Monday, May 24, 2010

Great Karoo

Burchell page references are given in (volume:page) format.

Burchell teamed up with two missionaries from Klaarwater (now Griekwastad) who had been in Cape Town. The Karoo up to the Sak river was occupied by trekboers in summer but beyond the Sak it was San (bushman) territory. The trekboers and San were in contest for the resources which I discuss in some detail in my ride report about the Sak river.

The missionaries persuaded Burchell to delay his departure by seven months (1:i10) as they were very afraid of being attacked by the San and wanted him with them as he had guns and plenty of gunpowder. There was also a report that a band of 500 disaffected Xhosa was planning to ambush them in the Kareeberg (1:64 1:185 1:223 1:227 1:268). They all met up at the Riet river between present day Sutherland and Fraseburg (1:265). The party was 97 all together in 8 wagons. The route they took across the Great Karoo has become the road from Sutherland to Prieska.

The Xhosa party was waiting for them at the Riet rendezvous point – 5 males & 5 women! This is an example of how small pieces of information became distorted out of all proportion – there is another classic case where Graaff-Reinet was placed on a war footing as it expected to be invaded by 300 Klaarwater Hottentots led by a white man (2:136). The party was, in fact, Burchell plus 6 Klaarwater basters, a San youth & a Tswana man (2:15). Such was the suspicion, false information, exaggeration and paranoia amoungst an ill informed community. They did meet up with San in their journey across the Karoo but they were assisted by them.

I will let Burchell tell you about the Xhosas in this long extract (1:268)

Besides these Hottentots, a party of five Caffres, and their wives, were resting here. These men were not less than six feet in height, strong and finely proportioned; and, excepting a leathern kaross, wore no covering whatever; a circumstance, as far as I have since been able to learn, quite peculiar to the Kosas, or Caffres on the eastern side of the colony. Their bodies and cloaks were reddened all over with ochre mixed up with grease. They accosted us in an easy manly tone, and with manners perfectly free from servile timidity. These, with seven others left on the Sack River, had come from their kraal on the Gariep, for the purpose, as they stated, of bartering in the colony for tobacco; and begged the missionaries to give them a letter to the Veldcornet Maritz which however was very properly refused. We were rather surprised at so unexpected a rencontre with some of the very men on whose account so much uneasiness had been felt, and could not avoid suspecting them of being sent as spies to discover the strength of our party. We taxed them with the intention of attacking and robbing us in the Bushman country; and threatened them on our part with a warm reception, if they thought proper to make the attempt. But whether the report we had heard to this effect was really unfounded, or whether, seeing our caravan so strong, they thought it prudent to relinquish the plan, or to dissemble, they now affected the greatest submission, and the most friendly disposition. They protested vehemently against the falsity of what had been reported to us, and attributed it to the malice and jealousy of the Bushmen, with whom they had long been on hostile terms, and who, in a recent skirmish, had killed their chief, one of Sambie's brothers ; in consequence of which their whole kraal had meditated a return to their own country, or at least as far as the borders of Bruyntjes Hoogte. They assumed a canting good-natured tone of voice, and were the most importunate beggars I had ever met with; soliciting for tobacco, or whatever else they saw which they thought would be useful; complaining also that their wives' heads were uncovered, and much required a handkerchief to protect them from the sun. It was impossible to avoid their importunities, except by granting what they asked for; and at last we got rid of them, by giving three legs of mutton, a handkerchief for each, and a quantity of tobacco, enough for them and their wives. I purchased of one of these men, for a handkerchief, a very neat basket, wove with rushes so admirably close, that they are always used for holding milk or other liquids. He was careful not to let this opportunity pass, without begging for something; and first requested to have some brandy, which being refused, he immediately asked for money to buy some; for these people are shrewd enough to understand very well the nature and use of the Cape money. Two of them could speak Dutch very readily; and the principal one, with a polite and friendly air, that I little expected in a savage, if such a term could properly be applied to him, gently raised my hand to his lips on taking leave, and expressed at the same time the warmest acknowledgments of gratitude for the presents I had made them. After this they quietly retired to their fire at the other side of a rising ground, about two hundred yards distant, where they passed the night.

