Travelling in the 1700s: Carl Peter Thurnberg and Francois Masson

Adventurous men were drawn to the vast South African interior, but they soon discovered exploring was not easy. Water was the limiting factor and so the map became littered with names indicative of the drought and hardships of travelling. Towards the Sandveld (itself an unfriendly name) lay Knersvlakte (gnashing of teeth) then there was the Koup (caulfat in Khoisan), indicating the driest and dreariest part of the “Karoo”, which itself is a Khoisan a word for thirstland. Routes were peppered with names like Moedverloor (lost hope), Keerom (turn around) and Allesverloren (all is lost). Travelers worried whether there was water ahead, if so, where, and would they be able to find it. Finding drinkable water was difficult along the rough, rugged routes into the interior where at times the water was so brack that the animals would not and, sometimes simply could not, drink it. Some water holes were impossible to find without a guide and, in times of severe drought even these men refused to travel. Then came the rains and new problems. Roads became so slippery in places that travelers were forced to dismount and lead their horses. The poor animals slipped and stumbled on the rough rocks, often cutting their legs to ribbons.


In the late 1700s, Carl Peter Thunberg and Francois Masson wrote that they had reached “the Carro, a desart (desert) of three day’s journey, with no fresh water.” They mention hoping to find even pits of brackish water, “enough to preserve the lives of our cattle.” These pits, however, often were a distance from the road and this made it difficult for strangers to find them. “If we miss them, we will probably perish in this inhospitable desert.” At one stage their draught animals were so thirsty their tongues were hanging out of their mouths. Suddenly a lake appeared on the road ahead and they rushed towards it only to find it was a salt lake. Fortunately by nightfall they found a fresh water spring. The area might have been inhospitable, but the people were not. The early travelers write of nothing but friendliness. On this particular trip, Thunberg and Masson met a farmer heading home and making better time along the road than they were. He left white rags tied to thorn trees at every watering spot so that they would easily find places to refresh themselves and their animals. Another farmer, also hastening home, sent back his servants to assist them over particularly rugged places and up a mountain pass.


© Rose’s Roundup, vol. 2, no. 76, January 2010

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