubhu began to beat, angry, insistent, deep, powerful blows on the drums urging the dancers on.  The indlamu, a dance intended to imitate the frenzy and thrill of going into battle, had begun.

The men moved in unison, forming three straight lines, advancing and retreating, then lifting one leg as high their shoulders then, as one, they hammered them down to the ground, throwing dust in the air and shuddering the earth with reverberations that reached all looking on, including Retief and his men; a spine-tingling physical impact that was impossible to ignore.

They repeated the stomping with both feet, stabbing imaginary enemies with their iklwa in sharp, vigorous motions.  After a minute or so, they fell on their backs before standing up again and continuing the aggressive ‘dancing’.  The drums thundered and war-like cries and whistles showered the night air. Again and again the earth shook with the power of the choreographed stomping and the tense air vibrated like a taut wire with each beat of the izigubhu.

Then.  Suddenly. The drums stopped beating and the line of warriors froze, the whites of their wide eyes piercing the night, shields protecting their left arms, iklwa in their right hands.  Bodies quivering, breathing deep. The drumming stopped and silence fell on the kraal.

Dingaan suddenly stood up and into the hushed night air cried out, “Bulalani abathakathi”. With this pre-arranged signal, his warriors immediately advanced on and surrounded the Boers, defenceless apart from some who carried knives.  One of the Boers threw a punch at a warrior who pushed him to get him to move and, for his trouble was unceremoniously clubbed to the ground with an iwisa. Unconscious, he was picked up by two warriors who carried him behind the melee. The others had their hands bound with thongs.

Retief, his son, men, and servants, about 100 people in all, were herded by the overwhelming force of Zulus in a shuffling, disorganised rabble out of the kraal towards a nearby hillside, called Kwa-Matiwane by the Zulus. The noise of triumphant Zulu voices and the renewed drumming began to sound like an orchestral climax.

“What are they going to do with us?” one of the younger Boers asked of Retief, the fear shaking his voice.

“I don’t know, my friend but in God we must place our trust” he replied.

The armed Zulus, stirred up and energised by the sounds, sights and emotions that they had just witnessed, pressed the Boers and their servants forward until eventually they had reached the summit of Kwa-Matiwane.  Retief and his entourage turned to face the threatening horde who outnumbered the defenceless Boers 10-1 and surrounded them.  They stood, hands tied, helplessly dreading, anticipating what was to come.

“What is this?” Retief called out to Dingaan, “We came in peace and have done what we agreed”

Dingaan raised his hand and, with a grim scowl on his pugnacious face shouted back, “Bulala amadimoni amhlophe”……………………


BUY from Amazon 1st December 2023