Sep 21, 2011

Lost Trials of the Transvaal: Chapter 3, by Thomas Bulpin

The following was sourced from chapter 3 of Thomas Bulpin’s book - “Lost Trials of the Transvaal”. The chapter heading is called “Winding Paths”. It is a brief but colourful account of how some of South Africa’s existing roads and highways came into being. The chapter also provides some lesser known and/or forgotten legends associated with these ancient winding paths.

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 I have is beautifully illustrated with line drawings by A.A. Telford and C.T.A. Maberly.

Please take note that the original text was scanned in digitally, and proofread with extra care. In some instances, especially with place names, the original spelling was left unchanged. For example: Moçambique was not changed to Mozambique.

Click here if you've missed the previous posting - Superstition Mountains, sourced from Chapter 2 - Lost Trials of the Transvaal, by Thomas Bulpin.

Lost Trials of the Transvaal – Chapter 3
Winding Paths
By Thomas Bulpin

The face of Africa is covered with an intricate network of paths. From the Cape of Good Hope to the sands of the Sahara, it is possible to walk along these paths and have your choice of many routes. Across the boundless miles of open veld, through interminable distances of bush and mountain, the paths have been deeply tramped by the restless hooves of game and the feet of mankind.

There is a whole folklore and legend about these paths. There are great arterial paths, like the Ndhlelakayomi (path never empty). It is the main trade route reaching the high veld plains from Moçambique. From the flat bush country of Gazaland, it crosses the Lubombo mountain range at Matibiskom. It swings southwards into Swaziland, threads a laborious journey through the jumble of hills along the escarpment edge, reaches the high veld and wanders off all the way to Basutoland.

This Path Never Empty was peculiarly famous. Not only did the coastal people, particularly the Tembe tribe, peddle trade goods along it, but the her herbalists and witchdoctors made regular journeys. They carried their special medicines, herbs, rare animals and supplies of seawater all the way to Basutoland, to exchange for the relics of the brutal ritual murders for which the Sotho witchdoctors have ever been renowned.

Most of the paths, were first blazed by the animals. The migrating herds of antelope and the elephants unerringly pioneered the best ways across the mountain passes and the best fords across the rivers. Then the Bushmen came and tramped the paths more clearly into the ground, as they followed the animals they hunted. The Bantu people came next to make new paths of their own and to follow the trails of the game. When the Europeans arrived on the scene they in turn followed the ancient trails, and many of them developed into the great motor highways of today, with the spinning wheels of countless vehicles speeding over the selfsame pathways the game animals used so long ago.

These old paths seemed to meander so casually along their way from waterhole to waterhole, to passes, fords and villages. They were never absolutely straight. In the African sun, the ground of the pathways was often painfully hot to the touch. It is because of this heat that many of the pathways twist so much. Their apparently erratic bends have been so made in the course of ages that every now and then, no matter where the sun, the traveller will find a stretch where his feet can rest awhile on some cool ground passing through the shadows.

Other twists are memorials, in their way, of obstructions long forgotten. A path always follows the line of least resistance. A fallen free trunk will cause a deviation. Afterwards, when the tree itself has long since turned to dust, the bend in the pathway around its grave will often still remain, as though paying its last respects.

The tribal elements of the Karanga, Tswana, Ndebele and Venda people, along with a few later Shangane and Tonga refugee parties from Moçambique who formed the real human foundation stone of the Transvaal, all blazed a complicated pattern of pathways around their new-found homes.

The Venda people, particularly, radiated a whole web of paths from their mountain homeland. All around them, these paths wandered into the hunting grounds of the bush, while one arterial way followed the course of the Luvuvhu (river of muvuvhu trees) down to its junction with the Limpopo and then off to the lonely little trading posts on the shores of Portuguese East Africa.

The Tswana tribes settled along the edge of the highveld further in the south also made their paths down to the bush veld hunting grounds, while one arterial trading route was tramped all the way to the eastern seaboard. This path followed the course of the river known from its floods and the voracity of its crocodiles as the Sabi or uSaba, (the fearful one) and eventually found its way to the Bay of Lourenço Marques.

Along these paths, in the course of time, a safari trade began when first the Arabs and then the Portuguese settled on the coast. Each winter season, traders and slavers with long files of carriers would set out from the coast and make their way into the wilderness.

Each safari usually had as its captain a Swahili or some trusted Tembe pedlar. Ivory was the product of Africa which the caravans sought. They carried beads and cloth and other treasures to exchange for the white ivory of elephants and hippos and the black ivory of the African people, who were of great value as slaves.

