The Springbok Migrations: Thundering hooves of death, meat like a fine pȃté
Death and destruction followed in the wake of cavalcades of trekbokke in the 19th century and earlier as millions of springbok followed their noses and instincts in search of water. Gourmands prize their fine meat today, but the legendary Springbok Migrations of the great plains of the Karoo are largely forgotten.
Strange is a springbok. She leaps rather than runs. Her stripes and hues stand her apart from other species, her cousins of the arid plains. Her colours and patterns soothe the artist’s eye, inspire the poet. When on safari, it’s her we most want to see when combing the veld for antelope; we appreciate the others, the mighty kudu with horns fashioned by an artist, the blesbok with that flash of white, the gemsbok with its spectacular design; but it’s when we see a springbok that we sigh that sigh of serene happiness. There she is.
In the kitchen and at the braai side, springbok, especially the loin, is regarded as one of the finest game meats, even among the finest meats per se. The fillet meat, when cooked gently after marination and prettily pink at the centre, is as soft as a fine pȃté yet with fulsome flavour that cries out for spice and sweetness. A springbok shank is a wondrous thing too, for those who like to take time over things in the potjie or Dutch oven. When we had a little restaurant in Cradock briefly before I hopped on board the Daily Maverick train, I cooked springbok shanks slowly to be served with creamy mashed potato. I’m putting that on my to-do list for the coming winter.
But can you imagine these exquisite, slight creatures as marauding killers? Not with intent, mind you. It was thirst that drove them. But when they moved in their masses – and I mean million upon million – the devastation in their wake was awesome, in the proper sense of that overused word. Flocks of dying sheep were carried aloft as if in a spectacular giant crowd-surf, tossed about unto their deaths; wild animals of many stripes, snakes, tortoises, even the occasional lion, fell prey to their thundering hooves as they passed through vast tranches of veld. One account tells of a lion that got caught up in the middle of a giant stampede, and perished, though not without taking its toll of the bokkies first; nature’s irony brings a wry smile. Hurtling across the veld from horizon to horizon, kicking up choking dust, their collective power was fearsome. Nothing in their path survived. Even the trees were laid bare in the great Springbok Migrations of earlier centuries.
They seem so sparse today by comparison. If we see a mere 15 or 20 of them in the veld, it seems abundant. But it was not always like that. There was a time when vast swathes of the Karoo were laid waste by the hoofs of not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of springbuck. They “moved resolutely in their millions”, Lawrence Green wrote of them in the mid 1950s in his book Karoo, but harking back to a time before he was born. Like you and I, Green did not live in the time of the Springbok Migrations, so he sought out old men with long memories.
“I once met a man,” Green wrote, “who kept a store on the banks of the Orange River late last [18th] century. He saw the springbok form a living bridge over the river as they raced towards the Kalahari ‘to reach better pastures’. Many perished so that the main body might cross with dry hooves on their backs.”
In other words, many of the beasts relinquished their lives for the survival of the herd.
An ex-trooper of the Cape Police, named only as Cochran, told Green how he watched thousands of springbok trekking through Kenhardt in the Northern Cape, which is still a village even today. “Everyone in the place seemed to be shooting from his stoep. It was probably the most devastating migration in living memory. Police gave the alarm and distributed ammunition to farmers at half-price. The damage was tremendous, but it might have been worse. For the invasion ceased suddenly. The springbok horde turned and raced back to the Kalahari. It was said that rain had fallen behind them, and the north wind had brought them, over hundreds of miles, the irresistible smell of damp earth and young grass.”
Even with these tidbits of knowledge, the stories told so far give scant idea of the true extent of the migrations. Sir John Fraser, the mayor of Beaufort West in 1849 and after whom Fraserburg is named, “left a memorable impression of the village in that year”, Green wrote. “A smous [itinerant trader] drove into the village one day looking bewildered, and told the people that countless buck were on their way, leaving the veld bare. This report was not taken seriously. Soon afterwards the people of Beaufort West were awoken one morning by the trampling of all kinds of game. Springbok filled the streets and gardens, and they were accompanied by wildebeest, blesbok, quagga and eland. For three full days the trekbokke passed the village, and they left the veld looking as though it had been consumed by fire.”
But it was the poet William Charles Scully who “described the most sensational of all recorded springbok migrations (in 1892) which ended in the South Atlantic”, driven by a raging and unfamiliar thirst. Scully explained that springbok live as a rule without drinking (deriving their water from eating succulents), but that once every 10 years or so they develop a mammoth thirst “and rush forward madly until they find water. It is not many years ago since millions of them crossed the mountain range and made for the sea. They dashed into the waves, drank the salt water, and died. Their bodies lay in one continuous pile along the shore for over thirty miles, and the stench drove the trekboers who were camped near the coast far inland”.
