Springbok Across the Horizon

By Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

It is early morning in the Mountain Zebra National Park outside Cradock, and the springbok up on the Rooiplaat plateau are frisky. Two young rams break away for some vigorous sparring, watched with interest by a couple of their fellows.

A few juveniles drift away from the grazing adults. In between nibbling at grass tussocks and bossie leaves, they look ready for action, bright-eyed and alert.

It comes soon enough.

With little warning, a ram grazing on the other side of the road breaks into a run and flies at full speed over the road at them. Excited, the baby bokkies bounce into the air like rubber balls, pronking again and again with the greatest of ease, arching their backs and landing with light thumps on the rocky veld before circling back like faerie steeds at play.

By mid-morning, the grassy veld is dotted with them, grazing peacefully.

It is impossible to imagine that these fine-boned, rather magical antelopes, these “ornaments of the desert”, as Landdrost Andries Stockenstrom described them in 1821, periodically became a destructive force of Nature, laying to waste everything that lay before, trampled by millions of dainty hooves.

In the heat of the day, springbok shelter under the Kalahari’s large thorn trees. Image: Chris Marais

A Torrent of Trekbok

If you had been alive on the Karoo veld back in the 1800s, this was what you may have witnessed when these delicate antelope turned into trekbokken, the mammalian equivalent of locusts.

First, dust would bloom and rise on the horizon, accompanied by a distant drumming that slowly grew louder and closer.

Every living creature in their path panicked. Snakes slithered at top speed across the veld, seeking shelter among rocks. Tortoises scrambled up hills to high ground. Meerkats and scrubhares ran about in the open, heedless of eagles.

Men grabbed their rifles. They knew that any cattle or sheep in the way would be trampled or swept along like logs in a flooding river.

In his book Karoo, Lawrence Green records vivid accounts from eyewitnesses of these mammal swarms. He spoke to one Gert van der Merwe who had been caught in the middle of a torrent of trekbok, his life and that of his family saved only by his “Bushman touleier” who knew the danger they were in, and who led them up a hill to relative safety. The men surrounded their wagon with thorn bushes and set fire to green vegetation to cause smoke as the rumbling on the horizon became louder and louder and he could see a front line of the buck “at least three miles long”. Everyone climbed atop the wagon, including women, children, servants and growling dogs.

Eventually the trudging springbok surrounded the wagon. Green writes:

“Gert said he could have flicked the horde with his whip from where he sat on the wagon tent. Some crashed into the wagon and were jammed in the wheels, injured and trampled upon. The wagon became the centre of a mass of dead and dying buck; and Gert saw more biltong than he could have secured in a year’s expensive shooting. But the thorn barrier had broken, and the buck were among the cattle. Before long, the terrified bellowing cattle stampeded and vanished into the dust in the direction of the river. Gert had to let them go. There was only death for anyone who ventured after them among the hooves and the horns of the buck.”

In the morning, Gert woke to find the landscape transformed. Trees had been splintered. Grasses and bushes were flattened. Dongas were filled with dead and dying buck. The remains of small animals lay everywhere, little scraps of fur and blood. There was not an inch of earth without a springbok hoofprint on it.

Even more dramatic was the trekbok migration of 1849 through Beaufort West.

John Fraser, the son of the local NG Church Dominie, later wrote:

“We were awakened one morning by a sound as of strong wind before a thunderstorm, followed by the trampling of thousands of all kinds of game – wildebeest, blesboks, springboks, quaggas, elands, antelopes of all sorts and kinds, which filled the streets and gardens, and as far as one could see covered the whole country, grazing off everything eatable before them, drinking up the waters in the street furrows, fountains and dams, and as the poor creatures were all in a more or less impoverished condition, the people killed them in numbers in their gardens.

“It took three days before the whole of the trekbokken had passed, and it left our country looking as if a fire had passed over it.”

During their erratic migrations, springbok were hunted mercilessly. Image courtesy the Richmond (Northern Cape) Horse Museum, where there is a semi-permanent exhibition on trekbokke.

The Trekbok Economy

These migrations were nothing like those of the Serengeti, where the annual sweep of wildebeest, zebras and plains game follows a predictable path through the veld. One eyewitness after the next compares the trekbokke to locust swarms – erratic and ruinous, at least in the short term. No one could say when they were coming, nor could they be stopped in their relentless, trudging passage.

But by the 1880s, it had become clear that to those with rifles and plenty of ammunition, these migrations meant financial boom times.

