I have not been this excited about a book since Tramp Royal, by Tim Couzens. Well, Trader Horn’s Ivory Coast 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 had 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. Another huge reason to take 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, put him in touch with the VOC (Dutch East India Company) ‘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.