Sep 17, 2011

Lost Trials of the Transvaal: Chapter 2, by Thomas Bulpin

The following text was sourced from chapter 2 of a rare book by  Thomas Bulpin - “Lost Trials of the Transvaal”. The chapter heading is called “Superstition Mountains”. These are the mountains known today as the Soutpansberg Mountains (Salt Pan Mountains) situated in the modern-day Limpopo province. It is the most northern mountain range in South Africa.

The copy of Bulpin’s book I have in my possession, published in 1965, has an authors note, stating: “This book represents the combined material of several earlier works, Lost Trials of the Low Veld, The Golden Republic, Storm over the Transvaal and Lost Trials of the Transvaal (1956 edition). Much new material has also been added in the process of correction and modification.” 

The copy in my possession is beautifully illustrated with line drawings by A.A. Telford and C.T.A. Maberly.

Please take note that the original text from the book was scanned in digitally, and then copy-pasted into MS-Word. Although I have proofread the text with extra care, there may still be minor spelling errors I may have missed. A few minor spelling errors were found in the original text, but these were corrected.

For purposes of illustration I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few relevant images, not from the original book, but from current content freely available on the public domain. (Picture credits are at the end of this posting.)

Lost Trials of the Transvaal – Chapter 2
Superstition Mountains
By Thomas Bulpin

lf it was the Romans who first devised that ancient jingle “there is always something new out of Africa”, then it was the Africans themselves who were always providing fresh surprises, both for foreigners and themselves.

The Karanga and the Tswana tribal elements were not left in undisturbed possession of their fine new Transvaal home for long. Fresh tribal groups were constantly bobbing up out of the nowhere of the surrounding mananga (wilderness) and shouldering their way into the Transvaal in search of a sanctuary.

About 350 years ago, when the Nguni people who subsequently became the Zulus had just migrated down the east coast into Natal, a small party detached itself from the main body and, under a chief named Musi, wandered into the Transvaal. They settled about the site of modern Pretoria. There Musi’s son Tshwane (the little ape) came into his inheritance and, when his time was come, died and bequeathed his name to posterity as the African name for the Aapies River.

The original tribal name of these settlers is unknown. The Tswana-speaking people of the central plains dubbed them maTebele; indicating “a refugee people” or “people who hide”; and this name the newcomers happily incorporated into their own tongue in the form of Ndebele. It was the same name which was to be applied 200 years later to the grim warriors of Mzilikazi. In exchange the Nguni people named the Tswana people baSotho (or Basuto) and by this name they are best known in the Transvaal and Orange Free State.

These first Ndebele were a peaceful crowd of people. No great wars or excitements took place in their lives. Legend, with its easy explanations of forgotten events simply tells us that when Tshwane died he left six ambitious sons who each refused to bow to a brother. The whole tribe, accordingly, was split up into six groups: each independent, but all acknowledging a common origin.

One group, under Manala, remained at the original tribal home and built kraals at Wonderboompoort, just north of modern Pretoria. A second section under Ndzundza removed to the Olifants River; and their latter-day chiefs, with the family name of Mabogo (Mapoch), were destined to win some fame.

Of the rest of the brothers, Dhlomu is said to have gone back to Zululand, two others lost their identity in later years, while the sixth, Mathombeni, wandered up northwards and eventually settled in the bush along the southern slopes of the Strydpoort Mountains. There, in the course of years, his descendants quarrelled and split up: some settling near modern Potgieterus and others remaining near the mountains, where their latter-day chief Mamukebe obtained some renown and the honorific name of Zebediyela (the diplomat) on account of his prudent and peaceful reign at a period of much trouble between European and African.

Several other minor sections of the Ndebele people are distributed over the Transvaal, including a small group known as the Black Ndebele, who live near Potgietersrus and came to the Transvaal quite separately from the rest.

These scattered groups of Ndebele people are nowadays surrounded entirely by the more numerous Tswana people of the Transvaal. With stubborn conservatism, however, the Ndebele have retained their own personality. They have few customs other than a simple ceremony known as Luma, performed each year in February, when their chief ritually samples the first fruits of the harvest. They are noted for the distinctive architecture of their villages. Their huts are elaborately decorated in many colours and with most intricate patterns.

Their womenfolk, likewise, are remarkable for their elaborate costume, made up of heavy rings of beads worn around neck, waist and legs. The descendants of old Manala have become particularly well-known in recent years to tourists and motorists travelling along the modern Pretoria-Johannesburg road. They stand by the wayside, offering finely-made bead necklaces and other ornaments to the passing stream of travellers and, dressed in their bright and distinctive costume, they have become probably the most photographed tribe in Africa.