The missionaries were terrified of beggars it seems. But notice this was 200 years ago and already some of them could speak Dutch, were living on the Gariep river and travelling to the Cape – very different from the history promoted by the previous regime.

Having come through Karoo Poort there is a wide open plain between the Tankwa Karoo to the left and the Moordenaars Karoo on the right; Burchell calls it the Bokkeveld-Karoo but map #3220 has no name in that region. I would think the veld is still the same as when Burchell passed – nice easy country for ox wagons. Today the pass to Sutherland goes up the escarpment ahead and that is also where Burchell went.

That is a tar road and I wanted to see the next pass to the east; Komsberg Pass. I have done both Gannaga and Ouberg (a real favourite of mine) to the north-west. All these passes were used by the trekboers to take their flocks up to the Roggeveld in summer and back down to the Bokkeveld in winter. Komsberg pass is nothing like the spectacular other two; it goes up where the slope is much less steep as shown in the next picture.

I wanted to see Salpeterkop. It is the last active volcano in Southern Africa but that was 66 million years ago. Several Sutherland sites have Southern Hemisphere in place of Southern Africa – right now there are active volcanoes in New Zealand. *More info here*. This is as close as I got; I had not programmed the road into my GPS & could not find the turnoff.

This is a boer’s house (actually he was the local veldcornet). The man with the gun is a khoi (Hottentot) shepherd. Burchell noted that they were always armed as protection against both the wild animals & the San (Bushmen) (1:237). I wrote a long ride report about the Sak river where I discussed the contest between the trekboers & the San.

Here is a picture of a slightly upgraded version.

Those are fat tailed sheep in the Burchell engraving; the sheep of the Khoi that had originated on the Arabian peninsula and slowly spread across Africa. The trekboers farmed them too; when Burchell was here the merino sheep were just starting to be adopted by the most progressive local farmers. The first merinos had arrived 13 years previously in 1739 but it was not until the second British occupation in 1805 that the merinos really got going. Later in the trip I saw this fat tailed sheep right at Heuningvlei. *Good info on sheep in SA* Later in this post there will be a picture that includes a San dog which also looks just the same as the dog in the engraving.

One of the prime uses of fat tailed sheep was to make soap. Here is an extract from Burchell (2.113). Note that the fat in the tail was worth the same, if not more, than the rest of the sheep & it could be accumulated during the year for easy transport to Cape Town. It also shows the elegant uncomplicated writing of Burchell.

Not even the butcher's man, or slagters knegt , ever made his appearance at this distant farm; although the owner possessed a flock of not less than four thousand sheep; and many of his neighbours, not less than six. Still, however, the rearing of cattle was their chief means of subsistence : the family, with their slaves and Hottentots, being fed with mutton at every meal, caused a daily consumption of two sheep, the fat of which was considered almost equal in value to the rest of the carcass, by being, manufactured into soap. It was, as they informed me, more profitable to kill their sheep, for this purpose only, than to sell them to the butchers at so low a price as a rix-dollar or less, and even so low as five schillings. Formerly the alkali necessary for this manufacture, was obtained here from the Ganna (or Kanna-) bosch ; but that being at length, all consumed through a constant demand for it, another species of Salsola growing wild growing in many parts of the country, was taken as a substitute, and found to be even preferable to the ganna. In the house, I saw a great number of cakes of this soap, piled up to harden, ready for their next annual journey to Cape Town ; whither they go, not merely for the purpose of selling it, but of purchasing clothing and such other articles as are not to be had in the country districts, but at an exorbitant price.

In Graaff-Reinet I saw this soap cauldron.

They are surprisingly big; at the Reinet Museum.

Candles were also made from that fat. We are familiar with candles made of paraffin wax so it came as a surprise to me to learn that animal fat candles stink as they burn and make the whole place dirty. *Source*

From Sutherland I took the nice gravel highway to Fraserburg (tar as far as the observatory) for the night. I enjoy cruising Karoo highways.

