The First Karoo Tourists

Francois le Vaillant would have crossed a  far less mighty Great Fish River in his day.
Francois le Vaillant would have crossed a far less mighty Great Fish River in his day.
Oh, it’s all so easy to visit the Karoo these days. Just hop on the N1, pin your ears back and you’re there by mid-afternoon. But 200 years ago, playing tourist in the Dry Country was a different story…

The First Karoo Twitcher

One hears tell that serious birders, upon seeing a particular species for the first time, go into a semi-voodoo state of trance called ‘The Twitch’.

No feather-follower in the Karoo, however, was ever quite as twitchy as one Francois le Vaillant, the flamboyant French explorer who swanned through the interior in the late 18th century and collected more than 2 000 bird specimens en route.

It was the way he collected them that has raised eyebrows ever since. Not a man to hide his light under any manner of bushel, Le Vaillant set forth eastwards from Cape Town with a large wagon train, mattress and linen, a butterfly cabinet, a drying box, a rooster for an alarm clock and a tame (but very wily) baboon called Kees for a food taster. Along the way he collected an ostrich feather for his hat, a huge retinue of Khoikhoi camp followers and the favour of one Narina, a fair Gonaqua maid from the Eastern Cape.

Apart from being South Africa’s first bird-watcher, one might argue he was also the country’s first sex tourist (the lovely Narina near Somerset East), first investigative reporter (no kind words for the colonists’ way of treating their servants and slaves), first gourmet traveller (stewed elephant foot for breakfast) and first baboon-minder (the good Kees).

On his second journey – north to the Richtersveld – le Vaillant stayed over in the Heerenlogement (Gentleman’s Lodgings), a seemingly obscure cave on the Trawal road about five rooibos tea farms from Doring Bay. This was the Holiday Inn of the 1700s – a convenient stopover for adventurers, crooks and prospectors. You can still make out his name etched on a wall in the cave.

Crossing the Karoo from Swellendam in winter, Coenraad de Buys would have been in a world of aloes.

Frontier Giant

There are legends of the renegade Huguenot Coenraad de Buys that stretch from the Cape across the wide Karoo and up into the Bushveld of the Soutpansberg on the Zimbabwe border.

He stood nearly seven feet tall, was wide-shouldered and broad of chest. In fact, the explorer Henry Lichtenstein was inspired to call him ‘the living figure of a Hercules, the terror of his enemies, the hope and support of his friends’.

A young man in the 1780s, Coenraad de Buys left his family home in Swellendam and crossed the Bushman’s River in the Zuurveld. Over the years he took wives from the Xhosa, Khoikhoi and ‘Bastaard’ communities. He befriended the Xhosa chief Ngqika and turned his fellow Boer farmers against the British authorities.

When he left the patronage of Ngqika to venture into the interior, De Buys had gathered about him a ‘motley host’ that consisted of British Army deserters, a missionary, runaway slaves, Khoikhoi, two single Dutch mothers, Xhosa women, a Tambookie boy, children of mixed blood and a ‘Mohammedan Hindu’.

His restless wanderings finally led him and his ‘rainbow people’ up to the Soutpansberg, where he was the first white hunter to venture as far as Mapungubwe on the Limpopo River. After the death of a beloved wife, De Buys simply disappeared into the bush. His offspring became guides for the newly arrived Voortrekkers in later decades.

Today, tucked neatly under a protective fold of the Soutpansberg is a little settlement called Buysdorp, where his descendants live a much quieter, less frenetic life than their animal skin-clad giant of a clan father.

It was Robert Gordon who gave the Orange River its name.

Ahead of his Time

Robert Gordon was one of the most effective explorers ever to have walked southern Africa. On his various trips around the coast and into the interior, he made a number of discoveries and observations about climate, environment and shell middens on the beach.

He embarked on various other cultural studies, giving him insights that were far ahead of their time. Gordon held the view that groups like the Khoikhoi had valid lifestyles and that, because they had been in southern Africa long before the colonists, they had far more local know-how than the newcomers. Back in the late 1700s, this was not how your average Cape burgher saw matters.

In 1777 Gordon met Xhosa-speaking tribes on the eastern frontier of the Karoo. He said they were ‘the freshest, merriest people I have ever seen’, with a ready wit and strong, healthy, attractive appearance. He learnt some words of Xhosa and he joined in their dancing and their feasting with the kind of fearlessness seldom shown by any European colonist.

Gordon, Le Vaillant and De Buys would have toured the Karoo wihout the comforts of a 19th Century hotel like The Victoria.

In that same year, Gordon found and named the Orange River (its original name was Gariep – Great River) at its location north of Steynsburg, near the sight of present-day Bethulie. Two years later, on his famous ‘4th Journey’, Gordon returned to the Orange, but this time through Namaqualand, ‘The Land of the Camelopards’ (giraffes).

Notwithstanding the divided loyalties that led to his suicide, Robert Jacob Gordon is still regarded as the premier southern African explorer of all time. The sketches and records he left behind – and the brilliant travelling spirit he portrayed – are unsurpassed to this day.

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