When the first trekboers and hunters pushed their ox wagons over the mountain barriers that sweep from the Cedarberg, the Swartruggens, the Witteberge and the Great Swartberg in a defending shield they came into close contact with the oldest surviving inhabitants of Southern Africa, the Hottentots and the wary Bushmen.
These, the last Stone Age peoples, shared the “Place of Great Dryness”. They differed basically in their cultures and lifestyles: the Hottentots herding their sheep and cattle in the age-old pastoral pattern and the Bushmen following their traditional nomadic pursuits of hunting and feasting. European contact with the Hottentots went back to the early days of Cape settlement and the Karoo clansmen soon responded to brandy and tobacco to become herdsmen and servants; the Bushmen initially retreated into the fastnesses of their hunting grounds until the uneasy peace was broken and a savage if sporadic war was waged to exterminate them.
For close on a century the tiny Bushmen were hunted and harried until, decimated and broken, they retreated into the sandy wastes of the Kalahari to find their last refuge. In the Great Karoo where they had run down the fat buck and painted symbolic dance and chase scenes in their rock shelters their age-old lands became the domain of the trekboers, who wandered with their flocks in search of water and grazing.
From the middle of the eighteenth century the vast, untamed plains of the Karoo drew increasing numbers of adventurous stockmen who chafed at the restrictions of the settled areas, sturdily independent men with hands made to shape frontiers. They had to be sturdy; the Great Karoo is no place for weaklings. Many of the travellers who braved its iron bound plains commented with obvious feeling on the hardships and privations of the Karoo and the type of men who defied them.
The Swedish botanist and naturalist Dr Carl Peter Thunberg made three journeys into the interior of the Cape between 1772 and 1774, the first of a succession of scientific inquirers who travelled the Great Karoo. He found the “Carrow” had “a burning hot climate where not a drop of rain falls for the space of eight months at least’. It was so hot that “the eye is affected by a tremulous motion in the air, just as though one were looking at a flame”.
The heat and the monotony: these are the two aspects of the Karoo that recur throughout the writing of the early travellers. When Thomas Pringle, the poet, visited the Great Karoo no rain had fallen for nearly a year. He wrote: “Not a vestage of green pasturage was to be descried over the surface of the immense monotonous landscape; and the low heath-like shrubbery, apparently as sapless as a worn-out broom, was the only thing our cattle had to browse on. No wild game was to be seen: all had fled apparently to some more hospitable region.
Not even a wandering ostrich or bird of prey appeared to break the death-like stillness of the waste”. George Thompson, a Cape Town merchant, echoed him. He found the Karoo around Beaufort West “dismally parched up” and concluded the region was “only fit for human residence during a few weeks in the year, after the fall of the periodical, or rather the occasional rains, for sometimes more than one season intervenes without them”.
Despite Thompson's gloomy conclusion tenacious boers were living the year round in the area. That their life was a hard one is borne out by the visit of the botanist William Burchell to the home of a semi-nomadic boer during his epic journey between 1811 and 1815. Burchell accompanied the boer to his “miserable hut” to buy some sheep. “His only food was mutton, without bread or any kind of vegetables. His sheep were numerous and thriving, though they fed on nothing but bushes: of large cattle he had none, as the land of the Karro and the Roggeveld does not produce the grassy pasture proper for cows and oxen,” he noted. “Our visitor's place in the scale of civilisation would he nearly at the bottom, if even it should not be below zero.”
Things were little different 20 years later when the naturalist Andrew Steedman travelled the Karoo and put up at the farm of “a Boor named Boonartie” in the Nuweveld area. The family had already been driven from their previous land by the depredations of Bushmen who had plundered their farm, driven off stock and attempted to shoot them with their poisoned arrows. Now they had to contend with predators, chilling cold and birds of prey such as the bearded vulture, all of which combined to reduce their flocks.
The Boonarties were hospitable people even though Steedman found “their house was the picture of misery, the thatch of one room having completely disappeared, while the wind and rain penetrated through the shattered and dilapidated roof of the other to such a degree that it was with difficulty candles could be kept burning on the table”.
A nineteenth century traveller, G. A. Farini, crossed the Great Karoo by train at a time when no rain had fallen for two years. He thought the sun was trying to make up for lost time in the 'most terrible, arid, parched-up, kiln-dried, scorched, baked, burnt, and Godforsaken district' it had ever shone upon. When Farini was told that there were other districts which had known no rainfall for up to twelve years he remarked, 'Ah! I felt sure, all the time, that Hell could not be a great way off this place.'
It seemed incredible to him that 'the Great Karoo can ever be other than it is now -an apparently hopeless desert'.
Lord Randolph Churchill, who also followed the line of rail, had a more discerning eye and regarded the Karoo as 'far more hospitable and nourishing for livestock than the uninstructed tourist would imagine.'
Lord Randolph was right. Sheep and goats are the wealth of the Karoo and the multiplication of their numbers on the plains is the basis of most agriculture and much commerce in the region. The meat, fleeces, hair and hides of these animals provided the fledgling railways with much of their goods trade in the latter years of the nineteenth century when gangs of British navvies were taking the rail across the plains to the diamond fields of Kimberley.