Axel Wilhelm Eriksson of Hereroland (1846-1901)

Axel Wilhelm Eriksson of Hereroland (1846-1901)Axel Wilhelm Eriksson of Hereroland by Ione Rudner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Axel Wilhelm Eriksson (1846-1901) was a nineteenth-century Swedish hunter and trader in south-west Africa, and this “life and letters” book gives a picture of his life, and what life was like for others there at that time.

All agree that everyone who knew him liked A.W. Eriksson, and he was well-known and widely-respected in what are now Namibia and Angola. That did not stop them from abusing his hospitality, taking advantage of his kind and generous nature, and cheating him on every possible occasion.

It took me nearly three months to read this book, mainly because I interrupted it by reading some of the sources on which it was based.

Axel Wilhelm was born in Vänersborg, Sweden (then spelt Wenersborg) on 24 August 1846, and in 1865, at the age of 18, he travelled to Damaraland (Hereroland), now part of Namibia to help his fellow-Swede, Charles John Andersson, to collect and mount specimens of the animals and birds of southern Africa for Swedish museums. Within 18 months of Eriksson’s arrival Andersson had died and Eriksson buried him in what is now southern Angola.

Eriksson then carried on hunting and trading on his own account, and became the biggest businessman in Damaraland, though he had to face setbacks caused by wars, droughts and, in 1897, the Rinderpest, the cattle plague that killed off most of the cattle in sub-Saharan Aftica.

My interest in him is twofold: having lived in Namibia for a couple of years I am interested in its history, and Axel Wilhelm Eriksson married a relative of my wife, Frances (Fanny) Stewardson, so their children are related. You can see more about that on our blig here: Elusive Namibian families.

The marriage was not a happy one, and ended i n divorce ten years later, when Axel Eriksson found that Fanny had committed adultery with his clerk, Clement Stephen Stonier. In one of his letters he described his marriage as “ten years of hell”. After the divorce, in 1883, he took his three oldest children, Sara (nearly 10), Andrew (6) and Axel (nearly 5) to Sweden to go to school there, and to be cared for by his elder sister Mathilda Olsen, who had herself been deserted by her husband. The youngest daughter, Maud, was brought up by cousins in Cape Town, where she married James Kirby, and later lived in England.

Axel Wilhelm Eriksson was joined in Damaraland by several of his brothers and a number of other Swedes, some of whom also became related by marriage by marrying into the Stewardson family, namely Oskar Theodore Lindholm and Charles Reinhold Carlsson.

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Fred & Mary Greene

One of the things that was missing from our family history was a picture of Val’s great grandparents, Fred and Mary Greene. A few weeks ago, however, Jean Mary Gray sent us one. Jean’s grandmother, Connie Semple, was the half-sister of Frederick Vincent Greene.

Frederick Vincent Greene (1868-1949) and his wife Mary Frances  Crighton (1868-1957)

Frederick Vincent Greene (1868-1949) and his wife Mary Frances Crighton (1868-1957)

Frederick Vincent Greene was the son of Frederick Thomas Green, the Canadian elephant hunter, trader and partisan leader in Damaraland in the mid-19th century. He was born at Ehangero, Damaraland, on 21 November 1868. His mother was Catherine Agnes Ann (Kate)  Stewardson, who was born at Rooibank, near Walvis Bay (now part of Namibia).

After Frederick Thomas Green died in 1876, his widow, Kate Stewardson, married George Robb. With her two husbands she had at least 17 children, of whom only five survived to adulthood. So Fred Greene (Junior) had two sisters, Mary Elizabeth Green (1865-1952) who married Frederick Thomas Abbott, and Alice Isabella Green (1871-1945) who married John Martin Cuthbert O’Grady.

He also had three half-sisters, one from his father’s earlier wife, and two from his mother’s later husband (it gets complicated).

The eldest half-sister was Ada Maria Green (1864-1926), born at Otjimboro, Angola, of Frederick Thomas Green’s second wife, Sara ua Kandendu (his first wife was a Dixon, name unknown). Ada, also known as Ida and Kaera, was the ancestor of Mburumba Kerina, the inventor of the name “Namibia” (“Kerina” was the Herero pronunciation of “Green”).

Frederick Vincent Greene’s other two half sisters were the children of his mother, Kate Stewardson, and her second husband George Robb. They were Agnes Mary Elizabeth Robb (1878-1959) who married Charles Ernest Peers, a Cape Town artist, and Constance Sweetingham (Connie) Robb (1889-1964) who married John Semple, and is the grandmother of Jean Gray who sent us the photo.

Frederick Vincent Greene was 7 years old when his father died, and was brought up by his mother and stepfather, who moved to the Cape Colony about 1881 or 1882, and later moved to Johannesburg. At some point he married Mary Frances Crighton — we don’t know when or where, but their first child, Frederick Alwyn Bartlett Greene, was born in Ladysmith, Natal, in 1890. His father, Fred Vincent, was shown in the Anglican baptism register there was a “mechanical engineer”.

Mary Frances Crighton was the daughter of William John Crighton and Anna Maria MacLeod of Cape Town, where the family were saddlers and leather merchants. On her mother’s side there were also Canadian links, as her grandmother, Mary Kerwick, like Fred Vincent Greene’s father, was born in Quebec. See here for more on the Crighton family.

