Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hippo Hunt


Burchell was seriously messed around by the missionaries in Klaarwater. I will summarise those events after describing the hippo hunting trip.

After being in Klaarwater almost a month Burchell left on a hippo hunting expedition to the confluence of the Gariep & Vaal rivers. He wanted to lay in a stock of biltong for the onward trip (1:421). It took less than a month (1:476). His intention was to spend three months in Klaarwater of which six weeks remained after this trip.(1:475)

Setting off from Griekwastad towards the Vaal river. I love these open under populated places. My last year at school was on the tiny island of Guernsey followed by two years in England; that made me long for places like this – most of us only appreciate them when they are no longer an option.

Burchell went across that plain to hunt some hippo on the Vaal. Here it is:

The view upstream from the bridge at Douglas. This trip took me past a lot of our rivers & I now realise how much they appeal to me by the number of photos I took of them = every time I saw one.

I much prefer Douglas to Prieska although it too completely ignores the lovely river right there. I went down to the confluence of the Gariep & Vaal on the south side (I had tried to do that from the north but the road is now locked). In this panorama of the confluence the Vaal is on the right, the Gariep in the left foreground and the combined Gariep flowing away up the picture. Burchell camped on the far (north) bank.

The old Orange upstream of the confluence was called Nu-Gariep coming in from my left.

The Ky-Gariep (Vaal) from my right (names 1:391):

The plain Gariep just below the confluence:

I always carry a bottle of wine with me & some food in case I have to stealth camp. In Douglas I went to the Two Rivers bottle store where I selected, naturally, Confluence as it is a locally made blend (I prefer blended wines). Because I was on a bike & the manager had a Yamaha R1 parked inside the shop & the wine was not listed in their computer he gave it me. It was fine & I would buy it at a reasonable price.

Burchell’s wagon at the confluence. He flew the Union flag every Sunday. He is giving gifts (=tobacco usually) to a group of San (1:389)

Burchell’s men shot three hippos (1:409 1:418 1:427). One floated across to the opposite bank & took a long time to get back, then the trees grew so tightly they could not easily haul it out of the river & it was in poor condition from being in the sun all day so they abandoned it. They cut up the other two & dried the lean meat. The really fatty bits had to be salted. Some San from the other side came over & helped them get them out of the river & cut them up (1:415). By custom they got the guts, bones & head (1:413). Each hippo was further upstream so although Burchell had established his camp right at the confluence he had to move up to load the meat ending up at present day Schmidtsdrif.

The hunting party had ended up with 10 wagons as the locals wanted to join in the action and also cut reeds for their houses (1:381 1:401). Burchell issued some of them with gunpowder and shot on the condition that he received half the proceeds. He was continually verneuked (1:438). Burchell titles the pages describing this as ‘Dishonesty’ ‘Disappointed’ & ‘Covetousness’; he became highly disillusioned by the locals. A huge amount of the meat was eaten by the locals right there.

When his wagon was filled with dried meat they returned directly to Klaarwater (1:431). The trip took 26 days (1:476) but he was now ready for the next leg.

Burchell’s engraving of the head of the female hippo.

I like this one by Daniell.

This is a Le Vaillant picture. In fact most of his pictures were painted by other artists based on Le Vaillant’s descriptions & sketches. This guy drew a pig pretending to be a kitten– literally.

Another Le Valliant picture, this time a portrait. A wonderful picture in my opinion.

The Vaal & Gariep are significant rivers but the San crossed them quite easily. As Dicey notes the Gariep is probably the largest river on earth that had nothing more than a floating log as watercraft before the Europeans arrived (37). Burchell watched them crossing from the far side and points out that they were nomadic so a canoe or other watercraft did not fit in with their lifestyle (1:415). Hippos they could manage and, luckily, crocodiles were never in the Gariep or Vaal. It was a willow log with a branch poked into it which went under one armpit & over the shoulder. Daniell gives this picture.

But I like this one of Le Vaillant being ferried across the Olifants river. Look at him, fully dressed with ostrich feathers around his hat being pulled across the river still wearing his shoes. There is a little about Le Vaillant at the end of this post.

Here Le Vaillant excels. Boat of the coastal Kaffirs (sic) must refer to the Xhosa as that is where he went – looks like they already had marine plywood & Le Valliant was there in 1782. In fact the first boat on the Gariep was 1834 by Andrew Smith right here at the confluence. (Dicey 89 though he states that Robert Gordon launched a boat at the mouth in 1779). I enjoy Le Vaillant’s work.

From the confluence back to Douglas and across the bridge to the northern side and along to Schmidtsdrif. The Vaal from the bridge at Schmidtsdrif.

Next to the new bridge is the old bridge where you can see branches and stuff still on it from the last time the river flooded over it.

I went to have a good look at it but refrained from actually riding on it. Two of the locals were fishing there.

I then went to see the settlement where those fishermen came from.

