ew written records have come down to us from the first settlers - they were more at home with a gun than a pen - but the early travellers wrote at length of the Karoo. If their journals are to be believed, few of them ever crossed it under happy conditions. They halted at Lioness Fountain, Hunger Fountain, Bare Place, Dry Foot Fountain, and a hundred more that bore such names. Weather - great frosts, great heat, great floods, great droughts - ruled their lives as it does ours today. If they were not baking they were freezing. Many wrote of the extreme cold and the sudden drops in temperature that left them by night shaking with misery. Some found the oil in their lamps became so thick they did not labour to trim them but chose to work by firelight instead. Others suffered tornadoes that overturned their wagons, threw down men and horses, and tore shrubs out of the ground.
The summer heat of this wide upland world can today scarcely be imagined by those even a hundred miles to the south. My first memories are of heat like the heat of blazing ovens; of shutters, and sunbeams making a hot bright path through a chink in a dark blind, of soil too hot to walk on barefoot and rocks too hot to touch. Heat, I suppose, is the most positive and formidable thing on the Karoo, and the beginning and sometimes the end of many a Karoo story.
The first explorers and naturalists who crossed the Karoo found the journey frightening, something to recount again and again. It seemed to them, looking across the smooth and arid plains, that the air trembled as though they were looking at a flame. They hid themselves in the shade of the wagons; they saw a tree miles ahead on an empty plain and dreamed of shade; they fastened their saddles and cloaks to the branches of the thorn trees they found along the rivers to cast a denser shade; they bound up their faces to protect them from the scorching winds.
Waterholes and fountains (springs) were the core of their lives. But waterholes did not always lie along the road; they were sometimes marked by pieces of white cloth tied on the branches of a nearby tree - and when there was a tree, as often as not a lion would be in occupation. They saw mirages, shimmering lakes enclosing floating mountains, and dreamed of water. They cast themselves down upon the edges of the muddy streams and drank like cattle. "I came to a pool of mud," cried one; "the little water it contained was almost boiling - tears of delight came into my eyes." Wild with thirst, he later shot a gemsbok in milk and milked her straight into his mouth. "It was the sweetest beverage I ever tasted," he swore.