Talk of the Town
Page-turner for explorers, naturalists
REVIEW: BURCHELL’S AFRICAN ODYSSEY: REVEALING THE RETURN JOURNEY 1812-1815 by Roger Stewart and Marion Whitehead.
Springtime in Port Alfred, and we delight in the orange blaze of clivias in our gardens, among them the special clivia nobilis.
Along the road towards Bathurst or Makhanda, the orange flowers of the wild pomegranate shrub (burcellia bubalina) are abundant now; moreover, a long beach hike to Kwaaihoek and an ascent to the Diaz Cross will introduce you to haemanthus albiflos.
For just these three local floral beauties not to mention a host of other indigenous plants, mammals, reptiles and insects – we can thank the extraordinary 19th century naturalist-explorer William Burchell for first bringing them to our attention, and indeed that of science.
But his story of exploration, collection and identification of species has until recently been an incomplete one.
Burchell’s African Odyssey: Revealing the Return Journey 1812-1815, a new 248-page, generously illustrated book by Roger Stewart and Marion Whitehead, fleshes out the undocumented end journey Burchell undertook between 1812 and 1815.
This is no dry academic handbook, however: the book appeals because it tells a story, and an engaging one at that.
The good pace of the narrative belies Burchell’s arduous progress in overloaded albeit customised ox wagons, through swollen rivers, impassable kloofs and skirting unfriendly tribes.
He used the stars, a compass and sextant but was otherwise an intuitive adventurer. If there is such a thing, this is an explorernaturalist’s page-turner.
Burchell and his party had reached Litakun (near today’s Dithakong, north of Kuruman) and now faced their return journey: 7,000km, mostly into the unknown, from the Kalahari to the Great Fish River, westwards to the south-eastern coast and back to Cape Town.
This would take him four years but would yield 63,000 specimens, many of them new to science.
The authors have included copious visual content to break up the text.
I liked very much the helpful synopses of each chapter; the boxed botanical highlights and timeline highlights; Burchell’s botanical notes and plant pressings – and most important, his pioneering map.
Most appealing are his exquisite sketches or water colours of crew members, landscapes, settlements and river crossings.
Throughout the odyssey, Burchell and his entourage suffered extremes of both heat and cold, a lack of dietary variety, water and essential resources.
Over forbidding distances and terrain there were accidents, cattle thefts, disloyalty, dangers, great physical hardship and deprivation. Though Burchell was relieved to re-enter the Cape Colony near Colesberg, for safety reasons he kept to the string of military posts as he proceeded along the Eastern Frontier.
And then – such are the rich pickings in our Albany region (where seven of the country’s biomes converge; Burchell was first to suggest these bio-regions) – he took six months to complete the GrahamstownFish River-Uitenhage loop.
Along the southern Cape coast he would gather up to 50 animal and plant specimens each day. In 1863, at the age of 83, he took his own life.
As the authors conclude: “Burchell had evolved from a romantic 29-year-old naturalist … to a natural philosopher.”