A Joburg tour with a difference – retracing the steps of a 19th Century Cape Explorer

Who’s the guide? Who’s the explorer? Where’s the Museum?

Lucille Davie   

Lucille is a teacher, journalist and remarkable researcher who has a wealth of knowledge of Johannesburg, its history, heritage and people. Lucille has not only written about Joburg and run tours in our city but has also for many years been fascinated with the 19th Century explorer William Burchell. So much so, that she and some friends did a cycle tour retracing some of his journey through what was then the Cape Colony and beyond its borders. But that is for her to tell you when you do her tour. It was a wonderful experience to meet at MuseumAfrika for her talk about Burchell and his travels and to examine some of his original drawings firsthand. 

Equipped with magnifying glasses to read Burchell’s map to get our heads around his travels

William Burchell 

Burchell (1781-1863) was an extraordinary multi-talented Renaissance man who arrived in Cape Town in November 1810.  In June 1811 (having never slept a night in the open), he started a 4-year journey in a custom-built ox-wagon accompanied by Khoekhoe employees. He wrote up the first year of his expedition in 2 volumes published in 1822 and 1824.   However, these two volumes only cover the outward journey from Cape Town to the mission station of Klaarwater (Griekwastad), as far as Litakun, (now Dithakong) capital of the Tswana-speaking Bachapin people on the edge of the Kalahari.  But, because he had published the map of his entire route: both outward bound and return journey, historians could in some way reconstruct parts of the return narrative. 

Burchells map of his 7,300 km expedition 1811-1815 from CapeTown to Chue north of Kuruman and back through the Karoo and eastern and southern Cape Coast
A map of Burchell’s travels updated to show current place names. Photo Courtesy: Stewart and Whitehead p13

Burchell’s African Odyssey Revealing the return journey 1812 to 1815 by Roger Stewart and Marion Whitehead 2022 

Burchell’s published accounts end in Litakun, about 60km north-east of  Kuruman. And it is at this point that a new book by Stewart and Whitehead published in 2022, reconstructs Burchell’s 3-year return journey to CapeTown.  After staying in Litakun for some months, Burchell travelled further north in a 350km loop via various camps, some mentioned below.  After returning to Kuruman, Burchell returned to Klaarwater (Griekwastad)  and then took a different route down south, largely uncharted, across the Great Karroo to Graaff-Reinet. Making his way through the eastern frontier across the Great Fish River he joined the more well-worn tracks to Uitenhage across the mountains to Plettenberg Bay and along what is now known as the Garden Route, back to Cape Town.

This map shows the detail with which Burchell recorded his far northern journey, naming many of the stations along the way from Litakun up to the Maadji Mountains and Chue Springs, turning back south through Hot Station. Below you can see us examining many of the sketches made by Burchell during his return journey.


MuseumAfrika in Newtown Johannesburg has a large collection of Burchell’s loose drawings and sketchbooks. So most exciting of all was that we had, to quote Kate Atkinson, a “behind the walls of the museum” experience in that Lucille arranged special access to Burchell’s original sketchbooks and drawings housed in the Museum. So after an introduction to Burchell and his travels, we moved through “back stage” to the research area. There is something very reverential in being able to examine 200-year-old drawings in the original and on the pages in complete sketchbooks. 

With carefully washed hands and observing museum-protocol for handling archival material, we poured over the treasure-trove of original drawings by Burchell, many of which accompany Stewart and Whitehead’s text.

Sketches recording his routes north of Litakun 

Burchell records watching a herd of elephant at the Maadji Mountain, north of Chue Spring (now Heuningvlei).  Dated 8.10.1812. It’s a common convention for the early Colonial explorer artists to insert themselves into the scene they are recording.
At the station of the young Rhinoceros or the “Hot Station” 29.10.12

Burchell the polymath 

Burchell was a multi-talented man: an artist; he played the played the flute; an accomplished linguist (he learnt Dutch; a smattering of Khoe and was able to communicate with his Khoe employees; and a little Sichuana/Setswana). He was interested in geology and had a good working knowledge of maths. He had served a botanical apprenticeship at Kew (his father owned a nursery) and was elected Fellow of the Linnaen Society in 1803. So he was well-versed in the Enlightenment tradition of collecting and classification. When he returned to England, he took with him 500 scientific and ethnographical drawings, many of them used as illustrations in his books, and about 63,000 natural history specimens including plants, bulbs, insects, reptiles, mammals. In addition, Burchell described the indigenous peoples he met on the way, their way of life, including music and dance, and noted many local words for artefacts, animals and plants. His thousands of plant specimens, as well as field journals from his South African expedition, are held by Kew Gardens, and his insect collection by the Oxford University Museum.  All the sketched below are from the MuseumAfrika collection. 

