FLETCHER FAMILY ARCHIVE.   The Jura, Scotland - Southern African branch.

Data capture and research notes. A work in progress. 

Compiled by N.F. This revised version: (6 May 2013) 

 Extracts from "On Wings of Fire" by Lawrence Green. Howard & Timmins, Cape Town. 1967.

See also: http://ia700409.us.archive.org/12/items/OnWingsOfFire/OnWingsOfFire.pdf


CHAPTER 10       ELEPHANT RIVER

If you are a navigator then you must know the "Africa Pilot", 
that safe guide to oceans, coasts and harbours. We are 
sailing along the coast of Namaqualand, south from 
Port Nolloth, picking out the landmarks from the "Pilot" lying 
open beside the chart. Each little bay is mentioned, with 
breakers across the entrance when the south-wester blows. 
Here are grass-covered hills; cliffs of sand; a few river mouths 
that can be entered by small boats in the rainy season; a stone 
beacon here and there; the flagstaffs and houses of Hondeklip 
Bay with its granite "dog stone"; red sandstone cliffs and long, 
desolate ridges; sunken rocks and breakers; a coast which 
makes the weary navigator long for a safe harbour.
 
About two hundred miles from Port Nolloth you come to a river, 
the Olifants river, which might have answered thousands of 
seamen's prayers. Portuguese explorers called it the Rio do 
Infante.   Now listen to one old navigator's description of the 
river entrance: "As the westerly swell is constantly heaving in 
on this coast there are generally heavy breakers on the bar. 
But within this bar there is plenty of water for a large ship for 
two miles up the river to a village where several Dutch farmers 
reside.  If there could be a passage cut through the bar at 
the mouth of the river  it would be the finest harbour on the west 
coast of Africa."
 
 I call the Olifant's river the unknown river of South Africa. 
Many travellers know the upper stretches flowing past Citrusdal 
and Clanwilliam; but the lower parts and the mouth are remote. 
This is indeed a river of strange tales, and perhaps the most 
unusual dramas of all were played round the river mouth.
 
 Jan Danckaert, a seasoned traveller and man of some education, 
led the expedition which discovered the Olifants river. That was 
three centuries ago. Pieter van Meerhoff the Dane was in the party. 
They marched for nine days, found a route over the mountains with 
the aid of Bushman guides, and beheld a large river flowing 
northwards. Beyond the river was a herd of two to three hundred 
elephants, and for this reason the Olifants river gained its Dutch 
name. But to the Hottentots it was always Tharakama, the 
"rugged river". 
Governor Simon van der Stel passed that way some years later 
and made these remarks: "The river has its source in the mountains 
which lay east of us and it runs with many bends towards the west, 
finally discharging its waters into the sea. It takes its name from the 
elephants which are often found in large numbers along its course. 
On its banks grow willows, also thorn trees which bear a fruit like 
Turkish beans, but wild and disagreeable." 

Van der Stel noted the fish, like the barbel of the rivers in Holland. 
He gave his men permission to shoot the hippo, rhino and eland. 
Along the river he saw a scorpion "as large as a Rhine crawfish, 
green, with long hair on its claws, very venomous and savage". 
He visited the Olifants river mouth on the return journey; and he
landed on the seal islet nearby and sounded the channel.
Let us start the journey at the source of the Olifants river on a 
high plateau between the Witzenburg and Schurfteberg ranges 
ten miles north of Ceres..... [A descriptive account of the river's
upper reaches now follows, which is omitted. N.F.]
.....  This is dry country, down near the Olifants mouth, yet the 
soil is the most fertile in South Africa under irrigation. Light 
showers fall in winter but they hardly lay the dust. 
When the south-easter blows continuously the people look out
hopefully for the dense, watery clowds that roll sluggishly over
the thirsty veld. All too often the clouds pass on to dash against
the buttresses of the Cedarberg and precipitate showers on the
eastern slopes far inland. In the mountains the rainfall is forty 
inches;by the time the Olifants river has reached the the coast 
it has dropped to five inches.
	Last of the irrigation settlements is Ebenezer, the old
Rhenish mission twenty miles by river from the mouth. Hottentots
were living there in 1837 when the Rhenish missionaries secured
a grant of eleven thousand morgen; and this included nearly one
thousand morgen of rich ground along the river.Mr P. Fletcher, a
civil engineer who described the mission about twenty years later,
said the Hottentots had oxen, cows,sheep, goats and horses; but
at certain seasons many of them were reduced to a diet of dried
pumpkins. Ants were eaten with enjoyment. When the people were
able to hunt wild ostriches they lived on the meat for months. Their
dwellings were matjieshuisies. Their church seated two
hundred people, and they had a school. Another visitor declared
that the missionaries had failed, for the Hottentots were half-starved.
	When the river runs its course of two hundred miles you
come at last to the mouth and sense the dramas this lonely place
has known. Sargeant Pieter Everaert was the first of the Dutch
explorers to reach the mouth by land. It was in 1661, and though
Everaert had travelled along the river on previous journeys he had
not noticed the ebb and flow. Now he was impressed by this fact;
and that night he heard a noise which sounded like the sea. He
travelled south-west and reached the end of the river.
	One of the first wrecks near the river mouth was the Dutch
hooker Meteren. She ran aground not in fog or heavy weather
or as a result of human folly but simply because her whole crew
went down with scurvy. They were all too ill to handle her, and
she drifted onto the beach. Nine sick men reached safety. All the
rest were drowned. That was in 1723,and in 1963 a party of diamond 
prospectors dug up four of her cannon, two bronze, two iron. They 
bore the Dutch East India Company's monogram. One of the iron 
cannon still held its gunpowder and a cannon ball.
 
