The early Explorers

Posted on Sat February 3, 2024.

The Eastern Cape is rich in the early history of the European settlers, and it's always interesting to read different accounts of what the explorers encountered.

Two such explorers to our area, were Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon and Francois Le Vaillant.  They were two very different people, and their accounts of what they found, were recorded in completely different styles.

Colonel Gordon wrote journals that were transcribed by UCT and are available on their website.  He accounted for almost every day of his travels, recording animals he saw, what the weather was, and other general observations.  Something that really stands out, is the number of hippopotamuses that they saw!  It is quite incredible.  We know that they were here, as they scoured pools in the rivers, but they were really quite plentiful in the late 1700's.  If you've ever listened to Alan talking about the pools in the Little Fish River that he stocks with trout, then you would have heard him talking about the hippos and their pools.  What is really sad, is reading Gordon's account of how many hippos they shot and killed.  They literally shot everything they saw.  There was not thought of conservation, as there is with hunting today.   It is no wonder that they don't occur here anymore, though there have been isolated incidents of hippos seen in rivers in the Eastern Cape.

Then there was Le Vaillant.  He was an ornithologist, so had a completely different focus to Gordon.  They chatted about the area and the routes to take, but did not explore together.  Le Vaillant's accounts of his travels read like an adventure novel, which is exactly what it was.  Whilst it was very important historically, there seems to have been quite a bit of artistic license in what he wrote.  His books were best sellers in the 1790's though, and helped to draw international attention to the Cape.  Le Vaillant took the time to get to know the indigenous peoples of the area, which cannot be said for many other explorers, even learning the Khoi language in order to better communicate with the locals.

He spent months at Kokskraal, near Cookhouse, and discovered several new bird species in our area.  It's interesting that the second volume of his work is substantially given over to descriptions of the indigenous peoples that he encountered at Kokskraal.  Perhaps the French reputation helped him in being rather popular with the ladies as well!  He did seem to have a knack with them, bearing all sorts of gifts when visiting the tribes.