Lost monuments and forgotten paths

by Herman Labuschagne


A Journey Through Time Along the Ancient Paths of Africa


No traveller to the lonely lands of Africa can fail to be surprised to learn that the Dark Continent has been crisscrossed by highways for thousands of years already. Have you ever wondered how the old explorers such as Livingstone, Stanley and Selous ever found their way around?


The reality only becomes apparent when flying across the vast plains at low altitude. Only then does the visitor discover, to his amazement, that all of Africa is divided into an intricate network of trails and paths – most of which are only truly visible from the air. Greater still is the surprise when African explorers find out that where many bitumen highways now twist through the land like angry varicose veins, the ancient old elephant highways have often already existed since the dawning of time. Just yesterday, I came back down into the warm lowveld, speeding down a modern highway that had originally been surveyed and engineered – not by man – but by the feet of enormous numbers of elephant over the ages. A process that has been going on for millennia.


And so it that time of year again. When once upon a time, the vast herds of game on the central highveld of Southern Africa would begin to feel the cold of winter, and see the grass wither and die under the southern frost. The time of which Gordon Cumming wrote so romantically in the year of 1849:


 “I beheld the plains and even the hillsides, which stretched away on every side, thickly covered, not with herds, but with one vast mass of springboks; as far as the eye could strain, the landscape was alive with them, until they softened down to a dim mass of living creatures.”


In this manner, as over thousands of years, the vast migration of tens of millions of animals would begin. Off they would go on an earth-shaking migration that would leave that of the Masai-Mara pale by comparison. Bleating, bellowing and kicking up vast dust clouds that filled the sky from horizon to horizon, sending the land trembling with the awesome majesty and spine-chilling splendour of its magnitude. All headed east for the handful of mountain passes that led down to the warm bushveld with its friendly winter climate, it sweet pastures and inviting atmosphere. This is how these passes were formed: firstly surveyed by the great lumbering elephants of old, who never walk down gradients of more than one in three, and then hewn out of living rock and gouged from ancient dust by the hooves and feet of millions without end. This is how the highways of Africa were born.


In the Valley of the Elephants, where I live, there are to this very day, only three passes that give access to endless plains of the eastern lowveld – all of them were constructed by the feet of animals. It didn’t take human engineers long to realize that elephants always picked the easiest routes, and that the ancient elephants always constructed highways so perfectly that the surveyors and engineers could simply throw away their theodolites, certain that human technology could never devise an easier route than what the elephants had discovered. This is also the time that the seasoned hunters of old used to feel that tell-tale restlessness that old hunters know so well. When the frosts of the interior started to fall, the fever-yellowed eyes of the old hunters began to turn north and east, following the great herds to lands where adventure, freedom and fortune ever beckoned like the smile of a beautiful maiden.


From the great ivory capitals of Lydenburg and Schoemansdal, the old men of steel came following the herds, their heavy ox-waggons of wood and canvas shaking leisurely behind the teams of shiny Afrikaner oxen. From experience they knew that this would be the time that the mysterious valleys would be relatively free of the dreaded fever, whose cause they could still only try to guess. All of these hunters followed the trails and highways that the feet of game had trodden for longer than human history can record. And when the elephant highways became little more than trails, the waggons were left behind, and the old men went ahead on foot, treading the hard-packed soil harder still.


For some, these game trails led to untold wealth and fortune. In the sun-baked, olive-coloured bushveld, the old ivory hunters collected white gold, sending long safari lines up the mountains, bearing enormous tusks, weighing seventy, eighty, a hundred pounds or more. Often so heavy, that they had to be carried by at least three porters.


An old story tells of how one old Boer hunter from the ivory capital of Schoemansdal, once brought in a pair of tusks weighting over 200 pounds each – tusks so incredibly enormous that they had to be cut in three pieces for easier transport. Many great white hunters became extremely rich from the white gold of the African wilderness. As early as 1877, nearly twenty metric tons of ivory was shipped from Durban harbour alone. The Portuguese hunter Joăo Albasini for one, had an amazing 700 black hunters collecting ivory for him one year.