 Francois le Vaillant pitched a tent on the beach at the Olifants mouth 
during his journey to the Orange River late in the eighteenth century. 
It was winter, the river was in flood, and the French bird collector was 
kept awake by the sharp ocean breeze and the crying of the gulls. 
Vultures were there, too, in great numbers, and Le Vaillant's 
companions told him the birds had been feasting on a dead elephant. 
Le Vaillant examined the decaying meat on the shore and found it 
was a sperm whale. It appeared to have been stranded by a great 
wave and as it lay dying the birds and polecats and beetles attacked 
the mighty carcass. Polecats scampered away as Le Vaillant 
approached, and most of the birds took to flight. The crows remained, 
hovering over the flesh, croaking frightfully. Le Vaillant counted 
fourteen species of beetle. His band of Hottentots made bags of 
antelope skin and carried away quantities of sperm oil. 

 Le Vaillant was a poor swimmer, and he declared that he was nearly 
drowned at the Olifants mouth. His servants found a suitable 
"swimming log" and hauled him across the stream by this well-known 
Hottentot method. They took with them his "powder flasks and 
artillery". In midstream the flood was so strong that the whole party 
was almost swept out to sea. Fortunately the wind helped them to 
reach the far bank, and there Le Vaillant revived his men with a 
calabash of brandy. 

 Sir John Barrow was at the Olifants mouth not long after Le Vaillant. 
He noted the "excellent farms" on the banks, "the large heavy grain, 
white as snow, attracting the birds." Barrow said the river never dried 
up, for it was fed from the great northern chain of mountains. The mouth 
was seldom safe enough to be entered by boats, but once inside a 
boat could proceed for thirty miles through "wild uninhabited country".
 
 Charts of the river mouth show a slight curve to the north called 
Elizabeth Bay. I am glad the ship Elizabeth left her name there, 
for this is the last, faint echo of a desperate adventure that ended 
in a deep mystery. It was in November 1817 that the  Elizabeth 
was lying off Murray's whaling station on Robben Island, loading 
barrels of oil. One night the convicts were mustered and locked up 
as usual; but a military sentry released eleven of them and gave 
them muskets and ammunition. They seized a boat, rowed out to
the  Elizabeth and boarded her. Someone fired a musket. Captain 
White, the master, surrendered and the ship was taken. Coogan, 
a convict who had served in the navy, took charge. He gave orders
 to make sail and cut the cable; and soon the Elizabeth was at 
sea and steering north-west. The convicts forced the captain to hand 
over his keys. There was talk of murdering the captain and crew; but 
Coogan finally decided to send them off in the long boat with provisions 
and water. The convicts had a fair start, but when the news reached 
Simonstown the admiral sent H.M.S. Mosquito in pursuit. She never 
caught the  Elizabeth. 

Weeks later news reached Cape Town of a wreck at the Olifants river 
mouth. It was the Elizabeth, but she had been abandoned. What 
happened to the convicts? I have searched the records in vain. 
This is one of the mysteries which appears to have been swallowed
up by the river of strange tales. 

All I found was this advertisement in
the "Cape Town Gazette": 
I am authorised; Lloyd's and the parties 
concerned to offer for sale the wreck of the 
Elizabeth as she now lies stranded, with a 
few casks of whale oil, empty casks, 
planks, beams, rope, masts, rigging and 
iron. 
A V Bergh, Jnr. 

 It seems that the convicts escaped into the wilderness of Namaqualand 
as other runaways had done before them. One such fugitive, Hendrik 
Wikar returned to civilisation with a narrative of exploration which has 
become a South African classic. I wish the convicts of the Elizabeth 
had been able to tell their story, though it may have been a wretched 
one. One imagines that if they had survived for long, some word or 
legend would have come down through the years. 

