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Travelling the forgotten highway of South Africa’s hinterland

Travelling the forgotten highway of South Africa’s hinterland
Heading north these days reveals some of the hardship and beauty these early explorers, hunters and escaping slaves must have experienced. (Photo: Chris Marais)

A brand new heritage route spanning the Karoo and Kalahari reveals some of the country’s most dramatic history.

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. 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 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.

The Forgotten Highway

The richness of wildlife and the fertile plains were a major attraction for hunters and livestock farmers. Inevitably, there were major clashes between the two. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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.

The Forgotten Highway

Trekking North: This image, provenance unknown, is in the Calvinia Museum. It seems to record black hunters heading through the hinterland, with what looks like ivory and pelts. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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.

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?

Nigel Penn, Professor Emeritus of History at UCT, and author of The Forgotten Frontier. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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.

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 could internalise its rhythms and phrases. The more enlightening documents, he explains, were from court cases, which at least reflected what ordinary people said and did.

The Forgotten Highway

The Forgotten Highway traverses the bossieveld of the Karoo into the sandy dunes and grasslands of the Kalahari. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Northward

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.

The Forgotten Highway

This was not an easy land to cross in a wagon. Water was a constant issue. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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 route

The Forgotten Highway route stretches over 1,000km of astounding South African history. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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.

The Forgotten Highway

Professor Doreen Atkinson of the Karoo Development Foundation. The Forgotten Highway is her brainchild. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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.

“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.”

The Forgotten Highway

Victoria West, at the crossroads between the R63 and N12, was the site of the Forgotten Highway Summit. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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

KDF Summiteers: The Forgotten Highway Summiteers gathered in May 2023, outside Victoria West. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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.

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, a direct descendant of elephant hunters, forgers, Korana leaders and Griquas from the Forgotten Frontier. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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 Griqua.

Speakers from all corners

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

Mpho Molema of Kuruman, champion of the BaTlhaping heritage. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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 are still celebrated in this region.

Thabiso Macheoane of Postmasburg is a tour guide and photographer. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Tour guide and photographer Thabiso Macheoane of Postmasburg uncovered the difficulties of 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.

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.

In the 1960s, a dam burst revealed this palaeo surface outside Fraserburg, featuring the footprints that many small and large creatures left 250 million years ago, including this one, from a Bradysaurus. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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.

Any increase in tourism through this ‘Empty Quarter’ will help uplift impoverished communities. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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

The area between Carnarvon, Williston and Loxton has many corbelled houses, like this one on Stuurmansfontein, which welcomes guests. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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.”

A bit of madness inside the Williston Mall, also on the Forgotten Highway. (Photo: Chris Marais)

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

“Now, 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. DM

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

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 by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]

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