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The Great Hunters

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Discovery of The Great Inland Water (Lake Ngami in Botswana) by William Cotton Oswell and David Livingstone

In 1849 Oswell, Livingstone, Murray and Wilson entered the Kalahari Desert north of the Bamangwato territory in search of an island water which until then had been shrouded in mystery. This account of the journey and the eventual discovery of Lake Ngami is taken from Oswells letters written to relatives in England at the time.

I wrote just before leaving Colesberg in April last, but no second opportunity has offered until now(1)  as I have just returned to the land of Post Offices. When I started I had a definite object, but did not mention it, as it would not have enlightened or interested you much in England, and my failure would have gratified some of the good folks here. There have for many years been reports received through natives from time to time of the existence of a Lake in the interior of Southern Africa. In 1835, I think, an expedition was fitted out by Government, and headed by a Dr. Smith(2) purposely for its discovery. They grew discouraged and turned homewards. Many others have since talked of making the attempt, and the Griquas, a mixed race living to the north of the Orange River, have repeatedly tried it, but always failed for want of water. Two hundred miles beyond Dr. Smiths farthest point I had pushed in my former wanderings, and heard of the existence of thei Lake and its direction, from many of the natives; this time I determined to make for it, for I felt persuaded the difficulties were not insurmountable, and the more arduous the task, so long as we accomplished it, the better. With horses, oxen and wagons I waited four weeks at Colesberg, the last of the frontier towns, for Murray, and inspanning immediately on his arrival, passed onwards to Kolobeng, the most northern missionary station. Here our party was increased by Mr. Livingstone, the missionary, and a Mr. Wilson(3). A party of the Baquaina, the tribe residing at Kolobeng, accompanied us, and one of them who had in former years been at the Great Water was appointed guide through the pathless wilds. For the first hundred and twenty miles, to the hills of the Bamungwato, a people whom we all had previously visited, the course took a N.E. direction. From this point the road was unknown save by report. Two days traveling through heavy sand covered with low bush and clumps of mimosa, in a N.N.E. line, brought us to a spot called by the natives Serotli.

It was here our first difficulties began. Serotli stands on the extreme verge of the Kalahari Desert. Our oxen had already been without water for two days on our arrival, and there was no apparent probability of their obtaining that necessary. The place itself was a sand hollow with no signs of water save about a pint in a small hole. We had eighty oxen, twenty horses and thirty or forty men, all thirsty. Unpromising as was the appearance of the spot, the old guide assured us that if we dug we should obtain a supply. Spades and land- turtle shells were accordingly set to work, and at the close of the day we had sufficient to give the horses a sip each. For two days longer the poor oxen had still to remain without, but four pits being at length opened to the depth of eight or nine feet, a sufficiency for all our beasts was obtained. Watering them, we once more moved on. The sand was distressingly heavy and the sun fiery hot. The oxen moved so slowly and with such difficulty that I was at times afraid we should fail even in the very outset, but fortunately, considerably before we expected it, on the third day we came by chance upon a small pool of rain- water. The poor beasts were nearly exhausted, but a days rest and three or four good drinks recruited them. The most trying, because the heaviest, part of the Kalahari was behind, but a hundred miles was still between us and any certain supply of water.

Oswell feeling Both Horns of a Dilemma from Big Game Shooting, 1894.

Illustration by J. Wolf

Baldwin narrowly Escapes a Crocodile from African Hunting from Natal to the Zambesi, 1863

Photography under Difficulties an engraving depicting Chapman near the Victoria Falls in Travels in the Interior of South Africa, 1868

Another small rainwater pond and a little spring, however, furnished us with what we wanted, though not without our having to go twice, three days without. You will perhaps wonder at our being so long in covering so short a distance, but a wagon is not a steam carriage. Water was excessively scarce, its whereabouts unknown, and the sand, occasionally for miles together, over the felloes of the wheels(4). I shall never forget the pleasure with which, whilst riding out ahead of the wagons, on the 4th of July, we came suddenly upon a considerable river(5),  running, as we struck it, N.E. By E. The wagons reached it the same evening, and our troubles were looked upon as past, for we were informed by the natives, with whom we managed after much trouble to open a parley, that the water flowed from the Lake we were in search of. Their information was correct, and holding up the course of the stream for two hundred and eighty miles, and meeting with no difficulties to speak of, save from the denseness of the bush and trees in particular tracts, through which we had to cut our way, we at length reached the object of our expedition, and were fully repaid. 

