The Zoologist/4th series, vol 3 (1899)/Issue 695/The Trek-bokke (''Gazella euchore'') of the Cape Colony, Cronwright-Schreiner

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The Trek-bokke (Gazella euchore) of the Cape Colony  (1899) 
by Samuel Cron Cronwright-Schreiner


By S.C. Cronwright-Schreiner.

South Africa has probably never been surpassed in the variety and profusion of its wild animals; it has certainly had nothing more wonderful than its prodigious numbers of Springbucks. These fleet and beautiful creatures still exist in numbers incredible to people unacquainted with the country, though they have lately so decreased that it is almost impossible now to form any conception of the hosts that infested the endless flats only a few years ago. Where Springbucks run wild in large numbers they are distinguished as "Hou-bokke" and "Trek-bokke," the "Hou-bokke" being bucks (we term all our Antelopes "bucks") that live permanently on the same veld, the "Trek-bokke" those that congregate in vast hosts and migrate from one part of the country to another in seasons of drought. When the country was so densely covered with all kinds of game, the vast herds of Springbucks quickly felt the effects of the frequent droughts that devastate the inland up country parts, and began to "trek." Congregating in millions, they moved off in search of better veld, destroying everything in their march over the arid flats. The "Trek-bokke" can only be compared, in regard to number, with the Bison of North America, or the Pigeons of the Canadas. To say they migrate in millions is to employ an ordinary figure of speech used vaguely to convey the idea of great numbers; but in the case of these bucks it is the literal truth.

Gordon Cumming, who shot in South Africa in the early forties, and whose book ('The Lion Hunter in South Africa'), more than any book with which I am acquainted, gives some idea of the extraordinary variety and profusion of game which then existed, refers to a "Trek-bokken or grand migration of Springboks" which he saw between Cradock and Colesberg, and vividly describes how he stood on the forechest of his waggon, watching the bucks pass "like the flood of some great river," during which time "these vast legions continued streaming through the nek in the hills in one unbroken compact phalanx"; then he saddled his horse, rode into the midst of them, and shot until he cried "Enough." But this vast and surprising trek was, he says, "infinitely surpassed" by one he saw some days later. He "beheld the plains, and even the hillsides, which stretched away on every side, thickly covered, not with herds, but with one vast mass of Springboks; as far as the eye could strain the landscape was alive with them, until they softened down into a dim mass of living creatures." It would be vain, he says, to attempt to form any idea of the number of Antelopes he saw on that day, but he has no hesitation in saying that "some hundreds of thousands were within the compass of my (his) vision." A Boer with whom he was shooting acknowledged that "it was a very fair Trek-bokken, but observed that it was not many when compared with what he had seen." "This morning," remarked the Boer, "you beheld only one flat covered with Springboks, but I give you my word that I have ridden a long day's journey over a succession of flats covered with them as far as I could see, and as thick as Sheep in a fold."

A generation back they trekked in such dense masses that they used sometimes to pass right through the streets of the small up-country towns. I have known old people who walked among them, and actually now and then touched them with their hand. Men have gone in armed only with a heavy stick, and killed as many as they wished. Native herdsmen have been trampled to death by the Bucks, and droves of Afrikander Sheep carried away, never to be recovered, in the surging crowd. So dense is the mass at times, and so overpowering the pressure from the millions behind, that if a sluit (gully) is come to, so wide and deep that the Bucks cannot leap over or go through it, the front ranks are forced in until it is levelled up by their bodies, when the mass marches over and continues its irresistible way. Again, when they come to our large rivers, which run almost dry before the summer storms fall, the thirsty creatures stream over the steep banks into the bed of the river, and drink themselves heavy with water. They crowd into the river-bed quicker than they can get out, and the crush is so great at times as they climb the steep banks that men have gone in on foot unarmed, and secured as many as they wished simply by catching them with the naked hand and breaking their hind legs. There was a certain element of danger in doing this, for, if the Bucks turned, the hunters ran the risk of being trampled to death. The density of such masses may be imagined when one remembers how timid and wary of approach these Antelopes are.

