Forgotten Highway of the South African Hinterland

By Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

The 18th Century in South Africa was an epoch time forgot. Yet the dramas that were unfolding between the Cape and the Orange River between 1700 and 1800 are the stuff of epic historical movies. Possibly a romance novel. Definitely an adventure classic. With maybe a murder mystery thrown in as well.

This is where colonists and trekboers clashed with Khoi and San, when slaves fled their owners and made new lives in the wild north, when people still fought with bows and arrows, with swords, muskets and flintlock rifles.

The Kalahari provided rich pickings for hunters, who clashed with livestock farmers seeking grazing.

The banks and islands of the Orange River were populated by pirates, rebels, elephant hunters, horse thieves and cattle rustlers, with a kaleidoscopic cast of San and Khoi tribes. Here, where Karoo crosses into Kalahari, there were Korana, Griqua, /Xam, Oorlams, BaTlhaping, the Basters, Bergenaars, Hartenaars and far more.

There was love and lust across the colour line, and clans were being created here as fast as others were being dissipated. There were dramatic acts of bravery, dreadful acts of cruelty and a whole lot of drunken foolhardiness in between.

Decoding the Old Records

Yet this astounding time in South Africa’s history is only recounted in dry government documents, in atrocious handwriting, by Dutch colonists, according to Nigel Penn, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Cape Town.

Nigel Penn, Professor Emeritus of History at UCT, and author of The Forgotten Frontier.

Penn wrote a book based on his doctorate, called The Forgotten Frontier: Colonist and Khoisan on the Cape’s Northern Frontier in the 18th Century, published in 2005 and now out of print. It tried to answer a simple question: What happened to the Khoisan communities of the Cape?

The government records he consulted in the Cape Archives do not make easy reading. They were mostly concerned with matters of trade, finance, law and order – typical governing preoccupations.

They are supplemented by written reports from the hinterland, from veldwachtmeesters – basically sheriffs who raised commandos to protect colonial interests when required. It took patience and a sharp eye to find anything truly revealing about that time.

The wild hinterland that straddles Karoo and Kalahari.

Veldwachtmeesters, for a start, were not ideal correspondents. Their reports were “barely legible, written by barely literate people, whose language was neither Dutch nor Afrikaans but something in between, and whose style was innocent of punctuation, orthography or grammar,” notes Penn.

To decipher the text, he had to “learn the language by osmosis”.

Penn set about copying texts, word by spindly word, into his own handwriting so that he internalised its rhythms and phrases. The more enlightening documents were from court cases, which at least reflected what ordinary people said and did, he explains.

Northward, Ho!

Joining the diverse throngs in the north were various missionaries who joined the fray, some on baffling quests. One Dutch pastor devoted himself to teaching Latin to the Bushmen, with minimal success.

Others, like Dr John Philip of the London Missionary Society, were fervent about bettering life for many on the frontier. “Was not John the Baptist a Bushman?” asked Philip.

Various missionaries, including Robert and Mary Moffat headed north along this route.

There was religion, drama, comedy, brutality, and tragedy. Yet in the early days, there was not a single writer to record all this. Unlike the American western frontier which had its history partially romanticised and recorded by dime novelists, this was a frontier without poets, diarists or songwriters. There were barely even letter-writers.

The main literature legacy came later, in the form of diaries – often embellished with sketches and paintings – from European explorers, botanists and hunters who travelled north from the Cape. Carl Peter Thunberg was one of the first, in 1777. He was followed by Francois le Vaillant, William Burchell, Hinrich Carl Lichtenstein, and others.

The Forgotten Highway

It was Professor Doreen Atkinson of the Karoo Development Foundation (KDF), which is based in Loxton, who pulled all these disparate bits of history together as a possible tourism route. The Forgotten Highway was launched in August 2022. Although the route goes through some of the most obscure and least-travelled sections of the country, the announcement sparked a staggering amount of interest from the get-go.

Professor Doreen Atkinson of the Karoo Development Foundation.

The rough path of this history, both north- and south-flowing, takes in Tulbagh, Ceres, Sutherland, Fraserburg, Loxton, Carnarvon, Prieska, Griekwastad, Danielskuil and Kuruman. But historically, this was more of a broad front than an actual road or route. Other towns also linked to the route include Matjiesfontein, Williston, Victoria West, Vosburg, Van Wyksvlei, Postmasburg, Olifantshoek and Kathu. It is at least 1 000km long.

The Forgotten Highway Summit brought together 60 people who linked up 1 000km of heritage.

“It also has an eastern ‘leg’, from Jacobsdal to Koffiefontein, along the Riet River, where ancient Korana clans lived,” says Professor Atkinson, who lives in Philippolis. “Then on to Fauresmith (originally called Sannaspoort by the Boer immigrants), Jagersfontein named for the Griqua Jager, and finally Philippolis, the seat of Adam II’s Griqua state. At a later stage, the French mission at Bethulie, ministering to the San, should be included.”

Corbelled dwellings like this one north of Williston, would have been built in the mid-1800s.

For tourists, this area can seem like the Empty Quarter of the country, with the least travelled roads, the most erratic bandwidth connections, low population densities, dereliction and decay in some towns.

But the reality on the ground turned out to be completely different. As soon as a Forgotten Highway WhatsApp group was created, a torrent of information and ideas started flowing in. Suddenly, dozens of people were contributing and networking with passion and enthusiasm about a route that had not existed for 300 years.