A second African invasion of the Transvaal in these relatively later days came from the north. About the beginning of the eighteenth century, some tribal disturbance in the old Karanga empire of Rhodesia sent a fresh group of migratory people down into the south. Precisely who these newcomers were remains obscure. Some legends have it that they were a former part of the Karanga people proper. Others, perhaps nearest to the truth, say that the newcomers were of the Rozvi section of the Karanga tribe who had lately become the dominant power in that romantic old African empire, and then thrown off this fragment of themselves in the course of some domestic squabble.

At all events, led by a chief named Dimbanyika, these newcomers came down into the Transvaal. They crossed the Limpopo, which they named the Vhembe (gatherer) and on the southern side discovered the tributary which they named Nzhelele (the enterer).

The world in which they found themselves was a hot and arid wilderness; but before them, on the horizon to the south, seemingly on the very edge of beyond, there lay a range of delectable mountains, stretched out in an eighty-mile length of purple heights, with Lejume, a 5,718-feet-high summit, as the monarch of the range.

In successive parties, the newcomers wandered up the course of the Nzhelele River, and in this way eventually found themselves at its headwaters in the heart of the range. The mountain world they had discovered was an ideal home. On its heights and in its green valleys they found a sanctuary from the heat and sickness and drought of the bush. The range was varied in its scenery, but always beautiful and fertile. It was well watered and thickly wooded, with gorgeous sub-tropical forests of wild figs and stinkwoods, all draped with creepers and moss and delicate orchids.

The newcomers named their new home Venda, which some say means The Pleasant Land. They became known as the baVenda (people of the land of Venda) and they settled down to drive its original human inhabitants away and to till the land and build new homes. The only disadvantage the land of Venda had, in fact, lay with its original inhabitants. The Venda people were an intensely superstitious crowd, and all manner of notions and illusions were attached to the glades and forests of the mountains, while strange secrets were whispered and discussed around the kraal fires that flickered like stars from the dark slopes at night.

Bushmen had long made their homes in the mountains. They found shelter in the caves along the range after the raids which they launched down into the bush veld. There they rested and feasted, and held their dances and mimes in honour of the triumphs of the chase, after they had tracked down the fat antelopes.

The Venda had no difficulty in driving out the Bushmen. The trouble lay in the spirits of the innumerable ancient ones, the fathers of the aboriginal inhabitants who had once lived and died there. In the world of shadows these ghosts had found no place more pleasant than their old homeland, and accordingly remained there.

To the newcomers, then, the range was full of ghosts from the beginning. Every stream and river and summit was haunted by sirens, water elves, or sprites called Zwidhadyani. Even the forests had their complement of spirits, while, in some lonely valleys, there stood enchanted trees full of strange rustlings and whisperings, with cool shadows which invited the traveller to rest but would claim his life if he did.

In the wildest heart of the range there lay a lake of enchantment. In some past age a landslide had swept down from the heights and blocked the valley of the Mutale River. Thus a lake was formed—a lake of quietness and magic. All alone it lay in this solitary valley, while the mountains looked down silently at their own reflections, watching the wrinkles of age creep over the face of earth, and the green leaves and the pale moon blossom and wax and fade and die.

This enchanted lake needed no visible outlet for its waters. Each day the busy Mutale carried there its offerings of millions of gallons, and the three-mile-long valley was buried deep. Beneath the landslide the water percolated stealthily out as an underground river, and then reappeared on the surface again lower down, to resume its interrupted journey to the sea.

Beneath the lake whole villages were said to lie buried, and in their streets and huts the shadows lived. Sometimes, when the water was low and clear before the summer rains, it was said that the flocks and herds of the shades could be seen grazing at the bottom of the lake; and at night, if you placed your ear dose to the water, you could hear the domba drums thudding out the rhythm of the python dance.

Indeed, beneath the waters, it was said, there lived the great python himself, the god of fertility. He it was who, in the olden times, had married two human wives: one old and one young. Each night in the dark he came to the huts, and for a brief spell each morning when the wives were out in the fields hoeing. So it happened that they never saw their husband, nor knew his proper shape.

But the young wife puzzled and wondered, until her curiosity overwhelmed her. One day, in the forbidden hour she stole back to the huts from the fields; and so discovered her husband to be a fat and good-natured python, the bringer of fertility to the range.

In horror she screamed and fled to the bush, while he, in mortification at her discovery, crept silently down to the waters of the lake end beneath its surface hid himself for ever from human view. With him he took all the fertility, the rain, and even the morning dew. The rivers and the streams dried up and famine came to the range.

Throughout the mountains, the people lamented and the chiefs and elders sought the reason for their misfortune by divination and solemn conclave; but still the drought withered the land and the people died. In the end the young wife told them of her fault, and the people begged her to make amends to her offended husband and restore fertility to the land.

Thus it was that one morning she was escorted down to the lake by all the men, blowing their reed flutes in honour of her courage. At the water’s edge she received from the chief a calabash of the choicest beer. Then, with the calabash carried in her hands, she walked slowly deeper and deeper into the water until It embraced her utterly and she was gone.

