The Springbok is a small antelope commonly found across South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. As a species it is perhaps best known for its springy, high-stepping trot accompanied by frequent giant leaps into the air with its back arched and legs held stiffly downwards. It is from this behaviour, known as stotting or pronking, that this graceful little antelope earns its common name.
The natural range of the Springbok lies outside of the Cape Peninsula, and the first European settlers at the Cape of Good Hope did not apparently encounter it. The first European record of the Springbok comes from the journal of Olof Bergh, who travelled north on the orders of Simon van der Stel, the first Governor of the Cape, who in 1683 observed large herds of ‘wilde bocken’ near the Olifants River.
From the 18th Century onwards many other European explorers and naturalists who visited and travelled across South Africa made reference to the springbok, listing it under a range of different names. In 1771 the naturalist Daniel Solander, who accompanied Captain James Cook on his first voyage to the Cape referred to springbok as Capra migratorius. A year later, in 1772, the naturalist on Captain cook’s second voyage to the Cape assigned springbok the romantic name of Gazelle ou Chevere sautante du Cap de Bonne-Esperance: the Gazelle or Jumping Goat of the Cape of good Hope.
Early drawings of springbok and descriptions of them were made by Hendrik Swellengrebel who made two journeys into the interior in 1776 and by Robert Jacob Gordon, who in his Gordon Atlas, published in 1777/78, described springbok for the first time in his Gordon Atlas, published in 1777/78. Gordon also was the first to bring live springbok back to Europe, which he did aboard the ship Azie in 1774 when he transported twelve springbok to the Netherlands. Sadly, only one survived the journey. This sole survivor was given to Prince Willem V of the Netherlands for his menagerie at Kleine Loo, The Hague, where it lived until its death in the autumn of 1777.
Another early naturalist who observed springbok was the celebrated French ornithologist Francois Le Vaillant (1753-1828). Le Vaillant made two expeditions into the interior of the Cape in 1783, including a crossing of the Karoo in the region of Graaf-reinet. Le Vaillant was an eccentric character and was accompanied on his travels by his faithful baboon Kees, who was his food-taster, guardian and companion. It was during his expedition into the Karoo where he first observed large flocks of Springbok along the Sundays River, which he referred to as the Le Spring ou Parade Bok, (the spring or parade buck).
The tendency for Springbok to occur in large flocks was commonly noted by early travellers, who also noted how in certain years springbok would multiply prodigiously and congregated and migrated in massive numbers. These early observations recorded a phenomenon that was later to become famous across the Karoo as the Trekbokke.
By the end of the 17th century the great size of springbok herds had become an established fact amongst European commentators. The British geographer and administrator John Barrow, who travelled extensively into the interior of the Cape in 1797-8 saw a five thousand strong herd of springbok at Middelburg, and heard accounts that ‘more than ten times that number have been seen together’ and such herds ‘collect when they are about to migrate to some distant part of the country’.
The 19th century was a period of colonial and settler expansion. As more farmers and travellers began to settle and cross the interior and the Karoo so contact with the trekbokke increased. During the century at least twenty individual treks were recorded and the springbok migrations began to be known as much for their destructive impact as for their natural spectacle.
In the 1820’s the Landrost (magistrate) of Graaff-Reinett, one of the oldest towns in the Karoo, Andries Stockenstrom, investigated the trekbokke following the complaints of colonists whose crops and flocks had been disrupted by the migrating springbok. Stockenstrom reported that ‘incredible numbers…sometimes pour in from the north during protracted droughts’ ‘until the country literally swarms with them…’ but ‘no sooner do the rains fall than they disappear’.