There is this small building called the Peperbus built in 1861 as an office for the predekant. Why it was so small is a mystery to me, and why did he need a bell above his office? I enjoy folly buildings like this. It is hexagonal though that is not apparent in this picture.

If you go into the back streets (there are not many) you will find a town that has not been re-developed so the buildings are still as they were 50 or more years ago. It is becoming more and more difficult to see what our towns used to look like. Not spectacular but that represents what a small country town used to look like – single story houses with a stoep directly onto the street. Many with flat roofs in the Karoo.

I crossed the Sak river. This is my second trans Karoo trip; on the previous one I went up the map from bottom right to top left, this time I am going bottom left to top right. My Sak river ride report is *here*.

I did not know where the Sak River Mission of Kicherer was when I did that trip. From the Burchell book I learned exactly where it is (slightly downstream from here close to Kerkplaas farm). I made a mental note to look for the turning but missed it. Many of the red dashed roads on the 1:250 000 maps look exactly like private farm roads. I have now learned that you have to program them into your Zumo route as named waypoints if you want to be sure of finding them.

Burchell has this picture of their camp alongside the Sak river. It is a big three page fold out landscape picture. My photo of it can not show the detail that is in the full sized original.

I forgot about this painting so failed to take a matching photo. This is close by but after crossing the Sak.

Now we really are in the Great Karoo – the part where they were going to come across the fierce San. It still looks the same as when Burchell came through except I hear it takes 30 years for the vegetation to really recover from sheep grazing – for the tastiest plants to reappear.

Some of the smaller roads were fun.

A donkey karretjie had been down here some time before me.

They did come across the ‘threatening’ San. Burchell describes the meeting thus (1:292):

Hitherto, we had not seen a single native; a circumstance occasioned, most probably, by their universal distrust of all strange visitors from out of the Colony. But having, by their spies and observations, satisfied themselves that we were friends, a party of eleven Bushmen, with three women, paid us a visit this morning. They were, in stature, all below five feet; and the women still shorter; their skin was of a sallow brown colour, much darkened by dirt and grease. Their clothing appeared, in my eyes, wretched in the extreme; but, doubtless, not so to them, as they all seemed contented enough; although, when we first met, I observed in their looks great mistrust, and symptoms of much fear. These gradually wore off; and, after we had confirmed the assurances of our peaceable intentions, by presents of tobacco and beads, they recovered their natural tone, and chattered and clacked with each other in a very lively manner. Among them, were some young men, whom, with all the remains of ancient prejudices, I could not help viewing as interesting. Though small, and delicately made, they appeared firm and hardy; and my attention was forcibly struck by the proportional smallness, and neatness of their hands and feet. This conformation is common (perhaps in Africa, peculiar,) to all the Hottentot race. The women were young; their countenances had a cast of prettiness, and, I fancied, too, of innocence: their manners were modest, though unreserved. Their hair was ornamented with small Cowry shells*, and old copper buttons, which were interwoven with it. One of them wore a high cap of leather, the edge of which protected her eyes from the sun: at her back, and, entirely hid excepting the head, she carried her infant, whose exceedingly small features presented to me an amusing novelty. The poor little thing bore all the rough jolting motion, with a degree of patience and unconcern which plainly showed it to have been used to it from the day of its birth. * Cyprwa moneta. Linn. These shells are not the natural produce of this part of Africa, but have been passed on from one tribe to another, in the course of barter.

Remember that the missionaries were almost terrified of these people yet Burchell writes of their ‘great mistrust, and symptoms of much fear’. Burchell arranged for some of the San to guide them to water until they reached the Gariep (1:292). I particularly wanted to find the first waterhole they were guided to. Here is Burchell’s description (1:294):

