Burchell's Travels, by Susan Buchanan
Burchell's Travels is a fascinating account of what travel in South Africa was like 200 years ago, reconstructed by Susan Buchanan from the rich source of Burchell’s own writings.
Cape Town to Klaarwater June to October 1811
The journey from cape town to Klaarwater was action-packed, the changing scenery spectacular. It was here that Burchell first encountered the Khoisan and 'Koranas' 'man in an uncivilized state of society'. After the comfort of congenial Cape Town, the thirty-year-old explorer was now in unknown terrain, travelling with Khoikhoi assistants, the missionaries' caravan, oxen and dogs. Along the way he encountered hospitable Boer farmers, usually with itinerant tutors 'completing the education of a boor's family', and he describes these visits with humour. But Burchell's vision and discoveries extend way beyond the commonplace: the designs of the 'Great Creating Power'4 in the arid country constantly shape how he looks at Nature. Adventure, scientific inquiry and poetical sensibility blend seamlessly. Burchell meticulously measured the distance travelled each day by counting the number of revolutions made by the 'greater wheel' of the wagon, estimating that it equalled 791 miles from Cape Town to Klaarwater. Altogether, the party were on the road for three and a half months. Burchell, always systematic, gives a clear, condensed route outline, the chapter headings in the Travels effectively signposting key locations:
Cape Town to Tulbagh; From Tulbagh, through Hexriver Kloof, to the Karro Poort; Journey over the Karro; Journey through the Roggeveld to the borders of the Colony; Journey from the borders of the Cape Colony, through the country of the Bushmen, to the river Gariep; Journey in the country of the Koras, from the Gariep to the Asbestos Mountains - Stay at the Kloof village - And arrival at Klaarwater.
In modern-day terms, Burchell travelled via the Roggeveld plateau, through what is now known as Ceres, Sutherland, Fraserburg, Carnarvon, Prieska and Hay. The route is of environmental interest as well, divided into the distinct ecological zones of the Cape Floral Kingdom (or the fynbos biome), the Succulent Karoo, the drier areas of the Great Karoo, and the desert areas of the Northern Cape. Burchell meticulously catalogued plants, their localities and the dates he found them in all of these biomes. On the first night of the journey, the caravan halted at a pool of water situated between Tygerberg and False Bay. Here, Burchell slept in the open air for the first time, and the 'novelty of the scene kept my mind continually amused'. For him,
These fire-light scenes have always a picturesque appearance ... My health and strength improved daily by the exercise of travelling; and the novelty and interest of the country, and its productions, increasing as we advanced, inspired me with a high degree of alacrity, and surprisingly raised the spirits. My mind glowed with the sanguine expectation of succeeding in all my plans. I began to lose sight of the Cape of Good Hope, and to turn my view forward, often imagining myself arrived at the termination of my long and laborious journey.11
Burchel's sunny confidence is instantly visible. Likewise, he is always curious and alert. Straight away, his eye is on the Khoikhoi: call their movements, fixed my attention';12 and throughout the entire expedition, his focus on his Khoikoi assistants never wavers. His impressions swing between admiration for their patience, navigational skills, indigenous knowledge, telescopic vision and 'their quickness and memory, in everything relating to cattle';13 and his impatience at their dullness, idleness, want of perseverance and irresponsibility. [...]
This is an excerpt from the travelogue Burchell's Travels, by Susan Buchanan.
Title: Burchell's Travels
Subtitle: The Life, Art and Journeys of William John Burchell, 1781-1863
Author: Susan Buchanan
Publisher: The Penguin Group (South Africa)
Cape Town, South Africa 2015
ISBN 9781770227552 / ISBN 978-1-77022-755-2
Softcover, 17 x 23 cm, 238 pages
Buchanan, Susan im Namibiana-Buchangebot
Burchell's Travels introduces to the life, art and journeys of William John Burchell from 1781 to 1863.