But even Scully’s description somehow fails to arrest the mind sufficiently to grasp the almost unfathomable extent of it all. Enter, of all people, Olive Schreiner’s husband Cron, who “made a determined attempt to solve the mystery during the 1896 migration, the last of the great cavalcades of trekbokke ever seen,” Green wrote. Cronwright-Schreiner was baffled at the knowledge of hundreds of thousands of springbok having been shot in the Prieska district of the Northern Cape, “and nearly as many wounded … yet the migration went on – in millions”.
In 1896, Cronwright-Schreiner and two farmers counted springbok in section after section on a vast plain and concluded that there were half a million springbok within view. That was one plain, in human sight, “but the whole trek covered an area of one hundred and forty miles by fifteen miles”, wrote Green. “When one says they were in millions, it is the literal truth,” Cron had reported.
That’s million upon million… yet our puny minds still cannot quite fathom the extent of it. While Green posits that some naturalists of his time doubted whether the beasts could have existed in such numbers, it is hard to ignore the voices of actual witnesses, of those who were there and recorded the scenes with their own eyes. Green wrote that the red-bearded, kilted Scots hunter Gordon Cumming reported having emerged from his wagon one morning to find “no mere herd, but a dense, living mass of springbok marching slowly and steadily. They were coming through a gap in the western hills, pouring through like a flood, and disappearing over a ridge”.
He wrote: “I stood upon the fore-chest of my wagon for nearly two hours, lost in wonder at the scene… I had some difficulty in convincing myself that it was reality which I beheld, and not the wild picture of a hunter’s dream. During this time the vast legions continued streaming through the neck in one unbroken compact phalanx.”
While Cumming laid no claim to being able to put a number to the tally he had observed, he insisted he could see at least “hundreds of thousands within the compass of my vision”. More resonant are the words of the boer in the area who told Cumming: “You this morning beheld only one flat covered with springboks, but I have ridden a long day’s journey over a succession of flats covered with them as far as I could see, and as thick as sheep in a fold.”
Scully, the author and poet, perhaps tried best to quantify the migrations during Green’s investigations. “In dealing with myriads,” he told Green, “numbers cease to have any significance. One might as well endeavour to describe the mass of a mile-long sand dune by expressing the sums of its grains in cyphers as to attempt to give the numbers of antelopes forming the living wave that surged across the desert and broke like foam against the western granite ridge.”
It falls to one Mr Davie and Dr Gibbons from the Prieska district whose observations of the 1888 trek paint a memorable picture and one we might better grasp. Gibbons was describing a kraal which held 1,500 sheep.
“Well,” said Dr Gibbons [as quoted by Green], “if fifteen hundred can stand there, then about ten thousand can stand on an acre, and I can see in front of me ten thousand acres covered with buck. That means at least one hundred million buck. Then what about the miles upon miles around on all sides as far as they eye can reach, covered with them.”
That abundance is more than a century gone, so we might be understandably wistful when next we see a desultory few springbok in the veld or on a game drive. The springbok is our national animal but its meat is not honoured in our national dish (that’s bobotie).
The first springbok I ever ate was in a potjie made by a farmer one night in northern Namibia after a hot and hard day in the veld. It was the sweetest, most succulent meat I had ever eaten. It was also my first-ever potjie.
Its meat is not as “gamey” as much other venison, that thing that tends to put off the timid of palate. The loin, cut into thick steaks, grills beautifully. Like all game meat, it is super lean so when cooked slowly in a stew of any kind it needs the addition of fat, such as (pork) lard. And, like most game meat, it pays the cook to include something sweet in the mix, whether dried fruit, sweet wine, or both, balanced of course with spices and/or herbs.
To this end, this week, I defrosted a springbok loin that I had been promising myself, and devised a recipe centred on the Szechuan peppercorns my friend Lynne gave me for Christmas along with all manner of other spices such as dried galangal, bonito flakes and rombo rossi masala. (Yes, you’ll be finding those in my recipes soon.)
It’s on occasions such as this that the entire fillet becomes mine, being the only member of my family that has a taste for game. This is not a problem for me; there’s always breakfast next morning to think about, and a leftover-venison sandwich with pickle and a smear of a sweet relish is a fine thing. In any event, there’s not much to a springbok loin, so into a marinade it went in the morning and onto the coals it went in the evening. You’ll find the recipe linked to here. And if I’d wanted to share it, I would have bought two. DM/TGIFood
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