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European Explorers

European Explorers

This is a very brief overview, from our perspective, of the first European explorers and the greatest authors on southern African exploration and adventure.

Early explorers in Africa

Vasco da Gama was probably the first white man to step on southern African soil in the 1452, when he landed at Cape Cross.

In 1486 the Portuguese navigator Diego Cao landed here and erected a stone cross in honour of John II of Portugal, however none of these early explorers wrote detailed accounts of their travels as they never ventured into the interior.

Southern and Central Africa was first ‘put on the map’ by the French explorer, Francois le Vaillant, much later - in the late 1700’s.

He wrote the fist authoritative account on the wildlife and peoples of the interior in his two volume work "Travels into the Interior Parts of South Africa" in 1796.


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Books on Africa

John Barrow followed closely behind, being the first English explorer to write about the wildlife and people and his book "An Account of travels into the Interior of Southern Africa" in the years 1797 and 1798, was the first to show illustrations of the Hottentot tribe and also the Giraffe, which he called a Camel-leopard! (hence the Latin name for the Giraffe - cameleopardus).

This book was published in 1801 and remains one of the most valuable works on the region.

The mid 19th Century, saw a number of now famous entrepreneurs visit and write detailed accounts of their travels in the region of what is now Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

The most famous of all is Dr. David Livingstone, who wrote "Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa" including a sketch of sixteen years of residence in the interior of Southern Africa, which he published in London in 1857.

This amazing book, with many wood cut illustrations includes a detailed map of the Victoria Falls, which he ‘discovered’ in 1855. He accurately measured the width and depth of the falls using a plumb line and a compass!

He followed up with his brother, Charles Livingstone and thoroughly researched the Zambezi River in their book "Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries" which was published in London in 1865.

There were many other books written on his explorations after his death on 1 May 1873, by notable authors such as Henry Morton Stanley and Arthur Montefiore-Brice.

(Go to Livingstone's Grave for a story of our recent research into the accuracy of his last resting place)

At the same time as Dr. David Livingstone was exploring the Zambezi interior  and spreading the Christian word, were the gold diggers and hunters, there for  money, fun and adventure!

Charles John Andersson, a Danish hunter, wrote of his escapades in Northern Botswana in "Lake Ngami, Explorations and Discoveries, 4 years wandering in the wilds of S Western Africa", published in 1856.

His friend, William Charles Baldwin wrote "African Hunting and Adventure into the Interior.. including Lake Ngami.." from 1852-1860, over the same period and its interesting to read the different experiences and opinions of two famous hunter/explorers working the same area at the same time.

Probably the best known of the mid 19th century hunters was Roualeyn Gordon Cumming, a Scot, who wrote "Five Years of a Hunters life in the Far Interior of South Africa" in 2 volumes, which were published in London in 1850.
A particularly fine example of Victorian sporting literature, this work was markedly successful and ran into many editions. Gordon Cumming writes of his hunting expedition which started from Grahamstown in October 1843 and which took him through country-side teeming with game - "... 'one vast herd' of springboks; as far as the eye could strain..." - to the Orange River and the Griqualand West where he met Oswell, and, at Kuruman, Robert Moffat and, soon after, David Livingstone.

He appears to have hunted every species of South Africa fauna and to have indulged himself in the sport to an extent almost unique even amongst the mighty hunters of Africa. The narrative is valuable for its description of the country and its inhabitants, and for its zoological and botanical notes.

Over six feet tall and weighing fourteen stone, Gordon Cumming, who became widely known as 'The Lion Hunter', was a man of splendid physique and great physical strength. Never one to bow to convention, he astonished the Dutchmen as he "wore neither trousers nor leggings, and went about in a kind of kilt, leaving the legs bare."

In 1843 he joined the Cape Mounted Rifles in South Africa, but a military career was not for him and after participating in one operation on the Eastern Frontier, he set out on his hunting expeditions into the interior.

Returning to Britain in 1848, he devoted himself to writing and in 1851 a selection of his hunting trophies went on display at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace.

Within ten years of his return from South Africa he set up his own permanent museum at Fort Augustus on the Caledonian Canal where he died on 24 March 1866.

There were also the artists, notably Thomas Baines and Captain William Cornwallis Harris who painted the wildlife and of course the Victoria Falls.

Capt. Harris’s "Portraits of Game and Wild Animals of Southern Africa", published in 1840, remains the most valuable work on wildlife of the region - a first edition copy reaching US$15000!!

Baines work, "The Victoria Falls, Zambesi River: Sketched on the Spot during the Journey of J. Chapman and T. Baines", published in 1865, is nearly as valuable and both these books are now virtually unobtainable.

The last of these famous explorers was Frederick Courtney Selous - now a household name in most Southern African homes.  His books:

  • "A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa", published in1881
  • "Travel and Adventure in South East Africa", published in 1893
  • "Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia", published in 1896
  • "Travel and Adventure in South East Africa", published in 1908

make the most interesting and amusing reading, and many a reprint of these books sit on the dusty bookshelves in most professional safari guides camps in Southern Africa.

Some of the most valuable works were written in the early 1930’s - J.E. Hughes "Eighteen years on Lake Bangweulu", published in1933, gives a fascinating account of his life in the Swamps and the local folklore on the Emela-ntouka, a local ‘Loch Ness monster’, living in Lake Bangweulu.

The Emela-ntouka is an African legendary creature in the mythology of the Pygmy tribes, and a cryptid purported to live in Central Africa. Its name is claimed to mean "killer of the elephants" in the Lingala language. In other languages it is allegedly known as the Aseka-moke, Njago-gunda, Ngamba-namae, Chipekwe or Irizima.[
The Emela-ntouka is claimed to be around the size of an African Bush Elephant, brownish to gray in color, with a heavy tail, and with a body of similar shape and appearance to a rhinoceros, including one long horn on its snout. Keeping its massive bulky body above ground level supposedly requires four short, stump-like legs. It is described as having no frills or ridges along the neck.

The animal is alleged to be semi-aquatic and feed on Malombo and other leafy plants. The Emela-ntouka is claimed to utter a vocalization, described as a snort, rumble or growl.

The Ba-aka pygmies in the Dzanga Sangha reserve, deep in the Congo Rain Forest of the Central African Republic thousands of miles to the north, have the same belief on the same animal, and it is thought that the forest was once savanna, as recently as 3000 years ago when a large Rhino like creature that roamed these plains.

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