They had eight children, but they are the generation we know least about.

  • Frederick Alwyn Bartlett Greene (1890-?)
  • Charles Stanhope Greene (1891-?)
  • Arthur Walpole Francis Greene (c1893-c1943)
  • Allan Dudley Greene (c1893-c1942)
  • Edward Lester Greene (1897-c1950)
  • Frank Henry Greene (c1899-?)
  • Royden Braithwaite Greene (1905-1971)
  • Gladys Winifred Greene (1907-1997)

Val’s grandfather was Allan Dudley Greene, but he died before she was born, and when her father was a prisoner-of-war in Italy. He died of TB, but Val’s grandmother Emma le Sueur couldn’t remember when it was. She was good at remembering what pills they took and what diseases they died of, but was rather vague about dates and places. But she thought he had died in the King George V Hospital in Sydenham, Durban. So we went there and asked at the reception if they could find the record of someone who had been a patient 30 years before. They found him in the index, and said that because it was so long ago, his admission card would be in the basement. It took them all of 10 minutes to find it. So we got his date of death. We were delighted, because we had just spent the morning hunting through the records of the Master of the Supreme Court in Pietermaritzburg (for which I had to get special permission from the magistrate, being banned at the time) and had found no death notice or any other estate files for him. And we still don’t know when or where he was born.

The family surname was Green and remained so until the First World War. The eldest son, Frederick Alwyn Bartlett Green, changed his name to Greene when he enlisted in the army, and someone said it was because he had had a fight with his father. But by the end of the war all the sons were using the Greene spelling, and the father was too.

Some members of the family refer to the eldest son as Fred Skelm, because there are all kinds of rumours about him. He was arrested in South West Africa in the 1930s for illegal diamond prospecting in the Kaokoveld, and banged up in Outjo for a while. He claimed that he was heir to the land on which he was prospecting because it had belonged to his grandfather Frederick Thomas Green. His story was perhaps not as far-fetched as it may have seemed to the magistrate at the time, because his aunt Ada (Kaera) had sued the South West Africa Company for a farm that the German colonial government had given to the Company, which she maintained that the Herero chief, Samuel Maharero, had given to her father for her. She won her case too, and the deed, signed by the Herero chiefs’ council, may perhaps be the first written title deed in Namibia.

Fred Skelm seems to have married several times, and may or may not have had children by some of his wives, One story was that he worked on a mine somewhere in America, murdered someone, and escaped on a railway handcranked inspection truck. Another said he was run over by a bus in Clairwood, Durban, and yet another that it was in London.

The second son, Charles Stanhope Green was baptised in Johannesburg in 1892 when he was a year old, but we don’t know where he was born. He disappears after that. Perhaps he died young.

Arthur Walpole Francis Greene, the third (or possibly fourth) son was married in 1915 to Margaret McLaren, who left him 2 days later. He was said to have been drowned when the ship he was travelling on was torpedoed in WWII. Edward Lester Greene had a son Lester Frederick, who went farming in Zimbabwe. Frank Henry Greene went overseas as a soldier in World War I, but while in England was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment for stealing articles from a house. He apparently committed suicide at about the age of 25.

Roydon Brathwaite Green changed all three of his names, becoming Royden Braithwaite Greene. He was born in Johannesburg and lived in Port Elizabeth.

The youngest child of Fred and Mary Green was Gladys Winifred Greene, who married twice. We found that she was living in Ixopo, and Val went to visit we with her father, who was thus meeting his aunt for the first time. She was the one who first told us about the Namibian connection, which enabled us to find Fred Green the elephant hunter in the history books, though several of them erroneously referred to him as Frederick Joseph Green instead of Frederick Thomas Green. Later we met Gladys’s daughter Dion Stewart, who lived in Empangeni when we lived in Melmoth, and she was the first one who told us about the family royal legend, which turned out to be false, but did put us on the track of the real Green family history.

So we were very glad to have the photo, which is the only one we have seen of Fred and Mary Greene.

Adventure in South West Africa 1894-98

Adventure in South West Africa 1894-1898Adventure in South West Africa 1894-1898 by Eberhard Rosenblad

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few weeks ago I read and reviewed Memories of several years in south-western Africa by Thure Gustav Een. Captain Een, a Swede, described his life and journeys in central and northern Namibia in the 1860s and 1870s, in partnership with a Swedish trader, Axel Wilhelm Eriksson.

Rosenblad’s book is very similar, but it is set in a period 30 years later. He too was a partner of A.W. Eriksson, and covered much the same ground as Een did.

The main difference is that in Een’s time the country was divided into a number of small states that were sometimes at war with each other. In Rosenblad’s time, it was the German colony of South West Africa. It is interesting, therefore, to read descriptions of the same country by two writers a generation apart.

Quite a lot of the difference in the writing reflects the New Imperialism that swept the world in the 1880s, and led to the Scramble for Africa by the European powers. Germany was a bit late in the Scramble, and got a largely desert country. One of the effects of the New Imperialism was that it gave Europeans in Africa an enormous sense of their own superiority to the native Africans, and of the importance of showing the natives that the white man was the Boss. Even though Sweden was not an imperial power, Rosenblad’s writing reflects this sense of European superiority.