Mapalakata, the Transvaal Bantu called the caravan masters. They well knew the visits of the safaris; and the common people hated them, for they made alliances with unscrupulous chiefs, promoted raids and tribal conflicts, and then purchased prisoners from both sides indiscriminately as slaves.

When the Portuguese took over the eastern seaboard from the Arabs In the 16th century, they found as part of their booty this maze of paths and the established system of trade. The only economic life the little coastal ports had, in fact, came from their safari trade, although it was always a risky and uncertain gamble, often sorely dislocated by periodic tribal upheavals in the interior.

Stimulated by this trade, the Karanga tribal groups developed their traditional mining activity. Wherever gold was to be found in easily accessible deposits, the African miners sunk their shafts and commenced regular activity. In the lands of the Venda, along the upper Sabi, and in the area around modern Barberton, these old miners washed the precious dirt from the rocks and ground.

Iron was also mined in Vendaland and at Malalane. Tin came from several deposits, while copper, of course, came from Musina and Phalaborwa. Few memories of that old mining and trading activity survive today. Upheavals and wars smothered the industry and wiped out the miners to such an extent that even many of their tribes have long since ceased to exist. Only a few scars in the ground and some traditions remain today of that old activity. Of the traditions, there is one at least which has tantalised many. There is a story that a certain Portuguese once conducted a safari trade. Through the years he had much success, and eventually resolved on comfortable retirement. Before leaving for Portugal, however, he organised a final safari trip; and instead of leaving its command to his Swahili lieutenants, he led it himself for one last adventure into the wilderness.

He crossed the bush veld and climbed the escarpment at the headwaters of the Sabi. At this place there lies a broad shelf set into the mountains, some two thousand feet above the bush veld. Behind the shelf, the Drakensberg peaks stand in serried ranks, with the Sabi river finding its source in a wild amphitheatre dominated by the two great bulks of the 7,498-feet-high Mount Anderson and the 6,94.4-feet Mauchberg.

On the slopes of these mountains the Portuguese traded as was his custom, and hired many extra bearers to carry a bumper load of ivory, skins and gold-dust back to the coast. He sold his goods in Lourenço Marques before leaving Africa; and, to earn a last dishonest penny, he also sold his voluntary bearers into slavery. Then, he went back to Portugal.

In Lisbon the trader met a young countryman, desirous of entering the safari trade. To him the old trader sold his business, with a substantial sum added for goodwill. The young man proceeded forthwith to Africa. In due course, he reopened the old establishment and set off into the interior to resume trade connections and make the most of the goodwill.

He followed the Sabi path up the escarpment, and found the tribe on the mountain shelf ostensibly friendly. He traded well and then turned his thoughts to home. But when he endeavoured to hire bearers to carry the new loads, he found none willing to do the trip. A quarrel with the local chief over the matter soon turned to blows.

Legend tells us that the Portuguese, with his coastal followers, was driven for refuge into a cave somewhere in the mountains around the upper Sabi. There the Africans besieged him, smoking the party out and maintaining the attack until the cave was a place of death.

Then the tribe withdrew and left the cave to the ghosts. Only one of the party survived, hidden in the depths of the cave. With some personal belongings of his master, this man managed to return to Lourenco Marques. He arrived home delirious with fever and soon died, leaving no more details save his incoherent story and a small leather crucifix bag with a rough message scraped upon it from his master and a map of sorts to indicate the locality of the tragedy.

This romantic tale of the old safari days has survived to the present day and stimulated more than one hopeful soul to dissipate his savings in a search for the trader’s treasure. Not the slightest sign of anything has ever been found, which is not surprising, for skins and ivory decompose with time, and the gold-dust, at best, would have been but scanty.

There are innumerable other stories of strange adventures along the winding paths of Africa. Every journey made along them was hazardous and full of perils from wild animals or hostile tribes. The traveller found few comforts in the course of his  journeys. Perhaps at the river fords he would find some individual who had set himself up as a ferryman, with a hollowed-out tree trunk as a canoe. Occasionally, perhaps, he would see some secret marking scratched into the path as a message from a friend, a warning of danger, or an indication that be turn aside to some meeting place carefully hidden in the bush.

For the rest, each bend concealed some fresh danger. No wonder the African travellers had a superstition about the paths. Whenever they entered the territory of a new chief or tribe—at the summits of mountain passes, or wherever the path made some momentous change in the tenor of its way—they would mark the site with a custom as old as the pathways of Africa. They would each pick up a pebble with the toes of the left foot; take the pebble in their hands; spit on it; and deposit it beside the path with a prayer for fortune and safety on their journey.

