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Trail Review: Burchell’s Breadcrumbs


It seemed entirely wrong to be vaulting off a cliff without a parachute. As the Hilux’s front wheels dropped over the edge, there was a collective ‘Woooo!’ from the front seat. In the back, Sunni, being American, said: ‘Oh, my Gaaad!’ When the track reappeared above the sharply-angled bonnet, if we weren’t actually falling, we were doing the nearest thing to abseiling a 4×4 without a rope. Almost exactly 200 years earlier, an inquisitive, slightly-built man had gone over that same edge in an ox-wagon, but William Burchell had undoubtedly used a rope.Words and Pictures by Don Pinnock

Katot Meyer, similarly curious and equally passionate, wasn’t too sure how Burchell had done it. But, trusting a fully laden wagon to skid brakes and six straining oxen would have been risking a four-year expedition, a mountain of precious specimens, and a dream. ‘He must have used a rope,’ said Katot, as we stared back at the insane slope we’d just descended. ‘Can’t be sure. Burchell’s diaries of this part of the trip are missing.’ The reason that we were traversing this wild, unpeopled valley in the Outeniqua Mountains had to do with the farsightedness of both Burchell and Katot. In June 1811, Burchell left Cape Town on a journey that would last four years and cover 7 000 km, taking him into areas unexplored by the developed world.

Near Klaarwater, in what is now the Northern Province, he turned southeast to Grahamstown, then west again, trekking through the Langkloof Valley to the north of the Outeniqua Mountains. At that point, the lure of rich mountain biodiversity to the south overcame caution. Those purple peaks are as alluring today as they were to Burchell, who headed into them, hauling two creaking wagons (he’d acquired a second for specimens) down the Keurbooms River to what is now the hamlet of De Vlugt. The rugged terrain made for painfully slow progress, but its pace suited his curiosity about the natural bounty around him.

He collected, noted, sketched and stored plants, insects and animals. He would have penned observations, mapped the muscular geology, then urged his faithful oxen over yet another fynbos ridge or cut a path through thick riverine forest. There was something of the ox-wagon traveller in the man who had emerged from his mud-stained Landy the previous evening. Katot was wearing work-worn clothes with a cap perched on a halo of wild grey fuzz that left his face covered – but for a pair of mischievous eyes. He shook hands with what are best described as industrial-strength paws.

‘Katot Meyer. Welkom by Pietersrivier. I’m fixing the dam. Settle in and I’ll join you later for coffee.’ He did, but not for long. Soon he was off to throw his bedroll under a tree. ‘I don’t use a tent, but I hope you have one,’ was his parting shot. Rondekop Camp was a catalogue of ingenuity, testimony to Katot’s engineering background. Up a path was a flush toilet with walls of surrounding bush and no roof. Where the water came from, or the flush went to, I never found out, though it was bound to be environmentally friendly, given Katot’s Burchellian passion for nature.

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