Een was aware of cultural differences, and often compared local cultures unfavourably with his own Swedish culture, but he described them in some detail, and assumed that his readers would be interested in these descriptions. Rosenblad tends to dismiss them as not worth describing, except when he is making a point about the superiority of his own culture. He quite often describes the way of disciplining his own employees, with a sjambok, and giving them a beating. He does not entirely lack compassion, however, and expresses pity for a tribe that resisted German rule and were taken as prisoners of war, but it is pity from a position of superiority, as one might pity an ill-treated animal.

Both Een and Rosenblad admired A.W. Eriksson, and recognised him as a remarkably kind and generous man. But when Een was there, Eriksson was a young man, who had started as an assistant to the Anglo-Swedish trader and explorer C.J. Andersson. Thirty years later he was older and more experienced, and clearly had a good reputation with just about everyone.

Rosenblad’s book is less satisfactory than Een’s in other ways too. Not only does he give less details about the different cultures, but also about the individuals he met. Een gives character sketches of people, and describes something of their lives. Rosenblad often does not even mention their names.

At one point he describes how two German soldiers at Heigamkab discoverered a portmanteau with clothes, books and letters in the Namib desert. The papers revealed that the owner was a Damara (Herero), who had gone to the Cape Colony and studied at a mission institution. He had apparently returned by sea, and decided to walk across the desert rather than waiting for wheeled transport, and then got lost. This supposition was verified when Rosenblad’s party reached the Cape, and he writes,

He had probably lost his way in the darkness and fog. He must have drifted around for some days, suffering all the agonies of hunger and thirst, and then must have lain down to rest expecting the end. So much time had already elapsed when the soldiers found the portmanteau, that it was no use starting a search. Perhaps one day his skeleton will emerge from the treacherous drift-sand and grin at the passerby, but then the memory of this event will already have faded long ago.

But it might not have faded quite so much if Rosenblad (or his editor) had bothered to record his name.

The translators of the book, Jalmar and Ione Rudner, have gone to some trouble to give more information about people who are named in the text, but there is obviously nothing they can do if the names are not mentioned.

One of the reasons we read the book was because of our interest in family history, but apart from A.W. Eriksson himself (a relative by marriage), the lack of names makes the book of little use in that respect. It consists, for the most part, of hunters’ and travellers’ tales, such as are told by hunters around campfires in the evenings. That was their entertainment before satellite TV appeared, but for us the lack of historical detail made them less interesting.

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Memories of several years in south western Africa

I’ve just finished reading a very interesting book that paints a picture of life in what is now Namibia in the 1860s and 1870s. It covers several interests of mine, like family history, because the auther was a friend of my wife Val’s great great grandparents, and missiology, because of his comments on the way missionaries behaved then.

Memories of several years in south-western AfricaMemories of several years in south-western Africa by Thure Gustav Een

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since Namibia became independent in 1990 there has been increased interest in its history, including its pre-colonial history. The problem is that there are few written sources for that period, and even fewer published ones, and many of those that were published (mostly in the 19th century) have long been out of print.

Captain T.G. Een spent some time in Damaraland (Hereroland) and Ovamboland between 1866 and 1871, and when he returned to his native Sweden published an account of his experiences in 1872. The archives of Namibia have been published some of their manuscript holdings, such as letters and diaries of European missionaries and traders who were in Namibia at that period. But diaries are personal documents, and tend to be quite sketchy.

Thanks to a grant from the Swedish Agency for Research Co-operation for Underdeveloped Countries, Eens books has now been translated into English by Jalmar and Ioene Rudner, and published with a new introduction and annotations by the Namibia Scientific Society.

Unlike a diarist, or even most letter writers, Een is writing for readers who have never seen the country he describes, and so he gives a vivid word picture of the places he visited and the people he met. In some ways the descriptions are superficial. Een was a sailor, not a trained anthropologist (actually there were no trained anthropologists in that period). He describes the everyday life and customs of the Herero and Ovambo people as he observed them, but he did not speak the languages of those peoples well, and communicated through interpreters who used Dutch, which Een did not speak well himself. So while he describes external customs, his interpretation of their inner meaning tends to be skimpy and shallow. One of his complaints was that the German missionaries, who had studied the languages, kept their knowledge to themselves, and were unwilling to share it with others who wanted to know the people of the country better.

He gives some interesting details of relations between different groups of people. When he first arrived in 1866 with C.J. Andersson, the Anglo-Swedish explorer and trader, they were based at Otjimbingwe on the Swakop River, which was then the capital of Damaraland (Hereroland). There were then at least four distinct groups of Herero-speaking people — the followers of Maharero, the followers of Zeraua, the Himba of the Kaokoveld to the northwest, and the Mbanderu of the east. Maharero and Zeraua and their retinues lived at Otjimbingwe, and they were occasionally invited to dinner by Andersson, but never at the same time. When Zeraua came to dinner, he sat at the table. But when Maharero came to dinner, he sat on a chair by the door, away from the table, because of his bad table manners. But Andersson did not want them to know of this different treatment.