The Cape Colony has from time to time during recent years been visited by the Trek-bokke, though not in such numbers as the old farmers used to describe, and, I have no doubt, truthfully describe. In 1895, however, the up-country was suffering from a long drought, which was particularly severe in Namaqualand; and the Trek-bokke began to move well into the Colony. There were rumours of their coming, and then it was said that they were unusually numerous—that it was a "big trek." This soon proved to be the case. It was eventually known that they had not appeared in such numbers for thirty or forty years. They kidded on the Kaaien Bult, in the district of Prieska, and then resumed their trek in search of better veld. Mr. J.W. Wright, a relative of mine, was then living at Karree Kloof, a farm about ten hours by cart (six miles to the hour) west of the railway in the district of Hope Town. In July, 1896, he wrote that the Trek-bokke were approaching Karree Kloof, and invited me to come and see them. Believing that such a large "trek" might never be seen again, I accepted his invitation.

Starting by train from Kimberley, I alighted at Kran Kuil, a railway station not far south of the Orange River. Leaving Kran Kuil by postcart early next morning, and passing the little village of Strydenburg, with its immense "pan," the home when full of thousands of wild-fowl, after a ten hours' drive in a rickety cart, one of whose wheels was dished the wrong way, and threatened to fall to pieces every moment, I reached Karree Kloof at sundown. Our conversation that evening was of course largely about the Springbucks. Some hundred yards to the back of the house stands a kraal. Ten or fifteen years earlier Mr. Wright saw the Trekbokke stream through between the house and the kraal. The present trek had approached within about four hours of Karree Kloof, and then turned, and was now some distance farther away. We started in a four-in-hand Cape-cart next day to see the Bucks. Passing through veld where the trek had recently been, and by many a dead Buck, we slept that night at Omdraai's Vley, in the district of Prieska, where two young Englishmen had an accommodation house and a country shop. Over a large fire that evening (it was mid-winter and freezing hard every night) we heard the latest news of the trek. The nearest Bucks were then about two hours farther on. A portion had passed over Omdraai's Vley, taking their way through a wire-fenced Ostrich camp, breaking some of the wires. To clear this camp of those that remained in, about one thousand had to be shot, one of which was an albino. A large number had of course been wounded and many kids, whose mothers had been shot, died. In that camp alone two thousand must have perished. The owners of the shop were buying Springbuck skins at 5d. and 6d. each at the rate of three thousand a week, and had already purchased thousands of pounds of "biltong" (the raw flesh cut into narrow strips and dried), as had also Mr. Wright at Karree Kloof. It was reckoned that, in the district of Prieska alone, some hundreds of thousands of Bucks had been shot, and nearly as many wounded, and the little kids were dying in thousands; yet there was no appreciable diminution in their numbers. Among other things, we heard that various wild carnivora were following the trek, a Leopard having been shot in the open veld, and "Wild Dogs" (Lycaon pictus) having been seen in pursuit; also that Antelopes, unknown in those parts for many years, had appeared, carried along in the living flood which was pouring over the country. In fact, at Karree Kloof, which the Bucks had not actually encroached upon, a Kudu and three Haartebeeste had been found in the camps, the Kudu (a bull) having broken off a horn in jumping over the wire fence.

Taking an early breakfast next morning, we inspanned, and, after several hours' drive, passing a pair of wild Ostriches with chicks on the way, saw the first of the Bucks, some ten or fifteen thousand, in several lots. One lot began to run, to cross the road in front of us. Whipping the horses up until we were close enough, we alighted with our rifles, and as the Bucks came bounding past shot several, and then, cutting off the hind legs of such as were fat at the small of the back, we slung them on the axle of the cart and drove on. After proceeding for a couple of hours, and shooting another Buck or two from the road, we outspanned at a farm called Weel Pan, and had an early lunch. The "pan" was dry and the house forsaken, except for a Hottentot servant. The farm was 12,000 morgen (about 25,000 acres) in extent, but had been so eaten off and tramped out by the Bucks that the owner had had to remove all his stock. This was the case with many farms in the path of the Bucks; the veld had been destroyed, cultivated lands eaten bare, and camp fences broken down by the resistless mass of Antelopes. Mr. Wright mentioned that he had 40,000 morgen of land on the Kaaien Bult, which the Bucks had so destroyed that he was removing all his stock from it. Before I left Karree Kloof, on my way home, the cattle from the Kaaien Bult arrived there, having been driven twenty-six hours (156 miles) to be pastured where the devastating Bucks had not been.