These piles of pebbles or luck-heaps, called isivivane, are sometimes varied with deposits of small rings plaited out of grass, and generally laid upon some boulder by the side of the path. There is another habit, especially common to Shangane travellers when they break up an overnight camp just before entering the territory of a new chief. They take a portion of their porridge, rub it on the outside of the pot until it is black, and then swallow it. They mutter a prayer for good luck and then turn the pot upside down. With all the hostility, menace and adventure hidden along those ancient African highways, who can blame the travellers for endeavouring, in their simple manner, to secure at least the blessing and the favour of an inscrutable Providence?

Who exactly the first non-African was to find his way into the Transvaal along those winding paths will never be known. That he was some Arab trader seems to be a certainty. The first European to enter the land must likewise have been a Portuguese trader who wandered into the Transvaal from one of the east-coast ports.

The names of these pioneers, unhappily, remain unknown: but the personality of one of the first Europeans known to have entered the Transvaal from the south is both virile and definite. This interesting pioneer was the notorious, seven-feet-tall frontiersman and adventurer named Coenraad de Buys, the descendant of a pious Huguenot settler of the Cape but himself so tough and wild that most of the African tribes who encountered him sincerely trusted that if he was the first European they had met, he might also be the last.

De Buys was born in 1761, near Cogman’s Kloof in the Cape. From his youth the volatile frontiers always fascinated him. All his life, he was involved in every outrage and uproar that took place along the troubled borders of the old Cape Colony. By the time he was fifty-two years of age, his reputation was such that it was most expedient for him to quit European society altogether.

For some years he lived along the shadowy, grey, outer fringe of civilisation’s campfire in the bush, plundering and freebooting, and gradually removing deeper and deeper into the outer darkness as the price on his head increased to one thousand rix-dollars, and efforts to arrest his notorious activity became more potent.

In the end De Buys roamed off to the north with a devoted Coloured wife, solitary survivor of a once generous harem, a brood of children as wild as himself, and a horde of African followers attracted to his person as a magnet attracts the weaker filings.
In the Transvaal, De Buys worked his way leisurely through the densely populated area of the Rolong and Kwena tribes on the western border. Looting was his principal business; and the whole length of that meandering river known as the Marico (Malekwe or Maligwa) (the erratic one) became for a while his favourite hunting ground.

In those parts, De Buys hunted and squabbled with the African tribes, holding his own with ease, although ammunition had long since failed him and he depended on spears and bows and arrows. In the end, De Buys wandered off through the bush to the great pan known as Letshoyang (the place of salt) at the western end of the mountains of the Venda tribe. There De Buys abandoned his brood of offspring and dependants. His wife had died of fever on the Limpopo a short while before; and in his grief, perhaps wearying of the endless struggle for existence, he bade his puzzled followers remain exactly where they were while he wandered off alone into the bush. He promised to return some day to his followers left waiting in the shadow of the mountains; but instead he lost himself for ever, and only the wilderness knows the secret of his death.

By the Venda mountains, which they had named the Soutpansberg from the salt pan on their western end, the followers of De Buys settled and waited for the patriarch’s return. With the passage of the years rumour came among them that he was far away at Sofala by the Indian Ocean, where he had raised a new family. This would have been strange if true, for on the other side of Africa, on the western coast, there already existed an entire clan of his offspring—the so- called Wit Buis.

But Coenraad de Buys was seen no more. Somewhere in the bush, by the side of a lonely pathway, he must have died. His offspring settled where he had left them, on the south-western slopes of the mountains at a place now known as Mara, which means Tears. There they remain, a self-dependent little colony, wedged between the black of Africa and the white of Europe. When the first hunters and traders groped their way up to the Soutpansberg from the south in the 1820’s they found this curious little settlement of friendly allies, who willingly provided information, guidance, interpretation and aid; and their fertile home became the advance base for innumerable adventurers and pioneers.

While the memory of old De Buys himself was still alive in the minds of the tribes-people, another European travelled to the Transvaal along the winding paths. This new visitor was the missionary, John Campbell; and in his diary may be found the story of his journey.

It was in April 1820 that Campbell went up from Kuruman in the Cape to introduce the gospel to the great Hurutshe tribe, and in his person presented them with the most startling novelty they had yet seen. De Buys had been half African himself in dress and habit. Campbell, however, travelled in a reasonably well-appointed manner; and his approach to Kurrechane created the greatest sensation ever in that strange Africa land. The visitors journeyed up into what was like a lost world, with a highway made of half-a-dozen parallel paths leading them towards the capital.