Grasplatz, in the Namib desert just inland from Lüderitz

Grasplatz, in the Namib desert just inland from Lüderitz

When I lived in Namibia over 40 years ago one of the things I wondered about was how traders back in the 19th century managed to travel with their ox wagons through the waterless Namib desert. A few miles outside Luderitz there was a railway halt called Grasplatz, because they used to store grass for the oxen there, for the next stage of the journey. The diarists described “wagon trains” going from Otjimbingwe to Walvis Bay and returning, but they don’t describe how they did it. But Een does describe it, in some detail. And that is the kind of thing that makes his book interesting.

Of course, like a diary, it is still a personal book. He praises the Damaras (Hereros) at some points, but criticises them at others. He thinks they are lazy, ungrateful scroungers, and makes no bones about it, and gives several examples. But he also writes of several that he regards as friends. When I was in Namibia a century later, I had several Herero friends, but none fitted that description. I did know one or two scroungers, but other Hereros thought they were weird too. But perhaps a hundred years of history can make a big difference, to all parties.

So we have Een’s view of people of other cultures, but his description of them for the benefit of Swedes also tells us something about 19th-century Swedish culture and values. One of the interesting sidelights was that, according to the translators’ notes, there were 137 white people in Damaraland at that time (though the number can’t have been constant, they were always coming and going). They were of various different national origins, but the missionaries were all Germans of the Rhenish missionary society. Een describes the differing responses to the news that the Germans had won the Franco-Prussian War.

All whites who were not of German nationality wished the French army to be victorious, and we awaited news from the front with intense interest. When the victories of the German forces became known, in their usual manner of course, started bragging and blustering and behaving arrogantly. Of course these wonderful victories with all their bloody deeds, which have taken the European civilization a big step backward, had to be observed and celebrated with German thoroughness here in the wilderness also. To begin with, Mr Hahn, the High Priest of the missionaries, took down the mission flag, a red cross on a white background, and raised the flag of the North German Federation instead. The holy sign of the cross had to be replaced by that of ‘das grosse Vaterland’. The common symbol of peace of the Celestial Empire for all peoples had to give way to the German nation’s flag of victory. That was not enough. The black Christian brethren must not be left ignorant and unstirred by the victories of the Germans… The Negro boys (presumably from the mission school) were surely less interested in their German brethren’s victories than in the slaughtered ox with which they were treated to mark the occasion… All we white men were upset by this deed which we found improper in a neutral country, and especially coming from men of the cloth who should preach peace or at least avoid open approval of war, which they otherwise condemned in their preaching to the natives…

Een responded to this by raising a Swedish flag over his house at Omaruru, and went on to say,

In order to counteract all influences of the German flag still further, I made another flag of my own design, a large white star on a blue background. I hoisted this flag and tried to explain to Old Wilhelm (Chief Zeraua) that it was the flag of the Damara people, the symbol of their unity and harmony about which they should gather in times of danger to defend their country.

It little details like these that make Een’s book an interesting read, and help to bring the past to life.

It was also interesting to me because Een was a friend of Fred and Kate Green, my wife’s great great grandparents, and throws some interesting light on the family history. Fred Green married Kate Stewardson, the daughter of Francis and Frances Stewardson.

The translators, in their notes, persist in repeating the errors of several published sources by referring to Francis Stewardson as “Ian” Stewardson (which is a name that was made up for a historical novel), and giving Fred Green’s middle name as Frederick Joseph Green, when it was actually Frederick Thomas Green. I mention this because of the persistence of these errors, which come from relying on secondary sources. The church records, in Namibia and Canada, show that Fred Green’s middle name was Thomas, and the elder Stewardson’s name was Francis, not Ian. Fred Green’s deceased estate file in the Free State Master’s Office also shows his middle name as Thomas, so he didn’t change his name in middle age as some people do.

Een (2004:74) reveals that Fred and Kate Green had another child that we didn’t know about before:

Last among the hunters to arrive [in Ovamboland in November 1866] was Mr Green with with his wife who had been born in Damaraland of English parents. Both of them were ill. Green already had the first symptoms of the fever [malaria] prevailing in the country, which he had first contracted some years ago and which characteristically recurs every year, and then often enough it reappears some time before the period of its general recurrence. Mrs Green could not, of course, be anything other than exhausted and sick as she had had a son some days previously. The child died soon after their arrival here without having been baptized, and was buried without any ceremony at the foot of a fig tree…

Green was an amiable and pleasant gentleman and known as the most proficient hunter in this part of Africa. He did not consider it worthy of a gentleman to shoot elephants from an ambush at night when they came to the water to quench their thirst.

Een goes on to describe the recent death of another Swede, Johan August Wahlberg, who was killed by an elephant when on a hunting expedition with Fred Green. In Wahlberg’s case, he was ambushed by the elephant.

In a couple of places Een refers to Francis and Frances Stewardson’s daughters as beautiful, and one of the last things he did before he left to return to Sweden was to attend the wedding of one of them, Fanny, to another Swedish trader, Axel Whilhelm Eriksson (Een 2004:187).

Eriksson returned from his expedition to Ovamboland in September [1871]. He wasd engaged to one of the beautiful daughters of Mrs Stewardson, and now the wedding was celebrated with the usual pomp and splendour. He marriage ceremony was performed by Missionary Viehe in the meeting-house or school-house of Omaruru, and was attended by a large crowd of black spectators. The bride, dressed in light-blue silk, was radiantly beautiful. There was a big salute [of guns] and the black spectators were given two fat oxen on which they could feast as they pleased.

