Cycling William John Burchell's early route exploring the Cape

If you're reading original sources on South African history, you won't have to read far before you come across William John Burchell. He wasn't the first scientist-explorer to visit these parts, but most commentators agree he had the edge on his contemporaries.

He generally went further, took more risks, was more precise, collected more specimens, described them more accurately and chalked up more firsts (everyone has heard of Burchell's zebra!). He also did more drawings and paintings, botanical, zoological, architectural and cultural, than the rest.

Burchell produced the intriguing map published with his Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa in 1824. The map, which folds out from the back of the second volume, demands study. In black and white, it is chock-full of tantalising detail.

Most striking was Burchell’s destination on the outward leg of his trek to Litakun (near modern-day Kuruman), a Tswana town that at the time – 1812 – was the same size as Cape Town. Besides this, the only settlements were a mission station at Klaarwater (now Griekwastad) and Tulbagh, proclaimed in 1795.

I compared Burchell’s 200-year-old map with a modern map of South Africa, patting myself on the back as I found yet another of his places, mostly shown as farms. But then, through web research, I found that a motorbiker had already worked out Burchell's route and ridden the bulk of it.

This was something of a disappointment. Part of the fun of putting the route together was gone, but following his map would give me an excuse to go cycling in the Karoo, one of my favourite things to do.

Burchell stayed in Strand Street at the manse of the Lutheran Church. Both buildings are still standing.

I read up on Burchell, who was born in 1781, and who was unusual to say the least. The son of a prosperous nursery owner in Fulham, London, the 13-year-old Burchell wrote to his parents telling them to stop sending him pocket money as he had no need of it.

The early 1800s were defined by the tectonic Napoleonic Wars, between Britain and France, with other major powers drawn in. Napoleon had sent troops to the Cape to strengthen its ally, the Dutch. The British responded by sending a fleet to seize the Colony to prevent the sea route to the east from falling to French control.

Burchell sailed in 1805 with this fleet, alighting at St Helena where he tried to run his own company for a while before taking jobs in teaching and botany. Against the initial wishes of his parents, he sought to marry one Lucia Green. This took some persuasion, but in the end they relented and the bride-to-be sailed to St Helena, the would-be bridegroom ready and waiting to proceed with the nuptials. Down the gangplank came Lucia, only to relay the message that “she had transferred her affections to the ship’s captain”.

Burchell did not have the temperament to work for someone else, not least the government, so these jobs did not last. Fortunately for him the Burchells were sufficiently wealthy for their son to indulge his passions and interests. In 1811 he sailed to the Cape.

Burchell spent long enough in Cape Town to design and have his own wagon built and hire staff. He enthusiastically collected plants, about 100 specimens a day, took long walks, as far as Constantia and back, drew the town, including a map, and described key events, including a couple of earthquakes which so terrorised the residents that some camped out on the grand parade.

Burchell also learned Dutch to be able to converse with the Khoi staff he had hired.

Strand Street, then on the foreshore, as drawn by Burchell.

If one was to list his skills and talents, it could be better to note the things he couldn’t do. He was a botanist, geologist, a cartographer, a linguist, orthographer, artist, mathematician, a passable medic, astronomer, flautist and a talented writer. The only thing I have found he couldn’t do was braai a steak. 

Slavery was practised in the Cape then, as it was in Britain, it being formally abolished in 1834 with a four-year period thereafter whereby slaves served apprenticeships. This is not in any way to suggest that South Africa had a free labour market after 1838.

Where did Burchell stand on the issue of slavery? He couldn’t have been clearer: “Nothing that the most ingenious advocates for slavery have advanced, can stand against that powerful objection, that it is morally wrong, and directly contrary to the best and dearest feelings of human nature.”

Burchell stayed in Strand Street, in the manse alongside the Lutheran Church, both of which are still standing. The church building is the oldest in the country.

He left Cape Town, the castle denoting the edge of the town then, in June 1811, and would only return four years later.