After lunch we changed our direction, and drove on, hoping to see a denser part of the trek, shooting an occasional Buck from the road. The Dutch farmers were out by the hundred; all day shots could be heard, and occasionally a horseman could be seen scurrying along the road to head a lot of Bucks, and we witnessed an exciting chase after a wounded ram, which, when the horseman dismounted, charged him—a very rare thing for a Springbuck to do. The whole veld was damaged; it was hardly possible to put one's foot down in that vast extent of country without treading on spoor of the Springbuck; and the Karoo bushes were torn and broken by their sharp feet. We passed several "outspans" where the hunters had encamped for days, with their waggons, and carts and horses—deserted camps which were marked by ash-heaps and charred bones, and the straw of bundles of forage; while offal and heads and the lower portions of the legs of the Bucks lay about to such an extent as to be quite disagreeable. We constantly saw dead Bucks, and there were especially large numbers of kids which had perished from starvation, their mothers having been shot. The Dutch farmers made on an average about 2s. 6d. per Buck—6d. for the skin, 2s. for the biltong. They enjoyed the sport, made a few sovereigns, and did the country a service. Every farmhouse we came to was simply festooned with drying biltong, the ground around being covered with pegged-out skins. Many Bucks were being conveyed by waggon to the railway, and sent to the large centres: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Kimberley, Port Elizabeth, and other towns. On our return journey we passed a waggon laden with two hundred and thirty Bucks going to Kran Kuil Station, and after our arrival at Karree Kloof another passed with eighty more. This was going on over a large extent of country; we but saw the edges of the trek. Venison of the finest quality in the world was plentiful.

In the afternoon we gradually left the noise of the hunters behind, and drove to quieter quarters, until at length our wish to see large numbers of the Bucks was gratified. On driving over a low nek of land a vast, undisturbed, glittering plain lay before us. Our glance at one sweep took in the expanse of brown country, bounded in the distance by low kopjes, bathed in the wonderful glowing tints of the Karoo; and throughout its whole extent the exquisite Antelopes grazed peacefully in the warm afternoon winter sunshine. It was as beautiful as it was wondrous. Undisturbed by the hunters, they were not huddled together in separate lots or running in close array, but were distributed in one unbroken mass over the whole expanse—"not herds," as Gordon Cumming said, "but one unbroken mass of Springbucks"—giving quite a whitish tint to the veld, almost as though there had been a very light fall of snow.

We alighted from the cart, put our rifles aside, and sat down to watch them, and take in a sight we most certainly should never see again. We were three farmers, accustomed to estimate numbers of small stock, and we had an excellent pair of field-glasses. I suggested to my friends that we should endeavour accurately to estimate how many Bucks were before us. With the aid of the field-glasses we deliberately formed a careful estimate, taking them in sections, and checking one another's calculations. We eventually computed the number to be not less than 500,000—half a million Springbucks in sight at one moment. I have no hesitation in saying that that estimate is not excessive. We were thoroughly accustomed to the vast South African veld and the sights it affords, but we sat in silence and feasted our eyes on this wonderful spectacle. Now, to obtain some rough idea of the prodigious number of Bucks in the whole trek, it must be remembered it was computed that they extended twenty-three hours in one direction, and from two to three in the other—that is, the whole trek occupied a space of country 138 by 15 miles! Of course they were not equally dense throughout this area; but when one says they were in millions, it is the literal truth.