But all too frequently, the paths of Africa led to an early grave for many of the old hunters and explorers. Today their graves can still be found alongside the ancient trails that exist to this day. Nameless piles of stone in the Kruger National Park with perhaps an ancient rum bottle still to be found nearby. Old names and dates scratched out on stone by friends and companions. Comrades who were too weak from malaria to dig a proper grave, and who themselves, eventually had their bones lost forever in the lonely wilderness where they fell and died. There they all lay, scattered across hundreds of miles. Hopeful gold-searchers from California, Ballarat and Bendigo, adventurers, explorers and hunters, all alike.


Some were lucky enough to have survived the arduous adventures of the bushveld with its many dangers, great riches, savage beauty and mysterious allure. They too, left their marks in lonely, half-forgotten places along the ancient roads. In my valley, “Adam William Briscoe” left his initials carved on a rock, together with the date of 1891. Where the Letaba and the Olifants meet, a deeply-scarred old baobab tree bears the name of yet another unknown hunter that followed the paths of Africa: “H.M. Borter. July 1890.” And anyone can guess who “BL” was – the nameless man who had left his mark on a baobab tree in the distant year of 1860.


Even far away, in the beautiful wastes of the Zambezi Valley, one of the old giants of the bush bears a series of inscriptions that makes the eyes dim with nostalgic visions of a romantic bygone era. A great old baobab, perhaps the oldest living things for a hundred miles around, in whose bark the following epitaphs were grimly written:


Rider, died fever Lake Ngami 1850

Maher, killed by wounded elephant 1857

Dolman, died of thirst in Kalahari desert 1851

Robinson, taken by crocodile Botetli river 1851

Pretorius, died fever near Victoria Falls 1862

Bonfield, killed by crocodile Ovamboland 1861

Burgess, blown up, gunpowder accident 1860


There are many such monuments and milestones along the ancient highways of Africa. Some are known, but most are forgotten today. Swallowed up in the vastness of time and eternity. Here and there, old bullet holes in a leadwood tree, so hard it resists decay even eighty years after death, makes us wonder just what stories they could tell if we could turn back the hands of time...


What is it that instils the desire in man to leave markings on the roads of life? The animals who originally created the great roads never left more than their hoof-prints. Yet, staring at the deeply carved bark of a big old grandfather baobab near Leydsdorp recently, I could not help but reflect on  how man has always had this overpowering urge to leave some mark of his passing. Perhaps as a result of some bizarre, sub-unconscious effort to leave some monument that will carry our name and memory into immortality? Isn’t that what Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan paintwork, the weird heads on Easter Island, and the carvings on Baobab trees in Africa, are all about? It is a perverse thought, but there does lie something appealing in knowing one’s name and memory is carved into the bark of a living thing that might be alive for as much as three thousand years or more. And then I smiled as I thought: “Isn’t yesterday’s graffiti, just today’s priceless bushman rock art?”


The roads of Africa seem to have no beginning, and might very well have no end as long as wild animals roam the great expanses. As long as they are free to cross the wilderness as they have done since creation. There are those who claim that it used to be possible to walk all the way from the Cape to Cairo, just by following the pathways of the Dark Continent, and indeed, this may well be true. The great white hunters of old certainly followed those routes every day of their lives. Today, as we modern-day descendants still hunt the same wildernesses that our ancestors did, we unknowingly often still follow in their footsteps.


Who knows how long the very old roads of Africa might still exist? Will it be there in the time of our children and their children? I cannot say. But even if the only trails still left one day, should be the bitumen highways of tomorrow, I should like for my descendants to sometimes think how they are still following in the feet of the great beasts who owned Africa long before we did.


And after all, perhaps this is what our markings along the roads of this world are all about: Leaving memories for those that will come after us. Knowing that a traveller might pass by one day, stop to gaze up at our name, and spare a moment to wonder just who this unknown name was that once travelled along the footpaths of ancient time...