Outward leg

My plan was to ride the 1 200km to Litakun. I rode as far as the Berg River, that night staying in a farmhouse that pre-dates Burchell, being built in the late 1700s. I followed service roads the next day along a canal and then a railway line through the Roodezandkloof (now known as the Nieuwekloof), which Burchell drew, and then towards the Karoopoort, which he also drew, and where he outspanned. By this time he had already taken on an additional wagon, the first being deemed unsuitable by itself for the job at hand.

I had been restless to reach the Karoopoort, a magical place where the road takes you in a couple of easy zigs and zags, seemingly without gaining altitude, into the Karoo. There are few farms here and little of what we call civilisation. From here, I reckoned, I’d get a better sense of the country as Burchell had seen it.

I had an AA map but soon started just using his map as I cycled along, noting, because he shows all his overnight camps, which he calls stations, where he had stopped. These were mostly on dry river beds.

I started getting a real sense of just how slowly he moved. I could see a few of his overnight stops, from landmarks reflected on the map, just up the road, no more than 5km away.

The Dutch East India company did not allow settlers to move inland until 1700. These rules were changed in the early 1700s, making way for unencumbered colonial expansions, in the words of “into the lands of the Khoi-khoi”.

For many, frontier life was harsh. Just after the Karoopoort, Burchell met a boer with a flock of sheep who did everything he could, even lying about there being water, to convince him to move on, so short was the area of grazing and water.

Roodezandkloof on the way to Tulbagh as Burchell drew it.

A sign told me there was a farm that offered accommodation and I pulled in. This was at Burchell’s Sugar-bird Station, near the Ongeluks River and just after a well-known landmark, the Hangklip.

The family who own the farm know of Burchell, have a copy of Travels and have traced the original wagon route through the area. It can frequently be seen from the present dirt road, which is a reasonably close approximation but has taken out some of the kinks.

The family had bits of broken pottery that had been recovered at the site at the river bed where Burchell is thought to have camped. No one knows for sure the pottery was his, but its status is shown by the fact that when they bought the property the broken bits were transferred to them along with the title deeds.

About 300km from Cape Town I came across the last occupied farm Burchell found. This is just before the Verlatenkloof Pass, which climbs and climbs up to Sutherland, although the town was non-existent in Burchell’s day.

His map shows, then, as now, the road running from spring to spring. The farmers I met couldn't get enough of the map, holding it carefully as they poured over it. “Look, everything is to do with water,” said one.

I found scenes, such as the Riet (Reed) River, which are pretty much exactly as Burchell drew them.

I gazed at the suggestion of water that is the Karee River, wondering if the young Burchell had also taken in this timeless scene, perhaps thinking of Lucia and what might have been. 

Roodezand – now Nieuwekloof – today. (Kevin Davie)

A little further down the road, Burchell met a boer who came to beg that he take a look at his gravely ill daughter. “Entering a low, temporary hut formed of sticks, rushes and mats, we found the unfortunate patient lying in a bed spread upon the ground.” The girl was in the advanced stages of leprosy, the result of an infected needle used to vaccinate three years earlier. He could do nothing for her.

Vast swaths of the Karoo are now unoccupied or under-occupied as farms have grown dramatically in size to make them commercially viable. Farming families struggle, too, to keep their offspring on the land for the simple reason that for many city life is much more attractive.

But most farms on this route through the Roggeveld were occupied, pretty much every farmer I met having being educated at Stellenbosch University.

I was told the story about Buffelbout, a farm, even before I got there. Burchell says a Khoi man had been severely wounded in the thigh by a buffalo here. The story has improved with re-telling. A farmer told me the man had been hunting and had dived down an anteater’s hole to hide from a marauding animal, but that the hole was not deep enough and he had got stuck with his backside exposed. The buffalo, enjoying his salty buttocks, had licked him to death.

But Henry Lichtenstein, also a naturalist, had met Buffelbout, as the disabled Khoi man was known when he came through here a handful of years earlier, and included an account of the incident in his Travels in Southern Africa.

Lichtenstein, coincidentally, had met Burchell on St Helena and was instrumental in persuading him to explore southern Africa.

Burchell was one of the few early explorers Bushmen welcomed to their living sites.

Buffelbout for Burchell was potentially a place to water his parched oxen and sheep. But there was little water and the animals soon turned what little there was to mud.

“Thus unable to assuage their thirst, they stood around us, incessantly making a mournful piteous noise, as if the reproach us for bringing them into a country where thirst and starvation seemed to await them.”

The party continued to the next water hole, Jonker’s Water, where Burchell records just two words on his map: No water. 

In his day lions roamed here, one stared down at his party on the road; now it is a salt operation with whirling windmills and everything glimmering in the sun.

I cycled into Prieska and the next morning crossed the Gariep. Burchell took great care to establish indigenous names wherever he could and used Gariep rather than Orange, so named by Robert Gordon in honour of his Dutch heritage in 1779. Sadly it remains the dominant usage to the day.

Burchell halted at Klaarwater (now Griekwastad), it being more than a year before he continued northwards. An expedition into the interior that had preceded his by a few years, led by a Dr Cowan and Captain Donovan, had not been heard of again.

His advice in the Cape, and certainly from the missionaries at Klaarwater, was not to proceed. The Khoi people at Klaarwater he tried to hire were not keen as two of their number had been recruited by Cowan, never to be seen again.

Burchell decided to make a 500km detour to Graaff Reinet to hire staff. This journey, across Bushmanland, had not been done by any outsider. His Khoi informants said the last person who had tried this journey ended up with so many arrows in his body he looked like a porcupine.

Second leg

On my second trip following Burchell, I started out at Griekwastad. At Prieska I was joined by Zak Barnard, who runs the local Spar. Zak had helped me with a torn tyre on my earlier ride from the Cape.

We, like Burchell, would mostly follow the Brak, a largely waterless river from the hinterland above Graaff Reinet to the Gariep.

Burchell bemoaned forgetting to inquire about the indigenous name of the river as it could end up as yet another Brak River. “As a river of this length bears, doubtlessly, some distinctive appellation among the Bushmen, I have not presumed to give it one of my own; but leave this blank in my map to be filled up by some traveller who may hereafter discover the name by which it has been always known to the aboriginal inhabitants of the country,” he wrote in Travels.

I did not meet many farmers and farmworkers on this route, but when I did I asked them what names they knew for the river? The answer: the Brak.

Burchell did have his own name for the river, though. His party came to rely on water holes in the river for their progress, so much so that he thought of it as the Friendly River.

But there is another feature of the Brak now. For hundreds of kilometres the river bed is all but choked by prosopis, a tree farmers introduced years back for shade, wood fuel and animal feed. In places it is so thick you cannot get through. There have been attempts to fight it back, but from what I have seen the prosopis is winning hands down.

The 'invaluable' Juli accompanied Burchell for three and a half years of his travels.

Zak and I left early, stopping to say hello to the farmers where we could. It got hot and then hotter still. We crossed the Brak at a point where there were pools of cool, calf-deep brown water. We stripped off and lay in it. Back at my bike I checked my thermometer: 50°C.

But we had missed a turn somewhere and were lost. Where the afternoon heat usually begins to subside, after say 3pm, this was not the case. The heat came off the earth as a rhythmic pulse that got hotter and hotter until at least 7pm, when it finally began to subside.

We had seen a farmer at the 40km mark and then not another person for the next 160km. We were both out of water, but I had been refilling at the odd working sheep watering station. Zak had not. He even broke a window at a deserted farmhouse to get to a tap he saw through the window. It was dry.

I was light-headed from the heat and hardly moving, just wanting to lie down and rest. We rode into the night, Zak remarking at one point that our lights would be suspicious to farmers. In sheep-theft territory, you can expect farmers to shoot first and ask questions afterwards, he said.

The day gave me new, deep respect for Burchell and the hardships he endured as he trekked around the country.

I rode on to Graaff Reinet over the next few days, completing another 500km of Burchell’s travels. 

Return leg

A few months later I returned, this time with friends and a backup vehicle, for the return leg. We rode back roads during the day and feasted on Karoo hospitality in the evenings, including one night in a barn that used to be the main farmhouse in the 1700s.

The last night we camped under the stars in the Brak. There was a farmer nearby who brought us water and firewood. We braaied lamb in the river bed and slept out, being woken at around daybreak by the gentlest of drizzling rain.

I had spotted a likely place for Burchell’s Poverty Kraal on the "down" leg. He had come across a small group of Bushmen who had invited him to visit their home. “I had suffered myself to be guided over this hill by our last visitors, because they were desirous of conducting me to their kraal, as a mark of friendship: which it certainly was, if we consider with what jealous care this nation always conceal from the colonists the place of their abode.”

What he saw was half a dozen wretched, weather-worn huts with only a third of the circumference enclosed and utterly incapable of protecting the inhabitants from the inclemency of wind or rain.

“Within these huts there was no property of any kind, except in one or two, a dirty furless skin, or the shell of an ostrich egg. Never before had I beheld, or even imagined, so melancholy, so complete, a picture of poverty.”

Here is Burchell at his rawest: “Well! I involuntarily exclaimed to myself, and is this the home of human beings! Have I been sleeping on the bed of ease, and pampered with a thousand useless luxuries, while my fellow creatures have been wandering the burning plains from day to day, and have returned at last to their wretched huts to pass the painful night in hunger, and unsheltered from the storm!

“Yes, unfavoured savages, unpitied and despised as ye are by the thoughtless and unfeeling, ye are still men, and feel the pains of want, the misery of care; as ye are, ye still are not too ignorant to know that injustice and oppression confirm no right, and that God has given equal liberty to all; rude and uncivilised as ye are, ye are still insensible to the dictate of conscience, that kindness should be remembered with a grateful heart.”

Their condition was akin to that of animals, he wrote, even though the Creator had blessed them with a soul which can never die.

Kaabi's kraal in Bushmanland, between Klaarwater and Graaff Reinet.

A faint track led off the dirt road to low hills about 500m away. Giant black doleritic boulders dotted the area. I had not announced the area in anyway as something potentially interesting. There was no plan or pre-discussion, but one and twos of our group left the vehicles and walked towards the hills, all choosing their own spot for quiet, unscripted reflection.

I had not stopped at Griekwastad on my ride from Cape Town as Burchell had done, but had ridden on. In the area south of Kuruman is a giant facility used for weapons testing and practising war manoeuvres.

I knew this but the locals I spoke to thought I’d nonetheless be able to ride through. There were faded, old South African Defence Force signs and a creaky low gate where the restricted area began. Cow patties told me that the area I was riding in had not been blasted – well, not recently anyway. I rode on for perhaps 10km.

A large SANDF truck came lumbering up to me. I know trouble when I see it.

“Have you seen a bumper?” they asked.

I looked around to indicate I did not have it. “No.”

They drove off.

After a few more kilometres I saw that the area was in use. Tents had been set up with webbing to disguise their presence and those impressive eight-wheels Ratels (or whatever they were) in attendance. But if soldiers were to be seen, they were not fussed by me. I gave courteous little waves and rode further.

A little on, though, a soldier saw me and pantomimed that shooting was going on. I cycled over and spoke to a major who was not too fazed about my presence. I think the previous regime, so to speak, would have had me arrested and given me extra national service to boot, but the major did think I should take a direct route to the east out of the area as further ahead there was real stuff happening.

This turned out to be a really long detour. I rode and rode and rode and rode, eventually coming to what I am sure is the Last Farm in the Universe. I discussed possible routes with the owner, saying I wanted to go north. My sense was that there was such a route, which involved going under military fences, but that the Last Farmer, unsure whether he should share this with me, eventually decided against this. The alternative was simple: I rode and rode and rode and rode on more of a detour.

Litakun, a Tswana town near present-day Kuruman, then the size of Cape Town.

Burchell, as I have said, went as far as Litakun. Today this is the settlement of Dithakong, which can be seen on Google Earth as an area of numerous man-made rock circles. He spent months here, drawing the Bachapins, a Tswana people, and describing their customs. These people today are usually referred to as Tlhaping. Burchell devoted more than two-thirds of the second volume of Travels to his time with the Tlhaping, who were then semi-nomadic and moved their settlement every decade or so. They were due to move the following year after Burchell’s visit.

I found the rock circles and then a nearby church, where the Sunday service was just ending, and spoke to a group of church elders. I told them of Burchell and his visit to Litakun 200 years previously and asked of the story of the place and the rock circles. My sense was that the present residents do not own this story.

Burchell started north from Litakun, but his staff were in open rebellion and would go no further. He decided instead to return to Cape Town via the border of the colony at the Fish River mouth. But here, almost in mid-sentence, Volume 2 of Travels ends.

Burchell kept extensive diaries and notes and institutions in Britain and South Africa have extensive collections of his material, yet pretty much all of the narrative for the return journey has been lost. Just the drawings, map and field notes of his collections remain.

This was a major problem for me. I loved the drawings and map but was completely seduced by his narrative, which drew me in and kept me transfixed. I could not imagine riding the return journey without the narrative. It was 2012, I had cycled 2 200km of his route, but did not know what to do next.

Back to Cape Town

Quite early in my Burchell travels I had come across Roger Stewart, a Cape Town-based Burchell enthusiast who has researched extensively and published aspects of Burchell’s work in South Africa. I made contact with him and found him to be exceedingly generous with his knowledge and materials.

Stewart, using letters and whatever scraps he could find, managed to put together a surprising amount of material on Burchell’s return to Cape Town. Visits to the Africana Museum in Johannesburg, which has most of Burchell’s 500 drawings and paintings, including his sketchbooks, helped fill some gaps.

I have now cycled about 4 000km of his route, including from near Colesberg via Graaff Reinet to the Fish River mouth and from here to Cape Town. Some parts, notably a section of pristine track to the south of Prince Alfred’s Pass, I have still to do.

I not infrequently at yet another scenic spot he visited on his travels say a quiet thank you, WJB, for bringing me to yet another beautiful place I would not have visited. The scale of his scientific ambition and the courage he showed in the pursuit of satisfying an insatiable mind is equally disarming.

A strongly flowing spring near present-day Carnarvon.

Many of his places, including a rock ruin near Graaff Reinet where he was holed up with flu, the first such epidemic in the country, are as they were when he saw them. But others have changed out of all comprehension. The crowded Atlantic seaboard that is Sea Point, Clifton and Camp’s Bay had just two dwellings in the early 1800s.

Likewise, Bethelsdorp, now part of Port Elizabeth, itself now a part of the Nelson Mandela metropolis, was no more than a collection of Khoi huts surrounding a mission station set up by the first missionary to these parts, Johannes van der Kemp. Hundreds of thousands of people live in this broad area now.

Assuming 25 years per generation, this incomprehensible change has come in just eight generations. What will it look like in another 200 years?

An unequal legacy and a gift

Burchell arrived back in Cape Town in 1815. Liberalising winds were beginning to blow, one manifestation being that what was the slave lodge, now a museum at the foot of the town gardens, when he left had been transformed into the palace of justice by his return.

But the winds became decidedly illiberal over time and by the time grand apartheid had been established in the 1950s, black South Africans had the right to breathe but not much more.