Sad to say, the marriage ended in divorce 10 years later. Axel Eriksson and Fanny Stewardson had four children, and one of them was named Axel Francis Zeraua Eriksson, presumably after his father, his maternal grandfather, and Chief Zeraua, who was a close friend of Eriksson.

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Adding Growdon and Sandercock to Find A Grave

I’ve been adding pictures some of our Sandercock and Growdon gravestones to the Find A Grave web site.

You can see them here.

All our branch of the Growdon/Growden family are descended from William Growden and Elizabeth Sandercock, who were married in Cardinaham, Cornwall, in 1792, so most of the Sandercocks buried in the Cardinham churchyard are related to us too. Some Sandercocks also married members of the Riddle family, but the Riddles are not direct ancestors (so there is no chance that we might be descended from Lord Voldemort!)

St Meubred's Church, Cardinham, Cornwall -- ancestral bums sat on these pews

St Meubred’s Church, Cardinham, Cornwall — ancestral bums sat on these pews

We visited Cardinham in 2005, and took several photos of gravestones, and Find A Grave seemed to be a good way of sharing them. If you have any photos of gravestones, you might like to share them on Find A Grave too.

St Meubred's Church, Cardinham, Cornwall

St Meubred’s Church, Cardinham, Cornwall

There are other Sandercock families from other parts of Cornwall, but we have have found no links to them (yet). There are also Growden families from the nearby parishes of Warleggan and St Neot, but we have found no links to them either.

The Boteti (or Botletle) River, Botswana

On Saturday 25 May 2013 we left the Island Safari Lodge at Maun, where we had stayed the previous two nights, and continued to follow some of the routes taken by Val’s great-great grandfather Fred Green.


Green’s Baobab, near Gweta, Botswana

When planning our trip we had looked at the possibility of going to Gweta on the road to Francistown, and trying to visit Green’s baobab, which is about 30 km south of the town. Two things made the possibility remote: first, there was no accommodation available in Gweta at the time we would be passing that way, and, secondly, we were told that the way to Green’s baobab lay along a sandy track, for which one needed a 4×4 vehicle and our little Toyota Yaris wouldn’t make it, so we had to make do with pictures found by Google. There is a video of it here.

Botswana cattle

Botswana cattle

In July 1858 Fred and Charles Green and George Bonfield left Hereroland with five wagons and went to Lake Ngami. Bonfield stayed there with one wagon while the Green brothers set off for Matabeleland with the other four wagons by way of the north side of the Makgadikgadi Pans, and at Gootsa Pan they carved on a baobab “Green’s Expedition 1858″. Apparently the inscription can still be read today, which is why we thought it might be interesting to see it. But it didn’t seem possible, so we tried to follow the course of the Boteti River instead.

Boteti River

Boteti River bridge at Makalamabedi, Botswana

After filling up with petrol we left Maun at 9:30 am, and drove east towards Francistown, and there were several herds of cattle crossing the road in single file, like the game in Etosha. We stopped to take photos of one lot, and those who had already crossed gathered and looked at us reproachfully, while those who had not yet crossed stopped, wondering when we would get out of the way, perhaps. We saw lots of people riding asses, usually in pairs, and they seemed to be cowboys, watching the herds.

Boteti River at Makalamabedi

Boteti River at Makalamabedi

At 10:12, 67 km after leaving the Island Safari Lodge, we turned south, where a sign pointed to Makalamabedi. The road was narrower, and looked less travelled. After about 8 km we came to the main object of this part of our journey, the Boteti River bridge, so we stopped to take photos of it and the river. The river was surprisingly large, and full of water. When reading about Fred Green travelling along it, I had always pictured it like a Namibian river or like the Taokhe River we had seen a couple of days ago, dry, with water in it only after rain. But the Boteti (or Botletle, as some called it) was wide and beautiful, and though not as large as the Okavango farther north, was similar, as the outflow of the delta. No wonder the Green brothers spent so much time here. As Tabler (1973:45) puts it:

Shelly, Bushe and Green, going to Lake Ngami, were on the Botletle River in September 1851, when they met Livingstone. Shelley and Bushe returned to Kolobeng late in December, and Green was at Winburg, O.R.S. early in March 1852, just returned from Ngami and intending to start for the Lake again as soon as he could.

Boteti River at Makalamabedi

Boteti River at Makalamabedi, looking upstream from the bridge

When travelling by ox wagon, drinking water for the oxen is always an important concern, and there was plenty of that in the Boteti River, at least at this point.

Boteti River at Makalamabedi, looking downstream from the bridge

Boteti River at Makalamabedi, looking downstream from the bridge

We drove on to Makalamabedi, and beyond the bridge the road was full of potholes of Albanian rather then Free State proportions, one drove into and out of them, and was lucky to be able to travel at 40 km an hour. The thought of driving all the way to Serowe on such roads was a bit daunting. Perhaps we should have been sensible and gone via Francistown instead.

