I have not been this excited about a book since Tramp Royal, by Tim Couzens. Well actually, Trader Horn’s The Ivory Coast in the Earlies, and then Tramp Royal.
My own The First Safari by Ian Glenn just arrived and it’s beautifully made; a real old-fashioned book, hard cover complete with elegant dust jacket, map, real paper – dry matt, not glossy – and full of fascinating detective work on the trail of its subject, Francois Levaillant, explorer of the unknown-to-Europe (well-known, of course, to the people who lived there!) interior of the Cape Colony back in 1781.
I’ve only just started but already I have to rush to report: I have a little thing about how a lot of these guys wrote how they went here and they went there and they shot a bloubok; and how often – almost always – they were actually taken there by local people with local knowledge. Their routes, their water holes, their finding animals for food and animals, birds, reptiles and plants for specimens was mostly done by, and thanks to, people who lived there. These local people weren’t ‘exploring;’ they were earning a living as guides. Here’s just one good reason explorers often took along a host of local people: Getting back safely! Not getting lost.
So here’s what I learn in Chapter 1: Far from an intrepid lone explorer, Levaillant actually had plenty of assistance on the quiet: A wealthy collector in Holland sponsored him; He put him in touch with the local VOC ‘fiskaal’ – like a magistrate – Willem Boers; Boers obtained the release of a prisoner jailed for murdering a Khoi woman. This man knew his way around and could act as a guide and helper for Levaillant.
This prisoner’s name? Swanepoel! A criminal ancestor of mine lucked out and got to go on an amazing adventure – the First Safari!
Later: OK, so now I’ve read it and re-read it. If you’re at all interested in exploration, birds, and early Africa, you’ll be fascinated. Learn how the Bateleur got its name. In addition, if you’re interested in fairness, giving people a fair shake, you’ll like it – Levaillant was criticised and his contribution to ornithology was downplayed, probably mainly because those critics were English or American and he was not. If you like mystery, there are things not (yet) known, still to be discovered;
And lastly, if you like detective stories, this is like searching through caves, Indiana Jones-style, but with far more interesting treasure. The caves are museums and the treasure is real old Africa, not mythical stuff. You’ll love it. My kind of book!
Buy local: raru books – ISBN barcode 9781431427338 – hardcover around R220.
You could also try to buy a copy of Levaillant’s amazing book on African birds in six volumes – LEVAILLANT, François (1753-1824). Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d’Afrique. Paris: J. J. Fuchs, An VII (1799)-1808. Asking price if you can get one – around R250 000.
VOC – Dutch East India Company