Tough Trip To The Karoo

After several locust plagues and a severe drought, Maj-Gen Dundas, in 1801, sent a commission into the Karoo to investigate the situation.  Among them was William Somerville who recorded the trip in his journals, which have recently been published by the Van Riebeeck Society.  A train of six large bullock wagons was readied for the trip. “They had sufficient strength to handle the badness of the roads, where there were roads,” said a member of the party. He added that those who knew only the annoyances of travelling on a jolting mail coach or the distress of waiting for post horses would be interested to know that preparing for such a journey was equal to outfitting a ship for a sea voyage.


The party left Cape Town on October 1, 1801, and travelled for five hours to the farm Pampoenkraal (present-day Durbanville), where they obtained fresh oxen, 12 for each wagon. They trekked on again for seven hours to reach Middleburg, a farm near Paarl, where they spent the night. From there they headed to the Berg River, where a ferry helped them to cross. As a considerable time was spent transporting the wagons across, they were only able to reach Groenberg (near present-day Wellington) at the end of the second day. Next day they tackled the rugged Roodezand Kloof Pass. They found that the route over Witsenberg and Skurfte Berg (today’s Gydo Pass) totally unsuitable for wagons and spent two hours negotiating the difficult Tulbagh Pass to reach Gouda and Tulbagh, and the Bokkeveld.  There, on the fourth day, the axle of one of the wagons was so badly damaged that they feared it could go no further.


The route did a u-turn towards present day Worcester and then ahead lay the great plains of the Karoo. They knew “the worst of the trip still lay ahead”. They reached Karoo Poort on the eighth day and from then on they had to contend with sparse grazing and brack water. At the “briny Tanqua River”, they met Gerrit Visser, who had built a permanent residence, a better house than they hitherto had seen. Visser, who had travelled frequently to the Orange River, was able to give them a great deal of good information on what route to follow.


The commission travelled on through the Roggeveld where the drought had been so bad that water sources “hitherto reckoned on as constant” had dried up. The veld was bare, locusts had destroyed the grazing. Also an outbreak of horse sickness had taken its toll together with other plagues.  Conditions were fearful and these worsened as they travelled. “The poorer inhabitants had lost so much of their stock and suffered the wages of heat and cold to the extent that they were totally destitute and without even bread.” Some were subsisting on a never-ending daily fare of mutton, but had no salt with which to flavor it. After 13 days and about 100 travelling hours from Cape Town, the commissioners found it difficult to procure fresh oxen and the hooves of the their animals were beginning to fail.  At one spot, near the Riet River, a field cornet, who had promised nine teams of oxen, could send only two. It was October, yet the nights were cold. Hoar frost covered the ground, and travelling conditions was miserable as they neared the Nuweveld Mountains, near present day Beaufort West.  By then they had been travelling for 18 days. They found some fish in the rivers, but once cooked it tasted muddy and foul. “The flesh was flabby and full of small bones.  Because of the drought there was not much game, but they were able to find ostrich eggs and used these to supplement the menu.  At times during this journey across the Karoo “there was not a tree of any description to be seen.”


Rose’s Roundup, Febr 2012 (No 217).

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