Other eyewitnesses of the day observed herds ’as far as the eye could reach’, including one made up of 100 000 springbok that stretched over 50 miles recorded by the hunter and adventurer G. Thompson in 1821. Gordon Cumming, a notorious hunter in South Africa in the 1840’s once found himself in the middle of a trekbokke between Cradock and Colesberg. Cumming stood atop his wagon, watching the springbok pass by ‘like a flood of some great river’ then rode in amongst them shooting endlessly until he cried ‘Enough!’. While another Karoo sportsman W.C. Harris encountered springbok pouring ‘like locusts from the endless plains of the interior’. In addition to bountiful spectacle of the bewildering large springbok herds, many authors also noted the fear of farmers and settlers whose homes and livelihoods lay in the path of the trekbokke. Thompson writing of the 1820’s treks recording the consternation of local residents on hearing that the trekbokke ‘were advancing upon them’.
The concern of the settlers was certainly justified. In 1849 a trekbokke herd invaded the town of Beaufort West, an evet captured in the memoirs of Sir John Fraser. Fraser describes how one day a travelling smous (hawker) arrived in Beaufort West, bringing the news that ‘thousands of trekbokken were coming in from the north, devouring everything before them’. Obviously familiar with the trekbokke the smous left as quickly as he had arrived. The town unused to such events carried on as normal only to woken one morning ‘by a sound as of a strong wind before a thunderstorm, followed by the trampling of thousands of all kinds of game – wildebeest, blesboks, springboks, quaggas, elands, antelopes of all sorts and kinds, which filled the streets and gardens…grazing off everything eatable before them, drinking up the waters in the furrows, fountains and dams’. It took three days for the trek to pass through Beaufort, during which time the local residents were able to simply step into their garden to bag themselves a meal. By the end Fraser reports the town and country around was left ‘looking as if a fire had passed over it. It was indeed a wonderful sight’.
Another resident of the Karoo who recorded was T. B. Davie. Davie lived much of his life in the Karoo, settling in Prieska. Writing in 1916 he recalled how in the 1880’s the country in the region of Upington at that time was home to countless millions of springbok and was renowned as the ‘the land of the great treks’. Davie described how the local Trek Boers upon hearing of the gathering of the springbok would themselves do the same after having stocked up with supplies, coffee, sugar, salt, tobacco and most important of all, powder and lead. Once provisioned ten to twenty families would embark together to a pan or known water-hole to await the springbok, which they would then hunt for days at a time.
Davie recorded four really great treks between the years 1887-1896, when springbok could be seen ‘for miles upon miles at a stretch’. On one occasion Davie described how ‘the whole country seemed to move’ as the springbok moved in ‘a steady plodding walk…on both of sides of the road, to the sky-line, from the town of Prieska to Draghoender, a distance of 47 miles’. The trek moved on ‘right through the town of Prieska’ allowing the magistrate to shoot those he wanted while seated on the steps in front of the Courthouse. The springbok pressed on to the Orange River where many drowned: pushed into the water by the mass throng behind them. After which the trek melted away, with nobody able to say where they vanished to.
On another occasion in 1888 Davie was travelling from Prieska to Bitter Puts when en route he and his companion, a naturalist by the name of Dr Gibbons, were informed that the trek was approaching. Dr Gibbons suggested trying to count the springbok as they passed, which raised a laugh from the local farmer. The trek was heard in the night and the next morning revealed a ‘sea of antelopes’. The Doctor set to counting, but by the time he had reached an estimate of 100,000,000 and the springbok still stretched ‘miles upon miles around on all sides’ he admitted defeat and gave up. The total of 100 million springbok may be some exaggeration, but as Davie also recorded it took them 4 ?2 hours to ride through the remainder of the herd as they journeyed on to Bitter Puts.
Two of the most dramatic descriptions of the trekbokke come from the records of William Charles Scully and Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner. William Scully was an Irish émigré who became magistrate in Springfontein and Namaqualand and wrote extensively about his pioneering experiences in novels and memoirs including ‘Between Sun and Sand’ and ‘Lodges in the Wilderness’. S. C. Cronwright-Schreiner, a politician and the husband of the author Olive Schreiner, was the first person to fully research the trekbokke phenomenon, which he published in 1925 in a book entitled The Migratory Springbucks of South Africa’. Both Scully and Cronwright-Schreiner were witnesses to the last great springbok treks that took place in 1892 and 1896.