By an observation at noon, the latitude of the Bushman Rock Fountain was ascertained to be 31' 0' 38". S I was descending alone to view the spring, the value of which I had heard our people so much extol, as affording the traveller a never-failing supply, when one of the Hottentots called out, advising me to take my gun, lest, seeing me unarmed, some evil-disposed native might be tempted to attack or rob me. He remarked very prudently, and, I believed, properly, that it is safe always to suspect that such men are lurking behind every bush or crag of rock, ready to let fly a poisoned arrow on the unsuspecting passenger. I returned for my gun, resolving to keep his advice in memory; and I now impart it, with serious recommendation, to all who may hereafter find themselves in similar circumstances. The water lay in a large rocky basin, or reservoir, at the head of a ravine walled on either side by a precipice of sandstone rocks, the upper end forming a romantic natural amphitheatre, out of the sides of which, and from the clefts of the stone, grew a few green shrubs to decorate this singular scene. At the head of this ravine, a strong stream, in the rainy season, pours down the precipice into the basin, and, overflowing the reservoir, runs through the interstices of large blocks of stone, down into the valley below. In approaching the spot, I heard a number of voices, the sound of which, reverberating from the walls, discovered, to me two Bushmen and three women: the latter had their children at their backs. They proved to be of friendly tribe, and belonging to a family or party of twelve, who had come from a neighbouring kraal to pay us a visit. What they said to me as I advanced towards them, I was unable to guess, being alone, and understanding nothing of their language. I felt, however, so much confidence in their good intentions, that I sat myself down on one of the large stones, and made a sketch of the spot, in which I inserted them exactly in the attitudes and situation in which they were at the time; and was pleased at finding ready before my pencil such picturesque appendages to the landscape. This scene is represented in the fifth Plate.

I spent quite some time looking for this picture. Burchell gives the latitude; I thought the most likely place was north of the R63 where there is a river. I rode all along that river on farm roads but this is the closest to a rock pool that I found.

This is at S31° 02.393’ E21° 44.931’ which is within 2’ of the latitude Burchell gives. However McKay shows it as south of the road. There are two farms named Witfontein – one where I went & the other where McKay suggests. I went to Leeufontein farm on the other side and asked the farmer’s wife if she knew of anything like the picture. She does not; unfortunately her husband was away as he is third generation in the area. They have children so I would have thought that they would have been invited to swim there. It is a mystery as Burchell is very reliable. She gave me the names of two people to ask in Canarvon but I felt I really did not have the time available.

Burchell has this drawing of a San playing his
. Burchell had a flute with him which he played regularly. The Khoi & San much appreciated it. You will see that Burchell has notated the very complex sound and repetitive tune created. So add musician to the list of Burchell’s abilities.

The link above describes the Goura but I think Burchell’s is better (1:458).

…especially an old man, their chief, who was considered a good performer on the Gorah, an instrument of the greatest antiquity of all those which are now to be found in the hands of any tribe of the Hottentot race. Curious to see and to hear a genuine Hottentot musical instrument, I gave him to under¬stand that I wished him to bring it on the morrow, and give me a specimen of his playing ; to which he readily agreed. On the morrow he returned; bringing with him, not only his Gorah, ….. The Gorah, as to its appearance and form, may be more aptly compared to the bow of a violin, than to any other thing but, in its principle and use, it is quite different; being, in fact, that of a stringed, and a wind instrument combined: and thus it agrees with the Eolian harp. But with respect to the principle on which its different tones are produced, it may be classed with the trumpet, or French horn; while in the nature and quality of the sound which it gives, at least in the hands of one who is master of it, this strange instrument approaches to the violin. It consists merely of a slender stick, or bow, on which a string of catgut is strained. But to the lower end of this string, a flat piece, of about an inch and a half long, of the quill of an ostrich, is attached, so as to. constitute a part of the length of the string. This quill, being applied to the lips, is made to vibrate by strong inspirations, and expirations, of the breath ; each of which ending with an increased degree of strength, had always the effect of forcing out the upper octave ; exactly in the same way as produced on the flute, an instrument, therefore, which may be made to imitate the gorah sufficiently near to give some idea of it. The old musician, seating himself down on a flat piece of rock, and resting his elbows on his knees, putting one fore-finger into his ear, and the other into his wide nostril, either as it so happened, or for the purpose, it might be, of keeping the head steady, commenced his solo, and continued it with great earnestness, over and over again. The exertion which it required to bring out the tones loudly, was very evident; and, in his anxious haste to draw breath at every note, our Orpheus gave us into the bargain, intermingled with his music, certain grunting sounds which would have highly pleased the pigs; and, if any had been in the country, would indubitably have drawn them all round him, if only out of curiosity to know what was the matter. ......................... Plate 9. His dress, reddened by an ochraceous earth, consists only of a leathern kaross, which is of smaller dimensions than those customarily worn. Suspended from his neck, is a knife of African manufacture, such as are worn, in a similar manner, by all the tribes in the Interior. The horn of one of the smaller antelopes, hanging from the same place, serves the purpose of a snuff-box, or receptacle for powdered dakka, or hemp-leaves. Below the knee, a cord of acacia-bark was worn as an ornament. The sandals are such as form part of the aboriginal dress of all the natives of Southern Africa, with no other variation than in the mode of their being bound to the foot. In Bushmen who are a little advanced in life, the eye-lids are often so much closed as to conceal the whole of the eye-ball, and to leave an aperture but just sufficient for the sight, a circumstance which gives to such individuals, as in the present, the appearance of having their eyes shut; this they probably are obliged to do, to protect them from the glare of sunshine.