Fertility returned, for the python god was placated; and still today the people of the district go down to the lake with the chief Netshiyavho, the hereditary guardian of its waters. A member of his lineage walks out into the lake carrying a pot of beer. This he pours out upon the water. If it sinks the water god accepts the offering and times will be good. If he rejects, the beer will float and the shades will attempt to pull the supplicant beneath the surface. To guard against this eventuality, a rope is securely tied to the carrier of beer as a safety line to haul him back to his fellows.

So the lake lies there in the isolated mountains. It is so powerful and potent a magic force that all Venda people seeing it for the first time must pay full respects. They bow with their backs towards it, looking at it meanwhile from between their legs, from which act, some say, has come the lake’s name of Fundudzi, the word describing this curious, respectful bow.

Further in the east of the range there lies the tumbling white beauty of the Phiphidi Falls, and a more magic waterfall there never was. The Mutshindudi River in this spot goes alternately cascading and falling down from the mountain tops to the thirsty low veld. In the old days the chieftainess Phiphidi lived in the drowsy forest growing around the falls. It is her name which still lingers over the place; and the spirits of many chiefs are said to be its guardians, for the forest is the traditional burial ground for the royal Tshivhase (Sibasa) family and as such is taboo, a sanctuary for ever for the shadows, the chattering monkeys and the gaily-singing birds.

The upper fall is the most beautiful. Although only thirty feet in height it has a sparkle and rush and melody delightful to both mind and eye; but it is at night that the fall comes to enchanted life. Then it is that the water spirits dance to the sweet sound of their reed flutes, the big drums thud beneath the waters of the pool below, and strange voices call and cry.

This pool has a magic of its own. Guvhukuvhu the Venda call it, for that is the welcome sound the tumbling waters make, welcome because when the noise is particularly loud the Venda farmers look hopefully to the sky for rain. In many other ways the pool is said to have prophetic powers. When war is threatening its waters turn blood-red In colour. Many a maiden has cast her wishful thoughts upon the waters and looked for hours at the clear reflections in the hope of seeing there the face of someone still to come. Indeed, those reflections seem to be enchanted. Deep within the dark glades of the mirrored trees one sometimes seems to see the movement of a figure which, in the forest of reality, is not there.

The fancied spirit world of the Venda is seldom to be seen in aught save dreams, but scattered here and there are strange slabs of dolerite containing the apparent impressions of hundreds of tracks of animals and humans. These were left by the spirits, the Venda say, and the tracks are sufficiently clear and interesting to have attracted the attention of several investigators.

In 1929 the Italian expedition to Africa led by Commander Gatti spent four days in the Nzhelele Valley examining one of these rocks. It was a particularly interesting example, first discovered by a Venda herd-boy, who later became a policeman and reported his childhood find casually to his officer.

In and around this one slab of rock were some one hundred different tracks, apparently of animals (antelope, elephant and others) together with the tracks of giant human feet twelve inches in length. The Italian expedition thought the discovery of such interest that they invited a veritable company of scientists to join them in a second visit. A most learned body assembled around the slab in February 1930, and great was the debate before a sometimes prosaic science dismissed the marks, strange as they were, merely as the result of weathering, and so left them to the sun, rain and the superstition of the Venda.

The Venda newcomers have also provided the mountains with some strange traces of their first settlement. In past years, they tried their hands at canal digging and erecting stone walls after the style and culture of the Karanga empire of Rhodesia. Scattered throughout the mountains, the ruins of these canals and walled towns still remain. Dzata was the name of the most imposing of these towns, deserted now and just the home of legends. It was the greatest of the settlements built by the newcomers to the range; and still today, when they die, the faces of the chiefs are turned towards it from their burial ground in some taboo-protected wood.

Dzata was built by the chief Ndyambeyu, son of the traditional leader of the great migration. It was in his time that the Venda were industrious and powerful. Much of the stone of Dzata was carried as tribute by subject tribes for many weary miles. The stone of the royal residence, some say, was brought all the way from Rhodesia as a special honour to the mighty chief.

Unfortunately all great chiefs have to die, and not seldom as the result of their sons’ being over-impatient for their inheritance. The fertile Venda mind, long experienced in the civil wars following a chiefs death, had improvised a practical expedient to reduce the conflicts to a reasonable number. All sons of chiefs above the number of three were strangled at birth, and this reduced the inevitable tussle to a triangular contest instead of the old-fashioned mass imbroglios.

Unfortunately for Ndyambeyu, three sons were three too many. He went hunting one day with his three sons. They were after rock rabbits; and with premeditated cunning one young gentleman enticed his father and brothers into a cave with a large boulder conveniently balanced over the entrance.

While the rest of the family were inside, the schemer slipped up to the top and levered the boulder, hoping to imprison the lot; but his brothers, being sprightly young men, well up with the times, managed to slip outside. The old man, however, was securely caught. And there, for want of any kindly soul to let him out, lie remained according to legend, with his beard growing longer and longer up through the rocks, and just biding his time to return one day and restore his tribe to greatness. His sons fought out the succession for some years and then divided the tribe between them, thereby weakening it for ever, although one, Thoho-ya-Ndou (the head of an elephant), was more or less recognised as paramount chief over the three factions.

Later the Venda tribe was joined by those curious African Semites, the Lemba, who wandered down from north of the Limpopo. This odd tribal fragment is unique in South Africa. For them it is taboo to eat the flesh of any animal unless its throat has been cut in proper kosher manner before death. They refuse to eat pork and have all the insularity and relative business acumen of their middle eastern counterparts. Their physical features are also a Semitic inheritance, from the Arab and Swahili safari traders of old Karangaland who dallied too much with the girls in the land of the builders of Zimbabwe.

These Lemba possessed some peculiar skills. Their women were the potters of Vendaland, while the men excelled as smiths. They prospected the whole range as skilfully as modern Europeans could do; and every metal that lay within surface-working reach they dug out, smelted down, and cast into bangles, drew into wire, or wrought into serviceable spear heads and hoes, which were exported and accepted throughout Southern Africa as standard articles of trade.

They were great peddlers as well. From their Semitic forebears they had learned the art of trade. From the feverous coastal ports of the eastern seaboard they obtained such articles as the Africans have ever valued—beads and bangles and cloth—and carried these along perilous ways to the most secluded kraals.

How romantic these old trade objects are; and how the Venda cherish these heirlooms of the past. There is a whole history and superstition in their old beads alone. Each one is said to shelter the spirit of an ancestor. Wonderful beads! They were made in some long forgotten factory in the back streets of Basra, or in Venice perhaps, with a delicate skill in colouration that no modern factory seems to equal.

From the other side of the world these beads were ferried in dhows and sailing ships, and then they were carried for a thousand miles across the wilderness, perhaps on the head of some Lemba peddler. No wonder there seems to be some indefinable atmosphere clinging to these beads—the tiny, pale-blue translucent Vhulungu hamadi (beads of the sea); the long, white opaque Limanda (powerful ones); and a dozen other varieties besides, all carefully cherished to this day and whose exact origin is lost for ever in the past.

So many customs and legends of Vendaland have no beginning. When the sun sets and the heat of the tropical day dissolves into a languid night, all along the range the great bass ngoma drums thud out the rhythm of the domba dance, a custom still faithfully followed, although few can guess its inner meaning.

Then it is that the maidens are prepared for marriage by evening lectures and mimes depicting customs and morals and conventions of married life. All these are understood; and when the drums start thudding out and the master of the domba cries in his clear, melodious voice: “tharu ya mabidhighami” (“the python is uncoiling”), the girls, twenty or even two hundred, join up one behind the other in a long, weaving, sinuous line and do the dance of the python.

It is a relic of the most distant past, and a curiously fascinating spectacle to watch in the years of this age of self-conscious sophistication. Then it is that the night is alive with the dancing light of the domba fire, and the grotesque shadow of the python line is thrown out even on to the watching mountains in exaggerated pattern. Around the fire, the dark, gleaming bodies of the girls move, shufflingly sinuously, while the drums, the baritone of the mirumba and the deep bass of the ngoma, thud out an intoxicating symphony in praise of sex and its mystic role in projecting the tribe on and on down through the centuries.

So, through the dark hours, the domba dance still goes on every night somewhere in Vendaland. For an hour; for two hours; all through the night perhaps. Then it is that old Africa seems to live again for a little while, brutal, barbaric, inscrutable and immense. Then it is that the tribesmen sit in the shadows and watch the play and consider the mystery of the past, until they weary and one by one slip quietly to their rest. Until, in the end, only the fire and the weaving python line moves on in the night; and a faint movement in the shadow of a hut perhaps, where little Ravhulo still sits alone to watch the dance.

The most ancient and the new. The graceful bead-clad bodies from the past and the urchin of today, clad in the most incredible rags, with teeth as white as the snows of the Drakensberg, with a mind as unfathomable as the depths of the enchanted night, and an African cheerfulness like unto an oasis irrepressibly laughing on the desert’s dusty face.

Sourced from: Lost trails of the Transvaal by Thomas Victor Bulpin – 1965 Edition.

Other Publications by T.V. Bulpin
(Available from

The following post on the TIA MYSOA BLOG also contains excerpts from the same book by Thomas Bulpin:

Picture credits for this post:
1st Photo : Misty Mountains -
2nd Photo : Lake Fundudzi -
3rd Photo : Phiphidi Falls -