None save those who have suffered from the want, know the beauty of water. A magnificent sheet without bound that we could see, gladdened our eyes. Animal life, which had in the Desert been confined to one or two of the deer tribe which do not require water, and Bushmen, who inserting a reed some three or four feet below the surface, suck it up, was here and there along the river, greatly increased. A new nation, speaking a language totally distinct from the Bechuana, inhabited the islands, moving across the water in their canoes and living principally on fish, and animals taken in the pitfalls which lined the banks of the stream. Among the ferae(6) the elephant and buffalo were the most  numerous, the latter roaming in immense herds, and every accessible drinking place in the river being trampled with the spoor of the former. I had not much spare time to shoot, but a few capital specimens fell to my gun.

The scenery generally along the river was magnificent. Trees of great size, rich in foliage, fringed it on either side; now it is shut in between high steep banks, and runs black and deep; now it opens out into a broader and shallower bed dotted with banks and islands.

Before starting on the expedition, we had held out to our followers that if we were successful we would not attempt to press on further. They were, as a rule, a timid folk, dreading the unknown, too ready to listen to any tale of danger and difficulty that might be in the world beyond, and always eager to turn Colonywards. Success, however, inevitably bred a wish to do more, but we were of course bound to stand to our agreement. At last, the desire of penetrating deeper into the land became so strong that I suggested calling a meeting of the servants and trying what our eloquence might effect. After putting before them that we fully recognized our promise of not constraining them to go with us further, I told them that the Doctor(7) and I had made up our minds to give them one of the wagons with sufficient stores, supplies and ammunition for their homeward journey, while we ourselves had decided to push on ahead(8). I further explained to them that they would have no difficulty in reaching the Colony as they knew the waters and had the wheel- tracks. I paused for a moment, and then added that though we could not ask them to accompany us, yet if anyone of them was willing to do so, we should be very glad. I rather enlarged upon our ignorance of the country in advance, for we did not wish to influence them unduly to join us. For a few minutes there was silence and blankness of face; then out stepped John(9), and speaking in Dutch, as he always did when his feelings were touched, though he at other times spoke English perfectly, said, What you eat; I can eat; where you sleep, I can sleep; where you go, I will go; I will come with you. The effect was instantaneous. We will go! was the cry.

Do you think after that it was much matter to us whether our brother was black or white?


  • Until now. This letter was written in Cape Town and is dated January 16th, 1850. Oswell was writing to his Uncle, Benjamin Cotton.
  • Dr. Smith. Sir Andrew Smith (1797 1872). Explorer and founder of the South African Museum in 1825. In 1833 he began a series of journeys which took him into the present-day Transvaal and into Matabeleland on behalf of the Association for the Exploration of Central South Africa.
  • A Mr. Wilson. This was J.H. Wilson, a hunter and trader. He netted p500 from the sale of ivory after this expedition.
  • Over the felloes of the wheels. The felloes are the curved pieces which, jouned together, form the rim of a wagon wheel.
  • A considerable river. The Zouga River. Ferae. Latin , wild animals.
  • The Doctor. David Livingstone.
  • We ourselves had decided to push on ahead. As it happened they were not able to proceed further on this occasion.
  • John. John Thomas a Cape Coloured servant who afterwards accompanied Oswell to England. Within the limitations of master and servant relationship, they had an enduring friendship.