The Forgotten Highway Heritage Route, an Ancestral Journey.

The Summit @ Victoria West

Atkinson devised a summit to flesh out the Forgotten Highway concept and route in Victoria West in late May 2023.  It brought together academics, tourism champions, regional government specialists and the odd journalist. In a document on the Karoo Development Foundation website, Atkinson explains that this route and frontier was a crucible of South African culture, or in fact, a “confluence of cultures”.

Over two days at Melton Wold Guest Farm in Victoria West, it became clear that this is a route that sprawls across time as well as space.

The Forgotten Highway Summiteers gathered in May 2023, outside Victoria West.
Dr David Morris and the famed Kathu Pan Handaxe, which has been displayed in museums around the world.

Marinda Oberholzer spoke of Fraserburg’s palaeo surface, showing miraculously preserved tracks of animals from 250 million years ago.

Dr David Morris, honorary research associate at Kimberley’s McGregor Museum, spoke of the Wonderwerk Cave between Danielskuil and Kuruman, where two million years of human history are preserved. He brought along the world-famous Kathu Pan Handaxe, made from banded ironstone a million years ago.

Professor Nigel Penn of the University of Cape Town was, of course, the keynote speaker. He gave context on this forgotten frontier and the people who lived, traded and hunted here.

Denzil Kruger, directly descended from a colourful line of people who lived in this wild land, spoke about his ancestors, who included elephant hunters, forgers, Korana leaders and Griquas.

Denzil Kruger, a direct descendant of elephant hunters, forgers, Korana leaders and Griquas from the Forgotten Frontier.

Speakers from All Corners

Mpho Molema of Kuruman revealed the culture and heritage of the famed BaThlaping tribe.

Cora Steenkamp spoke of a fascinating route around Williston, featuring corbelled houses and Cornelius de Waal’s hand-etched gravestones.

Mpho Molema revealed the BaTlhaping Heritage in and around Kuruman. The BaTlhaping tribe had massive herds of cattle that awed the Cape colonists, and their culture and history is still celebrated in this region.

Tour guide and photographer Thabiso Macheoane of Postmasburg uncovered the difficulties in preserving heritage and natural beauty in a land where mining is king, but also showed how easily local tourism can be mobilised to interesting nearby sites.

Professor Doreen Atkinson explained the Anglo-Boer history in the region and the complex relationships between missionaries, trekboers, authorities, the San and the Griqua.

Tour guide and photographer Thabiso Macheoane of Postmasburg.

Land surveyor Claus Riding of Ceres discussed his passion: compiling the old wagon routes of Carl Thunberg and William Burchell (1815), overlaying them on current topographical maps.

He pointed out that The Forgotten Highway was not a new name.  Dr EE Mossop had written a book called Old Cape Highways in 1927, in which the name was given to a difficult route between the Cape and Sutherland.

The furthest point north is Robert and Mary Moffat’s mission station at Kuruman, which straddles the dirt track that umpteen explorers and missionaries took northwards to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. These days it is run by the Reverend Johannes Stuurman, who was also there to talk at the conference.

The Forgotten Highway is now an interprovincial route and has attracted attention from the national Department of Tourism, which sent three officials from Pretoria.

Fanie Minnie, the man behind the Karoo Spatial Development Framework.

Fanie Minnie of the national Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development explained how the route fits within the Karoo Regional Spatial Development Framework.

Sustainable Tourism expert, Caroline Ungersbock of Victoria West, offered a strategy for making such a long and complex route succeed.

Simo Mdala talked of the importance of linking a tourism concept like this to Local Economic Development in the various towns.

What Happens Now?

According to Atkinson, the route now has to be strengthened, section by section. Local museums need to be renovated, refreshed and made more relevant to the many exciting themes of the Route, she says.

“The Summit produced a great new team – the Forgotten Highway Summiteers, who will champion the Route in the future.”

Between 5 and 7 October 2023, Philippolis is celebrating its 200-year anniversary – the first Free State town to enjoy this honour.

One of the historic Griqua cannons on a small hill overlooking the Mother Church in Philippolis.
Adri Smit, founder and director of Ons Karoo en Kontrei, an online guide to the Karoo.

“Breaking news: Piet Coetzer, the famed horse-and-cart pioneer, will launch his 1 000km trip from Philippolis on the morning of 7 October, proudly guiding his six gleaming black Flemish horses through the historic main street of Philippolis,” announced Atkinson.

Coetzer travelled with his horse-drawn wagon between Sutherland and Griquastad in October and November 2022, a seminal journey that launched the Forgotten Highway.

For any queries about the route, please contact Prof Doreen Atkinson, on or WhatsApp 071 401 2583.

7 thoughts on “Forgotten Highway of the South African Hinterland

    • Julienne du Toit says:

      Graaff-Reinet is not part of the Forgotten Highway. The closest it comes to the Highway is Victoria West in the Northern Cape.

  1. Richard Heasley says:

    My wife and l are planning to do/try this Forgotten highway in March 2024.
    We began to research the trip, accommodation etc.
    Hopefully more information will become available as we progress.

    • Julienne du Toit says:

      Great. Keep an eye on a website being developed, called Ons Karoo en Kontrei (, which will be an interactive online guide to this and other routes and places around the Karoo. Send us an email if you’d like some tips.

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