Boteti River at Makalamabedi

Boteti River at Makalamabedi

At Makalamabedi there was another foot-and-mouth disease control point, and we had to drive through a dip and stand on a mat again. Val asked the bloke there how he was, as one does, and he said he wasn’t well, or “good” as people say nowadays. He had a headache. Val said “We’ll pray for you”, and he and the woman with him said, rather incredulously, “You know how to pray?’ He then asked why we were travelling on this road, which we had begun to wonder ourselves, and he clearly thought we were nuts to do so. So we told him about Fred Green hunting elephants along the Boteti or Botletle river, and how we wanted to see where he had been.

Halfway through the town the potholed tar road changed to gravel, and then we were able to travel a bit faster, 65-70 km/hour, which gave us hopes of reaching Serowe before midnight. The river was visible in glimpses caught through the trees.

We came to a tarred road again, and were a bit confused, as the map seemed to differ quite a bit from the territory. Though not as bad as the earlier bit, this one was still potholed, though in Free State rather than Albanian fashion, so we were able to travel at about 70-80, in a zig-zag course to avoid the larger potholes. Some had been repaired, and others marked for repair. From the maps it seemed that the road had only been tarred fairly recently, but the contractors must have done a shoddy job, and cut corners.

Then  we joined another tarred road, which from the map appeared to be an older one, and was in better condition. It went due south, though the river was somewhere on our left, and according to the map, we were somewhere around Khumaga. At one point we stopped to take a picture of a sign which showed that we were pretty far from anywhere. The next place was Rakops, 66 km ahead, though we had been seeing signs from about 130 km mark.  We still had 415 km to go to Serowe, and we had only covered about 200 km.

A long way from anywhere, and still a long way to go

A long way from anywhere, and still a long way to go

There was bush at the sides of the road, and the verges had not been cleared as on other roads. Every now and again there were long skid marks on the light coloured tar, and I wondered if these were where someone travelling at high speed suddenly braked to avoid an animal coming out of the bush. One might just see a cow, but a goat or even a donkey could be hidden until it actually came out into the road.

A bit closer to Rakops the bush opened out, and there was a vast flat expanse stretching over to the west, with a line of trees about a kilometre away to the east, which we took to be the Boteti River still. It took a while before we realised that this must be a westward extension of the Makgadikgadi Pans.

A bit further along we came across a congregation of vultures gathered around the carcass of a donkey that must have been knocked down by a vehicle. It wasn’t, however, in one of the places where the bushes grew along the edge of the road, but rather along a stretch through the flat pan, where you could see for miles to the horizon. There must have been 50-60 vultures, with more circling overhead, and a few crows dropping in to join them. I’d read somewhere about “carrion crows” but this was the first time I had seen them. The only animal actually eating was a starving dog. The vultures seemed to be waiting for someone to say grace or something, and more kept arriving as we watched.

Stray animals knocked down on the road are soon cleared away

Stray animals knocked down on the road are soon cleared away

I suppose donkeys are the most vulnerable of domestic animals when it comes to being run over. Goats are the most intelligent, and think twice about crossing a road when they see a car coming. Cows cross the road regardless. Sheep mill around. But a silly ass will stand its ground in the middle of the road and simply ignore approaching vehicles. When the vehicle is a 26-wheeler with a sleepy driver on a dark night, the vultures have a good brunch the next day.

A vulture and a carrion crow

A vulture and a carrion crow

We eventually reached Rakops, 247 km from Maun, at about 1:15 pm. The main road by-passed Rakops, but we drove in to the town to try to see the river again, still marked by the line of trees in the flat pan. We came to a bridge and crossed it, and the river still had water in it there, and several animals grazing along its banks.

Bridge over the Boteti River at Rakops

Bridge over the Boteti River at Rakops

We drove back to the main road, and continued, now travelling south-eastwards, still with the river on the left, marked by the line of trees and a string of villages. Though the main road (now a good one, with no potholes) by-passed the villages, it still had lots of speed limits of 80 or 60 km/h.

The Boteti River at Rakops

The Boteti River at Rakops

About 40 kilometres from Rakops the road crossed the river again, still with water, and still fairly wide, though only about half the width it was when we first crossed it a couple of hundred kilometres upstream. According to the map the Boteti River flowed into Lake Xau, and there was a road going round the southern end of the lake, but we did not go that way, as it was getting quite late and we still had a long way to go to Serowe.

The Boteti River, just before it reaches Lake Xau

The Boteti River, just before it reaches Lake Xau

We drove around the end of the Mopipi Pan, about 60 km from Rakops. The Mopipi Pan is a kind of eastward extension of Lake Xau, and that seemed to be the end of it, where the mighty Okavango eventually ended up. It was also the end of the flat open country, and we were back in the land of mopani trees, looking golden in the afternoon sun.

Mopipi Pan

Mopipi Pan

We had covered only about half the distance to Serowe, but the road surface was better now, and we drove faster. We looked for a sitplekkie beside the road, but there were none. We passed the town of Letlhakane with its mine, and an enormous mine dump, and after passing that there were fences on either side of the road At sunset we reached a place called Paje, and tried to phone Lentswe Lodge in Serowe, where we were supposed to be staying. The booking paper we received gave detailled instructions on how to leave Gaborone, and thereafter gave exact kilometre measurements to the turn-off over 200 km further on, and where to turn off from there, giving distances, but no landmarks, which was of no use to people coming from a different direction.The cell phones didn’t seem to be working, just as the credit card machines didn’t seem to be working either.

