Imagine waking up in the slumbering little Karoo town of Beaufort West in 1849. All is still except for a distant rumbling that grows louder and louder until suddenly, in a crescendo of hooves and dust, the first few thousand springbok enter the town.
All day long they trudge through, and soon the streets echo with gunfire as the townsfolk shoot at this plague of gazelles from their stoeps. With them, swept along as if by a tide, come other animals – eland, wildebeest, quagga, blesbok.
The migrating springbok, the front row spread out over many kilometres, are an unstoppable force, glazed-eyed and zombie-like. They consume vegetation like locusts and trample all before them – sheep, fences, wagons and even oxen.
“For three full days the trekbokke passed the village, and they left the veld looking as though it had been consumed by fire,” recounts Lawrence Green in his book Karoo.
The springbok migrations were one of southern Africa’s greatest natural spectacles, a lemming-like phenomenon that would have dwarfed anything the Serengeti could offer up in a good season.
Hunters thought the seemingly endless herds were infinite, so they blazed away. But the gun and the fence ripped the trekbok numbers to shreds before anyone could solve the mystery of their movements.
The last recorded migration was in 1896. But some Eastern Karoo farmers say there are still trekbokke, restless individuals that move from farm to farm. Maybe one day, in a time of unfenced mega-reserves, the great springbok waves will cross the Karoo again …