Should we add satirist or realist to the list of Burchell's attributes?

This painting of a San kraal comes from volume 2 when Burchell travelled down to Graaff-Reinet to recruit staff. It was north of where Britstown now is.

I include Burchell’s commentary on the picture (2:198).

* The huts represented in this plate, are constructed of mats (Vol. I. p. 114. 263.) made of rushes, in the manner shown in a former plate (pl. 7. Vol. I. p. 325.) and more particularly described in a preceding part of this volume. (p. 55. and 56.) The Bushmen of the Cisgariepine most commonly paint their mats lengthwise with stripes of red-ochre. The outermost figure on the left, will give an idea of the appearance of a Bushman as he is usually equipped for travelling, having his bow, quiver, hassagay and kirri. Before him is a representation of one of their dogs, (p. 56.) which are of a race perhaps peculiar to these tribes. Hassagays and sticks, when not in use, are most frequently stuck in the ground by the side of the hut. This plate exhibits, not only the particular view of the spot, but the ordinary appearance of a Bushman Kraal, and the genuine domestic state of its inhabitants, such as they are in their proper and original mode. In this picture, there¬fore, the number of figures and their occupations, are only those which are consistent with this intention, and have no reference to the unusual and busy scene which this kraal became in consequence of my arrival among these people. The nearest figure in the middle of the picture, is that of a man returning home from hunting, carrying a fawn or young antelope at his back. To the left of him, are two men, and a woman having her child in her arms, sitting in front of their hut, a very common manner of spending their time in fine weather: other parties of the same kind are seen at the other huts. Most of the figures have leathern caps of various forms according to the fancy of the maker or wearer. The outermost figure on the right is a man returning from the neighbouring spring with an ostrich-egg shell filled with water. On the left of him, and close to the hut in the fore¬ground, may be seen one of those sticks already described (p. 29.) as being loaded with a perforated globular stone for the purpose of digging up various eatable wild roots. The soil here is of a reddish colour, and scantily covered with herbage and low bushes.

We will again come across San settlements and warriors in this report so I want to add the following two pictures for reference while I am busy with them.

This picture is by Samuel Daniell (who I will introduce when we get to Litakun as his pictures of it were an important part of my quest). What looks like decorative headdresses worn by the men are actually their arrows. From Burchell’s commentary above it seems the quiver (koker) was only used when travelling though Daniell shows them doing both..

Here is another picture by F.Steeb at Graaff-Reinet 1813 showing a San with his arrows stored in the same way and some tucked under his jakhals (Burchell explains that the loin cloth is called the jakals (1:397))

I went to the ‘township’ at Canarvon because it is called Skietfontein - Burchell mentions the good spring there. It is not worth showing a photo of it. Blikkies bar in Canarvon for lunch is worth showing however.