Scully referred to the springbok as ‘Beautiful as anything that breathes, destructive as locusts.’ noting how in the country through which their migrations passed ‘every vestige of vegetation is beaten out by the small, sharp, strong hoofs.’ Unlike many earlier writers Scully saw a great sadness in the trekbokke lamenting the ‘hapless creatures…preyed upon by man and brute’ and how the ‘unbounded desert spaces…hold for them no sanctuary’.
Springbok drawing by the explorer Robert Gordon
In 1892 Scully witnessed one of the last great treks which moved from east to west across Bushmanland. Scully described the trek as a living wave of antelopes that ‘broke like foam against the western granite range’. Standing above the plains Scully watched the ‘rising columns of dust’ that marked out the area of the trekbokke ‘as far as the eye could reach’. Government rifles and cartridges were issued to local farmers to help them protect their crops form the advancing springbok and as Scully recorded after the trek had passed by ‘ the western margin of Bushmanland was like a ploughed field; all the grass roots, all the shrubs, were lying loose on the surface, beaten out by the hoofs.’ Despite the defences the trekbokke did manage to break through into cultivated fields and settlements: one springbok was even shot in the graveyard at Okiep. But then as with other such events ‘The trek ended more suddenly than it began.’ And ‘In a single night the springbucks totally disappeared’.
The last recorded great trek took place in 1896: an event recorded in some detail by Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner. The 1896 trek was first noticed in the Kaaien Bult, near Prieska where large numbers of springbok had congregated and kidded in the previous year. In July 1896 the trekbokke approached Karree Kloof, a farm in the district of Hopetown belonging to one of Cronwright-Schreiner’s relatives who on believing it to be a particularly big trek wrote to him in Kimberley to invite him to come and see it.
On receiving the news Cronwright-Schreiner left Kimberley by train and alighted at Kran Kuil railway station on the Orange River. Following a ten hour cart-ride via Strydenburg Cronwright-Schreiner arrived at Karree Kloof by night-fall. The next day he set out by cape-cart to view the migration. By the time of Cronwright-Schreiner’s arrival the hunting of the trekbokke was in full flight and many hundreds of springbok had been culled for biltong and even a leopard and wild dogs had been shot, as they too followed the mass herd in search of a meal. For several days Cronwright-Schreiner followed the trail of the springbok across the veld ‘ where ‘it was hardly possible to put one’s foot down in the vast extent of country without treading on the spoor of the springbuck’, in the hope of finding a dense part of the trek.
Passing the many hundred s of farmers and hunters camps festooned with drying biltong and with wagons laden high with springbok Cronwright-Schreiner arrived at ‘a vast, undisturbed, glittering plain’ upon which ‘throughout its whole extent the exquisite antelopes grazed peacefully in the warm afternoon winter sunshine’ a sight to Cronwright-Schreiner ‘as beautiful as it was wondrous’. Cronwright-Schreiner and his two companions ‘we alighted from the cart, put our rifles aside and sat down to watch the bucks and take in a sight we most certainly should never see again… we sat in silence and feasted our eyes on this wonderful spectacle’.
Used to estimating domestic stock they also attempted to calculate the number of springbok before them arriving at a count of ‘not less than five hundred thousand-half a million in sight at one moment.’ The trekbokke witnessed by Cronwright-Schreiner ‘extended twenty-three hours in one direction and from two to three in the other’ and ‘occupied a space of country one hundred and thirty-eight by fifteen…when one says they were in millions, it is the literal truth.’
The 1896 trekbokke witnessed by Cronwright-Schreiner is considered to mark the last of the great treks and as Schreiner himself stated ‘it is probable that the days of the very large treks are passed’. Smaller treks and the apparent inherent desire of springboks to migrate continue to be recorded; including a trek of some 15 000 animals from the Nossob River toward Upington in 1946 while the famous writer and adventurer Laurens van der Post encountered many thousands of springbok while venturing in Botswana between Tsabong and Lehututu.