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Dick King's 600-Mile Ride

A young Englishman, hunter and wagoner rode
600 miles in ten days on one horse - to get help.


One of the longest endurance rides in recorded history was made during the winter month of May in 1842 in Natal, South Africa.  Dick King, a young Englishman, hunter, and wagoner, rode an endurance ride to begin all endurance rides - 600 miles, 10 days, 1 horse.

King did not ride for money, he did not ride for a bucks, he did not ride for the fun of it, and he did not ride to see the country.  He rode for help - alone for 400 of the 600 miles.  He swam more than 100 rivers which were invested with crocodiles;  rode over the great and beautiful Drakensburg Mountains; through the territory of the murdering, plundering Zulus; across unexplored country;  and along timber trails through the bush where the elephants, leopards and baboons played.  He rode carrying a pistol, blanket, biscuits, and biltong.

The Englishman didn't win a buckle or money, but did earn a niche in the history of South Africa and a magnificent equestrian statue commemorating his ride, which now stands in the centre of Durban, South Africa, on the bay shore.  The figure is large and his ride was one of the greatest on record.

In 1842 some Boers had trekked up and over the Drakensburg Mountains and were grazing their cattle in the area which is now Durban and was at that time considered by the British to be their own territory.  The Boers didn't agree with the British and continued to roam the area until the Cape government sent up Captain Smith and a small contingent of men to enforce the demands.  Captain Smith's force could not hold the fort and was about to be overrun when they called for help.

The call, however, had to carry 600 miles, for that was the distance to the nearest centre that could send relief.  The centre, in Grahamstown, had to be contacted immediately, and Dick King was chosen to make the ride.

On that night, May 25, 1843, Dick King was asleep on the ship Mazeppa, which was in the roadstead at Durban.  About midnight, Joseph Cato and his brother awakened King and told him of the precarious situation confronting the British and the need for relief if Captain Smith was to hold the fort.

King, who could speak various native dialects and knew the route after driving wagons over it several times, agreed to start immediately with his native servant NaGenjo.  Cato secured two horses, a white and a bay;  and, loading Dick and his servant in a rowboat, rowed them across the bay towing the two swimming horses.

Years later, NaGenjo recalled the start of the ride:

"Dick handed me a pistol for use in case of attack.  He, too, carried one.  King wore a large beard, had on a coat, shirt, and long trousers, spurs, a somewhat broad-brimmed sand-coloured hat, pistol on side, hold-all strapped to saddle in front, and held in his hand a double rein, and carried no whip.

"We came to the Mgaze River, not many yards from where it enters the sea.  Dick dismounted, took off everything except his shirt, and handed the things to me to carry on my head.  As we plunged into the water, which was high on account of the tide, it seemed in the dark as if we were crossing a river in flood.  Dick, regardless of crocodiles, swam in his shirt, leading both his and my horse.  Being unable to swim, I remained mounted clutching to my horse's mane.  King was a man absolutely brave and fearless.  He feared neither lions on land nor crocodiles in water."

NaGenjo rode 200 miles with King, on a saddle without stirrups and "my legs had well night been jerked from their sockets.  Both literally dangled on either side of the horse.  I had lost all power over them.  Dick, seeing I was likely to become an encumbrance, returned me to the camp at Mgaze and he pushed on."

But what kind of a horse was Somerset, Dick King's charger?  With no conditioning whatsoever, he was being asked to travel over 600 miles.  He had not had weeks of conditioning, or a month, or a year - which some people feel is necessary for our modern 100-mile endurance rides.  According to the records, Somerset went the full 600 miles in ten days, with no conditioning whatsoever.

Somerset was originally owned by a retired English officer who described the horse as being "steady as a rock and a good hunter."  This officer traded Somerset for a small piece of land to a party of trekking Boers led by Jan Hofmeyr, who was headed for the Drakensburgs and Natal.

The story runs that "Somerset stood fifteen hands, was a bay (there are differences of opinion here) with black points, skin of gold, kind of satin (sounds like a palomino) sleek, whether groomed or ungroomed.   His forequarters were shaded with dark stripes like the marks of a zebra, and a band of black on the back extended from shoulder to croup (sounds like a dun or buckskin).

"He had never been shod, but had hoofs of steel, his withers sloped, and his back was short.  He was close-coupled and well ribbed-up.  His head was small, like an Arab's;  ears short, supported by a long arched neck;  eyes full of fire, but mild;  knees wide and flat.  Chest broad, girth deep, with rounded flanks, hocks well under, forelegs straight.  (Endurance riders take note:  this is a prefect profile for a long-distance endurance horse.)  The golden bay had received the best education in the military riding school and was as docile as any pet."

According to the story, "When the British re-occupied Natal, Hofmeyr loaned Somerset to a Boer friend.  The English at Durban noticed the horse at several meetings of British and Boers, and remarked what a fine animal he was.  So far did admiration go that a 'Grjqua' from the Cape made up his mind to steal Somerset and one dark night he entered a Boer laager at the Congella, moved about as if he were one of the 'Wachter Rujters' and quietly untied the reins and brought Somerset into the British camp.

Well, that is the kind of horse Somerset turned out to be.  There are more than 100 rivers between Durban and Grahamstown;  there were many tribes of savages on the route and some of these tribes were known for their murdering and plundering ways.  King evidently escaped the Boers at Umkomaas, but was attacked by a native tribe below the Umzjmcucu River.  He was, however, able to escape them and, swimming the rivers, rode steadily on, pausing only occasionally at missionary stations on the route.

Riding alone after the first 200 miles, King covered the remaining 400 in seven days.  It took ten days in all, two days of which King was too sick to travel.  He averaged 75 miles a day in actual riding time.

Dick King didn't win a buckle, but the garrison at Durban was saved, and the government rewarded Dick for this most remarkable endurance ride with the princely sum of 15 pounds sterling!

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