We reached Serowe in the gathering dusk, and came to the road from Palapye, which had a big shopping mall on it, and it seemed that that was where we were supposed to turn up the road we had just come down, managed to work out the way to Lentswe Lodge from there, 600 km from Maun. It was fully dark when we arrived, and there was also a mix-up with our booking, and they were only expecting us on Monday. The guy at reception, who introduced himself as Geoffrey, said he had been on leave, and the people who had filled in for him had left a bit of a mess. But he managed to sort out a room for us, and led us to it along a rough path, with steps going up and down, and then, when we were settled there, we went back the path to the bar, and had fillet steak and eggs for supper, which was excellent. Geoffrey brought us a packed breakfast for the morning, and we went to bed, as we were tired after a long day’s driving. It was the last night of our holiday — we had seen everyhing we had come away to see, and the next day we would be homeward bound.

You can see an index to all these posts of our travelogue of Namibia and Botswana here.

From Shakawe to Maun via Lake Ngami

This is the continuation of the story of our holiday journey down the Okavango river, tracing some of the places followed by Val’s ancestor Fred Green some 160 years ago. It continues from Drowning in the Okavango: in the steps (and wake) of the brothers Green | Hayes & Greene family history, and you can see an index to all these posts of our travelogue of Namibia and Botswana here.

We left Drotsky’s Cabins at Shakawe in Botswana at about 8:45 am, after a good breakfast. It was a good place to stay, and the staff were very friendly and welcoming. The only drawback was the price. Though the facilities were no better than those at the Kaisosi River Lodge at Rundu in Namibia, it cost nearly twice as much to stay there.

Parts of Namibia and Botswana we travelled through 21-25 May 2013

Parts of Namibia and Botswana we travelled through 21-25 May 2013

The map shows where we travelled these few days, from Rundu to Maun via Shakawe and Sehitua. It also shows where Fred Green and his brother Charles travelled. Initially they travelled to Lake Ngami from Bloemfontein, where their brother Henry was British Resident of the Orange River Sovereignty, approaching it from the east. They would leave some of their cattle with their friend Sechele, the chief of the Bakwena, who lived in the vicinity of the present-day Gaborone. In 1852, however, a group of Boers from the Transvaal raided the Bakwena, and stole a lot of cattle, including those belonging to the Green brothers and the missionary David Livingstone. Soon afterwards the Orange River Sovereignty became an independent Boer republic, and the Green brothers stopped using that route, and approached Lake Ngami from the west, via Walvis Bay. Sometimes they would take the direct route via Gobabis, but people living in the Gobabis area were known to rob travellers, and it was also difficult to find water to trek oxen, so they also used the more circuitous route via the Omurambo Womataka — which is shown on the map as joining the Okavango between Rundu and Bagani. The lower reaches of it may be the mysterious Shoshongo Dum. They would then probably have followed more or less the route we took now.

Roadside trees on the road south from Shakawe

Roadside trees on the road south from Shakawe

We drove south through Nxamasere and Sepupa, but though the river was supposed to be somewhere over on the left, we did not catch another glimpse of it. We passed a turn-off to Etsha, and I half thought of going to look at it, as it was the site of Ronald Wynne’s missionary labours among Mbukushu refugees from Angola, described in his book The pool that never dries up. It was therefore of some missiological interest, but time was not on our side, and we were still uncertain about whether we would be able to get enough petrol to get to Maun, so we drove on.

At Gumare, about 130 km from Shakawe, as we had been told, petrol was available, so our fears of being stranded in Botswana were groundless, and we filled up for the first time since Rundu, though we had actually used surprisingly little, and might actually have made it to Maun if we needed to. We also bought some Botswana cellphone SIM cards for Mascom, which seemed to give the usual problems when trying to install them, of asking for information, such as one’s identity number, when one was not sure what exactlywas being asked for.

We reached Nokaneng at noon, 170 km from Shakawe. The map showed that it was closer to the river, and also that there was a gravel
road running down the river bank, so we turned off into the village to see if we could find it, but we drove in a fairly wide circle without seeing either river or road along it, and returned to the main road.

About 20 km beyond Nokaneng we stopped to take photos of a scarecrow — at least that’s what it looked like. We had seen several such things along the road, and wondered what they signified. This one had the figure of a man carrying a plastic bucket and a couple of other things, and a couple of ox skulls nailed to a post, and festooned with old tire treads.

A scarecrow, or something else? Seen about 20 km south of Nokaneng on the road to Sehitwa

A scarecrow, or something else? Seen about 20 km south of Nokaneng on the road to Sehitwa

At Tsau, according to the map, the road crossed the Taokhe River, up which Fred Green was said to have travelled by boat in 1855. He certainly couldn’t have done so today, as there was no sign of water in it. The Taokhe is a distributory of the Okavango — though I’m not sure what to call it. A tributary is a smaller river that adds its flow to a bigger one, but the Okavango works in reverse — it’s a big river that splits up into a lot of smaller ones where it flows into the Kalahari desert and sinks into the sand, so I refer to the smaller rivers as “distributories” for want of a better word.