There are two rooms panelled in pristine beer cans.

And a juke box that looks just like they did in my teenage years. I had the fortune to be exposed to an item of Afrikaans culture that I had seen derided on WD, someone played ‘Ek het ‘n tooter op my waterskooter’.

Besides the lovely Kareeberg in the background note the following: Burchell had a specially small wagon but it took eight oxen to draw it. At the front one of his team is riding one of the spare oxen (rest out of the picture) – riding an ox was quite usual, even by young girls. At the front is the voorleir leading the oxen. Look how long the whip is so that the driver can crack it next to exactly the ox he wants to gee up. At the back is the flock of perambulating supper – only to be used when they failed to shoot their supper.

This is what Burchell writes (1:293):

Daylight the next morning brought to view a desolate, wild, and singular landscape. From our station on the top of a steep descent, the mountains of the Karreebergen (Dry Mountains) appeared before us. The only colour we beheld was a sterile brown, softened into azure or purple in the distance: the eye sought in vain for some tint of verdure; nothing but rocks and stones lay scattered everywhere around. But that which rendered the view most remarkable, was the form of the mountains, presenting a multitude of flat, broad, level tops, and creating the idea of a congress of Table mountains. These were but a small part of the Karreebergen, a range which consists of an innumerable assemblage of mountains, all of this kind without exception, forming a belt across the country of from five to ten miles in breadth, and stretching out of sight on either hand, apparently in a north-westerly and south-easterly direction. Their extent is quite unknown, as they have never been traversed in any other part than that in which they were now crossed by us. I made a careful sketch of a portion of this view, including, in the foreground, a part of our caravan; the various groups of which always formed both picturesque and interesting objects.

I want to go back there and ‘traverse’ the whole length of that ‘ congress of Table mountains’. They appeal to me just as much as they did to Burchell. That is the poort through to Prieska which is why they had never ‘been traversed in any other part’.

Part of the caravan going across the Karoo.

Pretty much the same today.

There are lots of pictures like this in this post – that’s what the Karoo is like and I want to convey what Burchell experienced. It took them 38 days travelling to get from Karoo Poort to the Gariep.

After Canarvon there is a long gentle slope down to the Gariep river. Burchell only used the Gariep name – never Orange. I had a disturbed night in Fraserburg – it is one of those towns with dogs that bark to each other all night & the chief culprit was across the street from me. It was about 4 pm when I was in Canarvon, too early to stop but Prieska was too far to get to so I decided to stealth camp. There are very few gates in the fences along Karoo roads I realised when looking for this place. That night I was reminded of a memorable quote by Lucky Striker:

‘It is so tranquil in the Karoo that you hear the earth scraping against the sky’

– precisely.

Karelsgraf (1:301).

As we walked on, I enquired the story of Carel Krieger's fate. He was an indefatigable and fearless hunter; and, being also an excellent marksman, often ventured into the most dangerous situations. One day, near this spot, having with his party, pursued an elephant which he had wounded, the irritated animal suddenly turned round, and, singling out from the rest the person by whom he had been wounded, seized him with his trunk, and, lifting his wretched victim high in the air, dashed him with dreadful force to the ground. His companions, struck with horror, fled precipitately from the fatal scene, unable to turn their eyes to behold the rest of the tragedy. But on the following day they repaired to the spot, where they collected the few bones that could be found, and buried them near the spring. The enraged animal had not only trampled his body literally to pieces, but could not feel its vengeance satisfied till it had pounded the very flesh into the dust, so that nothing of this unfortunate man remained, excepting a few of the larger bones. Such is the sad story, as it was related to me on the spot where it happened.

Since there is a spring there now there is a farmstead called Karelsgraf. It includes this corbelled building with the name on it (it is not the actual grave – he died long before there was a farm here).

Another corbelled building I saw. They seem to have been the original standard building of the boers who settled the Great Karoo.

I have written about corbelled buildings.

This is the main road of Prieska. The classic Karoo town layout; church at the head of the main street.

Note the onion dome on the steeple – could be in Moscow.


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