I showed pictures of the San hunters with arrows stuck into their hair. Here is the story about this settlement taken from Dicey (page39)

I was amazed to discover, that very afternoon, that there are still San living near the confluence. .. Laurence asked Jakob about the army fatigues he was wearing. 'Ons is Boesmans van Schmidtsdrift… For the next hour they talked of the San of Schmidtsdrift, a tented village near the Vaal, fifty kilometres upstream of the confluence. In 1972 the !Xu and Khwe people were chased out of Angola into Namibia by the MPLA, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Three years later Angola gained its independence from Portugal and the colonial war became a civil war. South Africa took the side of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA against the communist-backed MPLA. Many of the ousted San enlisted with the South African Defence Force, serving as both trackers and combatants. A friend of mine had been a medic in the feared 201 Battalion. Their badge was a witborskraai or white-chested crow. Its black body signified the fighting-men, all San, and its chest the white core that commanded each platoon of thirty men — a commissioned officer, a two-stripe corporal and a medic. The MPLA were terrified of the San, who would sneak up on them and fight at close quarters. If a San soldier was killed, his friends would break ranks and pursue the killer, for weeks if need be. South Africa left the fray when the Berlin Wall came down. There were fears of reprisals against the fight¬ing San when SWAPO, an ally of the MPLA, won Namibia's first democratic elections. The San were given the option of moving to South Africa, and in 1990 some seven thousand members of the !Xu and Khwe communities arrived at Schmidtsdrift. They were promised houses within six months. Eleven years on and they are still, said Jakob, living in military tents. I was struck by the irony of San people being brought to South Africa to secure their safety. Seen in the light of history, this borders on the surreal. Of all the blood-soaked episodes in South Africa's past, few rival the sys¬tematic and protracted extermination of the San as a people. They were seen as vermin by Boer and Baster, Xhosa and Khoi alike. Thousands of San were hunted down or, if they were lucky, enslaved:

That is why I wanted those pictures of the San warriors. Think about the plight of that race.

Then back to Griekwastad. This is the sort of bush that Burchell must have been going through 200 years ago.

It was not easy trekking through that country.

Now read this (1:482)

The whole waggon-load of meat which we brought to Klaarwater as a stock for our future journey, was totally eaten up in four days, although I had nobody but Philip to feed. It was not consumed by the crows, nor by the vultures, but by the Klaarwater Hottentots, who are by no means inferior to them in the power of smelling out meat, wherever it may be concealed. From an early hour in the morning, till late at night, my waggons were constantly visited by men, women, and children, whose only object was to eat. But, from the moment the last of the stock was gone, from that moment not one visitor more came near me. Yet still it was impossible to account for this rapid disappearing of the meat, without supposing that they came secretly and stole it by night, as there was nothing to pre¬vent them but their own sense of honesty ; nobody sleeping at the waggons but myself, and Philip remaining every night at the village to be in attendance on Gert. Nothing could be more vexatious than this loss, or, more correctly speaking, robbery, as provisions were not easily to be purchased, and a large supply not by any solicitations to be obtained from the inhabitants of this place.

Francois le Vaillant.


This website provides an introduction to the flamboyant figure of François Le Vaillant (1753-1824). Hugely popular in his lifetime for his engaging and colourful travel accounts, Le Vaillant is best known today for his spectacular books of ornithology, but his reputation has always been controversial. His travel books, written after his return to France, are considerably fictionalised, and his bird books include conspicuous falsehoods and fabrications, but recent research has begun to rehabilitate his reputation. Here you will find out about his life, his travels and his contribution to ornithology. The image gallery contains a small selection of images from his published works and from some surviving collections of water-colour paintings produced by him or under his guidance.

In 1782 he travelled along the southern coast to the Great Fish river and back along the Swartberg. In 1783 he went up the west coast to the Gariep river. This was 30 years before Burchell did his trek. His accounts of these journeys came out in 1790 and 1795 (delay due to the slight inconvenience of the French Revolution taking place).

Le Vaillant's travel books mingle adventure, anecdote and natural history, all told with great vividness and style. Le Vaillant is the hero of every episode and portrays himself as a Rousseauist man of feeling, sharing his emotions and opinions about everything he encounters. From a literary point of view, his travels are of interest for the intermingling of factual narrative and fictionalized episodes, and for his contribution to the myth of the noble savage. Despite the imaginative elements, his books are a valuable source for descriptions of indigenous peoples and the Dutch Cape colony, and his social commentary shows an early critical awareness of colonial problems.
(From the same source)

His work was badly reviewed by historians, geographers and ornithologists because they were expecting perfect accuracy but they found exaggeration and fabrication mixed up with really good work. Le Vaillant was writing for the general public as well as the specialists. If you publish in South African Journal of Botany you had better be terse and accurate but if you want to describe the same plants in Wild Things aimed at the general public you had better write an entirely new article. I dismissed him as a fool based on the professional opinion but since reading the introduction to the recent Van Riebeeck Society reprint of his first book I now understand what he was trying to do and how exceedingly well he did it.


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