 Official visits to the Olifants river mouth started early last century.
Mr. P.S. Buissinne, sent by the colonial secretary, reported that the 
river was navigable from the mouth for fifty miles, within seventeen 
miles of Clanwilliam. Towards the entrance it spread out like a lake. 
"Violent surf on the bar defies the art of navigation", Buissinne 
declared. Nevertheless, there was an old Swede named Pieter Nielsen 
who rowed out often and visited a seal rock. He was in danger of 
drowning and no one dared to accompany him. Captain Roberts of 
H.M.S. Shearwater surveyed the Olifants mouth early in February 1821. 
There was a heavy swell, and the rollers broke in thirteen fathoms.
"I do not think a boat can land with safety," Captain Roberts wrote. 
"The sea beat tremendously on the bar." 
All these reports, expert and otherwise, become interesting when you 
hear of the exploits of certain dare-devils at this frightening river 
entrance. 
 Sir James Alexander, soldier and explorer, was the first traveller to 
put forward the idea of a harbour at the Olifants river mouth. He was 
making the pioneer overland journey from the Cape to Walvis Bay 
in the eighteen-thirties when he studied the difficult entrance. 
Alexander pointed out that wheat fetched low prices in the Bokkeveld 
owing to the transport problem and often remained unsold for years. 
If the river mouth could be opened far more wheat would be grown. 
The river valley was flat; much karoo mud was carried down with the 
floods; and when this was sown with wheat the yield was one 
hundred-fold. 
 Alexander observed the river dividing itself into branches round an 
island (now called Bird Island) and then flowing into the South Atlantic 
through one mouth. Just inside the river, beyond the white foam, there
was a depth of twelve feet. Gulls, sea swallow and flamingoes haunted
the still waters of the estuary. At the mouth Alexander found a mat hut, 
a wagon, and old Hendrik van Zyl with his fine blue-eyed son. They were 
splitting, salting and drying harders and springers they had caught in the 
estuary. After a meal of fried fish Alexander set off in a boat rowed by a 
Frenchman who had fought in Napoleon's army at Austerlitz and Jena.
Another character Alexander met was a Hottentot woman, a rival of the 
"Hottentot Venus". He said that for a trifle of money or tobacco she would 
allow a cloth to spread behind, on which four plates might be laid. 
Alexander regarded the Olifants river as the boundary of civilisation. He 
had left houses behind and entered a wild region where he felt a glorious 
liberty, where he could dress as he liked, sing aloud or keep silent and 
eat with a keen appetite. Possibly the convicts from the Elizabeth 
had shared that feeling.

Mr P. Fletcher, a civil engineer, studied the Olifants mouth carefully 
for sixty four days about a century ago. He noted a ridge like a miniature 
Lion's Rump on the north bank; the bird island which alters its shape 
after heavy floods; the fishing hamlet called Papendorp near the salt pan 
on the south bank; and the Viswater farm two miles upstream. Fish 
spawned in the river. he said, and the fishermen netted harders. There 
were many days in summer when an ordinary boat might slip out of the 
river safely. Fletcher met a fine old seaman named William Love, who 
had a whaleboat and a daring crew. They used a rocky side channel, 
not the main entrance, and thus were able to visit Elephant Rock. the 
seal island three miles up the coast. Love never lost his boat or crew. 
Others made the hazardous crossing of the bar.

One of my old Cape directories states that the American whalers 
anchored in Elizabeth Bay and sent their boats up the river for water 
and provisions.

Among the happiest men to set eyes on the lonely mouth of the Olifants 
River were the tired Transvaalers of the commando serving under General 
Smuts late in the South African War. They were twenty-five miles from the 
coast. and Smuts passed the word round that all men who had never seen 
the sea were to join him. Sixty of them rode by way of Ebenezer mission. 
Deneys Reitz said it was amusing to watch the expression on the men's 
faces when the great expanse of ocean burst into view. Many had seen 
nothing larger than a farm dam before. They galloped towards the beach 
shouting: "The sea! The sea!" They threw off their clothes. Some rode into 
the surf and  were in danger of being swept out to sea. General Smuts 
ordered Reitz to visit the fishermen's huts and find out whether the British 
had been at the river mouth. When they learnt that the area was clear of 
British troops they had a seaside holiday, sleeping among the dunes 
round great fires of driftwood. Smuts and his men spent two more days at 
the Olifants mouth, boating in the estuary and helping the fishermen to 
haul their nets. 

 Fishing has always flourished along the Olifants river. Danckaert the 
discoverer hooked what he described as "the finest fish in the world, and 
that in great abundance". Van Meerhoff reported "beautiful carp". Simon 
van der Stel noted in his diary "a fish resembling in shape the carp of 
Holland, in taste the salmon, and of the size of a cod fish". This, I 
imagine, was the Clanwilliam yellowfish, one of the finest Cape fresh 
water fish. However, the most remarkable Olifants river denizen of all 
was described to Van Meerhoff by some Bushmen. This was an 
amphibious monster with three legs which devoured human beings.
 
Many sea fish enter the Olifants river as fry and grow to maturity there. 
Harders remain close to the mouth; but other species of mullet swim 
up the river to fresh water. White steenbras are also found in the estuary,
forty-pounders among  them. Dr. S.A. Hey has pointed out a peculiarity 
of this fish; it thrives as well in fresh water as in salt if the feeding is equal.
 
 Nowadays a thousand fishing boats are at work in the rich seas off the 
Cape west coast. For more than a century the hard-pressed fishermen 
have longed for a harbour at the Olifants river mouth. Between the wars 
I saw a decked motor fishing cutter at anchor in the river. Some dare 
devil had seized his chance and rushed her through the surf and into the 
river in defiance of expert opinion. One day, perhaps, the words of the old 
navigator I mentioned will come true. A passage will be cut through the 
bar and the fishermen will find shelter in the Olifants river at last. 
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