The bridge over Taokhe River at Tsau -- it may have been navigable in 1855, but not today

The bridge over Taokhe River at Tsau — it may have been navigable in 1855, but not today

The amount of water in these rivers and lakes varies tremendously. In Fred Green’s time, in the early 1850s, Lake Ngami was a fairly large body of water, so that he thought it worthwhile to take a boat there, presumably from Walvis Bay. But after a few years of drought it shrinks a great deal. Our visit seems to have fallen somewhere in between. The Taokhe River was dry as dust, and one couldn’t imagine it being navigable , ever. But when we reached Lake Ngami, it seemed that the level of water in it was higher than it had been for some time past.

Lake Ngami at Sehitwa, 23 May 2013

Lake Ngami at Sehitwa, 23 May 2013

We reached Lake Ngami at Sehitwa, a town on the shore, and there we could drive down to the lake and see it. There were fishing boats and nets and fishermen mending their nets. But there were a lot of dead trees sticking up out of the water. Clearly they had grown there when the level of the water was much lower than it is now. One sometimes sees that when a dam is built. As the water level in the dam rises, it drowns existing vegetation, and the trees die. But Lake Ngami is not a human construction, but a natural lake, and obviously the water level fluctuates a great deal.

Lake Ngami, 23 May 2013

Lake Ngami, 23 May 2013

The dead trees were Kalahari thorn trees, and must have established themselves on the shore of the lake over a number of years before the water level rose again to swallow them up. So perhaps the level of water in the lake is now higher than it has been for 30 years or more, but it seems unlikely that it will rise again to what it was in Fred Green’s time, though, as everywhere we had been in northern Namibia people had been speaking of a drought with crop failures.

Lake Ngami at Sehitwa

Lake Ngami at Sehitwa

We left Sehitwa heading for Maun, and a little way out of town passed a sign that said “Lake Ngami 2 km”. As we had come all this way to see it, we turned back, and rounding a bush suddenly found ourselves on a sandy track like the old road between Rundu and Mukwe (see photo in previous entry). That proved to be to much for our little Toyota Yaris with its small wheels and we got stuck. It proved difficult even to reverse out, as the front bumper was scooping up sand like a shovel, and we enlisted the help of a couple of passers-by to help us get out. At the other end of the lake wass the village of Toteng, and we drove into it to see if there was a view of the lake from there, but could not see anything. The Green brothers, and most of the other foreign traders and tourists of the 1850s, seemed to make for Letsholathebe’s Town, and we wondered whether that was at Toteng, or Sehitwa, or somewhere in between.

A couple of times, when we made excursions into towns and villages, when we got back to the main road there was no speed limit sign, and we were stopped by traffic cops for going too fast.

We reached Maun at about 4:30 pm, about 400 km from Shakawe and were surprised to see how big it was. It was much bigger than Gobabis and Rundu, which had grown enormously in the 40 years since I had last seen them. Neither of us had ever seen Maun before, but from reading descriptions in books we had got the impression that it was a small place, with a couple of general dealer stores, a garage, a post office, and not much else. On maps it had seemed remote, far from anywhere, the last place anyone would go to. But if it was like that 30-40 years ago, it is certainly no longer like that. Not it is a hub, a centre, a crossroads on major trade routes. It is at least 20 km across, to judge from the street lights as measuring the urban area.

Maun, Botswana. May 2013

Maun, Botswana. May 2013

I suspect that this may be the result of the completion of the tarred road between Gobabis and Francistown, which puts Maun on the crossroads of trade routes between Zimbabwe and Zambia and the port at Walvis Bay. There has been talk of extending the railway line from Gobabis to Francistown as well.

Island Safari Lodge, Maun, Botswana

Island Safari Lodge, Maun, Botswana

And that puts me in mind of the idea of an Orthodox theological seminary for southern Africa, following Bishop Shihala Hamupembe’s comments on the difficulties of sending foreign students to South Africa. Maun might be a good central place for such an institution, accessible from South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe. I wonder how friendly Botswana is to international educational institutions? Perhaps more so than South Africa. It’s a thought for the future, anyway.

Cattle crossing the river in the evening

Cattle crossing the river in the evening

We stayed at the Island Safari Lodge, on the north-eastern side of Maun, about 12 km from the centre of town. It overlooks one of the distributories of the Okavango River, quite high on a bank. It’s not as posh as Kaisosi or Drotsky’s, but comfortable enough, and the staff are equally welcoming and friendly. I wondered if they had all been trained at the same school for the hospitality industry. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.  It also had free Wi-Fi that worked, at least until the electricity went off. The lights came on again after a few seconds, but the Wi-Fi stayed off till we left.

We sat on the terrace and and watched the cattle grazing on the island opposite. At one point a group of them swam across the river to the other side, presumably it was miling time. I sampled the local beer, which had the unlikely name of St Louis, but it wasn’t as good as Windhoek beer. There were boats going up and down the river, much narrower and slower-flowing here than at Shakawe or Rundu, so they punted the boats with poles rather than using paddles.

A boat being punted past the Island Safari Lodge, Maun

A boat being punted past the Island Safari Lodge, Maun

This was followed by a day in Maun, and another boat ride to see a spectacular sunset and moonrise over the Okavango Delta.

You can see an index to all these posts of our travelogue of Namibia and Botswana here.


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