Through fertile and prosperous fields, the paths led them past all manner of marvels. They climbed a mountain range, labouring to the summit where, as Campbell described it, they “found a vast heap of stones raised by every traveller adding one stone to the heap as he passes, out of respect to the memory of a King of a remote nation who was killed in the vicinity and whose head and hands were interred there”.

On one of the highest hills of this range they found the African city; and Campbell was astonished at its size, for it seemed to house 20,000 people and its buildings were substantial.

“Every house had a good circular stone wall about it,” he wrote. “Some of the houses were plastered outside and painted yellow—one we observed painted with some taste red and yellow. Within the walls the ground was laid with clay made as level as a floor and swept clean, which has a cheering aspect. We had from the eminence the view of a plain of at least sixty miles in circumference, bounded in every direction by low hills. They told us the plain abounded with elephants and buffaloes and pointed to different hills where different large towns, which they named, were situated.”

To the population of Kurrechane, the advent of the visitors called for a national holiday. Vast masses of people poured out to view Campbell and his wagons. The people were hospitable and kindly, showing with pride their metal furnaces, pottery works and agriculture; but curiosity overpowered them. Every where the visitors went they were followed, and every move they made was so intently watched that they felt like specimens in a museum.

“On returning to the wagons,” noted Campbell, after one of his tours of inspection, “we found the greatest crowd of people around them we had yet seen, viewing the Hottentots cooking the dinner. The ten or twelve nearest rows were sitting for the convenience of the crowd behind seeing what was going forward, and some were holding up young people to see over the heads of others. When dinner was put down we extended the tent door that as many as possible might see us dine, which we knew was their desire.”

To this great company Campbell lectured on Christianity; but found the people more interested in himself than his arguments. After close on a month of talking and sightseeing he left on his return to the Cape, and life in Kurrechane went back to normal.

Other missionaries came to the Transvaal. Two years after Campbell’s visit the two Wesleyans, Thomas Hodgson and Samuel Broadbent, travelled up from Graff-Reinet. After examining the country they established a mission station for the Rolong tribe of chief Sihunelo at the ridge of hills known as Makwasi from the wild spearmint bushes growing there. At this place, in a rough little house, the first European baby was born in the Transvaal on the 2 July 1823, when Mrs Broadbent gave birth to a son named Lewis. 

While the Transvaal tribes passed their time in their ancient pursuits, and the missionaries laboured to build their staton and set up a small press on which to print the first spelling and religious books in the Tswana language, great events were taking place in the south.

How often does it happen that all the careful plans of man collapse upon his surprised head like a house of cards destroyed by some strange hand. Left to their own devices, the Transvaal tribes would have led a peaceful life, for many generations, for they were timid by nature and such few warlike souls as existed among them were isolated and of but little strength.

But away in the south a human disturbance was commencing which would result, like a new volcano forming on the surface of the earth, in the rise to power and eruption of Shaka and his Zulu nation. Tremors from this disturbance spread far and fast; and the tranquillity of innumerable African peoples was scattered to the winds.

From Zululand, a host of people fled to escape the upheavel. Most of these refugees crossed the Drakensberg and entered the pleasant valley of the Caledon River, the present boundary of the Free State and Basutoland. There, the advent of so many panic-stricken newcomers displaced several of the older tribes; and after being peaceful agriculturalists they started to behave like men possessed.

One vast mass of these displaced persons rallied around the person of Manthatisi, the Queen Regent of the Tlokwa tribe; and this so-called Mantatee Horde commenced a bizarre career of cannibalism and looting in an effort to keep themselves alive. In the process of roaming the high veld paths, one of these hordes crossed the Vaal River. Fortunately the missionaries at Makwasi were absent, as Broadbent had fallen sick; but their station was pillaged and the Rolong defeated.
The whole of the once-prosperous area of the Western Transvaal was over run as though by a swarm of locusts. Kurrechane was sacked; and before the horde moved on, first to southern Bechuanaland and then back to their original home, the resident tribes had been despoiled of vast quantities of goods and livestock.

The country was left in a state of ruin and chaos; but while this catastrophe seemed dreadful enough, compared to that which lay ahead of them, the Transvaal tribes had as yet experienced nothing.

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

Other Publications by T.V. Bulpin
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The following post on the TIA MYSOA BLOG also contains excerpts from the same book by Thomas Bulpin: