THE SPRINGBOK MIGRATIONS
“The countless springboks are my flock
Spread o’er the unbounded plain.”
THOSE vast springbok migrations which devastated the karoo districts of South Africa almost up to the end of last century must have formed the most dramatic scenes in the whole world of mammals.
One cannot see everything, but I am sorry these cavalcades of fur and flesh occurred before my time. There was a trekboer once,
a natural artist as a story teller, whose tale gave me the human side of it; one of those tales which carried the ring of personal experience in every vivid detail.
This man had left the Transvaal with his family in the eighteen-seventies as a boy of ten. They were members of the first “Thirstlandtrek,” a group of people impelled by real or imaginary grievances, and certainly by a restless spirit, to seek a new country.
Many died in the desert. Some reached Angola. But this family of Van der Merwes broke away from the ill-fated wagons and headed south. They spent their lives trekking with their sheep and cattle in search of grass. When the old people died, the son Gert went on living the only life he knew; sometimes in Bechuanaland, in the Kalahari and often in the North West Cape. By the time he was twenty-one he had a wife and three children, two coloured shepherds and a Bushman touleier to lead the oxen and find the way from one water-hole or vlei to the next.
One morning Gert van der Merwe’s wagon was plodding along the dry, hard bed of the Molopo river where it forms the southern border of the Bechuanaland Protectorate. Gert noticed that the Bushman seemed worried about something. In the middle of the morning the Bushman left his oxen suddenly and ran off into the bush on the high northern bank of the river. At noon Gert stopped for the usual outspan and meal. His wife had just settled down to the cooking when the Bushman raced into camp and urged the party to inspan and follow him immediately. “The trekbokke are coming,” the Bushman declared. “It will be death to stay in the river-bed.”
Gert packed up, wondering whether the alarm was justified, but remembering that he had his family with him. The Bushman led the wagon out of the river-bed, up the north bank to a hill. Van der Merwe drove the wagon up the hill as far as the oxen would pull it. Then they went to the summit of the hill and the Bushman pointed.
At first Gert could see nothing unusual, but later he observed a faint cloud of dust along the horizon. It was miles away and did not suggest any great danger to him. However, the Bushman persuaded him to cut and pile thorn bushes as a barrier round the wagon and cattle. The Bushman explained that if the running springbok came over the hill instead of round it they would trample every living thing in their path to death. However, he hoped the thorn bush and the wagon would make them swerve.
After protecting his wagon and stock, Gert climbed the hill again. By now the dust was only a few miles away, rising high in the air and spread over a wide front. Gert’s hill appeared to be in the centre of the oncoming game. Now, for the first time, he felt a little nervous, for he realized that anything could happen if such a stampede passed through the camp. So he ordered his wife and children into the wagon and made the dogs fast under the wagon tent. With the aid of the two coloured men and the Bushman he gathered heaps of dry wood and placed them in front of the wagon. By throwing green stuff on top of each pile he hoped to send up enough smoke to startle the buck and cause them to swing aside.
Gert waited on the hill summit. The buck were still hidden in their dust screen, but hares and jackals and other small animals were racing past the hill and taking no notice of the human beings. Snakes were out in the open, too, moving fast and seeking cover under the rocks on the hill. Gert and his men threw stones at the snakes that came too close, but the snakes seemed to be dominated by a greater fear. Meerkat families and field mice also appeared in large numbers.
At last came a faint drumming. No doubt the Bushman had sensed this drumming hours before, with his ear to the ground. Only now could Gert hear it. The cloud of dust was dense and enormous, and the front rank of the springbok, running faster than galloping horses, could be seen. They were in such numbers that Gert found the sight frightening. He could see a front line of buck at least three miles long, but he could not estimate the depth. Ahead of the main body were swift voorlopers, moving along as though they were leading the army.
When the buck came within a mile of the hill the Bushman ran to the wagon and climbed in despite the growling of the dogs. He was taking no chances. Gert and the coloured men then moved pausing only to light the fires. They remained with the cattle, which had sensed the danger and were milling round and lowing nervously. Gert’s wife wanted him inside the wagon; but he was gripped by the vast spectacle and climbed on to the hood for a better view.
The first solid groups of buck swept past on both sides of the kill. After that the streams of springbok were continuous, making for the river and the open country beyond. Then the pressure increased, the buck became more crowded. No longer was it possible for them to swerve aside when they reached the fires and the wagon. Gert said he could have flicked the horde with his whip from where he sat on the wagon tent. Some crashed into the wagon and were jammed in the wheels, injured and trampled upon. The wagon became the centre of a mass of dead and dying buck; and Gert saw more biltong than he could have secured in a year’s expensive shooting. But the thorn barrier had broken, and the buck were among the cattle. Before long the terrified, bellowing cattle stampeded and vanished into the dust in the direction of the river. Gert had to let them go. There was only death for anyone who ventured after them among the horns and hooves of the buck.
At the height of the rush, said Gert, the noise was overwhelming. Countless hooves powdered the surface to fine dust, and everyone found it hard to breathe. Gert’s wife, who had been watching the rush with frightened interest, had to draw the blankets over herself and the children. The dust had almost smothered them. Everything in the wagon was an inch deep in pale yellow dust, and the coloured men had also turned yellow.
Within an hour the main body of springbok had passed, but that was not the end of the spectacle. Until long after sunset, hundreds upon hundreds of stragglers followed the great herd. Some were exhausted, some crippled, some bleeding. Gert wondered what had happened to the hares and jackals, and the snakes which had not taken cover in time. Next day he found the answer.
All night lone buck passed the wagon. The air cleared, but dust rose again when there was any movement in the camp. At daybreak Gert climbed the hill to see whether he could find his cattle. He had food, and there was a water-hole not far away in the dry river-bed; but without the oxen he was stranded.
The morning air was so clear, the day so bright, that Gert felt for a moment as though the events of the previous dy had a nightmare quality. Then he saw that the landscape, which had been covered with trees of fair sizes, green with food for his cattle, were gaunt stumps and bare branches. The buck had brushed off all herbage in their passing, and splintered the young trees so that they would never grow again.
Far in the distance Gert thought he could see a few of his oxen. After breakfast he set off with his men to recover them. Every donga leading into the river, every little gully was filled with buck. It seemed that the first buck had paused on the brink, considering the prospects of leaping across. Before they could decide, the ruthless mass was upon them. Buck after buck was pushed into the donga, until the hollow was filled and the irresistible horde went on over the bodies.
Other sights reminded Gert of the fate he and his family had escaped by accepting the Bushman’s warning. Small animals were lying dead everywhere – tortoises crushed almost to pulp, fragments of fur that had been hares. A tree, pointing in the direction of the advancing buck, had become a deadly spike on which two springbok were impaled.
For a fortnight Gert camped on that hill beside the Molopo, searching for his cattle.He found half of them. The fate of the others remained a mystery. They might have been borne along by the impetus of the stampede until they fell and were trampled to death; or they might have escaped from the living trap far away from the wagon. Gert inspanned the survivors thankfully and the wagon rolled on, away from the scene of destruction. When he told the tale, it was clear that he regarded it as the most memorable episode in a life which he regarded as the finest on earth. “Ons lewe lekker. Dit is vir ons heeltemal goed genoeg,” declared Gert at the end of his story. “We live well. It is absolutely good enough for us.”