He was renowned for the extensive and accurate notes he made about the specimens he identified and drew.
He brought the white rhinoceros into colonial knowledge (also called the Burchell’s rhinoceros). Recorded here on 19.10.1812 near Kuruman. This is but one species of animal named after Burchell: think Burchell’s Courser, Burchell’s Coucal, Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Burchell’s Starling. And of course Burchell’s Zebra. And that is before all the plant species.
Burchell was the first colonial explorer to describe the banded Tilapia caught in stream at Kuruman
He was proficient in basic maths as can be seen here where his use of trigonometry enabled him to determine the width of the Ky-Gariep (Vaal) without having to physically cross it. Dated 12.11.1811 From sketchbook in MuseumAfrika. He also measured distance by counting the turns of the wagon wheels and used a sextant to take celestial readings to determine his location in terms of latitude and longitude.
Silteepi (?) The Bachapin name for this hatchet 12.11.1811
Burchell was sensitive to local names, customs and language. Here he labels this sketch: “Sokaikulu ie Orange River in Sichwana”. As with most of his sketches he records the time meticulously -11.30 a[m] 17.10. [18]11.

In March 1813, Burchell and his party crossed back into the Cape Colony at Von Plettenberg’s beacon (about 30km east of present day Colesberg).  Von Plettenberg (Governor of the Cape from 1771 to 1785) and Robert Gordon (commanding the Dutch East India Cape garrison between 1780 and 1795), had left this small pile of rocks, only 48 cm high, as a memorial of their hunt when, in a one incident alone in 1778, they had killed 20 hippos in the nearby Zeekoe River. This beacon later became the north-east corner of the colony.  According to Stewart and Whitehead (p111)

it was vandalized by the local San in protest against the advance of the settlers. All that remains of the beacon today are four small pieces, which are in storage at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. Although not currently on display, these remnants are arguably the oldest relics to symbolize ‘the struggle’ against colonialism.’

Labeled top right: Boschmans-hoef Berg or Javanese hoed or Chinese hoed as seen from the Baaken [The mountain is known as the Chinaman’s hat] dated p[m]11.3.[18]13 The date of 1778 is marked on the memorial.

Burchell recorded another beacon in Plettenberg Bay 

Burchell arrived in Plettenberg Bay on 14th April 1814. According to Stewart and Whitehead (p155) he “established his campsite on the hills above the old landing place (still a popular lookout point above today’s Central Beach)”.  Here Burchell draws the view towards the Robberg Peninsula with Von Plettenberg’s 1778 beacon in the foreground.
Nearing Capetown in March 1815, Burchell sketches the view from the top the Hottentot Hollands Kloof Pass. The wagons are about to make their way down the precipitous descent.

Stewart and Whitehead (p188) write about the Hottentot Hollands Pass: 

“Traffic on the narrow pass was limited to one direction: up in the mornings and down in the afternoons. The final section near the top was the most dreaded, rising at an incline of 1:4 up a series of rocky ledges, ‘like a flight of rude steps cut into the rock’, as one exasperated traveler explained. The oxen suffered the most and were beaten with whips, often until the blood ran to get the laden wagons to the top.   

The descent was no less tricky. The locked remskoene (brake shoes) left deep gouges in the rocks as the wagons slithered haphazardly down the pass, men hanging on to long ropes attached to the back to slow them down”. 

On the 14th April 1815 Burchell arrived back in Cape Town. On 11th November, 5 years after arriving in Cape Town the ship carrying Burchell docked in London’s harbour.  

I said at the outset that this was a “tour’ with a difference. I loved following in Burchell’s footsteps and learning more about him from Lucille, having access to the wonderfully fresh and varied 200-year-old drawings in the Museum’s collection, engaging with other interesting people on the “tour”, and then writing this post which took me down many many rabbit holes!  

Check Tour no 14 on Lucille’s website. And I HIGHLY recommend Roger Stewart and Marion Whitehead’s book on the reconstruction of Burchell’s return trip back to Cape Town. It’s well-laid out, very informative without being dry and turgid, lots of great illustrations and photographs. And great value too: R359 from Takealot. You can’t go wrong. 




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3 thoughts on “A Joburg tour with a difference – retracing the steps of a 19th Century Cape Explorer

  1. Certainly sounds well worth a visit. What an extraordinarily talented and brave man. I had no idea of the extent of his achievements. Thank you for this most informative blog .

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