Although the treks were irregular, many knew the signs. TB Davie of Prieska recorded that a sure indication would be when springbok started gathering in ever-increasing numbers near Kenhardt, at a place called Kaaiens Bult.

“These herds, seemingly impelled by some guiding instinct, gathered together in mobs, wandering aimlessly about, first here and then there, having no apparent destination and yet feeling restless and uneasy. At this time the slightest sight or sound would send troops of 10,000 to 20,000 scampering off in as many directions as there are points to the compass.

“This peculiarity was well known to the Boers, who, immediately they heard that the ‘boks’ were gathering, began doing the same. The oxen were gathered together, the wagon cleaned up and well-greased, the sails and tents looked over and patched where required. A trip was made to the nearest store for a supply of coffee, sugar, salt and tobacco, and, most important of all, powder and lead or cartridges for the use of hunters.”

Springbok are dainty but tough, landing effortlessly on rocky ground after bounding high into the air. Image: Chris Marais

Bokke in their Millions

Cronwright Schreiner, a son of Cradock and the husband of writer Olive Schreiner, made the trekbok mysteries a personal mission, a magnificent obsession. He witnessed and recorded the last major trek in 1896. With two other farmers who were accustomed to counting large numbers of sheep, he estimated the size of the herds near Hopetown.

“When one says they were in their millions, it is the literal truth.”

In 1896, the De Britstowner newspaper carried a report on how nearby Vosburg thrived on the springbok trade, so much so that a visitor reportedly called it a Springbuck Town, “with one of the three shops in the village having bought as many as 16 600 springbok skins in a few months and selling as many as 12 000 cartridges every week.”

The fine skins were especially popular for book-binding and, occasionally, an offbeat fashion statement. Thomas Pringle, one of the founding 1820 Settlers in the Eastern Cape, recorded that for £1, he could buy himself a travelling jacket and trousers of dressed springbok skin, “the latter faced with leopard fur”.

In his 2004 Masters thesis for the University of Cape Town, environmental historian Chris Roche points out that for the now-vanished /Xam Bushmen, the springbok was critically important, and not just for food.

“Among other things, springbok skins were used as roof layers for shelters, water containers, clothes, bags, sacks, karosses, drum skins and even, during famines, food; bones as needles and spoons; sinews as bowstrings; and ears as dancing rattles.”

Both genders have horns, but those of the females are smaller. Image: Chris Marais

A Lingering Mystery

Schreiner hunted springbok as everyone did, but he really just wanted to experience the land in full springbok flood.

“In the afternoon we gradually left the noise of the hunters behind and drove to quieter quarters, until at length our wish to see large numbers of the bucks was gratified. On driving over a low nek of land a vast, undisturbed, glittering plain lay before us… throughout its extent the exquisite antelopes grazed peacefully in the warm afternoon winter sunshine. It was as beautiful as it was wondrous. Undisturbed by the hunters, they were not huddled together in separate lots or running in close array, but were distributed in one unbroken mass over the whole expanse – giving quite a whitish tint to the veld, almost as if there had been a very light fall of snow.”

This was the last major trek, and Schreiner sensed it.

“We alighted from the cart, put our rifles aside and sat down to watch the bucks and take in a sight we most certainly should never see again.”

In a monograph simply entitled The Springbok, published by the Transvaal Museum in 1996, Professor JD Skinner of the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute said he believed that “in the Karoo, the wind-borne smell of fresh green pasture seems to have triggered several recorded treks”. Image: Chris Marais

Why No More Trekbokke?

The mystery of why the springboks trekked, where they came from and where they ended up, why there seemed to be houbokke (sedentary buck) as well as migratory trekbokke, and why the treks ended, remained an unsolved puzzle for decades.

Chris Roche brought together hundreds of reports and eyewitness accounts in his Masters degree (University of Cape Town, 2004). It remains the most authoritative work on the trekbokke of the Karoo to date.

He mentions all the possible reasons why the mega-treks stopped. These included the increased use of fences, hunting, diseases like brandziekte (mange) and the even more devastating rinderpest, the Anglo Boer War, the railways and the sheer increase in human population.

“With continued drought and hunting and the increase in fencing and livestock, the springbok population of the Achterveld was allowed no chance for recovery and as a result of this, and a much reduced area available to treks, the phenomenon was extinguished.”

This is an extract from Karoo Roads II – More Tales from the Heartland. For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the Three-Book Special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black and white) by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at julie@karoospace.co.za

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