Having watched the scene long enough, we started on our homeward journey, leaving the Bucks undisturbed. We slept that night at Schilder Pan, the farm of Mr. Jackson, who made us most welcome. Chatting about the Bucks, Mr. Jackson said we had not seen the densest part of the trek, and told us of two incidents which indicated how thick the crowd had been on a portion of his farm. His son on one occasion got ahead of the Bucks, in a narrow run between some kopjes, down which he knew they were coming. They did come, and he only escaped being trampled to death by taking shelter behind a large stone, past which they rushed like a torrent. He actually shot one within a yard or two of the stone before taking refuge behind it. The other incident—it occurred on two occasions—was more remarkable. When Springbuck are shot at they all usually begin to run in one direction, up the wind as a rule; and, if they are in large numbers and hard pressed, they pass in two streams on each side of the object they wish to avoid. (When they once take their direction they will keep it. Hunters know this well. Shooting near Colesberg, in 1880, we used to start the Bucks running, and then ride to head them off. I have thus ridden right through a flying herd of only a few hundreds.) When the object is very close they pass in front of it in a kind of crescent form, giving a little in the centre, and thus closing back towards the original line of their flight. As the Karoo veld is very bare and sandy, they often raise, and run enveloped in, a cloud of dust. Mr. Jackson was out in his four-in-hand Cape-cart shooting Trek-bokke. As he drove along the dense masses began to cut across in front of him enveloped in a cloud of dust, which, as the numbers thickened and the pace increased, grew denser, and as it grew denser and obscured their sight the rushing mass came closer and closer to the cart, until at last, in a thick storm of blinding dust, some of the Bucks actually ran against the cart-wheels and under the horses' bellies. A man on foot would probably have been knocked down and trampled to death.

No careful study has, to my knowledge, been made of the habits of the Trek-bokke. It is known that they migrate in search of better veld, urged thereto by drought. They do not travel fast when doing this, but feed along. In some out-of-the-way parts they kid, and when the kids are strong enough they return to their own veld, if rain has fallen. If it continues dry they do not return at once, but stay on till later in the season, or perhaps over another kidding. How they know when it has rained where they came from, when perhaps it is dry where they are, one cannot say; but it is generally held that, through a subtle sense of smell, they do know. Whether the Trek-bokke of forty or fifty years ago or earlier came from some particular part of the country and again returned to it, I do not know, but I do not think this was the case; it seems more likely that when the Bucks were in such countless numbers all over the country they simply all moved off together during droughts in search of food. Trek-bokke then might have come from any part of the country suffering severely from drought, returning in time, no doubt, each to its particular haunts. I do not think that there is any difference between the "Trek-bokke" and the "Hou-bokke," except in the matter of weight, the Trek-bokke averaging about 10 lb. to 15 lb. lighter. This difference in weight, however, is probably accounted for by the quieter life of the "Hou-bokke," for veld will permanently support a few Bucks in good condition where a large number would starve. I do not know whether there were "Hou-bokke" in the earlier days. To-day the veld is never so eaten off and destroyed as when the Bucks and other game were in such enormous numbers, so there is no need for the few Bucks now left to migrate. But in the north-west of the Colony, and in Great Namaqualand, they are evidently still to be found in large numbers, and these, when a severe drought comes, trek into the Karoo of the Colony in search of food. As I have said, these Bucks, when trekking down, do not travel fast; but the old Dutch farmers, who should know their habits well, say that when they return they travel at a great pace, even as fast as one hundred miles a day. How true this is I cannot say; it cannot seem impossible to such as know the extraordinary fleetness and staying power of these Antelopes. However considered, the Trek-bokken are one of the most wonderful occurrences in a wonderful country. Yet it is probable that the days of the very large treks are past, and that such a sight as we saw in 1896 will never be seen again.

[Mr. Cronwright-Schreiner informs us he has also sent this communication to the 'Cape Times.' —Ed.]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1936, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 86 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.