Burchell returned home to catalogue the 60 000 botanical specimens he had collected in South Africa. He published Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa in 1824, later spending five years on a similar expedition to Brazil. But just as the material from the return leg of his South African journey is missing, so too is the Brazilian record.

One author noted that Burchell always took on more than he could manage and speculates that, in the end, his collections overwhelmed him. Stewart conjectures, and I concur, that the missing material was probably destroyed by his own hand. He lived to be 82, but in poor health committed suicide by shooting himself after a failed attempt at hanging.

While the name Burchell is known to many South Africans, few have read him or know anything of his story. I have even heard anecdotally of a professor of botany who did not know of him. A small band of enthusiasts who are avid fans bemoan the fact that he has little public recognition.

His supporters see his biggest contribution to South Africa in the evidence he gave to Parliament on where the unemployed masses in Britain, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, should be settled. But while Burchell gave detailed evidence, his contribution was at best on where in the Eastern Cape settlement should take place. The far greater driving force behind the 1820 settlers was governor Lord Somerset, who wanted to establish a buffer between the colony and the Xhosa.

The 1820 settler descendants are proud of their contribution to South Africa, but this too would need to be assessed against the legacies of inequality that the new South Africa inherited.

Crossing the Berg River, near Cape Town.

Burchell’s supporters see his lack of fame resulting from his not being an establishment figure and from having running wars with some of these types, but it seems to me there was a much bigger issue at play. To get the full picture we need to go back to the days just after he came through the Karoopoort, to the Juk River, which is beyond the Hangklip and his Sugar-bird Station. He writes:

“In this arid country, where every juicy vegetable would soon be eaten up by the wild animals, the Great Creating Power, with all-provident wisdom, has given to such plants either an acrid or poisonous juice, or sharp thorns, to preserve the species from annihilation in those regions, where, good and wise purposes, they have been placed.

“The harmony which pervades every part of the universe, is not less wonderful and beautiful in the distribution of animals and vegetables over the face of the globe, than in the planetary system, and in the sublime arrangements of myriads of worlds throughout the inconceivable infinity of space.

“In the wide system of created objects, nothing is wanting, nothing is superfluous: the smallest weed or insect is as indispensably necessary to the general good: as the largest object we behold. Each has its peculiar part to perform, conducive ultimately to the well-being of all.”

I would have wanted him to come to these conclusions at the end of his trip, but his South African journey had only begun and he was just 30 years old.

Other scientists were looking at the oneness of the natural world, and coming to different conclusions on its origins. Burchell corresponded with Charles Darwin, exchanging notes for instance on how Brazil with its verdant flora had no large quadrupeds, while these were in no short supply in the arid South Africa. It is thought that Darwin had a copy of Travels on his famous Beagle and Burchell was one of just a small number of invitees who attended the first public talks intended to begin publicising the new thinking that was the theory of evolution.

Burchell saw and described what Darwin did, but he saw the oneness to have been created by God; Darwin saw it to be the product of time, of evolution.

But to really assess Burchell and his contribution to South Africa you'd have to know one more thing about him. This is well-hidden. I had ridden 3 000km of his route before I fully realised it.

His system of collecting and recording plants is so extensive and precise that we know with great proximity where every plant was collected. His route took in 10 of the country’s 11 biomes. Some of the plants are unique to the area where he found and recorded them.

I know of only one case where enthusiasts have tried to find the plants he did and in one case it took several years to find the specimen he had collected two centuries ago. While, as I have said, much of his South African narrative has been lost, this does not apply to the field notes that recorded every specimen he found.

In the age of climate change and the destruction of habitat and species, he has given us a unique record from 200 years ago. A rare gift indeed.

Further reading:

  • Burchell’s Travels: The Life, Art and Journeys of William John Burchell | 1781-1863 by Susan Buchanan. (Penguin, 2015)
  • Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa by William John Burchell. (Google books, 1824)