The Apochryphal Element in African Cartography

Posted on December 04, 2018 by Cape Rebel

From ‘Lost City’

In A Bekkersdal Marathon
by Herman Charles Bosman


‘It used to be different, in the Kalahari,’ Chris Welman said, commenting on At Naudé’s announcement of what he had heard over the wireless. ‘You could go for miles and miles, and it would just be desert. All you’d come across, perhaps, would be a couple of families of Bushmen, and they’d be disappearing over the horizon. Then, days later, you’d again come across a couple of families of Bushmen. And again, they’d be disappearing over the horizon.

‘And you wouldn’t know if it was the same couple of families of Bushmen. Or the same horizon. And you wouldn’t care, either. I mean, in the Kalahari desert you wouldn’t care. Maybe in other deserts it is different. I’m only talking about the Kalahari.’

Yes, all you’d be concerned about, in the Kalahari, Jurie Steyn said, was what the couple of families of Bushmen would be disappearing over the horizon with. For you might not always be able to check up, quickly enough, to find out what was missing from your camp.

‘But from what At Naudé has been telling us,’ Chris Welman went on, ‘it looks like you’d have no peace and quiet in the Kalahari today. Or room to move in. From Molepolele onwards, it seems that there’s just one expedition on top of another, each one searching for a lost city.’

It was not hard to think of how a city got lost in the first place, Jurie Steyn observed. ‘It must have been that the people that built the city didn’t know what a couple of families of Bushmen were like. Still, I can’t believe it, somehow, quite. Not a whole city, that is. I can’t somehow imagine Bushmen disappearing over the horizon with all that. For one thing, it wouldn’t be of any use to them. Now, if it wasn’t so much a question of a whole lost city, but of just some of the things that got lost out of the city – well, I could tell those expeditions where to go and look.’

But At Naudé said that we had perhaps misunderstood one or two of the less important details of the news he had communicated to us. There weren’t quite as many expeditions as Chris Welman seemed to think, out in the Kalahari, looking for a lost city. Moreover, it wasn’t a city that had got lost in the way that Jurie Steyn meant by lost. The city had just been built so many years ago that people had afterwards forgotten about it. Don’t ask him how a thing like that could happen, now, At Naudé said. He admitted that he couldn’t imagine it, himself.

‘I mean, let’s not take even a city …’ At Naudé started to explain.

‘No, let a few Bushman families take it,’ Jurie Steyn said, promptly, ‘with the washing hanging on the clothes-lines and all.’

‘Not a city, even,’ At Naudé continued, pointedly ignoring Jurie Steyn’s second attempt that afternoon at being what he considered to be funny. ‘But if we think of quite a small town, like Bekkersdal, say … Not that I won’t agree that we’ve got a wider water-furrow in the main street of Bekkersdal than they’ve got in Zeerust, of course, but it’s only that there are less people in the main street of Bekkersdal than there are in Zeerust, if you understand what I mean … Well, can you imagine anybody in Bekkersdal forgetting where they built the place? After all, anybody can see for himself how silly that sounds. It’s like Dominee Welthagen, just before the Nagmaal, suddenly forgetting where the church is. Or David Policansky not remembering where his shop is, just after he’s done it all up for the New Year.’

We acknowledged that At Naudé was right there, of course. With Dominee Welthagen we might not perhaps be too sure, for it was known that – in some respects, at least – the dominee could at times be pretty absent-minded. But with David Policansky, At Naudé was on safe enough ground. Especially after that big new plate-glass window that David Policansky had put in. It was not reasonable to think that he would be able to forget it. Not with what he was likely still to be owing on it, we said. You weren’t just allowed to forget anything you were owing on.

‘So you see how much more silly it is with a city, then,’ At Naudé concluded. ‘Thinking that people would go and build a city, and then just lose it.’

Thereupon young Vermaak, the schoolmaster, said that he had learnt in history how, for many centuries, people had believed that there was a foreign city called Monomotapa in these parts, and that numbers of expeditions had been sent out in the past to look for it. It was even marked up on maps, long ago, the schoolmaster said. But if you saw that name on a map of Africa today, he said, well, then you would know that it wasn’t a very up-to-date map of Africa.

As likely as not, the town of Vanderbijl Park would not be marked on that map, young Vermaak said, laughing. Or the town of Odendaalsrus, even. There was supposed to be a lot of gold and diamonds in that city with the foreign name, the schoolmaster added.

Well, with those remarks, young Vermaak broached a subject with which we were not altogether unfamiliar. More than one of us had, before today, held in his hand a map showing with a cross, as clearly as anything, the exact spot where hidden treasure would be found buried. And all we’d be likely to dig up there would be an old jam tin. The apochryphal element in African cartography was something we had experienced before.

‘All I can say,’ Gysbert van Tonder observed at this stage, ‘is that I don’t know so much about a lost city. But it seems to me there’s going to be more than one lost expedition, depending on how far they go into the desert beyond Kang-Kang.’

Several of us looked surprised when Gysbert van Tonder said that. Surprised, and also impressed. We knew that, in his time, Gysbert van Tonder had penetrated pretty deep into the Kalahari, bartering beads and brass wire for cattle. That was, of course, before the tribes in those parts found that they didn’t need those things any more, since they could buy their clothes ready-made at the Indian store at Ramoutsa. Nevertheless, we had not imagined that he had gone as far into the desert as all that.

‘But is there,’ Jurie Steyn enquired, after a pause, ‘is there really a place by that name, though?’

Gysbert van Tonder smiled.

‘On the map, yes,’ he said, ‘there is. On the map in my youngest son’s school atlas, you can read that name for yourself there, big as anything. And in the middle of the Kalahari. Well, there’s something one of those expeditions can go and look for. And maybe that’s their lost city. At least, it’s lost enough. Because you certainly won’t be able to tell it from any other spot in the Kalahari that you’re standing in the middle of, watching a couple of families of Bushmen disappearing over the horizon.’

So Jurie Steyn said, yes, he reckoned that if it was a lost city that an expedition was after, why, then he reckoned that just about any part of the Kalahari would do for that. Because when the expedition came back from the Kalahari without having found anything, it would prove to the whole world just how lost that city actually was, Jurie Steyn reckoned. If that was what an expedition into the Kalahari was for, then the expedition just couldn’t go wrong. In fact, the less that an expedition like that found, the better. Because it would show that the city had been lost without so much as a trace, Jurie Steyn added.